2013 Dodge Dart: Halfway to Nowhere
February 4 , 2014
It's always a fun day when you start driving for the Bay.
I was getting a late start on my weekend plans in San Francisco, but figured with some luck, I'd be in the city by 7:00 p.m. I'd take the lazier US-101 route on the return trip, but I needed to make time on the arrival leg. The nav system chose the usual, technically shortest route across the East Bay into the city, but the Bay Bridge on a Friday night is no joke. Instead, I chose my preferred route up Interstate 5, west across Highway 152, then US-101 up through San Jose and Silicon Valley.
I made good time out of Los Angeles. I had an open sunroof, trail mix and jerky, and loaded playlists. Our 2013 Dodge Dart would be fine carriage for the 800-some round-trip miles. Once in the city, I'd park the car until Sunday afternoon.
Trouble began near Kettleman City, about halfway through the route in western California's agricultural badlands.
Dipped my foot into the throttle in sixth gear to pass a rig and felt the first hiccup. As revs built, it felt like a fuel cut, maybe a slipping clutch. When I had space again, I was able to replicate it. Cruising was fine, however.
I was on the phone with my Mom, giving her the CliffsNotes on the Dart and its current relationship to Fiat. She made the predictable reference familiar to those old enough to remember the Italian automaker's reputation in America: Fix It Again, Tony.
That must have hurt the Dart. Shortly after we shared the joke, no more than a few minutes later, the car threw a check-engine light. I accelerated to see if the problem persisted and it did. The next off-ramp was about a mile ahead. Call ya back, Mom.
Gliding to the off-ramp was no problem, but accelerating from the stop sign at the bottom was exciting. The Dart spun, sputtered and creeped its way to the nearby gas and fast-food plaza. I opened the hood and, yep, something smelled crispy. No oil spray anywhere, oil level was fine. Not brakes. Clutch? Maybe.
I tried re-booting the Dart. Let it sit, did the door lock/ignition cycling. CEL remained on. Let's see how bad this really is. Drove it around the back of the strip mall and it struggled to reach 25 mph. Drove it back out on to the road toward the on-ramp, but the sputtering shook my confidence in the Dart's highway worthiness. I made a U-turn back to the Burger King.
I sat there for a few minutes considering my options. I could leave the Dart and try to fetch a rental from a nearby town. I could call AAA or Chrysler's roadside assistance. This diagnosis was beyond my limited mechanical knowledge and I leaned on dual theories of a fuel delivery problem or impending transmission failure. Maybe a tech could come out with a scan tool, re-boot the ECU and offer a worry-free explanation.
More likely, they'd hitch the Dart to a tow hook and head for the nearest garage. At 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, I wasn't hopeful for a quick fix. At this rate, I'd almost resigned to missing the first of two concerts I'd planned this trip around. San Francisco was still more than 200 miles away.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor @ almost 20,000 miles