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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maybe you were once the proud owner of a Dodge Dart. Between 1960 and 1976, the Dart was one of the best-selling cars in America. With its affordable price and rugged feel, more than three and a half million Darts were sold. But the car was never known for being especially stylish or pretty. Now Chrysler is reviving the name as the company continues its own revitalization.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm standing on the floor of the Detroit Auto Show. One of the cool things about auto shows is when they unveil a car. Let's take a listen:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome president and CEO Dodge Brand Reed Bigland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCK MUSIC)

GLINTON: Every CEO gets their own theme music. Reid Bigland looks like a car exec, built like a quarterback but because he's Canadian he played hockey in school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCK MUSIC AND APPLAUSE)

GLINTON: First there's a preamble. They usually talk about history - car execs love history. Then they talk about turbochargers and torque and horsepower.

REID BIGLAND: First, horsepower and greater fuel economy. Look, the days of sacrificing horsepower for fuel economy and vice versa are long gone. Today, you have to have both, and we do.

GLINTON: Now we're getting to the nitty-gritty. Chryslers sells lots of big SUVs and big sedans and it hasn't been competitive in the small car market. Because of the bailout, Chrysler agreed to sell a fuel efficient small car that's made in America.

Now, this is the part executives really love - the introduction:

BIGLAND: I introduce to you, the 2013 groundbreaking Dodge Dart.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GUITAR RIFF)

GLINTON: And that's when they drive the car from behind a screen right up to the audience. Always scares me. I never sit in front.

Once the car is revealed, all the reporters rush the stage to ask the car execs questions, like why choose the name Dodge Dart. Reid Bigland says they looked at lot of things.

BIGLAND: Looked at the car, looked at the styling, looked at the aggressive arrow, looked at the notion of a Dart; the very arrow and the name just fit. And it's living large right now in drag strips throughout North America.

GLINTON: Plus, Bigland says most people under 35 don't even remember the Dodge Dart. And those over 35 remember it fondly.

AARON BRAGMAN: This is definitely not your father's Dodge Dart.

GLINTON: Aaron Bragman is over 35, and he's a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

BRAGMAN: The old Dodge Dart is really one of the vehicles you think of when you think of a '60s American car. It was big, rear-wheel drive, it had room inside for six. It had bench seats. It had very upright styling. It is nothing like the car we see in front of us.

GLINTON: The new Dart is built on the platform as one of Fiat's Alpha Romeos, though they stretched the body a bit to fit us larger Americans. While the old Dart sat six, this one is a compact car that would fit five uncomfortably.

Bragman says the new Dart is a sign of a real change in the culture of the U.S. car industry.

BRAGMAN: They were happy to cede the passenger-car market - mid-size cars, compact cars - to Japanese competitors, and Japanese brands basically took over the American market. They sold far more than the Americans do. Well, apparently the Americans are no longer content with that. And they're introducing passenger cars of their own that are easily as good, if not better than, many of their competitors.

GLINTON: Bragman and other analysts say if the Americans don't continue to stay competitive in the small car market, they won't be selling cars globally - or in the U.S., for that matter.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit.

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