Carving our way through a twisty, two-lane highway in Northern California, we're suddenly struck by a realization that the 2013 Dodge Dart represents the first compact sedan in the Dodge lineup since the Neon said good-bye at the end of the 2005 model year.
That's right. The Chrysler group vacated the compact segment just before gas prices began to double, the housing bubble burst and the big banks went begging. Truck and SUV sales hit a brick wall and Chrysler, stuck with nothing you could call a diversified platform portfolio, descended into bankruptcy.
That led to a 2009 tie-up with Fiat in exchange for new small-car platforms to underpin coming generations of economical Chrysler and Dodge vehicles. The newly reconstituted 2013 Dodge Dart is the first of those to see the light of day.
It turns out that Fiat's C-segment platform that underpins this new Dart is a good one, having been introduced to wide acclaim in Europe two years ago under the 2010 Alfa Romeo Giulietta. But the Giulietta is a four-door hatch, not the sedan-with-trunk layout preferred by Americans. Also, the Alfa's backseat has taken flak for being tight.
No problem. Fiat's new C-platform was designed from the outset to be modular, allowing for easily made variants with differing dimensions for the wheelbase, track width and overhangs. Our 2013 Dart sedan rides on one such offshoot, the so-called CUSW or Compact U.S. Wide platform that's to be built in Belvidere, Illinois.
Compared to the Alfa, the new Dart's 106.4-inch wheelbase is 2.7 inches to the good. It's also longer than any other compact it plays against in North America. Similarly, its front and rear track widths (61.7 inches front, 61.6 inches rear) are about a half-inch broader than the Giulietta's already-wide stance, giving the Dart the fattest compact footprint on the continent.
Not Afraid of Curves
The extra width comes courtesy of slightly wider front and rear suspension subframes that, as on the Alfa, are made of high-pressure die-cast aluminum for high strength and low weight. The suspension that hangs off them is identical to that of the Giulietta, save for bushing, spring and shock tuning optimized to U.S. road conditions and our penchant for all-season tires.
MacPherson struts do the work up front, with knuckles and brake calipers made of aluminum to cut down on unsprung mass. The rear suspension is similar to that of the Mini Cooper; each side has a prominent aluminum trailing arm braced by a pair of diagonal links. Rear disc brakes are standard.
Dodge's choice of some fairly convoluted Nor Cal roads illustrates its confidence in what its engineers have wrought. Our 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye bends into corners eagerly, with a surprisingly neutral chassis balance and a flat cornering attitude. The dreaded understeer monster fails to appear in all but the most hopelessly overcooked corners, and the slumping pavement here in earthquake country has no luck booting us from our desired line.
While all that is going on, the electric power steering is surprisingly satisfying, serving up good on-center feel and an authentic portrayal of what the 17-inch Continental contact patches are experiencing through the bends.
Three Power Plants, Three Six-Speeds
A trio of engines appears on the Dart spec sheet, and the entry-level one boasts a segment-best base power rating of 160 horsepower. The 2.0-liter Tigershark four-banger shares this honor with the 2012 Ford Focus, which nevertheless pips the Tigershark's 145 pound-feet torque rating by a single lb-ft.
Thing is, that's the only Focus engine, and the Dart's manual has six cogs to the Ford's five. A six-speed automatic is optional, but a reluctance to downshift in the name of fuel economy dulls the 2.0's response when we want it most.
Step up one tier to the 2013 Dodge Dart SXT model and the optional 1.4-liter Multiair becomes available. It makes the same 160 ponies but torque jumps to 184 lb-ft. The automatic option here is a six-speed DCT dual-clutch automated manual, but we won't see it until fall.
The turbo-4 hesitates only slightly on the uptake, but after that it flaunts an expansive torque curve that peaks between 2,500 and 4,000 rpm. The carryover Giulietta shift knob feels great in the palm of our hand, but there's little need to row it, as the little engine digs deeply and pulls steadily from one apex to the next in a single gear.
This torquier offering is also more efficient than the 2.0 thanks in part to the Multiair's variable intake valve lift capability; its projected manual transmission mpg rating of 27 city/39 highway/32 combined beats the base engine by 3 mpg. The Hyundai Elantra, Cruze Eco and Focus SFE do better on a combined basis, but the margin is just 1 mpg.
Besides, Dodge has an answer to those waiting in the wings in the form of the Dart Aero, final details of which have yet to be released. Meanwhile, the third engine — a 2.5-liter Tigershark inline-4 — is the designated hot rod of the bunch that will appear in the Dart R/T this fall. It'll be good for 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque.
Behind the Wheel
Inside, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes over a generous range and our Rallye's leather-covered rim is pleasingly thick and grippy. We try not to let our gaze linger on the squarish wheel itself, however, lest we think we're sitting in a Ram pickup.
Supportive and cloth-covered manual seats with a driver's height adjuster are standard fare, and they earn good marks for driving position and mixed reviews for comfort; one staffer's posterior fits perfectly, whereas the other's...doesn't.
Front leg- and headroom appear midpack on paper but feel ample in practice — without the sunroof, at least. Those over 6 feet tall may find themselves in a hair-meets-headliner situation in back, but for most folk the backseat fits fine. Besides, the Dart comes across as distinctly more spacious than its rivals because its cabin is the widest in the compact class by a noticeable margin. We're talking midsize levels of front and rear shoulder room; 2.2 inches above the compact class average in front and 1.6 inches above average in back.
The Dart's dash top is pleasingly soft, and it flows nicely into the center stack. But like others at this price point there's hard plastic aplenty lower down. The prototype we drove a month ago wasn't fooling anyone, but the plastic parts of the later example we're in today have a nicer molded-in grain and gloss. All told, it's one of the more attractive interiors in the segment.
Five levels of Dart will be available. All of them come with 10 airbags, power windows, projector headlamps and LED taillights. At $16,790 (including $795 for destination) the SE rides on 16-inch steel wheels, makes do with a one-piece folding rear seat and lacks things like A/C, power mirrors, power locks and paint on the mirrors and door handles.
Step up to the $18,790 SXT and you get that missing stuff plus a six-speaker stereo, nicer seat fabric, 17-inch alloy wheels and access to options like the 1.4T engine, navigation, an 8.4-inch touchscreen, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, satellite radio and a nine-speaker, 506-watt stereo upgrade.
Our 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye, the one we think looks the sharpest, starts at $19,790 and adds a slick-looking front blackout treatment, foglamps, dual exhaust, the aforementioned leather-wrapped shifter and steering wheel (with audio controls) and other tidbits.
The Limited goes for $20,790 and branches off from the SXT in a more coddling direction. It includes some exterior brightwork, the touchscreen, a 7-inch TFT instrument panel display, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, power seats, a back-up camera and other convenience features like cruise control. Additional options include leather seats, dual-zone automatic temperature control, heated seats and steering wheel, HID headlights, cross path detection and blind spot monitoring — the latter four are rare offerings at this end of the compact sedan spectrum.
And then there's the R/T. When it gets here this fall it'll have that big motor, 18-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, all the standard Limited stuff plus leather and a price of $23,290.
Back in the Game
The 2013 Dodge Dart is a strong effort, a car that should instantly allow Dodge to compete with its established rivals after several years on the compact sidelines. It looks great, is priced aggressively, stacks up nicely in terms of power and efficiency and offers a whole slew of premium options.
Beyond that, the Dart handles; it has mojo. The Alfa Romeo Giulietta DNA that went into it has emerged intact, albeit in a somewhat larger, trunkified form.
From where we sit, the 2013 Dodge Dart is definitely worth a closer look. There's an obvious comparison test in our near future but, whatever the outcome, Dodge's return to the increasingly important compact segment should help put it on a path to a far rosier future.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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