Perhaps the biggest star at the recent Detroit show was the Dodge Dart saloon. It was the first car to be unveiled on the first press day and was given the full force of American razzamatazz.
As soon as the display Darts were on stage, they were surrounded by hundreds of hacks. Nearly everybody did the same thing: open the door, look at the interior and then run our fingers across the plastic surfaces. Then tap our finger nails on the mouldings.
Then tap the surfaces with a knuckle. After that bit of the ritual, you slam the door a couple of times to get an idea of the quality from the sound it makes on closing. This is such a part of the ‘quality assessment’ ritual that it is even parodied in VW’s current ‘like a Golf’ TV ad.
The general agreement on the show stand was that some of the Dart’s interior was made of very hard, very cheap feeling plastics. ‘A bit bland looking’ said some of the America hacks. ‘A bit cheap in places’. It struck me that, considering the pricing kicks off at $16,000, and it has a base-model 140bhp engine and plenty of kit, the Dart was not a bad deal at all.
So hats off to the bright sparks at Dodge who decided to display the parts of the Dart that the knuckle tappers ignore. A cutaway of the Dart showing the all-important Alfa-derived platform in all its glory was also on the stand, though it remained ignored by most.
The cutaway was mounted at an angle and over a mirror so it was easy to admire the floorpan and rear suspension. No, really. The neat multi-link rear axle was exposed in all its glory, the steel arms bolted to the lovely central aluminium casting, itself bolted to the floorpan.
At the front end was a huge aluminium plate casting bolted to the front floor and front chassis legs, holding the whole front end of the Dart nice and rigidly, which is what you want on a front-drive car. If those front legs are allowed to distort by even a fraction under hard driving, the steering geometry is corrupted and with it, the steering accuracy and feel.
Above ground-level you could also clearly see the big aluminium casting at the base of the McPherson struts (rigidity, again) and big aluminium extrusions forming the low-speed crash structure in the nose.
Here, in exposed form, is the great mass carmaker’s dilemma. Do you spend cash on a nicely slush-moulded interior and lots of soft-feel paint, the stuff that buyers will appreciate in the showroom and on the driveway?
Or do you splash the cash on the undercarriage, spending hundreds of pounds and dollars on multi-link rear suspensions and lovely, rigid, chunks of aluminium, both of which will help secure glowing reviews and please the more appreciative drivers?
Increasingly, the economics of the mass-market are suggesting that you can’t afford to do both, unless you are an industrial giant like VW and benefit from huge economies of scale. Certainly, the big losses being recorded in Europe by Ford and Opel/Vauxhall can be partly explained by the drive to build ever more sophisticated cars that are too often sold at a discount.
Personally, I’d go with the Dart model and trade a plush interior for the sophisticated chassis. But I suspect the average buyer wouldn’t.