If there is any question that Chrysler is back at developing vehicles that change the rules of the game, the 2013 Dodge Dart should deflate any doubts.
The situation is simply this: Dodge needed a compact car. It has the Avenger, a midsize. The Charger, a full size. The Challenger, a muscle coupe. There had been the Caliber, a boxy hatch that (1) was probably ahead of its time in terms of its exterior design and (2) had a fairly class-lagging interior, which undoubtedly helped account for its less-than notable sales record.
Also factor into this the fact that the compact car segment is growing at a healthy pace, and not to be in it is to be comparatively shrinking. With Fiat now owning Chrysler, a company that is based on a continent where compacts have long been the rule, not the exception, not a category of cars that is given reduced OEM attention as has been the case in the U.S. When Richard Cox, director, Dodge Brand, cites the competitive set they’re targeting with the Dodge Dart, he cites the Chevy Cruze, which was largely engineered by Opel in Germany and the Ford Focus, developed in Europe. In addition to which he names the Volkswagen Jetta (“German engineering,” as the ad has it), and four models from Asian companies: the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Mazda3, and the Hyundai Elantra.
So it simply made a whole lot of sense to go with what was established, and the 2013 Dart is based on the same platform that underpins the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
However, Chrysler has its own cadre of talented designers and engineers so visually and dimensionally, the Dart and the Giulietta are cousins more than clones.
Inside the Factory
The Dart is being built at the Belvidere Assembly Plant in northern Illinois. The plant also builds the Jeep Compass and Patriot models; it had been the home to the Dodge Caliber, which the Dart replaces. While the Compass, Patriot and Caliber share a platform, that’s not the case for the Dart. This lead to a nearly $700-million investment in a new 638,000-ft2 body shop—including new tooling, machinery and material handling—to handle the Dart.
Mike Merlo, chief engineer for the Dart, who had spent years working at the plant, explains that the bodies-in-white for the Patriot and Compass are built in one shop, the Dart another, and then they come together for trim and final.
The new Dart body shop uses 967 robots. Historically, it has always been the case that robots are reprogrammable and redeployable. And that’s the case in spades at Belvidere, which is using 550 robots from the St. Louis North (closed in 2009; had been producing Ram trucks) and the St. Louis South (closed in 2008; had been making minivans) plants. In addition to which, material handling equipment were also redeployed from those plants, saving approximately $29-million.
There were several changes made at Belvidere, many predicated on Fiat practices. For example, there is the World Class Manufacturing methodology that came from Fiat, which is predicated on reducing waste, increasing productivity, improving quality and safety, and “restoring dignity” to the employees; this was initially implemented in June 2009. Fiat and Chrysler personnel jointly developed a standardized layout for several sealing and welding robots; it’s called “BRIC,” or Basic Robot Integrated Configuration. By combining elements such as the robot arm, associated equipment and controller as a unit, when a BRIC is shipped to Belvidere from a supplier it can be installed in as little as an hour. There is an increased use of robots mounted overhead. There are five “marketplaces” throughout the body shop. Each marketplace has parts relevant to specific areas of the line; operators select parts and load them on a pallet that is then transferred to the appropriate welding station. This marketplace is said to facilitate the adding of different body styles to the shop—as many as four. Another difference from many assembly lines is that the new body shop is laid out so that all of the material and processes are manned from one side of the line, which reduces the overall size of the line and reduces the number of operators needed to load it.
Additionally, there is a robotic-based framing station deployed in the new shop that would make the aforementioned four body styles possible. It is called the “Open Gate Framer.” Instead of hard tooling bringing the pieces of the body together for framing, there are 18 robots (10 of which are mounted overhead) that are used to weld the bodies. Given the flexibility of the robots, the ability to make four different architectures is assured. But in the meantime, it also means that there is a precision build of the Dart.
And they are seriously concerned with quality at Belvidere, as part of the investment—$12.5-million worth—went to installing a metrology center in the plant.
The factory is going to be somewhat challenged by the Dart because the car is being made in a multiplicity of ways. There are five trim levels. There are 12 exterior colors. There are six wheel options. Three engine options. Three transmission options. And a list of “unbundled options”—these can be ordered à la carte, not as part of a package. According to Cox, the number of permutation is in excess of 100,000 ways a Dart can be configured. He estimates that it will take a customer from 30 to 45 days to get precisely the car they want. (Certainly the plant is building cars that will be shipped to dealers, but there will be a variety of special builds, as well, which means that flexibility is paramount.)
Tailoring a Platform
As previously mentioned, the Dart is based on the same platform as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. That architecture was launched in 2010 and it was rigorously designed for dynamic performance as well as safety. For example, speaking of the latter, in order to assure that they’d achieve the maximum Euro NCAP rating, more than 15,000 hours were spent on mathematical modeling, in addition to some 80 crash tests, as well as a variety of other tests. This led to the use of an array of high- and ultra-high-strength steels in the structure, accounting for 68% of the total materials use. And to enhance dynamic performance there is an aluminum cross member that is engineered to react to lateral loads. An interesting component is a high-pressure, die-cast aluminum front suspension cradle that is produced in the company’s Etobicoke Casting Plant in Ontario, and which is 14 lb. lighter than a conventional ferrous cradle.
When some people think “platform,” they think that there is essentially the same base wrapped in different sheet metal. But while there is similar geometry and suspension setup, the Dart and the Giulietta are markedly different from a dimensional standpoint:
When asked about the remarkable difference, Merlo simply remarked: “The Giulietta is a hatch. The Dart is a sedan.”
Powering the Dart
As regards the powertrain offerings, there is plenty of development. The engine that will be essentially standard is the 2.0-liter, 160-hp Tigershark dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine that is being produced at the Dundee Engine Plant in Michigan. This engine is “all new.” Or more to the point, according to Greg Macfarlane, chief engineer for the Tigershark engine family, “More than 88% of the 2.0-liter components and 80% of the 2.4-liter components”—with this 184-hp engine, featuring the second-generation Fiat MultiAir technology, the biggest of the Tigersharks, becoming available in the third quarter of 2012—“are brand new, excluding some carryover fasteners and sealants.” The carryover he is referring to is from the “World Engines” that had been produced at Dundee, which was formerly known as GEMA, or the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance plant. (It had been a collaboration between Chrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi.)
The third engine that is available for the Dart is a 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo that is rated at 160-hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. MultiAir, briefly, uses an electro-hydraulic system to control intake valves for each cylinder and each stroke, depending on operating conditions and input from the drive and engine control system. (The exhaust valves are operated via the conventional cam lobe approach.) With the MultiAir system a dual-action solenoid that controls the position of the valves; it is particularly beneficial for combustion at low speeds because there is infinite control of the valves such that there is a precise amount of intake air, not the fixed opening characteristic of the valves being opened by the cam lobes. The advantage of using the MultiAir cylinder head on the 1.4 rather than using a conventional arrangement: a 15% increase in low-engine RPM torque, up to 7.5% fuel efficiency improvement, and a 7.5% reduction in CO2 emissions.
There are three transmissions to go along with the three engines. The standard transmission—available for all three engines—is a six-speed manual, the C635. This transmission was developed by Fiat. The ratio spread is 6.68 for the 1.4-liter and 6.27 for the 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines. There is a six-speed automatic transmission that can be selected for all three engines. This transmission wasn’t developed by Fiat, but Powertech, a Hyundai company. One of the advantages of this transmission is that it is comparatively compact, having an overall length of just 14.9 in. Finally, there is a six-speed dual dry clutch transmission (DDCT), developed by Fiat. It is for the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo; it will become available in the third quarter of 2012. Unlike conventional six-speed planetary transmissions and wet-clutch dual clutch transmissions, there is no torque converter or constant pressure pumps. The reason that’s important is because it eliminates the energy losses associated with them. The DCCT has two clutch discs that are independently driven by a common flywheel. There is a shaft with odd-numbered gears on it and another shaft with the even-numbered gears. The clutches work in coordination such that as one opens the other closes; shifting is done without torque interruption, thus having smoother shifts and faster acceleration.
One of the drivers for the selection of compact cars is that they’re generally more fuel efficient than larger cars, so this is one of the areas of emphasis. So, for example, a Dart with the standard 2.0-liter I4 and six-speed manual is rated at 25 mpg city, 36 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined. This is not just all a powertrain play. According to Merlo, they developed the car to be highly aerodynamic, with in excess of 600 hours of testing in a wind tunnel (which is convenient to Chrysler at its Auburn Hills facility). The coefficient of drag is 0.285. This is accomplished though a number of elements, including available active grille shutters, a first for Chrysler Group vehicles, and the use of seven underbody closeout panels and air diffusers. And Chrysler is upping the ante even more by offering another model in the Dart lineup, the “Aero,” which uses the 1.4-liter turbo and the six-speed manual and a few more tweaks; it will get “at least,” says Merlo, 41 mpg EPA on the highway. As for the tweaks, Merlo says: “Visually, there will be no significant differences in appearance. It will be lower in ride height. There are changes in the wheel spats for managing air. We’re also doing things relative to the weight of components and a few powertrain changes. And we’re using low rolling resistance tires.”
Designing the Dart
Visually, there is a significant difference between the 2013 Dodge Dart and pretty much anything else in its competitive category.
Jeff Gale, senior design manager in the Dodge exterior studio, admits, “This was a fun one for us.” It was the ability to work on a compact sedan after having executed products including the Charger and Durango. And while he describes this effort as being “new to us”—realize that the last time there was a compact sedan in the Dodge lineup it was the Neon, which had two runs, with generation one lasting from 1995 to 1999 and the second gen from 2000 to 2005, which is to say that this was a time that Gale and his colleagues were still young (Gale didn’t join Chrysler until 2000, which meant that the Neon was well over, studio-wise)—he goes on to say that there are some aspects that they followed in developing the Dart so that it would be a Dodge.
He enumerates three things:
1. A “proud” front end. OK. This is a Dodge, so pride is amped up. Or, in Gale’s words, “An almost in-your-face kind of thing.”
2. Tech-driven lighting. The back borrows the graphic from the Charger. “You’ve seen the Charger at night,” he says. “It kind of looks like the Millennium Falcon going down the road, that big, lit graphic. You know exactly what that car is a mile away.”
3. Upgraded exterior surfaces, both in terms of high-end paint, but also via doing things like eliminating the need for a roof ditch molding via laser brazing the joint between the roof and the body side.
4. There was actually something rather tricky going on when designing the Dart. While this is a car that is aimed at a younger buyer, perhaps a buyer who has never been in the new car market before, it is also a car that is meant to appeal to a buyer that may be downsizing—perhaps from a Durango or a Charger—, such as an empty-nester. So one of the ways of providing that split personality was through the use of material treatment, such as using piano black on the front of some models to make them look more sinister or aggressive and then using body color and chrome for those who are more reserved.
According to Joe Dehner, head of Dodge/Ram Brand Design, the development was a quick 18-month design project; the Challenger was done in 24 months. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the designers working on the program were compara-tively young and full of energy. Klaus Busse, head of Interior Design, Chrysler Group, says, “The designers who worked on it were mainly in their 20s. There were some in their early 30s, but they were probably the managers. We told them, ‘Design a car that you want to buy and drive.’” Dehner amplifies, “I can’t tell you how many times we had heart-to- heart discussions when the sketches went up on the wall. ‘This is all great,’ I’d tell them, but ask, ‘But is this really what you’re thinking the people who are your age or millennials want to drive?’”
As the model took form, Dehner says that every Monday morning for seven weeks running they’d have a session out in the Design courtyard with Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s senior vp of Product Design, reviewing what was done. And week after week, they went through a series of iterations, making changes and having a new di-noced model ready for assessment on Monday morning.
“Our senior management had confidence in us,” Dehner says. “Aggressive time lines force you to make decisions—and that’s a good thing. We had the ability to be efficient to keep moving forward. We’d never stall out. Never race in neutral.”
And the fact that Chrysler Group has been rolling out a number of new or significantly refreshed products of late not only aided their ability to work quickly on the project (Dehner says with a smile, “After you do ‘em for a while, you get good at ‘em”), but also helped create a better product. Ryan Nagode, chief of the Dodge/Ram interior studio, says that the approach they’ve taken is to utilize what has been developed for earlier programs to their advantage. For example, a new vent system was developed for the Grand Cherokee. So rather than developing something like that, they used it. Collaboration with other projects helped them speed that one.
While some people might imagine that a program staffed by people who grew up in the digital age would be biased toward digital tools, Nagode says, “We spent a lot of time working with clay. A lot of time hand-sculpting surfaces. We got to the computer later on.”
This was a very tactile, sculptural project, not only creating the shapes and forms (he is keen on what they call the “floating island bezel” in the center of the instrument panels: “All of the other sculpture flows up to it”), but in making sure that they’d have smooth, soft surfaces wherever a hand might land (e.g., there is 10 to 12 mil of foam on the IP, brow, door armrests, console . . .). What’s more, they used a variety of colors (e.g., citrus) and materials (e.g., denim) to provide a distinctiveness that is often not the norm in this category.
The last word goes to Klaus Busse, who remarks, with enthusiasm in his voice: “If we are capable of doing this in a C-segment car, a less than $16,000 car,
you can only imagine what we are capable of in the next round of more pricey cars.”
Dart, then, is a start.