It seems ironic that Chrysler is affixing a name from their storied past to a product that represents their future. The 2013 Dodge Dart is the first all-new vehicle designed under the stewardship of new owner Fiat. Chrysler's goal was to take the underpinnings of an Italian car and adapt it to the wants and needs of American buyers -- so have they done it? Read on.
First Glance: Break out the popcorn
Car geeks like me have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Chrysler's new compact sedan, the Dodge Dart. So far, Fiat has been doing great things at Chrysler, making important last-minute improvements to new vehicles like the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, and Grand Cherokee, and upgrading old ones like the Chrysler 200. But the Dart is the first all-new car to be wholly designed under Fiat's management, so this is a real popcorn-munching moment for us gearheads.
Did Fiat and Chrysler get it right?
Well... mostly. Not quite 100%. But pretty close.
The Dodge Dart is based on one of Fiat's home-market products, the Alfa-Romeo Giulietta -- but Fiat didn't just stick a new nameplate on the Giulietta and send it here to get its green card. Instead, they asked the folks at Chrysler what Americans want in a car, and designed the Dart to suit. That included stretching and widening the platform (the basic architecture that underpins the car), which is not a cheap thing to do, but is indicative of Fiat's commitment to getting it right for the US market.
The Dart was styled to have a Dodge identity, although I'm not sure they got that right. Despite the crosshair grille and Charger-inspired loop-style taillight, the Dart doesn't really stand out from all the other blobby compact sedans on the market, and that's too bad -- say what you will about the Charger and even the hapless Caliber (the car the Dart replaces), but you'll never mistake them for anything else on the road.
In the Driver's Seat: Lots of space, not quite enough style
Like the styling, the Dart's interior is a mixed bag. The dash also uses the loop motif from the Charger, but rest of the interior lacks a unified theme. Some models have contrasting-color trim and stitching to liven things up a bit, but the Darts I drove and photographed -- and, most likely, the Darts you will see at your local dealership -- felt a bit drab and dreary. I liked the soft-touch upper dash, the padded vinyl on the armrests and instrument-panel brow, and the expensive-feeling dials, buttons, and switches, but the plastics on the lower dash are a little chintzy.
All Darts save the base-model SE can be had with a king-size 8.4" touch screen (with or without navigation), although this muddles the control layout as the dials below must then do double duty, controlling either the A/C or the stereo depending on what the screen is displaying. Most Darts get an analog instrument panel, but Limited and R/T models get a video screen (just like a Mercedes S-Class!) that can display either an analog or digital speedometer, as well as stereo settings, fuel-economy information, or directions from the optional Garmin-based navigation system.
The driver's seat is height-adjustable (as is the front passenger's seat, a nice touch), visibility is pretty good all around, and I had no problem getting comfortable behind the wheel. Storage spaces abound, including a glovebox that seems to stretch clear to the front bumper and a hidden compartment under the passenger seat's bottom cushion. And whoever decided to illuminate the USB and auxiliary input jacks ought to be knighted.
The Dart is longer and wider than most compact sedans, though not quite big enough to be a "tweener" like the Suzuki Kizashi and Volkswagen Jetta. As a result, it claims more rear-seat legroom than all of its competitors and even a few mid-size cars, and having taken a long ride in the Dart's back seat, I'd have no qualms sticking friends back there. The Dart's trunk is average at 13.1 cubic feet, but a small opening limits what you can stuff inside, and unenclosed gooseneck hinges will crush anything packed too near the edges.
On the Road: Take your time
I got a chance to sample two of the Dart's three engines, the base-model 2.0 liter four-cylinder and the optional ($1,300) 1.4 liter turbo (similar to the one used in the Fiat 500 Abarth). Both engines produce 160 horsepower; the 2.0 makes 148 lb-ft of torque, while the 1.4 turbo puts out 184 lb-ft. Both use Fiat's ingenious MultiAir variable intake valve timing system. And both deliver lukewarm acceleration, with the 1.4 turbo using less fuel and making more noise. Either engine will scoot the Dart around town just fine, but highway acceleration is foot-to-the-floor, hills require aggressive downshifting, and passing on two-lane roads is an unwelcome exercise in patience. To be fair to the Dart, most of its competitors, including the Honda Civic and Ford Focus, are not particularly fleet of foot, though the Hyundai Elantra does muster a bit more oomph.
Dodge had not announced EPA fuel economy estimates for automatic Darts at the time of writing. All models, even the deluxe Limited, can be had with a manual transmission; EPA estimates are 25 MPG city/36 MPG highway for the 2-liter and 27/39 for the 1.4 Turbo -- but for the latter, Dodge recommends (although does not require) premium fuel. A Dart Aero model will debut later in the year, with a 41 MPG highway rating to rival the Chevrolet Cruze Eco and Honda Civic HF.
The one model that I did not get to sample is the Dart R/T, which gets a 184 hp 2.4 liter engine that supposedly will solve the acceleration issue -- although with 171 lb-ft of torque, 13 fewer than the 1.4 Turbo, I'll believe it when I see it. Also missing at the press preview was the Fiat-sourced six-speed twin-clutch automatic destined for the 1.4 liter engine, but I doubt it will wring out much more performance than the 6-speed manual in the 1.4 liter Dart I drove (which had a rather nice clutch action but a loosey-goosey shifter). The 2-liter gets either the same 6-speed stick or a Hyundai-sourced 6-speed automatic, which delivers smooth upshifts and reasonably prompt downshifts.
I did like the feel of the Dart's electric power steering; it has a nice heft and delivers reasonable road feel. The Dart's ride is firm but generally comfortable, and the grip is decent, giving way to typical front-drive understeer. I didn't notice any wind noise at speed, but maybe that's because I couldn't hear it over the drone from the engine and the roar from the tires. The Dart isn't any noisier than the Honda Civic, but it certainly isn't as refined as the Ford Focus.