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Dodge Dart posts best sales month yet despite Avenger discounts

Chrysler Group's new Fiat-based compact sedan posted its best-ever sales month in December, more than a half-year after the 2013 Dodge Dart began showing up on dealer lots.

The 6,105 Darts that dealers sold last month came as the four-door made the final cut on several Car of the Year lists and boosted its total U.S. sales for 2012 to 25,303 units.

That's not a bad start for an all-new entry in one of the United States' most competitive market segments. It's even more notable because the Dart hit those numbers despite not having a customer cash incentive until late November and with a performance R/T version that has yet to arrive in showrooms.

But I would argue that it's not yet quite fair to compare monthly Dart sales with segment competitors like the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze and Honda Civic.

Several Chrysler dealers in recent months have told me that one of the prime factors holding down potential Dart sales is in their own showrooms -- a deeply discounted Dodge Avenger.

The mid-sized Avenger was the Dodge brand's top-selling sedan both last month and last year. Across the Dodge brand, it was bested only by the Grand Caravan minivan.

Though it is not as refined, fuel-efficient or technologically-advanced as the Dart, the Avenger is bigger and has more powerful engine offerings. With consumer rebates that at times knocked $3,500 or more off the Avenger's price, the larger sedan with the older styling may have lured away more than a few Dart-curious customers.

According to Truecar.com, the average transaction price at Chrysler dealers in December for the Avenger was $20,330, while the average Dart transaction clocked in at $22,001. That's not a big difference, especially considering the Dart's better fuel economy, but how many consumers sit in a showroom and determine cost of operation versus those who just compare bottom-line price?

The sales situation with the Dart and Avenger is temporary, of course. The Avenger is expected to ride off into the sunset when the replacement for the Chrysler 200 arrives next year. And the Dart will soon get its overdue performance R/T model -- and ultimately new powertrain offerings like a 9-speed automatic transmission -- to further boost its competitiveness against other compact sedans.

In short, Dart sales are growing, and are likely to continue to grow as the vehicle matures. But like most younger siblings, I don't expect the Dart to hit its full stride until its older brother -- the Avenger -- is out from under the same roof.

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