Chrysler Group LLC’s Dodge Dart, the automaker’s most important new model since its rescue by Fiat (F) SpA, is overcoming snags before the start of production and will have a high-mileage version ready in the third quarter.
Finished Darts will start rolling off the assembly line May 3, said George Welitschinsky, president of United Auto Workers Local 1268 in Belvidere, Illinois. Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler and Fiat’s chief executive officer, alluded to an issue with an unspecified part last week on a conference call with analysts. He had previously said production would begin in early April.
“We’re working with our suppliers,” Welitschinsky said in an April 27 phone interview. “Very shortly, that’s not going to be an issue. We’re rolling, we’re putting it out, we’re moving forward.”
Dart is the biggest test of the almost three-year partnership between Chrysler and Fiat, which took control of the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based carmaker during its 2009 bankruptcy. Turin, Italy-based Fiat pledged its small-car expertise to the combination, seeking scale that would spread fixed costs such as engineering and design. Dart is the first Chrysler car based on a Fiat architecture.
“This is the first roll-out of true collaboration,” Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, said in a phone interview. Chrysler and Fiat “are in each other’s parts bins. You’re getting some benefit at the Dodge brand level and compact-car level from a premium product in Giulietta.”
In the third quarter, Chrysler will offer Dart, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, with a package called Aero that achieves 41 miles (66 kilometers) per gallon in highway driving, Richard Cox, director of the Dodge brand, told reporters last week in Austin, Texas.
The Aero package will be offered on the base-level trim Dart SE. With options including 12 exterior colors, 14 interior color combinations and three different engines and transmissions to choose from, buyers will be able to modify Dart in 100,000 different ways, Cox said.
“We’re really dialing up the customization,” he said. The number of options will set Dart apart in the compact-car segment that buyers associate with “bland and boring.”
Marchionne, 59, said Chrysler was dealing with an “important issue” related to a component used in the Dart before the company’s April 26 conference call.
“If I told you the preparation for the launch has been a walk on the park, I’d be lying through my teeth,” he told analysts and reporters.
Chrysler will guide dealers and customers into a selection of configurations of Dart and leave the option for customization mostly to the more expensive iterations, Marchionne said. It would be “a bloody nightmare” if the Belvidere plant were to operate with 100,000 combinations of the model, he said on the call.
Dart will start at $15,995, excluding a $795 destination charge, the company said in an April 16 statement on its website. The top-level trim Dart R/T will start at $22,495, according to the statement.
Fiat boosted its stake in Chrysler to 58.5 percent from 53.5 percent after the commitment to build a car that achieves at least 40 mpg.
Earning that 5 percent of Chrysler ownership, as negotiated in its 2009 exit from bankruptcy, was “a fundamental step” toward integrating the companies, Marchionne said in a Jan. 5 statement. He plans to merge Fiat and Chrysler by 2014 to achieve a target of more than 100 billion euros ($132 billion) in revenue.
Dart will compete against some of the top-selling cars in the U.S., including Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s Corolla, Honda Motor Co. (7267)’s Civic, General Motors Co. (GM:US)’s Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Motor Co. (005380)’s Elantra.
Chrysler’s Illinois plant will add a third crew of workers building the car in late July, said Welitschinsky, the union local president. The company has said the factory will have more than 4,500 employees when it completes the hiring process. In 2009, the plant had 200 workers.
“The auto industry’s a roller coaster ride, and we were toward that bottom for awhile,” Welitschinsky said. “To see people working now all the time now is a blessing. It’s a heck of a lot better than being on the street.”
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