2013 Dodge Dart: Limping to the Bay
February 19, 2014
After 20 minutes of indecision, I made up my mind. Our 2013 Dodge Dart would get me to San Francisco or I would abandon it on the roadside trying. After slipping, sputtering and smelling of burnt something, I pulled the Dart off the highway several miles from Kettleman City, an interstate outpost town in California's San Joaquin valley.
The problem started with what felt like a fuel interruption during a sixth-gear pass on a semi. Not much later, the check-engine light illuminated, and the Dart starting skipping a beat and losing power in its lower gears. After letting the powertrain cool, checking fluids, flipping through the manual, cycling the ignition, and repeating incantations to the guardians of road trips, I drove the Dart gingerly around the back of the strip mall where I'd parked. It struggled with acceleration through the first three gears, but seemed to hook up in fourth.
I made a furtive pass at the interstate on-ramp, but chickened out and U-turned back to the gas-and-snack complex. The car just didn't feel highway worthy. But after several more minutes of internal debate, more looking and sniffing around under the hood (something was smelling burnt, but I couldn't pinpoint the source or smell), and generally pretending my mechanical theories had validity, I had to do something. And that something was not waiting for a tow truck and a rental car to get me the rest of the way to San Francisco.
The Dart chugged up the on-ramp like an old Beetle and fortunately there was no semi closing in from behind. The car brightened up in fourth and fifth gears, feeling fairly normal and linear in its power delivery, but again bogged and sputtered in sixth. I resigned myself to fifth gear and the slow lane for the rest of the trip to the city, about 200 more miles.
This was a decent enough strategy for the remainder of Interstate 5's flat stretch. But the more winding elevation changes of Highway 152 required constant rowing of the manual-shift function and trying to stay in what remained of the powerband. Then there were the stoplights at the junction of the 152 and US 101 highways. Would the Dart die? Would it even accelerate from a dead stop?
It didn't die. Idle was anemic, but it didn't die. And pulling away from the stop was slow enough to frustrate the following car. But once on the 101 freeway, the Dart returned to long highway form. I worried about hitting stop-and-go traffic coming into town, but the final test would be the hills and stoplights of the city itself. By then, if the Dart died somewhere on 5th Street, I figured I could at least walk to my hotel.
The end was anti-climactic. Traffic coming into the city was light and soon enough I was off the freeway. Leaving from a few signals on inclines provided moments of soft prayer, but the Dart made it to the Sutter and Stockton parking garage seemingly no worse than when the problems began. I made it to my hotel with about an hour to spare before the event I'd come for. I actually had to pat the Dart on the dashboard. Even as wounded as it was, it got me there.
The cause I found out later was a misfire. There was a problem with a spark plug ceramic which would prevent the cylinder from firing. And the smell was unburnt fuel meeting an overheated catalyst, despite the fact that Chrysler does protect the catalyst by turning off the fuel to the misfiring cylinder if the temperatures get too high.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor @ 19,683 miles