First Drive

2013 Dodge Dart

New Dart makes Dodge a player in the compact segment again

2013 Dodge Dat Rallye - side view

Toronto, ON – Dodge had great success reviving an iconic nameplate when it introduced the sporty Challenger coupe, a modern take on the muscle car era of the 1970s.

Now Chrysler's mainstream brand is hoping history will repeat as it dusts off another badge from its past – the Dart – and applies it to a stylish new compact sedan with Italian DNA.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye - front 3/4 view.jpgThe new Dart is the first offspring of the Chrysler-Fiat marriage, utilizing the platform from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a stylish Italian job with impressive handling.

The importance of this car to the Chrysler family can’t be overemphasized – in Canada, compact cars are a big, 21% chunk of the automobile market and, until now, Chrysler has been a bit player at best.

Its compact candidates – the Neon, then the Caliber – have been less than stellar competitors against such category leaders as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze.

These cars are all worth consideration when shopping for a compact, while Dodge has little to attract consumers. Until now.

Up-sized for North America

The Alfa chassis has been "up-sized" to better accommodate North American occupants, with the Dart’s dimensions 321 mm longer, stretched over a wheelbase that’s been increased 69 mm. This new Dodge is also a bit wider than its European cousin, resulting in a roomy cabin, especially up front, that will accommodate four adults.

During a get-acquainted session for the media here I did find that the sharp slope of the rear roofline made entry into the back seat somewhat challenging. Once seated, though, the rear bench was reasonably comfy and legroom was acceptable – as long as the front seat occupant wasn’t stretched out in an Italian driving pose.

Up front, there are no issues, with easy access and egress, plus plenty of headroom, as well as space for elbows and limbs. I particularly liked the way the seats wrapped around, providing good lateral support – you sit in the seat, not on it.

Italian style inside

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye - interior.jpgThe Dart’s interior is one area that has benefitted from an infusion of Italian style. There are dramatic splashes of colour on the seats and door trim, with 14 possible combinations of hues and materials available.

You can mix and match the cloth materials for a truly funky, custom décor, while the rich Nappa leather treatment in the Limited trim delivers a luxurious look and feel not typically expected in a compact-class sedan.

The centrepiece of the well-designed instrument panel is a floating island bezel housing an available seven-inch thin film transistor (TFT) customizable gauge cluster display surrounded by a unique light pipe.

2013 Dodge Dart Rally - steering wheel & instrument panel.jpgThe centre stack also houses an available 8.4-inch screen – the largest touchscreen in its class. It’s size and clarity are especially welcome news for eyes that otherwise might require cheater lenses to decipher the display.

While the Dart’s exterior styling lacks any Italian flair, it certainly reflects its Dodge genes. The cross-hair grille up front is instantly recognizable as a family trait, while the tail has the slick look of a down-sized Charger, complete with LED lights stretched across the rear end.

Broad range of choice

Dodge is offering the Dart in five iterations, starting with the base SE version. At $15,995, it’s the price leader, although, with no air conditioning, it will likely only be attractive to shoppers on a strict budget.

It’s powered by a 2.0-litre Tigershark four-cylinder engine that generates 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, while a six-speed automatic is available as a $1,300 option. (The automatic is standard on the Limited.)

The SXT, at $17,995 will likely be the more popular starting point, with the price ladder climbing next to the Rallye ($19,495) and then the Limited ($23,245).

An R/T model ($23,995) with sport suspension and a larger (2.4 litres), more powerful (184 horsepower and 171 lb.-ft. of torque), 16-valve, naturally aspirated Tigershark four-cylinder with MultiAir will join the lineup later this fall.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye - engine compartment.jpgAcross the current lineup, a peppier 1.4-litre, MultiAir four-cylinder fitted with a turbocharger and intercooler is available as a $1,300 option. Its horsepower rating matches the base engine, but its torque output is more dramatic – 184 lb-ft at just 2,500 revs.

Behind the wheel

During the media preview I had an opportunity to drive a Rallye model fitted with the 1.4-litre turbo and the six-speed manual gearbox, as well as a Limited with the 2.0-litre and automatic transmission.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye - rear 3/4 view.jpgThe Rallye was more responsive, although one had to use the gearbox to keep the revs up in the range where the power output felt most effective. I found the manual box slick to shift, although the throws up and down seemed a tad long. The clutch, however, was flawless.

The base engine and automatic transmission lacked the responsiveness of its sportier sibling, but would certainly be adequate for many buyers. It’s also a powertrain combination that will likely be more capable of achieving its NRCanada fuel consumption ratings (8.7 litres/100 kilometres city; 5.8 highway).

While the 1.4 turbo has better posted ratings (7.4 L/100 km in city driving with the manual and 4.9 on the highway), in reality it’s likely the urge to have the fun that this combination encourages will overrule a feather touch on the accelerator.

It should be noted that third transmission option will be offered. It’s a six-speed dual-clutch automatic that shifts more like a manual box, but without the driver having to engage a clutch pedal.

The drive route for the preview included some highway travel as well as urban streets – and the Dart handled both extremely well.

The European DNA certainly was obvious in this car’s dynamics, exhibiting minimal body roll in hard cornering while the ride was so compliant. The engineering team has done an impressive job isolating exterior noise – the cabin was very quiet, with little intrusion of wind or road noise.

Personalization potential

Dart buyers will find a host of possibilities to personalize their car. In addition to the 14 interior combinations mentioned previously, you can choose from a dozen exterior colours, there are seven wheel options and more than 150 customization options and packages available from the Mopar parts bin – certainly enough choice to ensure your Dart is unique.

The Dart will change the compact landscape – it’s definitely a star in the small-car universe and should draw buyers in this segment back to Dodge dealerships.

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