DETROIT – Chrysler made the new Dodge Dart a little too European for American tastes.
And the company's CEO says that fact is holding back sales of Chrysler's first innovative small car in years.
The Dart, manufactured in Belvidere and unveiled with much fanfare at last year's Detroit auto show, is off to a slow start after going on sale in May. Only 25,000 were sold last year, which CEO Sergio Marchionne concedes is below his expectations.
Chrysler, owned by Italy's Fiat, had touted the sleek compact as the perfect blend of aggressive American styling and Italian technology. It was supposed to be Chrysler's first competitive compact since the Dodge Neon came out in the 1990s.
But on Monday at this year's Detroit show, Marchionne said the company made the mistake of rolling out the Dart with transmissions and engine combinations that were ill-suited for American drivers. The car initially went on the market with only a manual transmission, which accounts for less than 5 percent of U.S. sales. Then Chrysler offered two six-speed automatic transmissions, one that shifts like cars in Europe, and the other paired with an engine too weak to make the Dart accelerate quickly.
Marchionne said the European transmission shifts more often and accelerates more slowly than Americans are used to.
"It's a great fuel mileage solution, but it's got to meet consumer expectations, and were not quite there," Marchionne said. "If it's a mismatch to consumer expectations, you're going to pay the price, and we have."
The solution, he says, is a nine-speed automatic transmission. The added gears will help the car accelerate faster and give it great mileage. Chrysler is developing such a transmission in America that will first appear in a revamped Jeep Liberty small SUV later this year. The Liberty is to be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in March.
Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of automotive testing, said Darts with a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, and a conventional automatic transmission, are too slow. The European automatic behaves more like a manual transmission and isn't to the liking of Americans, he said.
"I think in Europe they kind of forgive it," said Fisher, who added that the transmission shifts like "someone who's not driving a manual transmission very well."
He praised Marchionne for realizing the car's shortcomings and quickly addressing them.
Chrysler never revealed sales expectations for the Dart, but it hoped the car would attract younger buyers. Darts start at just under $16,000, $2,000 less than the Honda Civic, the top-selling compact in the U.S.
The Dart is designed with a luxurious interior and sports-car handling. Chrysler offered numerous options so buyers could customize their cars.
But so far, the Dart's sales haven't come close to leaders in the compact car segment. Honda sold nearly 318,000 Civics last year.
Marchionne is confident the Dart will eventually sell well. It offers far more features than competitors for the price, he says.
Although Chrysler named the Dart after a popular sedan from the 1960s and 1970s, it's nothing like its predecessor. Instead of the somewhat boxy lines of the original, the new Dart has the sleek stance of a modern muscle car, with a short hood, long roof and slightly flared fenders. And it's based on the frame and suspension of a crisp-handling Alfa Romeo hatchback brought over by Chrysler's Italian owner, Fiat SpA.
Chrysler, which ran out of cash and had to be bailed out by the government in 2009, saw its overall U.S. sales jump 21 percent last year.