With loads of brand equity in its name, the Dodge Dart has a storied history to live up to.
Rehashing formerly discarded nameplates is usually a gamble, but this good-looking American based on a European-market Alfa Romeo is more than just a mere shadow of its namesake. Plucked from Europe but given an American-style update, it's the first compact Dodge worth getting excited about in quite some time.
Hop in with Leftlane as we put the new Dart through its paces.
What is it?
Our silver 2013 Dart Limited is the range-topping version of this five-passenger, front-wheel drive compact sedan. SE, SXT, Rallye and R/T versions are also available for those looking for something more value or sport-oriented.
Offered with a choice of three new engines including a 1.4-liter intercooled turbo and an upcoming 2.4-liter naturally aspirated unit, ours was equipped with the base 2.0-liter Tigershark inline four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic transmission. It can also be had with a six-speed manual transmission and, in the third quarter of 2012, a dual dry clutch unit that preloads the gears for upcoming shifts. The 2.0/six-speed conventional automatic combination should be Dart's volume powertrain - at least for now.
Being a Limited brought extra bling to our Dart, including bright grillwork and door handles, an 8.4-inch Uconnect Touch screen, and a 7-inch TFT display cluster that can be customized according to the owner's whims. It also added a rearview camera, USB audio jack and single CD player in, of all places, the center armrest. There's that Italian flair.
They all line up pretty closely, although Dart is among the segment's largest and sportiest.
How does it look?
Once upon a time, there was a cult classic little sedan called the Dodge Neon. It became a darling of the tuner set, selling hundreds of thousands of copies before Chrysler pulled the plug and replaced it with the rather unwieldy hunchbacked Caliber.
Thanks to Chrysler parent Fiat, the Dart marks a return to relative normalcy.
Don't let the long nose and short rear overhang fool you. By lengthening and widening the existing architecture, Dodge designers were able to accommodate more capacity inside the trunk and the passengers cabin for better packaging overall.
But just to remind you this is a Dodge, those same designers made it a point to include the crosshair grille piece that links it to the rest of the firm's design DNA. We think they were successful in their goals.
Classy details abound, like the ducktail-type rear end of the car, which actually doubles as a spoiler. After dark, the rear taillights' built-in LED strip on higher-spec models takes on the appearance of the Dart's much larger big brother, the Dodge Charger.
And on the inside?
Our leather-swathed interior was nicely designed and appointed. The first thing that struck us was the organically smooth shaping along the dashboard, center console and doors. In fact, the only piece that appeared to have any sort of sharpness was the three-spoked leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The interior has exciting graphics on the dashboard including Dodge's trademark performance red theme. A changeable TFT screen allows the driver to configure any number of arrays from digital to analog and nearly everything in between. Our preference was for the large center-placed analogue speedometer.
The leather bucket seats in front offered good bolstering to keep us in place while in the twisties. Bolsters aside, we think the seatback itself may have too much stuffing to the point that excessive padding was almost causing us to arch our backs. We have heard these seats were designed for the broader American backside, but too much is sometimes just that... too much.
We did really like the cool underseat storage bin in the base of the front passenger seat. Some have said it's the perfect place to stash contraband, but we think an iPad or smartphone is more appropriate. Legroom in the rear seat is good, although we think the overall width of that back bench will be found to be a bit challenging. Blame it all on the broadening of North America.
Our Dart was not equipped with navigation, but the 8.4-inch monitor does include car, climate, audio and Bluetooth. In terms of usability, this infotainment system sets the standard for the market, let alone the segment.
Automatic climate controls, which are not always seen in the lower ends of this spectrum added to the thoughtful design. Good soft touch materials were all around, perhaps in an effort to try and redeem themselves for all the bad interiors we had to deal with in the DaimlerChrysler years.
But does it go?
Dodge reworked and then rebranded its old line of 2.0 and 2.4-liter four-cylinders for the Dart. Now marketed as Tigershark motors, the 2.0-liter puts out a strong-for-the-class 160 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 148 lb-ft. of torque at 4,600 rpm.
Just for comparison sake, the optional 1.4-liter MultiAir unit makes the same 160-horsepower but a torqueier 184 lb-ft of twist. A larger 2.4-liter will be offered later this model year.
The 2.0-liter could definitely use a little more power, but if you are on an economy kick, it will be the go-to engine responsible for most of the sales orders for this car. With a rather tall tip-in, it does all right under protest while on level roads at sea level. It's just not Speed Racer. The EPA test results slot the six-speed manual transmission in at 25 city/ 36 highway with a 29-mpg average around town. Past experience tells us not to be as hopeful with the slushbox version: We saw a combined fuel reading of 25.9 mpg, which didn't impress us.
The Dart rides on a pair of MacPherson struts with coilover shocks in front and a multi-link with coils and gas-charged shocks in the rear. Steering from the electric power assisted set up did show a fun-to-drive character, but also considerable side-to-side wallow in its base form. It did seem to want you to push it and in most cases it succeeded in cutting the corners nicely, but it's no Ferrari, to name its hugely expensive corporate cousin.
The six-speed automatic was a smooth shifter, not encumbered with the extra issues that surround some of the dual-clutch kits now on the market. Pleasant in daily drive situations, the interior is sufficiently quiet except when we had to maneuver around trucks and other slow movers on the highway. At that point, we found it was always a quicker and safer maneuver to throw the transmission shift lever into the manumatic mode for a quicker, more responsive throttle. It was also at that point that the buzz from the engine really let itself be heard.
With such a great platform and overall package, the powertrain deficiencies make us hope that the SRT folks are hard at work getting ready to show us what's next.
Why you would buy it:
You have a thing for good-looking Italians that come by way of Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Why you wouldn't:
You're on the waiting list for a more powerful Dart.
Leftlane's bottom line
Leveraging Fiat's ready-to-go designs in an effort to fill what was Chrysler's nearly empty future product portfolio has given us an impressive small sedan.
Featuring fresh looks and new technologies, the Dodge Dart gives the brand a foundation on which it can build. We're not overwhelmed with the volume powertrain, but we're optimistic about spending more time in other models.
2013 Dodge Dart Limited base price, $19,995. As tested, $23,175.
Premium Package, $995; Polished alloy wheels, $395; Technology Group, $995; Destination, $795.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.