Chrysler has managed an impressive turnaround since the dark days of 2009. After carpet-bombing the market with a spate of new or refreshed models, the automaker saw its retail sales jump a whopping 43 percent in 2011, helping it report a modest $183 million profit in the process. Chrysler even managed to pay out profit-sharing checks for the first time since 2005. According to Richard Cox, director of the Dodge brand, that trend hasn't slacked up in 2012. Year-to-date sales are up in the neighborhood of 40 percent.
But those gains were made largely by fluffing the pillows on old platforms. New engines, new interiors and reworked sheetmetal aside, we've yet to see what "the new Chrysler" can pull off with a completely fresh model. At least, that was the case.
Behold the 2013 Dodge Dart: the first serious small-car effort from the automaker since the Neon rolled off into the sunset in 2005. As the first completely new machine from Chrysler since the automaker's bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Fiat, there's plenty riding on the new compact.
While technically based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, American engineers have drawn and quartered the chassis while also reworking the suspension to suit domestic tastes. With eye-catching styling, an à la carte option system and a range of fuel-efficient and powerful engines, the 2013 Dart isn't just a step forward for Dodge, it might just be a step forward for the compact class.
The last few years have seen America's C segment grow increasingly competitive. Higher fuel prices and looming CAFE standards mean that more manufacturers and consumers have pointed their eyes toward smaller, more efficient vehicles that still manage to offer all of the technology, convenience, safety and comfort features of their larger brethren. Despite an explosion of content stuffed into quiet cabins, the segment continues to remain dominated by lackluster styling. With the exception of the youth-oriented Ford Focus and the polarizing swoopiness of the Hyundai Elantra, buyers have been largely left with different variations on the same white bread theme.
Perhaps more than any other domestic brand, Dodge has established itself as driven by style. Machines like the Charger and Challenger are built to stir up the primal "do want" in all of us, and designers have managed to translate much of that same flare into the 2013 Dart. Significantly longer, wider and taller than its Italian predecessor, the Dart manages to look well-proportioned despite its extra girth. Up front, standard scowling projector headlamps and a menacing interpretation of the corporate split crosshair grille give the sedan heaps of attitude, and the contrasting black inset of our Rallye tester adds a layer of complexity to the front fascia without cluttering the design.
The Dart lifts a page from the Charger playbook with a wide "racetrack" LED tail lamp array.
This car looks damn sharp from every angle, thanks in part to a contoured sheetmetal along the four-door's side. Designers chose to accent the wider track with subtle fender bulges front and rear, and the optional 17-inch alloy wheels on our tester did a smart job of filling the fender wells. Around back, the Dart lifts a page from the Charger playbook with a wide "racetrack" LED tail lamp array. From a distance, it looks just like Charger police cruisers we've begun keeping an eye out for of late. Unlike big brother, the base Dart doesn't illuminate the entire array when the driver crams the brakes, at least for now. The full LED suite will be available on SXT trim and above starting in the third quarter.
Were it not for the impressive light show, the dual chrome exhaust tips would be the big story out back. The pieces are part of the Rallye appearance package and are integrated into the rear valance to take care of any alignment issues.
But the design is as much about detail as it is large-scale flash. Small tricks like projector fog lamps up front, slightly raised front fenders and a set of pint-sized flying buttresses on the C pillars make this a vehicle that has no trouble catching your eye and holding on to it. Engineers managed to abandon the traditional roof gutter thanks to a new laser brazing technique that seamlessly joins the roof panel to body structure. To the naked eye, there's no separation between the two pieces of metal, resulting in a smooth, upscale appearance on every model.
Dodge wants the Dart to be all things to all buyers.
And that may be our largest complaint with the Dart design. Stepping up to Limited trim does away with the sexy contrasting inset in the front fascia and the dual-outlet exhaust out back, at least with the base engine. Stripped of those simple tweaks, the Dart can't help but look more mainstream. And by mainstream, we mean boring and somehow cheaper. That's a problem for the top-of-the-line model and a boon for buyers who prefer the middle child of the Dart family. Dodge wants the Dart to be all things to all buyers, and the different exterior treatments are designed to appeal equally to those with conservative and more flamboyant tastes. Even so, we can't help but think the sedan looks infinitely better with the added contrast.
Ward's honored the Dodge Dart as one of the publication's Top 10 Interior Designs for 2012, and while we'll be the first to agree that the cabin is a massive step forward compared to the cockpit found in the thankfully-deceased Dodge Caliber, there are still some rough edges. We love the contoured, leather-wrapped steering wheel on our tester, and the stylish brushed-metal shift knob on manual-equipped vehicles is a nice touch as well. Technically, buyers can chose from a spate of interior options, including a handsome two-tone black and tan. Dodge says there are a total of 14 cabin and trim combinations, including both cloth and leather. Our tester came awash in a sea of grey, and while the seats look handsome enough, they feel a bit overstuffed for our tastes. Likewise, the rough cloth feels and looks cheap.
Dodge stayed cozy with plenty of interior plastic. While the upper dash is slathered in nice, soft-touch material, the lower center stack is a smattering of poorly grained plastics. Likewise, Rallye trim sticks the driver with fully plasticized door panels. Even the wrapped gauge cluster hood feels like a bit of an afterthought – flimsy and not particularly well integrated. Step up to Limited trim, however, and you're treated to a hood with attractive contrast stitching and soft-touch upper door panels. While we're fine with plastics in the compact class, they can be better executed. Look no further than the cabin in the Elantra to see what we mean.
There is plenty to be excited about indoors, however. Dodge has done an excellent job with packaging in the 2013 Dart. A vertical HVAC system behind the dash means this sedan boasts one of the most cavernous glove boxes we've ever seen. The box goes nearly all the way back to the firewall, which means there's space for a small laptop, text books or an entire Lilliputian village in there. Likewise, designers have moved the CD player from the center stack to the center console to reduce clutter, and an optional storage compartment under the front passenger seat means buyers now have a clandestine spot to stash small valuables.
If anything can tempt us to forgive the Dart its interior woes, it's the sedan's available technology. Dodge made a smart move by importing the same delicious 8.4-inch touchscreen Uconnect system found in the likes of the Charger and Journey. With a brilliantly quick interface, the system is easy and intuitive to operate, single-handedly putting the Dart leagues ahead of the competition in the infotainment department. Our Rallye tester did not come with the optional seven-inch TFT gauge cluster, but we stole some time in a Dart Limited to see what all the fuss is about. The screen is near completely customizable, with two speedometer configurations. The driver may also fill the four corners of the display with any information he or she so desires, including compass direction, gear selection or outside temperature. Check out the Short Cut video below to take a look.
Both the gauge cluster and the Uconnect system are visually separated from the rest of the dash with a handsome "floating" bezel, backed by red ambient lighting, and the finished product gives the array a driver-centric appearance not unlike what's found on the Charger. Material choices aside, the 2013 Dart is competitively spacious inside. That's thanks in part to clever carving by Dodge engineers. After stretching the Giulietta platform in every direction, designers were left with a Dart that's longer and wider than any other compact in the segment. With a 106.4-inch wheelbase and a 183.9-inch overall length, the Dart boasts 1.3 inches of extra space between the wheels than the Honda Civic. The Dart is also 6.6 inches longer stem to stern than the Japanese compact.
Surprisingly, that span doesn't necessarily translate into additional space indoors. For brevity's sake, we'll focus on the Civic and the Chevrolet Cruze. Up front, the Dart offers 42.2 inches of leg room, which is slightly more than the Civic and .1 inches less than the Cruze. Rear passengers enjoy 35.2 inches of legroom – an inch less than Civic Sedan and .2 inches less than the Cruze – while the trunk serves up 13.1 cubic feet of cargo storage. That number falls in at 3 cubic feet less than the Chevrolet and .5 cubes more than the four-door Honda. The numbers put the Dart squarely in the middle of the pack in terms interior space.
But it's what's under the hood that helps distinguish the Dart from its rivals. By the end of this year, buyers will be able to choose from a total of three engine and transmission options, starting with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter Tigershark four-cylinder. With 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, the engine serves only to help the Dart meet its entry price point. While offering 22 more horsepower than the base 1.8-liter engine in the Cruze and 23 more lb-ft of torque, the entry four-cylinder still feels a bit sluggish pulling the 3,243-pound Dart around town when paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. For comparison, Honda only offers buyers a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 140 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. It's not exactly a spring chicken, either.
The 2.0-liter does manage to match the base Cruze decimal for decimal in terms of fuel economy. Both machines yield 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, at least according to early estimates from Dodge. Even so, we imagine most buyers will have no trouble stepping up to the turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair four-cylinder engine found in our Rallye tester. While technically the same engine as found in the Fiat 500 Abarth, engineers managed to crank up the torque thanks to a slightly beefier transmission. With 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of twist on hand, this engine has no problem pulling the Dart through traffic through fifth gear with our six-speed manual.
Opt for the extra aero package, and that number will jump to 41 mpg highway when bolted to the manual gearbox.
Sixth remains an incredibly tall overdrive geared toward yielding the best highway fuel economy possible. Even with 36 additional pound-feet of torque, Dodge says the 1.4 should yield 27 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. Opt for the extra aero package, and that number will jump to 41 mpg highway when bolted to the manual gearbox. A dual-clutch six speed will also be available later this year.
For reference, that number is within spitting distance of the 42 mpg highway netted by the Chevrolet Cruze Eco with substantially more power. With more grunt and better fuel economy, the 1.4 is the goldilocks engine to have in the 2013 Dart. That is, at least until the 2.4-liter Multiair 2 shows up later this year with its 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. That mill will be available with a six-speed automatic as well as a six-speed row-your own, though Dodge hasn't mentioned any fuel economy estimates just yet.
On the road, the cabin is surprisingly quiet thanks to triple seals on the doors, over 600 hours of documented wind-tunnel work and an acoustic windshield on all models. Acceleration is a bit slow through second thanks to tall gearing, though torque piles on from third through fifth, providing plenty of delicious pull. The wide-ratio manual seems stunted by a tall shift lever with a long, flimsy-feeling throw, though we never missed any gears during our time behind the wheel.
Traditionally, the compact class hasn't had much to offer in terms of handling. Fortunately, the Dart seems to be happy to shirk tradition. Engineers graced the Dart with what is likely the best steering feel in the entire class. Perfectly weighted and responsive, the wheel is the first hint that there's a chassis just waiting to have some fun underneath. Dodge says 68 percent of the chassis is stamped from high-strength steel, and the result is a plenty sold-feeling ride. The suspension toes the line between comfortable and poised remarkably well, edging out the Ford Focus on our list of better-handling compacts. We would be highly interested in lining the Dart up against the Mazda3 for a quick shot around our favorite track to see which comes out on top.
Of course, we're now anxiously holding our breath for word of a Dart SRT as well.
Through the hills around Austin, Texas, the Dart had no trouble transitioning between brisk frolicking and comfortable cruising in a way we haven't seen from the compact class. Don't get us wrong. The car doesn't feel light by any stretch, but it is well composed in nearly every situation. We found only the slightest trace of understeer even under hard flogging. With disc brakes on all four corners, the Dart can scrub speed quickly and confidently, and the snarl and bark from the turbo 1.4 gives the machine a snap of soul that's long been absent from the economy car set. We're sure we could have gotten better fuel economy if we would have just kept from blipping the throttle every two seconds. Check out the Short Cut below to have a listen.
Dodge fully expects the SXT trim, which starts at $17,995, to take the lion's share of sales, complete with 17-inch aluminum wheels, body color trim work and the sexy illuminated tail lamp surround, though Rallye guise should take a close second. Our tester carried an entry price of $18,995, excluding a $795 destination fee. The extra $1,000 throws in the excellent chrome exhaust treatment, cruise control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and fog lamps, though our tester also included optional goodies like a sunroof, Uconnect with voice command, premium audio group, the turbo 1.4 and a rear-view camera for a final tally of $23,065, excluding destination. That's a chunk of change given the top-of-the-line Dart R/T starts at $22,495.
That underscores an important point about how quickly buyers can option a model above higher-tier trims. Dodge has adopted a European-style option sheet where buyers aren't lured into clunky content packages. Instead, the company lets consumers pick and choose which options they want, nudging the price tag skyward in the process.
Still, stick to base packages, and the Dart is pretty competitive with the likes of the Chevrolet Cruze. Step into the Cruze's 1LT trim with a turbo 1.4, and you're looking at spending $18,555, excluding destination. The money will buy you smaller wheels, a less stylish exterior and less powerful engine.
Dodge has managed to put together an impressive machine in the 2013 Dart. With an engaging drive, powerful and efficient mid-level engine option and a very stylish exterior, it should have no problem welcoming disillusioned Civic buyers who want a car that doesn't feel as if it were designed by the minds at Frigidaire. Fun is far from dead in the compact class, and the 2013 Dodge Dart proves it.