Nov
23
Belvidere Assembly Plant,

A Dodge Dart is assembled at the Belvidere Assembly Plant.

Part of Consumer Guide’s new-car evaluation process includes maintaining a fleet of “extended-use” vehicles. These are cars we drive for six to 12 months to see how they hold up to the grinds of everything from daily commuting to extended road trips.

We’ve sampled many an extended-use Chrysler product over the years, with the versatile 2008 Town & Country minivan and comfy 2012 Dodge Durango among our favorites. The next vehicle to enter our long-term fold is one of the first to result from the brand’s alliance with Fiat. Though its underpinnings are Italian, the styling, name, and point of assembly are all American.

The 2013 Dodge Dart is the company’s attempt to flush the ill-fated 2007-2012 Caliber down the memory hole. We think they’ve done a good job, for the most part. We’ve driven several Dart iterations as part of our standard two-week evaluation process. Though not quite as sporty as a Ford Focus or Mazda 3, Dart scores big points for its quietness, interior design and materials, and high features-per-dollar quotient.

We want to see if these positive attributes will hold up over the course of a yearlong evaluation. Our test Dart of choice is the top-line Limited trim level. Included in its $19,995 base price are a power driver seat, cruise control, rearview camera, and the usual complement of power windows/locks/mirrors and remote keyless entry. To it, we’re adding the optional Premium Group, which adds dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, and remote engine start. Also part of our build is the Technology Group, which adds rear-obstacle detection, keyless entry with pushbutton engine start, rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot alert, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Our car will come with the standard 160-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, to which we’ve added the extra-cost 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2013 Dart also offers a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, borrowed from the high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth. While the bratty turbo is terrific in the Abarth, we found its raucous character off-putting in the larger, heavier Dart. The 2.0-liter motor is more in keeping with the Dart’s refined nature.

Chrysler assembles the 2013 Dodge Dart in Belvidere, Illinois, a stone’s throw from our suburban Chicago headquarters. The Belvidere plant has been in operation since the mid-1960s. It has produced a number of compact and midsize Chrysler vehicles, notably the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, Dodge Dynasty/Chrysler New Yorker, and Dodge/Plymouth Neon. In addition to the Dart, the factory makes the compact Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot. Since this is the only plant that produces these vehicles, the company exports them all over the world, including Europe and China.

The Dart made in Belvidere is for the U.S. market only. Chrysler granted us a rare look inside the factory. We got to follow the exact car we will receive, from its starting point as a body shell to where the finished product drove off the assembly line.

In this first part, we’ll follow our Dart through what Chrysler dubs “Trim and Chassis.” “Trim” is where exterior and interior addenda get bolted to the body, while “Chassis” is where the drivetrain comes into the picture.

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belvidere assembly plant

After spending a day in “stamping” (where the body panels are made and welded together) and in “paint” (where the color is applied, obviously), this is what a Dart looks like as it begins its journey. From this point, the assembly process takes anywhere from eight to 10 hours, depending on parts availability and if there are any issues requiring a stoppage of the line.

 

Badges? We DO need those stinkin’ badges! After all, how would you be able to tell what model you’re driving? If we went with the 1.4-liter turbo engine, our car would have an additional badge below the “Limited” one.

 

Here you see the floorpan, wiring, and pedals. The servo and master cylinder, which provide power assist to the braking system, are on the other side under the hood.

 

Here’s our Dart after it receives its leather-wrapped instrument panel. The materials quality of the dashboard is one of the car’s biggest strengths.

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The cart you see attached to the rear bumper space contains several bins of trim pieces that are specific to this vehicle. In a process called “sequencing,” the parts are carefully laid out and organized, then delivered at the exact moment the car reaches the workers who bolt them to the shell. It’s an exacting process that requires precise timing.

 

assembly

On the Chassis side of the plant, we see workers adding the Dart’s front suspension to the engine and exhaust.

 

assembly

The completed drivetrain moves on an automated platform as it gets ready to meet the body.

 

This crew “marries” the drivetrain to the body.

 

Belvidere assembly

Our Dart gets a rear bumper. Since we have the 2.0-liter engine, the fascia is smooth, and you can barely see the single exhaust pipe. Models with the 1.4-liter turbo get dual pipes with chrome tips embedded in the bumper.

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Belvidere assembly

The Dart gets a face as it heads toward the final stages of assembly. We’ll cover that aspect of the production process in the next installment.

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