In just a few months, President Obama will be entering that phase known as the lame duck Presidency. The next president, whether it’s someone who’s been measuring the drapes in the Oval Office for 25 years or an orange painted talking bag of lawn clippings, will be in full-on transition mode and at the center of a media hurricane, leaving Mr. Obama with a few months to relax and reflect, quietly sign a whole bunch of executive actions, issue some pardons, or a combination of all those things.
Aside from the presidency, there aren’t too many other instances when the lame duck term applies – except, of course, in the automotive world. With the announcement of each all-new model, a current one instantly loses its relevancy, and in many cases, a good percentage of its value. And in those rare occasions when a model is discontinued outright, those changes can be even more extreme.
Which is why we were left scratching our heads this past February when just three years into production, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it was discontinuing the Dodge Dart after 2016 and Chrysler 200 after ’17. The announcement, made long before the cars had begun to be phased out, was a nightmare for FCA dealers, who were stuck with thousands of slow-selling cars that were now built by a company that had publicly given up on them.
But there’s always a silver lining to things like this, and here it is: Plagued with a ton of 200s and Darts (production actually had to stop between February and April because there was a 217-day supply of cars on hand; the ideal is 60 days), dealers are willing to give them away for a song. So if you’re in the market for a compact sedan, you can probably get a lot of car at your local Dodge or Chrysler dealership. Despite being lame duck models, FCA’s “Compact U.S. Wide” platform-mates are in a unique enough situation to earn a closer look in our latest installment of Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape
Dateline 2012: President Obama was on the way to his second term, the Olympics were in London, Neil Armstrong and Carroll Shelby shuffled off this mortal coil, and you were several years younger than you are now. Over at FCA, Dodge was busy introducing its first small sedan since the Neon, which regardless of your feelings on that car, was a pretty big deal for Dodge. The all-new Dart was a built on a stretched Fiat platform, and going to do wonders for the company now that it was out of its darkest financial days. “I think it’s going to redefine what the segment will be, and I think others will either catch up with us or we’ll own the segment,” said FCA chief Sergio Marchionne. It had “Alfa Romeo DNA,” and was a “groundbreaking car,” according to the press releases.
Today, that “groundbreaking car” comes standard with a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter four and a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is available (and more popular), as is a 160-horse 1.4-liter turbocharged four, and a 184-horse 2.4-liter. But despite the range of powertrains, a GT Sport model, and a name that recalls one of Dodge’s most affordable muscle cars, its performance leaves a lot to be desired. And in a segment with the Mazda3, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and a number of other compacts that know how to get truly sporty, that just doesn’t cut it.
Inside, the Dart feels well made, if a little cramped. Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment is front and center on an available 8.4-inch touchscreen, and a wide number of option packages allows customers to personalize their Darts as they see fit. Starting from $16,995, and crossing the $25K mark when fully-optioned, the Dart offers a lot for the money, but the sad truth is that many of its competitors offer it better.
That truth extends to the Chrysler 200. It was introduced as the new face of the Chrysler brand in 2014, and Chrysler followed through by introducing a 200-style front end on the excellent 2017 Pacifica minivan. The younger 200 will live a few months longer than the Dart, but its fate is sealed too. Power comes from the same 184-horse 2.4-liter found in the Dart, though a 295-horse 3.5-liter V6 is available to give the car some much-needed pep. Both engines are mated to Chrysler’s nine-speed automatic transmission.
The first public inkling that something was wrong with the Dart and 200 came when Marchionne publicly trash-talked the car. In January, he said “The 200 failed because somebody thought that the rear-seat entry point inside the 200 — which is our fault, by the way — is not up to snuff.” In our opinion, the 200’s interior is a better use of space than the Dart’s, thanks to its slightly longer wheelbase (108.0 versus 106.4 inches), but Marchionne was right about the rear entry point. That back seat is a bit cramped too.
The 200 doesn’t offer as many options as the Dart, but its well-appointed interior and upscale appearance make it the winner here. With a $22,115 base price, it’s still well within range of the Dart, but with a top end somewhere in the low $30K range, it even punches a little above its weight against some soft luxury cars.
The 200 is good-looking, well balanced (with the V6), and quality is high. But like the Dart, it seems out of step compared to the competition. Against the Mazda6, Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord (among others), the 200 just seems too soft-edged, too uninspired, and too anonymous for the midsize sedan segment – and that’s saying something.
Still, if the price is right, we’d take the 200. The Dart is a fine entry-level compact, but it feels too compromised in a lot of ways. The 200 isn’t as compromised, it’s just not as inspiring as the competition. That doesn’t mean that it’s not still a fairly new, handsome, comfortable car, and with dealers anxious to move them, probably a really good deal.