Never mind the Eminem "Imported From Detroit" Super Bowl ad.

Ignore the freshened versions of Chrysler and Dodge models dating back to 2006 or before.

The most important new car for Chrysler today--as crucial to its long-term survival as the legendary K-car line when it launched in 1980--is a compact 2013 Dodge sedan that will be unveiled at next January's Detroit Auto Show.

This will be the first car to be designed, engineered, and built from scratch by Chrysler under the control of Fiat.

Mission: Be best globally, or else

And it will be the first of many, many models to use a new architecture (known as "Compact Wide") that will underlie sedans, hatchbacks, coupes, crossovers, and other body styles sold globally under no fewer than six brands: Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Fiat, Alfa-Romeo, and Lancia.

2011 Jeep Compass live photos. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

2011 Jeep Compass live photos. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne made waves in late 2008 when he wrote that for subcompact and compact vehicles, a car company had to build 1 million or more vehicles a year on the same underlying platform to have a hope of surviving.

Now, he's putting that belief--which has come into wide industry acceptance--into practice. Almost two years ago, all future Fiat and Chrysler product programs were collapsed into a single plan using the same underlying component sets.

Current Chrysler compacts criminal

But the compact 2013 Dodge, whose model name hasn't yet been revealed, is crucially important because compacts are the biggest segment of the global car market.

2011 Jeep Patriot

2011 Jeep Patriot

And Chrysler has been woefully, grimly uncompetitive in compact cars. Its 2006 Dodge Caliber was subpar from the beginning, as was the Jeep Compass derived from it, the first-ever hatchback Jeep model.

The Jeep Patriot compact crossover received slightly better reviews, but all three cars remain criminally uncompetitive in the face of surprisingly stiff competition not only from Japanese and Korean brands, but also from hometown rivals.

Not only is the Caliber worse than the aging Toyota Corolla, and much worse than the new 2012 Honda Civic, it's beaten hands-down by the 2011 Chevy Cruze and the 2012 Ford Focus.

Then there's the new 2011 Hyundai Elantra, so popular dealers can't keep it in stock.

Compact Dodge: 1.4-liter four, 40 mpg

Fiat Multiair 1.4-liter engine

Fiat Multiair 1.4-liter engine

So the 2013 Dodge has to be really, really good out of the box.

We know a few things about the car.

It'll use a version of the same U.S.-built 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine now fitted to the 2012 Fiat 500 minicar.

It'll be a four-door sedan (the most popular body style in compacts) and it will be assembled in Belvidere, Illinois, where Chrysler now builds the Caliber, Compass, and Patriot.

At least one version will deliver 40 mpg highway, the milestone that will enable Fiat to buy its last 5-percent share of Chrysler from the U.S. government.

But if that 2013 Dodge compact sedan isn't as good as--no, make that better than--the best of the competition, compact buyers will have zero reason to consider visiting a Dodge dealer, perhaps for the first time ever.

Cars needed to offset trucks

2010 Dodge Ram 3500 HD

2010 Dodge Ram 3500 HD

And if Chrysler can't vastly increase the number of cars it sells--because 70 percent of its sales are now pickup trucks, crossovers, and minivans--then it may not be able to meet the 34-mpg CAFE requirement that will be reached in 2016.

Let alone new CAFE rules of up to 62 mpg for 2025.

Make no mistake, Chrysler designers and engineers know how important this car is. Because their future livelihood depends on its selling in volumes vastly higher than the Caliber's low 45,082 sales in 2010.

We'll bring you more news about the 2013 Dodge compact sedan as soon as we have it.

[Automotive News (subscription required); Bloomberg]


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