It’s been a looong time since Chrysler’s offered a competitive small car. Early in its lifecycle the bubbly Neon was a pretty compelling choice with some powerful engines and friendly styling, but it quickly fell behind the field in its second generation.
|1. GT Model uses a 2.4-liter four cylinder with 184 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. |
2. A base 2.0-liter and a 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder both offer 160 hp.
3. An entry-level Dart costs about $17,000 or $24,625 as tested.
4. The Dart GT stickers at 21 mpg city, 30 highway and 24 combined.
After the company’s experiment with noble gases came the star-crossed Caliber, a product that went nowhere faster than Detroit’s People Mover, a circular monorail of depression.
But now the reinvigorated Pentastar brand is aiming for the consumer bull’s-eye with Dodge’s stylish new Dart. Did they hit the target or is this just another lamentable Chrysler compact (and another bad pun)?
IMPORTED FROM TORINO
Thanks to the company’s tie-up with Fiat, the engineers in Auburn Hills have access to a wide range of excellent vehicle architectures. Instead of rehashing the Caliber’s underpinnings or reusing the Neon’s outdated bones, product planners did a wise thing. They borrowed from their allies in Italy.
The newly minted Dart shares a foundation with Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta, a compact hatchback. Fortunately the Dodge sedan is wider and longer than its European counterpart; you could say it’s designed for American-sized customers. But no matter how you measure it, the Giulietta’s rigid structure was a fine starting point.
Dart drivers have a choice; three different engines are available under this compact car’s hood, though according to number-crunchers at the EPA it’s technically a midsize model, if only just.
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The base engine is a forgettable 2.0-liter four-banger. It cranks out 160 horsepower with 148 lb-ft of torque. It’ll get the job done but it’s no fun. Consider this the car’s least enjoyable powertrain option.
Stepping up from there is a 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled unit. Fitted with Fiat’s fancy MultiAir variable valve lift technology it delivers 160 ponies with a substantial 184 units of twist.
Sitting like a star atop Chrysler’s Dart Christmas tree is a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four, which is standard in the GT model. Like the little-turbo-that-can it also features MultiAir. Output totals 184 horsepower with 174 lb-ft of torque.
All three engines will happily run on 87-octane regular-grade gasoline, though the 1.4 prefers premium. Curiously none of these powerplants feature direct fuel injection. Perhaps engineers are holding this addition back to give the Dart a boost in future years.
Two transmissions are offered in this car and both have six forward speeds. Customers can choose between a manual and a well-mannered automatic. The car provided for evaluation featured the latter option, but more on that in a few paragraphs.
COLOR US SURPRISED
You can decide for yourself if you like the way this car looks, we happen to find the Dart GT quite attractive with its vivid LED tail-lamps and smooth, tastefully designed exterior body panels. This is a sedan that will probably still look fresh a decade from now.
But one area where the Dart really surprises is with its color palate. Drivers can opt for several unusually bright hues. Our test car was dripping in a shade called “Header Orange” and we loved it. Other colors include a distinctive powder blue as well as “Citrus Peel Pearl Coat,” a yellow that’s brighter than the flash of an atomic bomb.
Beyond this, GT models feature special black-out trim on the front bumper; they also benefit from a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch aluminum wheels and integrated dual exhaust that barks more than you might expect.
BELLY OF THE BEAST
From the first pull of an exterior door handle it’s obvious the Dart isn’t some chintzy small car. The handle is solid and the portal closes with a sturdy feel. First impressions count and the Dart impresses.
Likewise the car’s interior is attractively designed and constructed of nice materials. When it comes to cockpit quality the Dart isn’t going to school the likes of Audi, but it’s well executed for its class, with an abundance of soft, low-sheen plastics and smooth leather. The days of chintzy Chrysler interiors are (thankfully) gone. The company is turning out some truly nice cockpits. If you don’t believe me just slide behind the wheel or a new Jeep Cherokee or the Dodge Charger.
Beyond its overall look and feel, the Dart’s interior also features some useful electronics. The company’s Uconnect 8.4 system is about the easiest infotainment technology on the market to use, though it looks a bit too cartoonish with puffy icons and silly drop shadows. Design notwithstanding, this system is a winner.
Beyond the main screen, which handles functions ranging from entertainment, to navigation, to HVAC and beyond, there’s also a secondary display buried in the center of the Dart GT’s instrument cluster. It’s massive and it’s reconfigurable. Don’t like an analogue speedometer? Great, you can have a digital counter instead. Prefer P-R-N-D-L for the gear indicator rather than having “Park,” “Reverse,” “Neutral,” “Drive” and “Low” spelled out? You can change that as well. The customizations available are dizzying.
And one nifty feature is right under your nose, or rather, under the front passenger’s backside. The seat’s lower cushion flips up revealing a concealed storage cubby, which is perfect for stashing small items like gloves or a wallet. Smugglers will love this.
WHO WANTS TO GO FOR A DRIVE?
On the road, Dodge’s Dart is surprisingly fun and it feels supremely sturdy; there are zero squeaks or rattles to report. The GT suspension is quite firm, you definitely notice bumps, ruts and potholes, but it brushes these blows off with almost BMW-like refinement. You feel the impacts but you don’t get any of the harshness or vibration. When’s the last time you could compare a Chrysler small car to a Bimmer? Um, NEVER.
Also, the steering is worth mentioning. It’s pretty heavy and quite quick, meaning the car turns into corners with enthusiasm but the Dart also tracks as straight as a laser beam. Crosswinds or crowned road surfaces do little to upset the car’s chassis.
Acceleration provided by the GT’s 2.4-liter powerplant is as you’d expect. The car moves ahead pretty well but the engine doesn’t really stand out. For the most part it’s smooth and refined for a big four-banger, though at times the idle can feel a touch choppy. However, what is outstanding is the Dart’s self-shifting transmission. This six-speed unit is built in South Korea by Hyundai and it’s simply fantastic. At low speed it slurs like your drunken uncle on New Year’s Eve, but nail the accelerator and it’ll bang into the next gear almost like a dual-clutch automatic. Best of all you can never catch it off guard. Erratic throttle inputs at different speeds can confound even the best gearboxes, but not this one; it’s simply brilliant.
So, the Dart features Italian bones and a Korean transmission, but what about America? Fortunately for everyone that loves Old Glory it’s assembled in Belvidere, Illinois. Go USA!
Dodge’s latest small car is attractively styled, sturdily built and delivers a pretty strong driving experience but what about efficiency? Well, this is one area where it falls behind.
The Dart GT stickers at 21 miles per gallon city and 30 on the highway making for a combined score of 24 mpg. The considerably larger (though technically still midsize) and V6-powered Toyota Avalon is actually more efficient… In the Dart’s defense, opting for a manual transmission ups the numbers considerably, and then there’s the Aero model, which returns up to 41 mpg on the highway, so all hope is not lost.
Base price for a Dart SE, the most affordable version of the car, is about $17,000 including $995 for shipping and handling. The top-of-the-line GT model we tested stickered for a bit more than 24 grand, which is in line with high-end versions of other small cars.
All things considered I’d say the 2013 Dodge Dart GT is a lot more appealing than a Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra, but not quite as accomplished as the new Mazda3. Overall I’d rate it about on par with an up-level Ford Focus, which an all-around capable C-Segment offering.
The Dart isn’t a best-in-class product, but it’s still a fine choice and Chrysler hasn’t delivered a small car like that in a decade or better.