2013 Dodge Dart hits the bull’s eye

September 19, 2012

I’m old enough to remember the original Dodge Dart that “graced” the American roads from 1960 to 1976. Aside from the first generation 1960 – 1961 model years, the Dodge Dart was a platform twin with the decidedly un-sexy Plymouth Valiant.

The original Dart sold well, but the vast majority were soporific, entry-level “compact” (by contemporary standards) family cars. Some performance variants came and went. Remember the Swinger or the Demon? And after someChristian groups complained about the name “Demon” and the use of a devil with a pitchfork in ads, it was renamed the Sport. Gosh, that was original.

 

The Dart soldiered on until is was quietly laid to rest at the end of the 1976 model year. Of course, there was the obligatory “Spirit of ’76” edition — I think all the Detroit automakers introduced some tedious bicentennial models, some complete with red, white and blue theme, stickers and badges.

After decades in the dustbin of history, the rejuvenated Chrysler Group, now controlled by Italy’s Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili TorinoAutomobiles S.p.A., dusted off the venerable nameplate for what is arguably its most important post-bankruptcy product.

The 2013 Dodge Dart

 

Based on the well-received European market Alfa Romeo (also a Fiat company) Giulietta, the 2013 Dodge Dart put on some weight and size for the bigger North American market. In fact, Dodge boasts that the Dart has interior capacities more in line with mid-size sedans than its compact class.

Styling is a mostly successful pinched version of the much bigger Dodge Charger. It’s a fresh design, replete with Dodge styling cues, that once and for all drives the final nails in the coffins of past Dodge compact disappointments; namely the Neon and the Caliber.

The rear of the 2013 Dodge Dart. In this case, it’s the Limited model with the 1.4L turbo engine with Fiat’s MultiAir technology.

 

I had the opportunity to briefly test the base Dart SE with the 2.0L 160 hp 148 lb-ft of torque “Tigershark” 4-cylinder engine mated to a new 6-speed automatic. In addition, I drove the 6-speed manual Dart SXT fitted with Fiat’s 1.4L turbo 4-cylinder engine making 160 hp 184 lb-ft of torque with valve induction and timing managed by the company’s MultiAir ™ technology This is the same engine and transmission combo found in the Fiat 500 Abarth.

The base Dart SE starts at $16,790 including destination; but needs at least $2,390 of options to give it a minimum level of kit, some of which should be standard, like Bluetooth and air conditioning. The 6-speed automatic is a $1,100 option that will be fitted to the vast majority of Darts sold in the U.S. I can’t imagine a Dart SE sold in California without the $995 “Value Group” which includes air conditioning, keyless entry and speed-sensitive power locking doors.

A nice vanity shot of the new 2013 Dodge Dart, courtesy of Dodge.

 

The Dart’s class-leading 106.4 inch wheelbase and front struts combined with an independent rear multi-link suspension did an admirable job of soaking up bumps and rough roads. The electric power steering was light and precise, although I think the Focus has a more driver-focused feeling.

The 2.0 L Tigershark (stupid name for a new family of engines, considering this one doesn’t have much of a bite) engine with variable valve timing bolted to the 6-speed automatic will be the volume drivetrain. People like me would like some more bite to our Tigershark and that will be available later this year in the R/T model with a 2.4L Tigershark 4-cylinder engine sporting “enhanced” MultiAir II ™ technology making 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. The R/T will be available with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic.

There are lots of transmission choices for the Dart. All models have a close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission as standard. A 6-speed automatic is also available on all models and a 6-speed dual dry clutch transmission is available on the 1.4L MultiAir turbo engine that won the Best New Engine of 2010 award.

Dodge is certainly not willing to admit it, but it blew the introduction of the Dart in July because it didn’t have the 6-speed automatic transmission available. Since 90+ percent of the Darts sold will be equipped with the automatic, dealers couldn’t convince many customers to buy the manual version. That’s bad planning.

Since I keep throwing around the term MultiAir, it might be a good idea to define it. It’s an electro-hydraulic variable valve actuation system that delivers “optimum combustion at any speed under all driving conditions by allowing direct and dynamic control of air intake and combustion.” Basically, it helps the the engine breathe better resulting in increased fuel economy.

My Dart SE was the basic model that you’ll find in the rental fleets. The cabin was sort of a dreary cave, all covered in black plastic and cloth; however, the plastics were as good or better than the competition (Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, VW Jetta, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, etc.). Hard plastics were reserved for lower panels, not the ones in your direct line of site or touch.

This is the interior of the basic Dart SE. If you do opt for an SE, get a lighter interior as the all black looks a bit somber. The two-tone tan interior looks much richer, even if it isn’t.

 

I think most Dart retail buyers will step up to the better-equipped and competitively-priced SXT models with more standard kit and a slew of high-tech optional equipment found in more costly Chrysler Group products. In fact, the Dart is another prime example of the democratization of technology.

How did it drive?

Well, it was definitely solid and fuss-free. It won’t win any speed contests, but the 6-speed automatic did a great job of downshifting when needed and kept the engine in the sweet spot to optimize fuel economy. The brakes felt capable and linear, not spongy. All four wheels get disc brakes as standard equipment. I was also impressed that I didn’t detect any torque steer in normal city driving.

The radio and climate controls were simple and well-placed. The AC strained to overcome the extreme triple-digit desert heat, but managed to cool the cabin by the end of the drive. The manual tilt-telescope steering wheel helped me find a good seating position so that my 6 foot 1 inch frame didn’t feel cramped at all.

The passenger in-seat storage system in the 2013 Dart.

The front passenger seat has a clever in-seat storage system. The cushion pulls forward to reveal a hidden compartment for small items like a wallet or digital camera. I’m not sure how comfortable it would be for the passenger as the seat cushion is thinner. The extra-large glove box can fit a laptop computer or tablet.

The SXT with the 1.4L turbo MultiAir engine had a completely different character. I loved the exhaust note when it was started and revved. I didn’t love the way it drove in traffic. It’s like the engine is dead between 2nd and 3rd gear. What happened to the turbo?

The only way to have fun with the turbo was to get it on open stretches with your right foot mashing the happy pedal. The 6-speed manual was good, but not compared to the amazingly silky unit in the Honda Civic Si. I can’t imagine driving this thing on a daily basis in LA — it would make me scream like a maniac in traffic. If you want the turbo, opt for the 6-speed automatic or the dual clutch unit.

The 6-speed manual transmission available on the 2013 Dodge Dart

Fuel economy is an important selling point for the new Dart. One of the benchmarks set by the U.S. Government was for Chrysler to make a high-volume, 40 mpg car at a factory in the U.S. The Dart, built in Toledo, Ohio at Chrysler’s Belvidere Assembly Plant, fulfills that metric and Fiat’s bonus was an additional 5% ownership stake in Chrysler.

The base Dart SE I drove was rated at 24/27/34 mpg. The Dart SXT, with the 1.4L MultiAir turbo and 6-speed stick was rated at 27/32/39. The base SE is slightly behind its class, but the little turbo equals or slightly beats its competitors.

Wait, wait – there’s more!

In a couple months, you will be able to buy the Dart Aero, a more aerodynamic variant of the 1.4L MultiAir turbo Dart that will get up to 41 mpg with the stick or 40 mpg with automatic. For no real reason, 40 mpg is the new “magic” number in the compact segment and now Dodge has similar bragging rights.

But that’s not all…!

For the enthusiast, you will have to wait a little bit longer to get your hands on the sporty R/T model with the new 16-valve 2.4L Tigershark MultiAir II 4-cylinder engine. It promises to be the really fun Dart. Yeah, it’s right on target (no review is complete without this cliché).

I love all the grown up features that Dodge is offering on the new Dart. In addition to the over 100,000 ways to color customize the Dart, Dodge offers features including automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Xenon lamps with Smartbeam ™ headlamp control, heated seats and even a heated steering wheel. You can opt for high quality Nappa leather seats with contrasting French stitching.

The reconfigurable TFT instrument display is unique to the Dart in the compact class.

A class-exclusive feature is the optional, full-color TFT (thin film transistor) cluster display replacing the analog dash gauges. It’s totally customizable with countless variations as to how and what is displayed for the individual driver. The optional U-Connect navigation system has Dodge’s intuitive, dazzling 8.4 inch touch screen, nearly identical to the one in the top shelf Chrysler 300. The system incorporates Bluetooth, Satellite Radio, SiriusXM TravelLink, real-time traffic, climate control, and digital media functions.

Other democratized options include dual-zone automatic climate control, rear parking sensors, a rear-view back-up camera, blind spot monitors, keyless entry and start, remote start, HomeLink and voice command.

In short, the Dodge Dart may be the new kid on the block, but it’s ready for prime time and ready to grab its share of the multimillion unit, highly-competitive compact car segment.

 

For many years, Todd "Evan" Bianco has written about cars and Los Angeles on his website acarisnotarefrigerator.com from his West Hollywood base.

Mr. Bianco's focuses on the car biz and cars as they exist with us here in WeHo and Los Angeles, not in Detroit.

He covers subjects as diverse as hybrid hype, the influence of the Asians in So Cal, trends, etc.

Mr. Bianco had a weekly radio show on Sirius Out-Q for a year, and appeared on The John McMullen Show on KNEWS AM 870 * 1140 * 1250 knewsradio.com.