Dodge is resurrecting its popular nameplate from the 1960s and 70s for its first sedan based on Fiat architecture. The all-new Dart which rolls into dealerships at the end of the second quarter is, like its namesake, both thrifty and fun.
Although the EPA classifies the Dart as a midsized sedan because of the car’s interior volume, its compact exterior dimensions are comparable to a Toyota Corolla or Chevrolet Cruze. This is a boon for buyers in urban areas who need to park on the street, and its relatively light curb weight (3200-3300 pounds) stretches fuel economy beyond what many drivers might expect.
The sedan is based off the Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform. It’s wider and longer than the Alfa hatchback, with distinctively American styling and three engines which combine the best of both worlds: a 2-liter naturally-aspirated Tigershark engine rated at 160 horsepower, 1.4-liter, 160 horsepower multi-air block, and a 2.4-liter Tigershark engine which produces 184 horsepower and 171 foot-pounds of torque.
Buyers can also choose from three transmissions, two of which are available at rollout: a six-speed automatic and six-speed wide ratio manual. A dual clutch automatic arrives in the third quarter.
Base price for the SE grade with the two-liter naturally-aspirated block and six-speed automatic is $15,995, excluding the $795 destination charge. Buyers of the slightly pricier SXT can choose between the two and 1.4-liter blocks. The turbocharged engine comes with the six-speed manual transmission. Both engine combinations are also available on the sporty Rallye, priced from $$18,995 and upscale Limited ($19,995).
The high-performance R/T with the 2.4-liter engine rolls out this fall.
Big on options
The wide array of powertrain choices is intentional, enabling buyers to customize their cars’ performance. The scenario is not unlike the Darts of the muscle car era, whose engines ranged from the brutishly reliable slant six to the track happy 383 cubic inch V-8. At the time, my personal preference was for the slant six, which could literally run without oil. The V-8 was more fun, but took a little more maintenance.
Add to the powertrain options on the 2013 models twelve exterior colors, 14 interior color and trim combinations and 150 Mopar accessories, and according to Dodge marketing, the customer has 100,000 ways to make his Dart his own.
Product planners departed from conventional American manufacturing wisdom by “unbundling” convenience options, so buyers can get features they want at a more affordable price. So a Garmin navigation unit costs under $600, as opposed to packages on competitive models costing over $1000.
Test drive in Texas hill country
At a recent media program I had the chance to drive the Limited grade with the two-liter engine and six-speed automatic as well as the Rallye model with the 1.4-liter turbo and six-speed manual.
Engineers strove to the new Dart look and feel like a more expensive car than it actually is by focusing on fit and finish as well as torsional stiffness throughout the chassis. The exterior doesn’t have a lot of the flourishes of competitive models such as the Hyundai Elantra or Kia Optima, but it’s a tight, aerodynamic package with rather timeless appeal.
The Dodge crosshair grille with the brand’s new two-stripe logo dominates the front of the car. A high gloss grille surround is body colored on the Limited, but black on sportier SXT and Rallye models. The exterior design team focused on rounded surfaces including the hood, beltline and C pillar, which contrast with the bold front end and LED track-style tail lamps, similar to the new Charger.
Twin exhaust tips are integrated into the rear fascia, keeping them from dropping during the life of the car and safely out of the way of people loading cargo into the trunk.
Sixty-eight percent of the car is high strength or ultra-high strength steel, improving steering response and better protecting passengers in the event of a collision.
Engineers spent hundreds of hours in the wind tunnel to achieve a .285 coefficient of drag, employing technologies such as an active grille shutter system and underbody enhancements to extend gas mileage. Highway fuel economy for the two-liter engine is 36 mpg. The 1.4-liter engine with the six-speed manual gearbox reaches 39 miles-per-gallon on the highway.
Of the two engine choices available at rollout, the 1.4-liter turbo will have more appeal to driving enthusiasts. Peak torque for the turbo engine is available from 2500 rpm, giving the car excellent acceleration off the line and in the 20-to-50 mile-per-hour range drivers use merging onto the highway.
In order to maximize gas mileage, engineers set shift points for the six-speed automatic transmission well below the two-liter engine’s power band. That engine wakes up nicely when the driver uses the auto-stick function to shift the car manually, but most buyers who opt for the automatic transmission will most likely shift the car into drive and be done with it.
Steering response for all models is pleasantly heavy, translating to good on-center performance at higher speeds. Making an emergency evasive maneuver in either model was a non-issue. The sedan’s turning circle ranges from 36.5 to 37.7 feet, depending on the buyer’s choice of wheel and tires.
All cars come with a four-wheel independent suspension consisting of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the back, producing a ride compliant enough for everyday use. Stabilizer bars keep the sedans flat in the corners.
All grades also come with four-wheel disc brakes, which provide firm, linear stopping power on both wet and dry roads.
Engineers did a nice job of minimizing noise intrusion into the interior. Noisy interiors can be the bane of compact cars, but passengers should have no problems conversing on the highway in the Dart. Over-the-shoulder visibility is good to both sides. Buyers who want an extra measure of safety can add optional blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert.
Designers differentiated the Dart interior from its competitors by adding splashes of color throughout the interior. I have to say that it was refreshing to see some splashes of yellow in the grey cloth interior of one of the test cars. It’s tastefully done, and I don’t think that it will make the car look dated.
Product planners were careful to add infotainment features which car buyers these days seem to crave, including the UConnect system available in other Dodge models. Although the Dart won’t interface with some smart phone apps such as Pandora, drivers can pair up their iPods and MP3 players, get satellite radio and text message using voice commands.
I found both the driver’s and front passenger seats in both test cars comfortable for our test drive, which totaled about 200 miles. Two passengers will be more comfortable in the back than four, due to a floor tunnel which limits legroom.
Interior packaging has traditionally been one of the automaker’s greatest strengths, perhaps due to decades of experience designing and engineering minivans. The Dart benefits from this, with cleverly configured storage bins throughout the passenger compartment. The glovebox is large enough to stash an iPad, and there is a storage bin under the front passenger seat. Other storage areas, including the center console with auxiliary ports, side pockets, cup and bottle holders are easy to reach.
Tech-savvy buyers can opt for an 8.4-inch touchscreen in the center stack, and seven-inch thin-transfer-film display in the gauge cluster. The TFT display integrates both analogue and digital images in a small area. The technology has been available on premium models for some time, but is rare in vehicles priced under $20,000.
Dodge’s Uconnect system, displayed on the center stack screen, enables voice command audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity, Garmin navigation, and Sirius XM radio with real-time travel and weather updates.
The Dodge Dart comes with ten standard airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability control and electronic roll mitigation. If the airbags deploy, the interior lights automatically come on and the doors unlock so medical personnel can more easily reach the passengers.
Dodge builds the Dart at its Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant.
Likes: A solid compact sedan with a roomy interior, high level of standard safety features and exceptional gas mileage.
Dislike: Two-liter automatic model seems underpowered. The transmission shifts early to extend gas mileage, which keeps the engine out of its power band.
Base price: $15,995*
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 160 Hp @ 6400 rpm (2L); 160 Hp @ 5500 rpm (1.4L turbo)
Torque: 148 lbs.-ft. @ 4600 rpm (2L); 184 lbs.-ft. @ 2500 rpm (1.4L turbo)
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 25/36 mpg city/highway (2L); 27/39 mpg city/highway (1.4L turbo)
Comment: MSRP does not include $795 destination charge.