Cheap is a four-letter word. Inexpensive is the description most compact sedans aspire to, but even that's not enough anymore. In just a few short years, the compact sedan segment in the U.S. has grown from a barren wasteland into a thumpin' nightclub, and buyers are now spoiled with choice.
The 2013 Dodge Dart is arriving just as the party reaches critical mass. It's an all-new (well, to the U.S.) sedan that is one of the fruits of the Chrysler-Fiat mind meld, and it's vying for your attention with the promise of Italian roots and Dodge attitude.
Imported From Detroit by Way of Italy
You probably know by now that the Dodge Dart started life as an Alfa Romeo Giulietta that underwent that very American process of reconstructive surgery. Dodge engineers widened the track, lengthened the wheelbase, retuned the suspension and worked up some new sheet metal in the process. Assembled in Illinois, the Dart fills the void left by the Neon while overlapping somewhat — on paper, at least — with the Chrysler 200.
By the time the rollout is complete, you'll be able to buy the 2013 Dodge Dart in a bewildering mix of trim levels and powertrain choices. Our tester, a Limited, starts at a fiver shy of $20 grand and was optioned to $23,875, near the pointiest end of pricing for the compact sedan. It's a not-inconsiderable slice of skrilla but not out of whack with its crosstown competition, the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.
Downsized Engine and Manual Gearbox
Headlining our tester's options list is its Fiat-sourced 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder engine, which promises to deal from both sides of the power and efficiency deck. Power delivery from the little engine that could is at once impressive and frustrating. It's got an unexpectedly rorty exhaust note, delivers plentiful midrange torque when you give it the spurs and spins with little vibration.
If you catch the engine below 2,500 rpm, however, it's flat-footed. The little engine doesn't build meaningful boost that low in the rev range. So in situations like leaving a light, or trying to frogger into a hole amid creeping freeway traffic, you're basically trying to accelerate 3,253 pounds of sedan with a normally aspirated 1.4-liter engine, the results of which are predictable. As a result you find yourself holding onto gears longer than you otherwise might in order to avoid being caught out.
Keeping the Dart on boil involves palming its perfectly sized metallic shift ball and rowing the six-speed manual at a vigorous pace. Its throws are longer than we'd like, but the upside of this geometric equation is that the associated shift effort is light. Light, that is, except for the 2nd gear gate, which exhibited a sticky resistance. The remaining gates engage positively, and the clutch take-up is smooth and predictable.
Be generous with the throttle and the 2013 Dodge Dart scoots enthusiastically. At the test track we clocked the Dart from zero to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds (8.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and through the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds at 85.4 mph. This performance bests both the last 2012 Ford Focus Titanium we tested (8.7, 8.3, and 16.4 seconds at 85.4 mph, respectively) and the Chevrolet Cruze (9.6, 9.3, and 17.1 seconds at 80.4 mph, respectively).
We used 87 octane fuel in our testing of the Dart and things likely would have perked up a bit on premium. There is no requirement to run premium in the Dart, but small-cube turbo engines can return better drivability and fuel savings when run on premium, particularly in hot weather.
Fuel economy will be a big factor in determining whether you feel the need to pony up the extra $1,300 for the 1.4-liter turbo found in our tester. Its window sticker reads 27/39 city/highway mpg, a rating we'll put to the test with our upcoming long-term Dart. The 22 mpg we measured during this short test was the result of a single fill and is not statistically significant.
Substance in the Mix
Another concern surrounding the purchase of an inexpensive car is the fear that you'll get, well, a cheap car. There's usually some kind of coarseness or corner-cutting evident in the way it takes to the road. In many ways, however, the Dart drives like a more expensive car than its price point suggests. From the good noise isolation to the way the suspension picks up its feet over road zits, there's real substance to the Dart. The steering is another high point. Though not brimming with feel, the rack is quick, builds effort in a natural way and has great on-center characteristics — rare traits for an electric power steering system, especially one found in an entry-level-ish car such as this one.
In our testing the 2013 Dodge Dart ran through the slalom at 65.1 mph and generated a maximum of 0.86g on the skid pad. Note that even with the stability control system switched off, it wasn't fully off. This likely left some performance on the table, not that we expect this will be a sticking point for the majority of Dart owners. Braking from 60 mph required just 118 feet, a solid result that's among the best in the segment and even more impressive considering the Dart rolls on all-season tires.
There's a bit more compliance to the suspension underpinnings than you'd want for truly vigorous drives, as its suspension bushings are half as firm as they should be. Nevertheless, the Dart is surprisingly satisfying to thread through a smooth canyon road if you're just trying to make brisk work of it and not set a time-to-distance record. Find the groove and you can find enjoyment in orchestrating its swell of torque and pivoting its nose through compressions and apexes. There's a latent spirit in the Dart, a fundamental goodness about the chassis that is evident in these driving conditions. This chassis might just be a terrific starting point for the upcoming SRT Dart.
The Elements of Style
What's more, this is a good-looking car. It won't stop anyone in their tracks, but its crisp styling elements come together cohesively with just-right proportions and a minimum of fussiness. Hard to say that about the Focus sedan.
Our tester's black-trimmed cabin looks anonymously inoffensive at first, but a few areas will rouse persnickety observers. On sunny days the flat expanse of dashboard reflects prominently on the inside of the steep-raked windshield, and the hard surfaces that make up the lower half of the dashboard are mismatched in color to those above them. This lower piece might have been carried over intact from a mid-'90s Chrysler Cirrus, shaped as though recently pressed out of a Jell-O mold. The omission of any kind of trunk grab handle is a strange one, too. Minor quibbles, to be sure. Fortunately the Dart's designers resisted the temptation to slather the interior with cheesy faux-chrome accents, so there's that.
You might not guess that the Dart is a compact car from sitting in the driver seat. To lift a page from Pontiac's forgotten "e aho laula" ad campaign, wider is indeed better — the Dart's generous width makes the cabin feel spacious and beefs up the car's stance. The seats are comfy and plush, if a bit overstuffed in that traditional Detroit way. Even the normally detestable touchscreen multimedia interface works well, owing to the screen's ample size, uncluttered format and intuitive screen flow. Equipment in our top-trim Limited tester was plentiful, including dual-zone climate control, a back-up camera, heated steering wheel and front seats, automatic headlights and leather. There's even a little hideaway bin built into the bottom cushion of the passenger front seat.
The Right Mix of New and Old
So while the Dart may unearth a name from the company's past, it is a thoroughly modern compact car. You can feel it from behind the wheel and see it when you approach it from across the parking lot.
It's a competitive sedan, too, offering space, refinement and satisfying dynamics. An even more powerful R/T version will be available later this year, but even the 1.4-liter outmuscles its current competition. So yeah, the 2013 Dodge Dart may be a little late to the compact sedan party, but it just gave the segment a second wind.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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