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First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart [Review]

by Andrew Ganz

Dodge's new Alfa Romeo-based compact is more than just a credible entry into the segment.

Reckless Kelly frontmen Willy and Cody Braun wail in one of the band's best ballads that "Austin, Texas, has the blues," and while that's certainly true in some of the live music capital of the world's famous bars and clubs, it is no longer the case for Chrysler.

The Michigan automaker that nearly ceased operations is on a roll these days thanks to a serious cash and product infusion from new parent Fiat.

Jeep Grand Cherokee. Dodge Durango. Chrysler 300. Dodge Charger. For the first time in decades, there's no reason for Chrysler to apologize about its higher end models. But in all its years in existence, Chrysler has yet to field a competitive compact. Until now.

Despite its backward-looking name, the Dodge Dart could very well be the best car in its class. Conceived in just 18 months, the Darts we drove in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin raise the bar high for rivals in the ultra-competitive compact four-door class.

Pick a flavor, any flavor
Price leader SE models anchor the lineup at a reasonable $15,995, but that sticker price doesn't include air conditioning or power locks. Move up the lineup and you'll find the high-volume SXT at $17,995, which adds most features buyers might expect. The more style-oriented Rallye (pictured) gets a few unique styling touches but mostly mirrors the SXT for $18,995. From there, the lineup climbs to the $19,995 Limited with more soft-touch interior surfaces, a power driver's seat, a pair of digital screens and a backup camera. Those Darts go on sale next month, while the $22,495 R/T hits the market during the third quarter of 2012.

Bucking the industry trend to downsize product lineups, the Dart will be available next year in a staggering array of trim levels and powertrains bound to confound both consumers and dealers. Get out your notepad.

Two of Chrysler's existing four-cylinder engines were given a serious overhaul for the Dart. Powering most Darts will be a 160-horsepower, 148 lb-ft. of torque 2.0-liter, while the range-topping Dart R/T is motivated by a 184 horsepower, 171 lb-ft. of torque 2.4-liter with Fiat's innovative MultiAir valve and cam timing technology on board to save fuel and improve response.

We'll sample the 2.4 later, but we did put 2.0s with both transmissions to the test. Refinement is a Dart virtue, but the 2.0/automatic combo feels as if a few of its 160 ponies are napping. A little pokey from a dead stop, the 2.0 does eventually work its way into its power band for about class-average power.

We quickly learned during our test loops that the pick of the litter is the optional Fiat-sourced 160-horse, 184 lb-ft. 1.4-liter four-banger. Like the 2.0 and 2.4, it comes standard with a six-speed manual, but while the bigger engines offer a conventional six-speed automatic with a torque converter, the 1.4 will be available later this year with a (you guessed it) Fiat-developed dry dual clutch automatic.

The 1.4 provided strong and linear acceleration, especially in terms of midrange passing power. Moreover, Dodge (er, maybe Fiat) tuned the exhaust to deliver a raspy growl that proved a delight to our ears. It was a shame, then, that the six-speed stick was only average with its relatively long motions and soft clutch. Since the dual clutch is a late introduction item, we'll test it later this year.

The 2.0 is standard and the 1.4 optional on SE, SXT, Rallye and Limited, while the R/T will come exclusively with the 2.4.

Fuel economy, meanwhile, is a similarly developing story. Official figures aren't out yet, but Dodge is predicting 29 mpg combined for the 2.0 manual and 32 mpg combined for the 1.4 manual. An efficiency-oriented Aero model will make use of the 1.4-liter and a few slippery features to net "at least" 41 mpg on the highway (a move that will satisfy the Obama administration's bailout of Chrysler). We pressed for an estimate for the high-volume 2.0 automatic, but Dodge's representatives kept their lips sealed.

Regardless of powertrain, all Darts are essentially stretched versions of the European-market Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback. Although the two cars aren't identical, they share much of their fully independent suspension tuning, something Dodge is not shy about admitting. In fact, the folks from Dodge seem almost too intent on hammering home the fact that the Dart is chock full of Alfa Romeo DNA, even if its styling is wholly Detroit.

Base and Limited models feature a monotone look, but we really liked the gloss black front fascia insert on SXT, Rallye and R/T models. From the side, the greenhouse echoes the much smaller Kia Rio, though more visual excitement comes at the Dart's tail. All Darts boast the same tail lamp design, although upper trim levels offer an LED-lit "racetrack" similar to that seen on the larger Dodge Charger. Combined with the trunk lid's ducktail design and certain models' dual chrome tailpipes, the look is certainly the most dynamic in the compact class.

The story is much the same inside - assuming buyers select something other than the dreadfully bland medium gray shade of our photo vehicle. Dart's dashboard is made up of unassuming organic curves. Most higher-spec models include almost overdone red ambient lighting surrounding the black panel that contains the audio and climate controls. Base models make due with a plain push-button radio, but an 8.4-inch touch screen is available, bringing with it an especially intuitive interface seen on Charger and Journey. Certain Darts come with a smaller 7-inch high-resolution screen in the instrument cluster, which can be relatively easily configured to show various advanced computer functions including a digitized analog speedometer.

Comfortable bucket seats are either covered in an average cloth or a soft leather; either way, they offer above average support and a good degree of adjustability. Certain models offer heated thrones and even a heated steering wheel. Since the Dart is classified by the EPA as a midsize sedan, rear seat passengers are treated to above average leg room and reasonable hip room. Interior storage space includes a nifty, albeit shallow, bin underneath the passenger's seat and a gigantic glove box capable of swallowing a laptop computer.

Materials quality ranges from nothing special on SE, SXT and Rallye to impressive on Limited and R/T. The difference is in the details: Higher-spec Darts include additional soft touch plastics and a cleanly-stitched panel above the instrument cluster.

On the road
The aforementioned Dart turbo with the stick shift is clearly the enthusiast's model - at least until the R/T arrives - but make no mistake: This is a decidedly sporty machine no matter how you order it.

Most models ride on 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in mild Continental rubber. While outright grip is limited in part by the tires, the Dart is a genuine delight to drive.

Our test vehicles made easy work of the twists and turns that compose the roads west of Austin in Texas' Hill Country. Accurate and beautifully weighted steering felt positively natural, while body motions are quick and predictable. Most of the roads we encountered were particularly smooth, but a few bumps in and around downtown Austin were easily soaked up by the firm yet hardly punishing suspension.

In short, the Dart raises the bar for drivability - and it makes us entirely forget about is dour predecessor, a model Dodge seems overly eager to move away from. Luckily for them, Chrysler ain't singin' the small car blues any longer.

Leftlane's bottom line
We'll need a more thorough evaluation to put the words "segment leader" and "Dodge Dart" in the same sentence, but it should certainly make even the compact class' most polished rivals more than a little nervous.

Dart is a high value compact sedan that looks, feels and drives every bit a class - or two - above the compact segment leaders.

2013 Dodge Dart base price range, $15,995 to $22,495.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.