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."