"You don't need to put on your sunglasses and hide because you're embarrassed about your ride," the Chrysler flack was saying as we sat in a dim chamber at the W Hotel in Austin, a velvet-tinged barroom which, eight hours earlier, had played host to several vulgar birthday parties for cologne-slathered men in off-brand golf shirts. "The Dodge Dart is a vehicle you can be proud of."
After years of incompetence and humiliation with the much-derided Dodge Neon and other models, Chrysler is desperate to reclaim its rightful share of the compact-car market. Enter the Dart. A dependable early compact, the Dart enjoyed a nice run from 1960 to 1976. But despite the continual drum circle chanting about the Dart's "iconic styling," there's a Texas-sized gulch between the new car and the Darts of yesteryear.
This new version, the first full collaboration between Fiat and Chrysler since the Italian automaker bought Chrysler, has much to prove. The revived Dart is based off Fiat architecture, using the same essential parts as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Dodge engineers have lengthened the platform by a foot and widened it a couple of inches, turning it from a hatchback to a sedan, but that makes for a thin disguise. It's basically an Italian car wearing an American mask. But instead of marketing its new creation as a sporty little Italian job, Chrysler is placing its chips on a brand more well-known for being continually mocked on Car Talk than for automotive excellence.
The Dart comes in five different trim levels, from the SE, costing a very affordable $16,790 for the standard package, to the R/T, which will come in at $23,290. There are three different engine options: Chrysler's 2.0- and 2.4-liter "Tigershark" motors, and, more significantly, Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo, the same engine used in the Fiat 500 Abarth. The 2.4 delivers 184 horsepower, while the other two offer 160. The different models, in combination with the different engines, claim anywhere between 29 and 32 combined mpg, though Dodge recently announced an Aero model of the Dart that it claims will get up to 41 mpg.
On a beautiful spring day, off we drove in our Darts into the Texas Hill Country. My drive partner and I started in a fully-loaded 2.0L "Limited" edition, which costs just under $20,000. The steering was solid and intuitive, but the brakes acted a little mushy. The ride felt flat overall, the middle of the pack. It got better when I downshifted into "manual" mode, which allowed me to open up the six-gear automatic transmission. At that point, the Dart hummed a little. No one was going to confuse it with a sports car, but you also can't get a new sports car for $20,000 anymore. This little Alfa Romeo disguised as an American icon started to seem modestly cool.
While it might be a stretch to say that the Dart is cool-looking, it does veer to the left of the compact segment's typical vanilla offerings, with a sloping front and headlamps that make it look a bit like an angry bee. The interior had a semblance of vibe. Our seats were real leather and reasonably comfortable, accented with funky "citrus peel" stitching and electronic adjustments. The dashboard was modern and intuitive, the back seat fairly roomy, the glove box deep enough to swallow a human arm past the elbow, and the UConnect touchscreen in the center console, with its built-in GPS and satellite radio controls, was as good as those systems get. At 8.4 inches, it's also larger than most.
During a requisite barbecue-and-fajita food stop, I took a Honda Civic and a Hyundai Elantra that Dodge had arranged as competitive drives around a little country loop. Dodge had stacked the deck; the cars were both bare-bones compared with the fully loaded Darts we were driving. Even so, the Dart won the showdown. It drove cleaner than the Civic and just as well as the Elantra.
After lunch, Dodge gave use the keys to a "Rallye" sport model with a 1.4-liter engine. With its red-and-black canvas seats, molded plastic interior, and "Fast Five" dashboard styling, it felt like a cheap front-wheel-drive version of the BMW 328i. My drive partner and I made attempts to open it up, but the Dart has its limitations on open highway. The car will only go so hard before it starts grinding up to 7000 rpm, and it's not like each successive rev is going to open up vast vistas of motoring potential.
A few words about gas mileage. Such things are important when it comes to every segment, but matter in particular to economy-minded compact buyers. From my test drive, it seemed like Dodge's claims of high 20s and low 30s aimed a little high, and that the 41 mpg number promised by the Aero model might as well have been from another planet. We averaged 24 or 25. To be fair, we were on highways and country roads mostly and were trying to open up the throttle. But when I took a different model out on some local errands in Austin later, driving mostly city streets, I used a much lighter foot and didn't do much better.
Let's not pretend the Dart has an easy trail ahead. The Asian cars last forever and have almost ridiculous brand loyalty from their consumers. Dodges, to be charitable, don't have the same reputation for durability. The Dart does have a fighting chance against American segment competitors like the Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus, which lack the the Dart's Italian DNA.
That said, the Dart is a decent car for the price. It's stylish enough, drives strong enough, and is well made enough to keep Tom and Ray Magliozzi from reaping too much fresh fodder. I didn't have to put on my sunglasses and hide.
2013 DODGE DART SPECIFICATIONS
|CLASS||Four-door, five-passenger sedan|
|ENGINE||4-cylinder; 1.4-liter, 2-liter, 2.4-liter|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic|
|POWER||160 to 184 hp|
|TORQUE||145 ft-lbs to 184 ft-lbs|
|MILEAGE||25 mpg city/36 mpg highway; 27/39 city/hwy (varies by engine)|
|EMISSIONS||5,276 lbs CO2 per year (Minimum estimate, based on 1.4-liter engine's 149 g/km CO2, @10,000 miles per year)|
|PLACE OF ORIGIN
||Belvidere Assembly Plant, Belvidere, Illinois|
|PROS||Good value for the price; interior amenities; fun Italian-inspired design|
|CONS||Mediocre driving experience, handling|