Mark Phelan
Detroit Free Press

If the 2013 Dodge Dart model succeeds — and based on its price, fuel economy and features, it should — some credit should go to a meeting that took place before the new compact sedan was even in development.

Early in 2010, Matt Liddane, who is now Dart vehicle line director, was scheduled to give new Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne a presentation on the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, the first new vehicle the company would introduce under Marchionne’s leadership and Fiat control.

It wasn’t on the agenda, but Liddane figured he was also scheduled to get his butt kicked. Liddane was in charge of developing the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and he’d gone over budget during the days when Chrysler’s previous owners — Daimler and Cerberus — had sucked the blood out of every stone to cut costs.

Liddane had told his team to keep their heads down and keep working. Just get the vehicle right. He’d deal with the consequences when the bosses eventually found out. It was risky, a decision that could get a guy fired.

But Liddane knew building another so-what vehicle was the greater risk. He’d suffered through the ceaseless corner-cutting that had ruined Chrysler.

He made his presentation, told the new boss where and why he’d over-spent — mostly to make the Grand Cherokee’s interior look and feel ritzy and inviting — and waited for the ax to fall. Another executive at the table began rattling off what features they could drop, where they could scrimp to get back on track.

“I know the numbers. We’ll take care of the numbers,” Marchionne said, raising a hand to cut off the recitation. “This vehicle needs to be 100 percent right. That comes first.” He went on to approve materials and features that were better than previous management would have considered. The Grand Cherokee went on to become the new Chrysler’s first hit.

The Dart, with plush materials and features you don’t usually see on compact sedans — a large touch screen and configurable gauge display, to name two — is the latest evidence that Marchionne knows not just what things cost, but also what they’re worth.