For 1961, the Dart remained the smallest full-size Dodge. It retained 1960's 118 in (2,997 mm) wheelbase, and was restyled to emulate the larger Polara. The same three trim levels were available as in 1960: the premium Phoenix, mid-range Pioneer, and base Seneca. Once again, wagons shared the Polara's 122 in/310 cm wheelbase; they also shared Polara's unique side-mounted taillights.
Engine choices included the 225 cu in (3.7 L) Slant-6, and the 318 cu in (5.2 L) and 361 cu in (5.9 L) V8s were also available in various configurations. Phoenix convertibles were all equipped with V8 engines. Beginning in mid-year, some Darts ordered with the 225 engine were equipped with the die-cast aluminum block. Darts in all series were equipped as standard with three-speed, column-shifted manual transmissions. Chrysler's pushbutton-shifted TorqueFlite automatic was available at extra cost. The alternator, introduced as standard equipment in 1960 on the Valiant, was installed rather than the previous DC generator on all 1961 Chrysler products, including the Dart. Canadian-built 1961 Darts were identical to U.S. models on the outside, but the interior trim, controls, and displays were those used on the U.S. Plymouth.
Virgil Exner's 1961 styling with its reverse fins, rear fender scalloping and concave grille was highly unpopular with consumers. There was also an adverse reaction to the low positioning and small size of the Dart's tail lights positioned just above the corners of the bumper; drivers in other cars complained that they could not see them. The wraparound taillights were designed to provide side visibility at night, but the majority of the light was projected sideward, not rearward. By mid-year, Dodge was forced to make auxiliary taillights available at extra cost through its dealer network. However, these large round lights were mounted near the inboard side of the reverse fins, and aggravated the already awkward styling.
As a result, Dodge saw Dart sales drop by nearly 46%, to 142,000 units from 266,700. That was just the beginning of the bad news for Dodge in 1961. Of the total number of Darts sold, almost ½—66,100—were the Seneca, down from 111,600 in 1960. Combined sales of Dart and Polara were lower than Plymouth's sales for 1961. Dodge ranked ninth in sales in the American market in 1961, down from sixth place in 1960. Sales of the compact Dodge Lancer were 74,773 units compared to its Plymouth twin, the Valiant, which sold 143,078 units for the same year.
The Dodge RD4 Phoenix was an Australian assembled variant of the 1961 Dodge Dart Phoenix.
The Lancer aside, production of the 1961 model year saw Dodge's total production drop below the slow selling 1959 model year and dangerously close to the disastrous Eisenhower recession year of 1958 when Dodge was reeling from the poor reputation of the revolutionary but not-so-dependable 1957 models.