Mountain Wheels: A last visit to the island of misfit cars

2016 Dodge Dart Limited
A.J. Mueller / Special to the Daily |

Call it dumb luck, or bad timing, or worse — but I’ve recently had experiences with three new cars that all simultaneously will be going the way of the dodo, for a variety of reasons.

I finally got a crack at the new-generation Dodge Dart, one of the first glimpses of the now entirely Fiat-integrated Dodge/Chrysler family, and was actually driving it when I heard the news that the car was being dropped from production.

It was the first time I’d driven it since its introduction in 2013 and while slightly anonymous, considering its long and storied history as a model name, the new version (based on a modified Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform) was still a pretty decent small car.

However, Fiat Chrysler America leadership noted that everyone and their dog are buying huge trucks and SUVs during this gas-price holiday and they could make a lot more money on a Grand Cherokee or a Ram 1500 than they can on the affordable and, for all purposes, pleasant enough Dart.

The roll then continued with a test drive of the Chrysler 200, which will also suffer the same fate as the Dart: It’s being discontinued so that resources can be focused on more profitable products. The 200, I will note, gave me one of the most solid winter experiences I’ve found in a front-wheel-drive, mid-size sedan — riding on stock all-season tires, no less — as I got through the blizzard conditions on Vail Pass and the tunnel last Sunday night.

Finally, giving me thoughts that I might have some sort of bad juju, I was in the middle of a pleasant experience with the new Scion iM — one of the most well-rounded and non-unusual vehicles to ever appear in the offbeat Toyota offshoot’s lineup — when news came that Scion was also ceasing to exist, with the surviving leftovers of the company’s lineup rebranded as Toyotas in the future.

Scion’s story is a little different and while many blame millennials and their alleged aversion to driving or car ownership or any of the many facets of adulthood, some observers have had a different take on the oddball brand’s fade into darkness. Turns out that some millennials still do buy cars (the millennials who do not rely entirely on Uber, or their mom, for their transportation needs), but they actually turn out to be kind of square in their automotive choices.

They’d rather have a conventional and time-tested model than a Japanese sub-brand promoting weirdness for weirdness’s sake (think of the mailbox-shaped xB, favored primarily by Insane Clown Posse fans in Phoenix and would-be tattoo artists in Riverside, California). And despite their love of impactful marketing and well-focused storytelling, they didn’t actually like being marketed to in that fashion. How millennial. Sorry, Scion.

The upside to all of this is three soon-to-be-defunct vehicles that are all affordable, offer a litany of positives and will, I am guessing, be aggressively priced to make way for whatever replaces them.

The Dart, which had a $19,200 base price, will leave a considerable hole for the remaining Dodge/Chrysler diehards who’d like a small vehicle that’s not an SUV, or a Fiat. The 2.4-liter engine and a six-speed automatic transmission provided highway mileage in the 35 mpg range, and while not gigantic inside, I found it to be comfortable and pleasant to drive. It got a downsized version of the swoopy, integrated center stack style found on the Charger.

I drove a Limited edition of the FWD Chrysler 200, which included a charming segment rarity: an actual V6 engine, the 3.6-liter Pentastar that gives the car a healthy 295 horsepower. The bigger engine, navigation, heated seats, dual-zone AC and a remote starter brought the 200’s price to $29,370; I still got more than 30 mpg during my travels, though I admittedly spent a long stretch going about 30 mph during the rough stuff on the passes.

A major gripe was the nine-speed transmission, which is just too wide a range to react to acceleration needs — and trying to use it to slow the car going downhill, downshifting actually speeds up the car, until you hit about fourth gear.

Like the Dart, the 200 was built on an extended version of that Fiat/Alfa platform. It occurred to me when looking at images of the upcoming 2017 Chrysler Pacifica crossover/minivan that … my goodness, it’s almost identical to the Chrysler 200 up front, scarily so. So maybe that’s where a bit of the star-crossed car’s spirit (and parts) will end up.

Finally, the $19,594 Scion iM will, I hope, live on as the Toyota Auris or Corolla hatchback — as it’s known in its overseas variations. It’s a very progressive little car with looks and a full ground-effects package that make it seem like an extremely affordable Subaru WRX racer.

The 137-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine is no screamer, and engaging first gear took a lot of clutch play, but it worked well enough at highway speeds and kept the small, light car pretty playful, with a confident road character. And like the 200, the tiny Scion was able to hold its own in three inches of slush on — again, all-season tires — suggesting that its FWD setup and some more appropriate footwear would make it a decent year-round runner.

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