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 |  Jan 09 2012, 10:45 AM

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Replacing the now almost invisible Caliber, the 2013 Dart is the car Dodge hopes will reinvigorate its presence in the compact segment. At the 2012 North American International Auto Show, Dodge Brand CEO Reid Bigland unveiled the highly anticipated Dart to a captive audience.

According to Bigland, compact cars currently represent 15 percent of the total US vehicle market and 25 percent in Canada, so a new compact gives Dodge a chance to really compete in a major volume segment.

Given the increasing synergies between Fiat and the Chrysler group, it’s not surprising that the Dart embodies DNA from both. Essentially, it’s based on a modified version of the same architecture used to underpin the Alfa Romeo Giulietta in Europe, though the car has been lengthened and widened to suit North American tastes.

Styling is unmistakably Dodge, in fact the overall look and greenhouse could almost indicate an updated Neon, albeit one that adopts Charger styling cues, notably the “angry” headlight treatment and full width LED illumination out back. Active grille shutters and underbody fairings are also incorporated, in an effort to minimize aerodynamic drag.

Like the last generation Neon, the Dart will only be offered as a four-door sedan, though will be available in no fewer than five trim levels, SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T.

Engine choices comprise a 2.0-liter normally aspirated “Tigershark” four, rated at 160 horsepower and 145 lb-ft, plus a version of Fiat’s 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled Multi-Air four-cylinder, which although rated at the same 160 hp, cranks out significantly more torque: 184 lb-ft. Down the road, a larger displacement 2.4-liter “Tigershark” motor, rated at 184 hp is expected to become available. Transmission choices comprise a six-speed manual, six-speed automatic and also a six-speed dry Dual-Clutch automatic, though the latter will only be available with the Multi-Air 1.4 motor.

Given its Alfa Romeo DNA, the Dart promises to be fun to drive, with good chassis dynamics and responsive steering, aided by aspects such as specially tuned MacPherson struts up front, designed to minimize camber loss and a fully independent rear setup. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, are standard on all Darts.

According to Bigland, a major part of the Dart’s appeal lies with the  interior, which has been conceived  to maximize volume (it reportedly rivals some mid-size cars for space), while the use of upscale materials (including soft touch surfaces), should certainly address some long standing stigmas about low grade cabins on Chrysler built small cars.

A high level of interior equipment (such as an available heated steering wheel, plus Chrysler’s U-Connect media center with 8.4-inch touch screen and voice activatation and no fewer than 14 different trim color options), also provide the 2013 Dart with more trump cards than the old Caliber.

Although pricing has yet to be officially announced, Bigland says the Dart will feature a starting MSRP of around $16,000, which should position it well in the segment, especially against cars like the Chevy Cruze (current MSRP of $16,720), Honda Civic ($15,805) and Hyundai Elantra ($16,445).

Production of the 2013 Dart is scheduled to begin at Chrysler’s Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant in the second quarter of this year, with cars showing up in dealers soon afterwards. In perhaps a homage to the original 1963-76 Dart compact, which morphed into a junior muscle car/youthmobile; Chrysler’s Mopar division will offer some 150 customization options for the new one.

GALLERY: 2013 Dodge Dart

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Discuss this story at DartForums.com and see AutoGuide’s complete 2012 Detroit Auto Show coverage here.

See AutoGuide’s First Look Video of the new Dodge Dart below:

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