AUBURN HILLS, MI – Industry eyes are on the Dodge Dart this month as the all-new sporty compact sedan begins to trickle into dealerships.

Chrysler management is confident the Fiat-inspired, legacy-branded vehicle will bubble to the top of the hot-selling C-segment sedan market, where the auto maker’s fortunes fizzled with the now-defunct Dodge Caliber.

In its final sales year of 2011, the Caliber added 35,049 units to Chrysler’s books, WardsAuto data shows. The Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus have dominated the C-segment each with more than three times as many units sold in the timeframe.

The Dart’s interior, a WardsAuto 10 Best Interiors winner this year, is tailored larger than its American competitors, including the Chevrolet Cruze. Dodge executives say 14 interior trim choice also will put the car ahead of the pack.

However, Dodge doesn’t foresee the Dart’s roomy cabin and longer wheelbase, which fall just shy of midsize territory, competing in-house with the midsize Avenger or Chrysler 200.

“Everything that we’ve packaged in the Dart was built to lead the compact-car segment,” Richard Cox, director-Dodge brand, tells WardsAuto during a media test-drive event here.

The Dart, which draws design inspiration from Alfa Romeo compacts sold in Europe, has three powertrain options: The first two are the 2.0L Tigershark DOHC naturally aspirated I-4 and 1.4L SOHC MultiAir turbocharged 4-cyl. in showrooms now.

The third engine is a 4-cyl. 184-hp 2.4L SOHC 4-cyl. with Fiat’s next-generation MultiAir 2 Valve Control, which arrives in the year’s third quarter. Cox expects the MultiAir turbo, which earns 27/39 mpg (8.7-6.0L/100 km), to be the big seller.

Expect a heavy advertising campaign, which Chrysler still is tweaking, to begin in September. The auto maker is working with the Portland, OR-based Wieden + Kennedy ad agency, which brainstormed the successful “Imported From Detroit” campaign, to produce a 90-second commercial among other promotions.

Dealers are especially enthused about regaining lost ground in the compact segment. “Interiors are something we’re not really known for. Now we’ve got things we never had before – exterior and interior,” Carl Galeana, who owns Chrysler and Fiat dealerships in suburban Detroit, South Carolina and Florida, says of the Dart.

Detroit-area Chrysler dealer Bill Golling expects some consumers to be split over whether to buy the Dart or the Avenger and predicts the Dart’s refined interior will win out.

afoley@wardsauto.com