Wednesday October 31, 2012

BENNINGTON -- The original 1960-1976 Dart was a shorter wheelbase sedan introduced after a 1960 restructuring that separated the Plymouth marquee from Dodge (the former had previously been sold on the latter’s dealer lots). Situated as the smallest of the full-sized Dodges, the Dart enjoyed popularity and was restyled several times over the course of its production run, which included a variety of trims and powerplants, from a dependable "slant-6" up to a drag race-worthy 413 cubic inch V8.

Introduced earlier this year, the 2013 Dart resulted out of similar restructuring and the need to compete in a smaller class; although there are notable distinctions between it and the original namesake. Taking advantage of Italian manufacturer Fiat’s majority stake in the Chrysler Group, a result of Chapter 11 reorganization in 2009, the new Dart targets leading competitors in the compact segment.

The four-door, front wheel drive sedan succeeds the outgoing Caliber as the smallest Dodge, but it truthfully replaces the Neon, a sedan that ceased production in 2005. Based on Fiat’s Compact platform, the Dart shares its underpinnings with Europe’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta -- a promising lineage the American automaker touts as "Alfa Romeo DNA with Dodge passion and design."

The Dart and Giulietta share certain powerplants -- in this case, the as-tested 1.


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4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine mated to a slick six-speed manual transmission (as also seen in the new Fiat 500 Abarth) -- but the similarities end there with the Dodge receiving dramatically different exterior styling cues more fitting to Detroit than Milan.

The Dart reflects common design elements from Dodge’s retro-inspired Charger, including the "racetrack" tail light treatment and brand signature crosshair grille -- all adding up to a rakish appearance distinguishing an otherwise ordinary silhouette (maybe it’s the Tungsten metallic gray paint).

Need variety? There are 14 interior color combinations, 12 exterior colors, seven wheel options, three engine choices and three transmissions. With Chrysler’s Mopar performance arm offering a veritable grab bag of optional parts, wheels and accessories, thousands of unique combinations are possible. From the showroom floor, the Dart falls into five basic trims.

Toward the upper end, the as-tested Dart Limited includes Dodge’s Unconnect voice command and a large touch-screen display above the center console. The test vehicle came optioned with the turbo 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder with greater torque and economy over the standard 2.0-liter naturally aspirated "Tigershark" powerplant.

For the price of admission ($1,300), the lilliputian 1.4-liter is a good choice with decent acceleration and solid fuel economy (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates 39 miles per gallon on the highway; I saw about 30 mpg mixed according to the computer). The 1.4-liter’s few niggles are to be expected: there’s a quiet thrum at idle, lag off throttle, and little oomph in the lower operating range. Wring the engine out over the middle to upper powerband and the thrust is better than you might expect.

It’s easy to snick through the gears with the very light clutch and transmission, but both gearing and clutch pedal travel seem almost excessively long. In sixth gear at 60 mph, the Dart hums along only a fraction above 2,000 rpm. That’s fine for cruising and great for economy, but inclines will require a downshift. No biggie. (Just to note, on the automatic side of things, Dodge offers both a six-speed traditional automatic and a Dual Dry Clutch Transmission (DDCT), which is properly an automated manual -- meaning no clutch pedal).

For more performance, there’s a yet-to-be-released R/T trim with a 2.4-liter engine and sport-tuned suspension. In its more pedestrian garb, the Dart is still ostensibly sporty, displaying good handling characteristics and staying mostly flat through corners. The Dart’s steering offers good feel and weight, while remaining equally poised over slight road irregularities or seismic railroad tracks.

The interior cabin delivers legroom and comfortable seating, and indicative of today’s smarter packaging, just to compare -- the original 1960 Dart was a full 26-inches longer but had less interior room. (It also had tail fins.) Various cubbies in the 2013 are located around the middle console, dash and doors, and there’s also a secret compartment built into the passenger’s seat perfect for stashing, well, whatever.

The standout interior feature in the Limited proves to be the all-digital instrument panel facing the driver front and center behind the steering wheel, eschewing a traditional speedometer. Using Thin Film Transistor technology and LED backlighting, the colorful 7-inch display is bright and crisp and legible in all light, and can depict any amount of useful information from coolant temperature to tire pressures, fuel economy and trip information, turn-by-turn directions, and your choice of digital or analog speedo.

In one screen, a sunflower looses or gains petals based on your average fuel economy (I’m not sure the lads driving Rams will be impressed with that one). Chrysler Group’s head of interior design, Klaus Busse, called the Dart a "showpiece" for Dodge’s next generation philosophy of interior design. The interior accents are appreciated, like red LED lighting bezeled around the instrument panel that mirrors the rear tail lights and adds atmosphere at night. As a result, the editors of WardsAuto World picked the Dart’s cabin as one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors for 2012.

The TFT display is a great complement to the 8.4-inch touch-screen located atop the center stack, which comes off ho-hum in comparison despite its huge size. The center display can be used for controlling most functions including the stereo, heating and air conditioning, and navigation. But at certain times of the day with the sunroof open, the big display can be hard to read under direct sunlight -- while at night viewing maps, it’s blindingly bright even on the default automatic brightness setting.

Given added voice commands, you might never have to fuss with the big display anyway. There’s no Siri-like personality here, fortunately, but the Dart does pick up and understand commands, as I was able to check the five-day weather forecast on my first attempt after breezing through the intuitive audio tutorial.

Available Uconnect Web can even make the Dart double as a mobile hotspot.

Dodge employed a few neat tricks to the outside of the upper trim Darts as well. On the Limited, active grille shutters open and close allowing the car to reach operating temperature more quickly and produce better aerodynamics at highway speeds. The Limited also gets the underbody aerodynamic treatment.

Safety-wise, the Dart earns five star ratings and a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety courtesy 10 standard airbags and active and passive safety features including optional blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, and a rear-view backup camera.

Neat technology, handsome looks, solid performance -- but choose your level of trim carefully. Perusing the other Darts on the lot, I preferred the looks of the Rallye’s bucket seats, as well as its black grille surround and black headlight bezels. Personally, the TFT display is too catching to pass up, and the 1.4-liter is preferable if you’re not eyeing the performance option R/T.

Most options are available across trim lines, but that means the base Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price of $15,995 probably isn’t where you should aim.

The Limited trim begins at $19,995, while the vehicle as-equipped, with the 1.4-liter, sunroof, Uconnect, and 17-inch aluminum polished wheels totaled $23,275 minus the destination charge. That is about where the R/T is expected to start.

While Ram trucks continue to comprise the bulk of unit sales, the smaller cars are gaining ground within the Chrysler Group. Through the month of September, Chrysler sales (including Fiat) in the U.S. were up 12 percent over one year prior -- the strongest September in five years, and representing the 30th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gain.

The reintroduced Fiat was a big driver of that success, but the Dart sold well too: From its first full month of sales in August,September saw 5,235 units sold, a 72 percent uptick. The compact segment is certainly crowded with options, but Dodge now has a bull’s eye competitor thanks in part to the Italians.