The 2013 Dodge Dart is the most visible manifestation of the still-new monogamous relationship between Chrysler and Fiat, the Pentastar's savior from the depths of government-sponsored bankruptcy (or worse). If you'll recall, one of the big problems pundits, management and government officials identified with Chrysler's US lineup was its complete lack of competitive small cars.
Now would be a good time to mention that Dodge had a good thing with the original Neon. Not only did the little subcompact sell in conspicuously high numbers, it was also pretty fun to drive, especially in 150-horsepower ACR Coupe trim. In fact, so entertaining was the little two-door coupe, powered as it was by a dual-overhead-cam version of Chrysler's 2.0-liter four cylinder, that it spawned its very own racing series.
The successful Neon got a redesign in the year 2000, and as has so often been the case, the Pentastar Crew didn't do nearly enough to keep it competitive amidst a sea of Civics and Corollas, save the way-too-quick-for-its-own-good Neon SRT4, that is. The response to lagging market share? The Dodge Caliber, introduced in 2007. Suffice it to say that the Caliber was not the answer small-car buyers were looking for.
Enter the Dart. Is this compact the small-car savior Chrysler envisioned when it paired with Italy's Fiat? Let's take a closer look.
If an automobile is going to compete in the hotly contested compact car market in America, it's got to look good. Fortunately, the Dart delivers with styling that won't be mistaken for anything else in its segment. Up front is Dodge's familiar grille, with cross-shaped elements in either black or body color finish. The overall design manages to be both aggressive and curvaceous, due in part to the angular fascia and details like (optional) dual exhaust outlets, blacked-out trim and a distinct lack of chrome. In profile, the Dart is pretty much the exact opposite of the Caliber it replaces, and that's a good thing in the eyes of most consumers – though some will surely miss the utility available only in a hatchback.
The Dart delivers with styling that won't be mistaken for anything else in its segment.
At the rear, Dodge has implemented a unique version of its signature racetrack-shaped taillight array, made up in this case of 152 individual LED bulbs (available on R/T, SXT, Rallye and Limited trims). We like the effect of the racetrack taillamp array at night, and we appreciate its availability on the entry-level Dart.
Wheels can be had in 16-, 17- or 18-inch varieties, in bright silver, satin silver, polished or in a so-called Hyper Black finish on the R/T and Rallye models.
A few of the Dart's unique styling elements carry over into the interior. First and foremost is the racetrack-mimicking light strip surrounding the gauge cluster and top of the center stack. There are also plenty of piano-black trim pieces, which match the exterior bits seen on the Rallye model, and though the shiny surfaces are more than a little overdone, at least there's an alternative to the painted silver seen on every one of its competitors. Illuminated cup holders are a nice touch, as is the class-exclusive storage compartment hidden beneath the front passenger seat cushion.
Interior plastics and the fabric seating surfaces in our test car were well chosen, though not what we'd consider class leading – the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze offer generally nicer duds. Most of the touch points have soft coatings applied that make them feel more upscale than past Dodge efforts, and the availability of 14 different cabin and trim combinations means buyers can individualize their Darts to their liking far better than most of its classmates.
Nothing else in the compact sedan class has any infotainment tech that's anywhere near as competent.
Dodge has seen fit to offer its excellent 8.4-inch Uconnect in-dash technology in the Dart, and for that, we're thankful. It's quick, intuitive and powerful, and nothing else in the compact sedan class has any infotainment tech that's anywhere near as competent. Also worth mentioning is the available seven-inch TFT gauge cluster, which offers up a slew of driver-configurable screens that include multiple speedometers, navigation information, economy readouts, vehicle information updates and even a flower that grows or wilts based on your fuel-minded driving habits. Yeah, we could do without that last little bit, too.
Roominess is something of a mixed bag. There's 42.2 inches of legroom up front and 35.3 in the back; hip room in the rear seat measures 52.6 inches while shoulder room comes in at 56.1. The trunk measures 13.1 cubic feet. Basically, what we have in these dimensions is a full serving of competitive. Based on the Dart's exterior dimensions, however, we were hoping for more – the Dart, measuring 184 inches stem to stern with a 106.4-inch wheelbase and 72 inches in width, is the longest and widest car in its class. We're neither engineers nor math majors, which might explain why we're left scratching our heads as to where those extra potential cubic feet went off to.
Even more concerning, however, is the Dart's relative heft. The lightest Dart Dodge sells is still a heifer at nearly 3,200 pounds. The Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra weigh a shade over 2,600 lbs, the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 come in near 2,800 lbs, the Ford Focus is 2,960 lbs and the Chevy Cruze, once considered the porker of the segment, tips the scales at a bit under 3,100 pounds. Put another way, the Dart, without a single passenger, weighs as much as a Honda Civic with four 150-pound occupants.
The Dart, without a single passenger, weighs as much as a Honda Civic with four 150-pound occupants.
Three engine options are available (or at least will be available once the delayed R/T model hits dealerships), including a standard 2.0-liter naturally aspirated mill, a 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled unit that leads the pack in efficiency and a 2.4-liter with 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque for those looking for the most powerful option. We drove a Dart with the standard 2.0-liter engine mated to a six-speed automatic for a week, then sampled the 1.4-liter turbo with a six-speed manual. Both engines move the Dart with competence through traffic. Horsepower for both the 2.0 and 1.4 engines comes in at 160, but the turbo's 184 lb-ft handily outdoes the base engine's 148.
If it were our hard-earned bucks on the line, we'd definitely opt for the smaller turbocharged engine, which, while balky at low-rpm takeoffs, is genuinely spritely once the tach swings near 3,000 rpm. What's more, it's the 1.4 liter that earns the highest fuel economy figures, with an estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway. Add the optional Aero pack, which includes active grille shutters and other slippery tweaks, and highway mileage jumps to 41 when mated to the six-speed manual gearbox. Choose the six-speed automatic and you'll get 28 city, 40 highway. Sadly, the turbo mill requires premium gasoline, negating some of the mpg benefits. For reference, Chevy's turbocharged 1.4 earns similar EPA figures on regular-grade fuel, though its 138 horses and 148 lb-ft are way down on the Dodge.
Behind the wheel, the Dart's Italian DNA is only somewhat apparent.
Behind the wheel, the Dart's Italian DNA is only somewhat apparent. Yes, the car is based on a platform originally developed by Fiat for Alfa Romeo, but it's been stretched like silly putty in every direction for the States and the suspension is tuned for American drivers on American roads. As such, it's soft enough to deal with horrid roadway surfaces and quiet enough to take your parents out to dinner. Fortunately, when you decide it's time to have some fun, the chassis is ready to play. Steering feel is quite good, and the fun-to-drive quotient on the street is right up with the Ford Focus and Mazda3, which we consider to be best-in-class in this regard.
Little things like the engine note and the way the Dart responds to quick steering inputs make for an entertaining car to drive aggressively, but full at-the-limit handling is much messier, with plenty of body roll to go along with the tire squeal. In other words, don't expect the Dart to carry you to any track-day glory as the Neon once did.
The six-speed automatic that can be had with the base 2.0-liter engine is smooth enough that it mostly went unnoticed. Like most modern cars, the tranny's electronic brain wants to shift to the next highest gear as soon as possible for fuel-economy purposes, but that's a disease inflicting most machinery these days.
Rowing through the six-speed manual gearbox isn't as fun as it should be.
Rowing through the six-speed manual gearbox isn't as fun as it should be. The shifter isn't as crisp as competitors from Honda or Mazda, and the throws are longer than we'd like. Complicating matters is a clutch that has a somewhat odd engagement. Our staff is divided on how bothersome the shift-for-yourself Dart experience really is, so we suggest you take one for a test drive before signing on the dotted line. In any case, buyers of the row-your-own model with the turbo engine better get used to rowing, as the little engine falls flat on its face at low rpm. Best to keep the mill spinning in the middle reaches of the tach.
Thankfully, Dodge hasn't tuned the soul out of the Dart's 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, which is also found in slightly different guise in the Fiat 500 Abarth. It's not quite as throaty in the Dart, but it probably shouldn't be, and there's still enough anger in the muffled music to bring a smile to our faces.
It has something competitors like the Civic, Corolla and Elantra sometimes seem to lack: character.
When all is said and done, the Dart is certainly a solid entry into the compact sedan class. It may not be the most entertaining steer on the planet, but it's quick on its feet and rides with aplomb – attributes that will serve its intended buyer very well. When slogging through the daily commute, the Dart can play people-mover just as well as anything else in its price range, and when the dial is turned up a few notches, it has something competitors like the Civic, Corolla and Elantra sometimes seem to lack: character. Perhaps there's a little Italian know-how left in the Dart after all.