How a merger made a Dart
First test of synergy shows Chrysler, Fiat can listen, collaborate
Photo credit: GREG HORVATH
As the first child of the 2009 marriage between Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group, the 2013 Dodge Dart contains the DNA of both of its parent automakers.
The Dart's look -- its distinctive nose and Dodge Charger-inspired tail, its rakish hood, sophisticated electronics and even its bland doors -- is all Chrysler.
But peek under its skin at what drives the Dart and holds it together and Fiat's contributions to Chrysler's coming line of compact and mid-sized vehicles steal the show.
After decades of questionable corporate and product-specific tie-ups between Chrysler and other automakers -- Mitsubishi, American Motors and especially the prickly relationship with Daimler -- engineers at the Pentastar say they're finally in a marriage built to last.
"I've been here since 1983, and I've lived through quite a number" of partnerships, says Mark Chernoby, Chrysler's head of engineering. "Right out of the chute, this was probably the first team we've worked with where we started right away listening to each other and learning from each other."
That collaboration begins paying dividends this month as dealers begin to order Dodge Darts. With a base price of $16,790 and a top trim-level price of $23,290, both including shipping, the Dart uses savings from its shared Fiat platform and co-developed technology to give Chrysler a larger, more powerful and technologically advanced compact sedan at a lower price than its competitors. The base Chevy Cruze, for example, is $17,595, and the base Toyota Corolla is $16,890.
The Dart, Chernoby says, grew from collaboration among Fiat and Chrysler engineers.
Some of Fiat's contributions are big and easy to spot.
-- The Dart's platform, known as CUSW, is a slightly larger version of the platform that underlies the current Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Before that, the Giulietta platform had been used on the Fiat Bravo and later on the Lancia Delta.
-- The fuel-efficient 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine -- optional on all but the R/T trim levels and producing 160 hp and 184 pounds-feet of torque -- is the same engine that powers the North American version of the Fiat 500 Abarth.
-- Chrysler is using a Fiat-sourced six-speed manual transmission as the Dart's standard gearbox, and an optional six-speed dual dry clutch transmission from Fiat will be available on some models this year.
Others are less visible yet just as important.
-- The Dart has a weight-saving aluminum front suspension crossmember that was made using a high-pressure casting method common in Europe but not used before in North America. Fiat brought this process to Chrysler's Etobicoke Casting Plant outside Toronto.
-- Chrysler and Fiat engineers together designed the Dart's front-end module -- engineers said it was the component that took the longest to design and perfect -- to increase safety during a frontal impact.
-- The Dart has Chrysler's first use of electric power steering in a rack-mounted design. It's a component sourced from ZF Friedrichshafen AG, but its weight-saving inclusion in the Dart came through Fiat and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
In 2009, when Fiat agreed to take control of Chrysler after the latter's bankruptcy, it did so in part because the two car companies had little product or market overlap. Fiat was a European specialist in small, fuel-efficient cars and engine technologies, but it had almost no large noncommercial vehicles or presence in North America. Chrysler had a portfolio filled with large cars, pickups and SUVs, but no fuel-efficient small cars and almost no presence outside its home continent.
Alone, neither was likely to survive for long, Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne reasoned. But together, the two automakers looked like a two-piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece in each of Marchionne's hands.
Fiat came to the party with advanced technology and market-tested, flexible platforms that would allow Chrysler to make money on small and mid-sized vehicles that could be brought to market in less than three years. Chrysler, in turn, brought a global powerhouse in its Jeep brand and the market experience to show Fiat how to attract consumers in North America and similar markets.
Including the Dart and beyond, Fiat has brought other advances as well, such as its MultiAir variable valve timing technology to boost engine performance and lower emissions.
Fiat also brought its World Class Manufacturing system to Chrysler's plants. The system seeks to eliminate waste from the manufacturing process, including worker injuries, and uses regular audits to express a plant's efficiency. The audits cover plant output, worker and plant safety, product quality, plant waste and job interactions.
The collaboration between Chrysler and Fiat is also responsible for the rebadged Chrysler brand vehicles that are sold in Europe under the Lancia brand with few changes and the rebadged Dodge Journey being sold overseas as the Fiat Freemont.
Mike Merlo, the Dart's chief engineer, said the relationship between Fiat and Chrysler engineers on their first joint project allowed them both to learn.
"It was a very collaborative effort, starting with this platform and working its way into the rest of the product," Merlo said.
There was a point, in the development process, he said, "where there was a handoff, and the Dodge team then took it from there, about a year ago, to the final form."
As the first of what promises to be at least eight vehicles that will share the CUSW platform, the Dart embodies the heart of Marchionne's plan to build vehicles in North America cheaply and profitably.
Merlo said the CUSW platform "is designed to be both longer and shorter than the Dart, so it will be able to carry all of our C- and D-segment vehicles in the future." That spreads the platform development costs across a huge number of vehicles and generates additional savings from being able to share many components among vehicles.
Some of those next vehicles are already out in testing, including the successor to the Jeep Liberty that will be built at Chrysler's Toledo (Ohio) North Assembly plant and a Chrysler 100 hatchback that will join the Dart on the line in Belvidere, Ill. Both of those vehicles are expected in 2013.
From the start, Chrysler's experience with Fiat was strikingly different from its previous tie-ups, especially the failed "merger of equals" with Daimler AG.
Under Daimler, Chrysler's use of its parent company's technology was limited in part to protect the luster of the Mercedes-Benz brand.
"You had such brand separation at the start of the merger that we couldn't share a lug nut with Mercedes for the first two years, so what's the point of merging?" recalled Gary Dilts, who retired as Chrysler's head of U.S. sales in 2006. "It was basically a merger of balance sheets and nothing else."
Dilts said Daimler's attitude toward sharing components began to change with the arrival at Chrysler of Daimler executives Dieter Zetsche and Wolfgang Bernhard. He pointed to the hot-selling Jeep Grand Cherokee, which shares components with the Mercedes M class, as evidence of what could have been.
"The speed of motion at Daimler is very controlled and very rigid compared to what it was at Chrysler," Dilts said. "The wonder of the Jeep Grand Cherokee largely came from Mercedes. It just took too long to get there."
The failed merger with Daimler left its mark on those at Chrysler who lived through it.
At a February 2010 speech to the Economic Club in Chicago, Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles said that his counterparts at Fiat were "very sympathetic" toward Chrysler. Fiat was then just a few years removed from its own financial near-death experience. During the same speech, Gilles told the audience that, to really discuss what had happened to Chrysler under Daimler "would take hours of time, a couch, and a psychiatrist."
Unlike the experience with Daimler, Chernoby said that after Chrysler came out of bankruptcy in June 2009, Chrysler and Fiat immediately began melding the way the two develop automobiles.
"We knew one of the things we had to do was to maximize speed of cooperation. We compared and contrasted the ways we did business on each side of the water," Chernoby said. Both sides shed some of their own practices and adopted others from across the Atlantic.
Chrysler picked up a practice from Fiat of having a chief engineer for each model, instead of having an individual who would oversee development of several products simultaneously. Fiat emulated Chrysler's practice of including manufacturing and purchasing early on in the product development process and hiring program managers who assist in getting key goals accomplished on time.
Rebecca Lindland, an IHS Automotive analyst, said Chrysler's speed to market with the Dart, which will appear in showrooms before the third anniversary of Chrysler's emergence from bankruptcy, shows what Chrysler and Fiat can do together.
"The fact that they were able to bring [the Dart] to market in the short amount of time that they did -- and I thought that it was pretty good -- shows the capability and advantages that this alliance is able to create," Lindland said.
She agreed with Chernoby that Chrysler's alliance with Fiat is proving to be a much more natural fit than its previous tie-up with Daimler.
Lindland said: "Daimler and Chrysler was like caviar and peanut butter, and Fiat and Chrysler are like peanut butter and jelly."
You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at firstname.lastname@example.org.