Strengths and weaknesses:
- great overall driving dynamics
- fuel economy
- award-winning interior
- technology and convenience features.
- a bit underpowered
- glare obscures instrument cluster in bright sunlight.
Dart may be poison to compact rivals
"The modern compact sedan is related to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta known for its competent handling and stylish looks."
AUSTIN, Texas — I’m in the land of trucks, SUVs and all things big-wheeled for the launch of the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart – the first Chrysler vehicle designed and built under Fiat’s ownership.
This Dart is not similar to or related to the iconic ’60s American muscle car of the same name. In fact, the modern compact sedan is actually related to the European Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which is known for its competent handling and stylish looks instead of balls-out speed and horsepower.
Dart is built on a stretched and widened Giulietta package jam-packed with standard features not typically found in this segment. Even the $15,995 SE base model comes with 10 airbags, ABS disc brakes on all four wheels, traction control and on/off electronic stability control, so it should have a significant value advantage straight out of the gate.
Due in summer 2012, Dodge’s sharpest-looking compact sedan ever will compete in the most crowded vehicle segment there is, against the more conventional and popular Civic, Corolla, Cruze, Elantra, Focus and Jetta, to name a few.
Dart offers three efficient powertrains that span the SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T trims. The standard 160-hp/140 lb.-ft. Tigershark two-litre inline four cylinder achieves 4.9 L/100km on the highway when combined with the buttery smooth six-speed manual transmission. A Chrysler-developed automatic is also available.
The 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo engine producing 160 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque is a $1,300 option seriously worth considering. Not because it’s the same basic engine in the super fun Fiat 500 Abarth, but because the additional torque is really noticeable. The six-speed manual comes standard on the 1.4. A Fiat-developed automatic dual dry clutch transmission (DCCT) is also available.
The high-performance R/T model will have a more powerful (184 hp/171 lb.-ft.) 2.4-litre Tigershark engine and choice of manual or regular automatic.
The manual is really impressive for the most part, moving through the gates smoothly and precisely. Acceleration a bit sluggish due to a short first gear, which necessitates shifting into second before boost and momentum build. This can be overcome by turning off the traction control system and increasing the revs before letting out the clutch, which has good feel and push-back.
Dart absolutely blows away the Caliber and older Neon models. It will likely also have the competition shaking in their boots.
The Dart’s independent front MacPherson and rear multi-link suspension is well-tuned and the chassis rides flat in corners. Body roll is virtually non-existent, in fact. The R/T model will have a performance-tuned suspension setup that ought to be even better, but the standard one is already up to par. Overall driving dynamics are quite impressive for a compact sedan in this price range with the electric steering perfectly-weighted and linear with excellent driver feedback. Ride comfort and quality is very good.
Deemed one of Ward’s “10 Best,” the interior is likely what will draw people to the car. The Italian influence is obvious and the quality and craftsmanship well above previous Dodge interiors. The Limited and R/T models get the full Nappa leather treatment, but lesser trims come in cloth only, albeit in many different colour and trim combinations.
Standard interior features include a six-way manual driver’s seat with height adjuster, power windows, doors and locks with remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD with Bluetooth and more. Front seats are well-bolstered and very supportive. The rear offers decent leg and headroom too and, all but the base SE have a 60/40 split rear seat for extra cargo space.
My Limited tester features the class-exclusive 8.4-inch touch screen, Garmin navigation, in-seat storage, rear backup camera, power sunroof, 506-watt stereo and sliding centre armrest, all of which is available starting on the SXT. The Limited is also outfitted with a customizable seven-inch TFT digital instrument cluster, 10-way electric driver’s seat, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross path detection, 17-inch polished alloy wheels and more.
The new Dart fills a gap Dodge’s line-up that’s existed for many years. It has been engineered with great levels of refinement, craftsmanship and fun-to-drive characteristics. It has Alfa Romeo DNA running through it and offers exceptionally good value.