Even though its predecessor was one of the few genuinely bad cars to hit the road in the last decade, expectations for Dodge's new foray into a fiercely competitive compact car segment were high from day one.
After all, Chryler's mainstream brand hasn't been shy about touting the new Dodge Dart's Alfa Romeo DNA.
But is this formerly forbidden fruit all it was promised to be? After spending some time in the highest-tech version currently on sale, a turbocharged model with a new six-speed dual dry clutch transmission, we're not so sure.
What is it?
Riding on a platform that underpins the European market Alfa Romeo Giulietta compact car, the Dart replaces the poorly-received Dodge Caliber five-door. In concept, the Caliber seemed like a decent idea, but a dreadful powertrain and penny pinched interior relegated it to the fine folks at Hertz and Avis.
In its place, the Dart promised some of the old Dodge Neon's spunk, but with an added dose of much-needed refinement.
Dart is available in a dizzying array of styles, but our Rallye tester slots somewhere in the middle. It was further loaded up with a similarly mid-level (and pricey at $2,400 combined) 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed dual dry clutch transmission, the first such gearbox to have ever been installed in a Chrysler product.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder is standard (with either a manual or conventional automatic), while a 2.4-liter four-cylinder will soon arrive in the range-topping Dart R/T. For fuel misers, the Dart Aero adds, not surprisingly, a few efficiency-oriented items to boost fuel economy from our tester's 27/37 mpg (31 mpg combined) to 28/40 mpg (32 mpg combined). The stick-shifted Dart Aero tops the line with 41 mpg on the highway.
What's it up against?
Competitors range the gamut, from the high-volume Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla to premium cross-town rivals like the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus, the latter of which offers a dual clutch that has received mixed reviews from the press and public alike.
Throw in the 40 mpg Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv and you have the makings of a long day of cross-shopping.
What's it look like?
Designed primarily in the United States, the Dart doesn't bear much of a resemblance to its Alfa Romeo sibling, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your viewpoint.
Dart is a big car for the segment, stretching a few inches longer than a typical compact car, but its proportions are hidden well inside the rather conventional body. Only subtle high-buck cues like an extra side window behind the rear doors and projector beam head lamps give it a slightly more upmarket tone, however, since the expressive front and rear fascias don't really inspire us.
In fact, the Dart's front end seems a little too reptilian from some angles, although that resemblance does provide something of a link to the SRT Viper.
And on the inside?
Chrysler product interiors have taken a giant leap forward since the automaker was cast off by former ruler Daimler, but our time in the Dart revealed that there's still plenty of work to be done.
That's not to say that the Dart isn't functional and comfortable inside. Front and rear seat space is excellent, bettering just about anything in the compact class. The controls are simple and conveniently located, especially the big 8.4-inch screen that controls the optional infotainment system. Boasting the same software used on a few other Chrysler products, the uConnect infotainment system is far more intuitive than any rival's system and the Garmin-sourced navigation is familiar and effective.
But there's something about the way the Dart's interior looks – especially when clad in our tester's relentless Diesel Grey (what's diesel about grey?). Only an attractive stripe on the seat upholstery relieves the monotony inside. Other interior color combinations are available, but none really befit the upmarket image Dodge is attempting to project with the Dart.
Stylistically, the blobby dashboard feels a little too 1990s to us, and the dinky gauge cluster looks rather econocar for such an expensive compact sedan. An optional TFT screen dresses up the gauge cluster, but our already well-optioned tester was not so-equipped.
But does it go?
All the right ingredients are in place – a turbocharged engine, a high-tech dual-clutch transmission and a chassis tuned for Autostrada jaunts – but the final product needs some fine-tuning.
Utilizing Fiat's Multiair valve and cam timing technology, the 1.4-liter puts out an impressive 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque. Mated to the standard six-speed stick shift, it's a hoot to drive, rewarding with decent low-end torque and a raspy exhaust note reminiscent of the Fiat 500 Abarth.
But the dual clutch transmission appears to have played hooky from finishing school. The bad news starts as soon as the gear selector is moved into drive. Pushing the release button on the knob unleashes a loud, cheap-sounding click from under the dashboard. That would be forgivable if the transmission wasn't such a lumpy performer. Tuned more for smoothness than rapid-fire shifts like those produced by Volkswagen's DSG unit, the dual clutch is neither buttery nor sporty in its operation. Low speed gear changes induce head banging worthy of an AC/DC concert, while high-urgency downshifts happen at a snail's pace.
In fact, we were so disappointed by our tester that we sought out a second and third Dart with the dual clutch to see if our press fleet vehicle was defective. Unfortunately, they all drive this way.
And that's a shame, since the rest of the Dart is commendably refined, feeling more like a high-end European sedan than a Toyota Corolla rival. Impact absorption is top notch and the delightfully weighted steering is precise, if a little short on feedback compared to a more dedicated sports sedan.
On the highway, little road and wind rush makes its way into the cabin. Perhaps owing more to our frustration with the Dart's transmission, we failed to achieve the promised 31 mpg combined, but the 29 mpg we did observe is highly competitive.
Shame about the transmission.
Why you would buy it:
You've been taking Italian classes.
Why you wouldn't:
Because you can (and should) order a Dart turbo with a stick shift.
Leftlane's bottom line
There's much to like about the Dodge Dart, but our tester's three big sins – its frustrating transmission, its dour interior color and its sky high price tag – are simply insurmountable.
Granted, a more carefully optioned Dart with the 1.4-liter turbo, the standard six-speed manual and a more interesting interior would alleviate most of our concerns, but a modern compact car range should be appealing regardless of how models are outfitted.
2013 Dodge Dart Rallye base price, $18,995. As tested, $24,165.
1.4-liter turbo engine, $1,300; Dual clutch transmission, $1,100; Bluetooth, $295; 17-inch dark alloy wheels, $395; Touch-screen infotainment, $595; Navigation, $495; SiriusXM, $195; Destination, $795.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.