Dodge Dart — A different kind of Dodge

By Jim Meachen and Al Vinikour

The all-new Dodge Dart is a different kind of Dart and a different kind of Dodge. The new Dart is a good-looking, well-designed, fuel-efficient compact sedan that the new Chrysler-Fiat group desperately needed to effectively compete in the growing compact segment.

And it's the first vehicle from the new Chrysler Group that combines elements of Fiat — basic structure, suspension and steering from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta — and elements of Dodge styling and flare.

The Dart name was resurrected from the past. More than 3.6 million of the original Dart were manufactured from 1960 through 1976. There are still a lot of original Dart owners who remember the inexpensive mid-60s slant-six models and then later a host of V-8 editions, which turned it into a muscle car in the era of V-8 muscle cars.

The only resemblance between the new Dart and the old Dart is the name.

The Dart is the recipient of the Fiat Group's architecture, which is noted for its low, wide and long dimensions and body-in, wheels-out stance and coupe-like silhouette. The Dart also mimics the styling cues of its bigger sibling, the popular Dodge Charger, with its crosshair-grille and “racetrack” taillamps.

The sculpted sides are aerodynamically-designed to allow Dart to present the least wind-resistance. The designers have also cleverly woven the headlamps into the equation to further make it slippery. In top trim, the Dodge look is topped off by a really slick pair of chrome exhaust tips accentuating the rear fascia.

The 2013 Dart comes in five trim levels — SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T — with three engine options, three transmission choices, a myriad of factory-installed options, and nearly 50 dealer accessories.

The base model comes with a wealth of standard equipment and for a price that begins at $16,790 including destination charge it’s quite the bargain. There’s a $2,000 price jump between the SE and SXT, a $1,000 increase for each of the next three trim levels and a $3,000 bounce between the Limited and R/T.

The three fuel-efficient engine choices available include as standard equipment a 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve Tigershark I-4 that produces 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Optional is a 1.4-liter 16-valve turbocharged Intercooled Multiair I-4 that produces 160 horsepower but increases torque to 184 pound-feet. The third selection is the 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve Multiair 2 Tigershark I-4. It’s the standard engine in the R/T and produces 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. R/T availability will be later this year.

All three engines are available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The manual has an effortless clutch that even novices to stick shifts could adapt to easily.

The initial two engines offer decent highway operation but are both weak on acceleration. The 2.4-liter would be the engine of choice, but as mentioned, is only available on the R/T (which would be our trim level of choice). In the flatlands of the Midwest this wouldn’t present much of a problem but in hilly or mountainous terrain it could involve a lot of downshifting to accommodate the higher altitude.

Slow acceleration aside the 2013 Dart offers a terrifically smooth and solid ride. Handling is superb and wind noise is practically non-existent. Extensive use of sound-deadening materials contributes heavily to this trait. Dart’s body has one of the highest high-strength steel contents in the industry — 68 percent.

The chassis was engineered to deliver sporty European handling dynamics and steering precision with ride and comfort characteristics tuned for North American roads. Body roll is kept at a minimum.

As good as Dart looks on the outside, the inside is where it all happens and there’s enough user-friendly gadgetry and appointments to make Bill Gates purr. It starts with an available floating island bezel that houses an available segment-exclusive 7-inch Thin Film Transistor reconfigurable gauge cluster. It sits there enshrouded in black until the driver pushes the start button and then it’s the 4th of July. It has full-color graphics and the two gauges are backlit with LEDs. Large performance numbers font makes them easier to read.

Also available in an 8.4-inch touchscreen media center — the largest touchscreen in the compact car class. If ever it’s possible to call an automotive device like this “fun,” this is it.

The new Dart features available Ruby Red LED accent lighting that frames the floating island bezel, audio and heating, ventilation and cooling controls. It’s reminiscent of the Dart’s class-exclusive racetrack taillamps. Standard four-gauge analog design clusters are trimmed with Ruby Red LED illumination rings around the speedometer and tachometer. To give you an idea of how customizable the new Dart is there are 14 interior combinations with seven interior environments in cloth or leather. The entire car is customizable. There are 100,000 ways to individualize a Dart’s purchase, officials say.

There’s a lot of room in the front seat and an acceptable amount of room in the rear. For a family it would be adequate; for a car pool of adults it would be a bit tight.

But no matter how much you feel squeezed you’re going to be seated in a car loaded with standard and available safety features, including 10 airbags, all-speed traction control, anti-lock brakes, blind-spot monitoring, brake assist, and electronic stability control.

The Dart seems to have a disdain for gas stations. Depending on the powertrain and options it’s possible to get upwards of 41 mpg on the open road. Our Limited test car with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four carried a highway rating of 39 mpg.

The Dart is now on sale and sales are expected to be brisk. We think the Dart will compete on equal footing with the best in the segment.

Base price: $16,790; as driven: $23,475
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged
Horsepower: 160 @ 6,250 rpm
Torque: 184 pound-feet @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Length: 183.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,186 pounds
Turning circle: 35.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons
EPA rating: 39 highway, 27 city (regular OK, premium preferred)
0-60: 9.4 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze

The Good
• Fun to drive
• Stylish inside and out
• Abundant features
• Good fuel economy

The Bad
• Legroom can be tight in second row

The Ugly
• Acceleration disappointing