Dodge Dart — Have It Your Way | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 14 February 2013 13:28

021413aBy Steve Schaefer

San Leandro Times

In the early 1960s, American car companies decided to take on a rising tide of imports. The Big 3 introduced the Corvair (GM), the Falcon (Ford) and the Valiant (Chrysler). In 1963, Dodge got the Dart, based on the Valiant.

The Dart became Dodge’s first successful compact, and was sold through 1975, when it was replaced by the less successful Dodge Aspen. This began a long string of disappointing and uncompetitive small Dodge vehicles.

With this new car, however, Dodge finally has a credible compact sedan. Why use the old name? Apparently it tested well in consumer research with both folks old enough to remember the old Dart fondly and with young millennials — fresh buyers.

The Dart is the first Chrysler product based on a Fiat platform, in this case the well-regarded Alfa Romeo Guilietta. This means it has something of a European driving feel, but the styling, inside and out, is all today’s Chrysler Corporation. That is a good thing.

The look is smooth and flowing — something that’s sometimes hard to pull off on a compact car. The floating cross-hair grille gives the car brand identity. This is Dodge’s first use of an active grille shutter system, which opens the lower louvers when required for ventilation and closes them when not needed, improving aerodynamics for better fuel economy.

021413a2Inside, the surfaces flow from the doors over the dash, with carved-out door panels and a useful console with a “floating” panel. In my Redline Pearlcoat tester, the black and “Light Diesel Gray” interior wore sturdy cloth. The main dash panel was padded, but some of the other surfaces had grained, hard plastic that didn’t feel especially luxurious.

In the Dart, there is a notable shortage of edges and straight lines, which evoked for me a little of the feeling of mid 1990s Ford products. But the cabin turned out to be comfortable and the fairly soft buckets felt supportive.

The Dart comes in five ascending trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. My tester was a Rallye, upgraded with about $6,000 in option packages. An unusually generous 8.4-inch touch-screen panel in the center of the dash lets you control audio, climate, navigation, phone and other settings. It features large enough “buttons” that it was easy to use quickly, unlike some other screens.

Below the screen are basic knobs for audio selection and temperature and fan functions, but for deciding where to send the air, you use the touch screen. When the Bluetooth-connected phone rings, a prominent touch spot on the screen makes it easy to answer.

In the instrument panel, the flattened number design is very “Eurotech” for a clean look. A small screen provides fuel economy and other information, which you select using a steering-wheel-mounted button.

You can choose from three engines in the Dart — working through a manual or choice of two automatic transmissions. The regular engine is a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter “Tigershark” inline four. My tester had the second choice — a 1.4-liter turbocharged four that also puts out 160 horsepower. The racer of the bunch is a 184-horsepower 2.4-liter “Tigershark” four.

The 1.4- and 2.4-liter engines use Multi-Air technology, which delivers optimum combustion at any speed under all driving conditions by allowing direct and dynamic control of air intake and combustion. This results in a 15 percent increase in low-engine-rpm torque and a 7.5 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

The 1.4 liter turbo in my tester earns solid EPA numbers of 27 City, 37 Highway and 31 combined. I averaged 27.5 mpg in my driving. That’s not extremely high, but the Dart, like its ancestor, is not a tiny econobox. EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are a fine 8 for Greenhouse Gas and a midrange 5 for Smog. This gives it SmartWay status.

The 1.4-liter was not silent in my tester. It had a little graininess, especially during acceleration, but this is not a car meant for serene cruises. It is engaging in a friendly way. To sweeten the pot, you have 12 color paint options and 14 interior color and trim choices, so, like the old Burger King ad, “Have it your way.”

The Dart may have Italian underpinnings, but it’s built in Chrysler’s Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant. Chrysler sold many Mitsubishi compact cars over the years, but this car, like the Neon (1995-2005), is made in the U.S.

Pricing starts at just $16,790 and goes up from there. My Rallye, with a collection of welcome options, came to $24,460, including shipping.

The new Dodge Dart is probably better in every possible way than the first one. Like its ancestor, though, it remains a good choice for those seeking a comfortable sedan that’s not too tiny, too basic, or too big to park easily.

 

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