2013 Dodge Dart Road Test Review
by Tim Healey
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We were bombing away at speeds well north of the speed limit in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin (we'll decline to name the speeds, since the statute of limitations has yet to expire) in a 2013 Dodge Dart when a road runner darted (pun fully intended) across the road in front of us. Before we could even think about braking or swerving, the bird was already safely on the other side of the road, leaving us feeling like Wile E. Coyote.
We mention this because the late Plymouth brand once sold a car dubbed the Road Runner, and another Chrysler name from that era--the Dart--has been resurrected by Dodge. So even though the original Dart and Road Runner were different animals, the coincidence was not lost on us. It seemed a fitting moment for our time behind the wheel of the latest car to use an old name.
Like the original Dart, the 2013 iteration is a compact. Unlike the original, it has foreign roots, based off the Alfa Romeo Giuletta platform. This makes the Dart the first Dodge to dig so deeply from Fiat's well (Chrysler and Fiat partnered up in 2009 as part of the former's federally managed bankruptcy). More importantly, Dodge needs a competitive entry in the compact class--to say the late Caliber compact was unloved is kind of like saying that the Titanic had sprung a small leak--to keep up with its foreign and domestic competitors. That's especially true now that rising fuel prices and shrinking household budgets have driven more Americans into smaller cars.
Not only is the compact class crowded with traditional powerhouses like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but Chrysler's Detroit neighbors have been busy recently, with Ford introducing a redesigned Focus in 2011 as a 2012 model and with Chevy saying sayonara to the Cobalt, which was replaced in 2010 by the 2011 Cruze. The Focus has scored points for being fun to drive, while the Cruze is a more than competent compact that has been a hit for Chevy.
Clearly, Dodge has its work cut out for it. Let's see how the Dart stacks up.
Features & Prices
Dodge is offering the Dart in five trims: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited, and R/T (available in the third quarter). Three engines are available: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, an optional 1.4-liter turbocharged four that makes 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque (available on all but the SE and R/T), and the R/T-only 2.4-liter four that makes 184 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque. Three transmissions will be available: a six-speed manual, a six-speed automatic, and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic (available in the third quarter, but not available on SE or R/T models).
Available features, depending on trim, will include: a 7-inch display screen in the gauge cluster that replaces some of the analog gauges, a 8.4-inch touch screen in the center stack that includes Chrysler's Uconnect multi-media system, a navigation system, satellite radio, leather seats, heated front seats, a tilt/telescope steering wheel, keyless entry and starting, a remote start, dual-zone climate control, a rearview camera, a blind-spot alert system, a rear park assist system, a rear cross-path detection system, a heated steering wheel, an auxiliary port, a USB port, three levels of audio systems (with four, six, or nine speakers) and Bluetooth connectivity.
Prices (not including the $795 for destination) are as follows: SEs start at $15,995, SXTs at $17,995, Rallyes at $18,995, Limiteds at $19,995, and R/Ts at $22,495.
On The Road in Hill Country
We drove three Darts: A 2.0-liter automatic, a 2.0-liter with the manual, and a 1.4-liter manual. We found the 2.0 to be a bit lacking in the oomph department, with power building a bit slowly before finally kicking in. The 1.4 provided more power and a livelier exhaust note--it's absolutely the engine we'd choose (excepting the R/T's 2.4, since we haven’t driven that yet) if we were signing on the dotted line. We found it far more responsive on the Texas back roads, and we liked how it matched with the manual.
Speaking of the manual, the throws are a bit long, but it's still the transmission we'd take, although this could just be because we prefer rowing our own gears in most cases.
The Dart's steering felt smooth and composed at all speeds, with just about the right amount of weight and effort, with the steering feeling somewhat lighter in the 1.4-liter Limited we drove. That struck us as odd, since both cars wore the same 17-inch tires, but maybe too much Texas heat fried our brains.
Ride quality is generally also on the smooth side, at least on Texas blacktop. The car feels bigger than it is, and it strikes a nice balance between the Focus' sportiness and the Cruze's comfort factor. One knock: Too much tire noise on certain types of pavement.
Inside The Cabin
We found the funky font on the analog gauges to be a bit hard to read, but we liked the 8.4-inch touch screen in the center stack (both with and without nav), and we also liked the optional 7-inch screen that sits in the gauge cluster. It's a neat design feature, and it doesn't come across as gimmicky.
Dodge reps spent plenty of time talking up the Dart's interior storage, and we especially liked the storage bin located under the front passenger seat. Simply flip the cushion up, toss some small items in, flip the cushion back down and go. Neat little trick.
Materials are class appropriate, with soft touch on the upper part of the dash and doors, and cheaper-feeling plastic down low. Overall, the look works, and we appreciated the old-school knobs for radio volume and tuning.
Space-wise, the Dart has slightly more front headroom and legroom than the Focus and compares favorably with the Cruze. Stacked against the Civic and Corolla, the Dart is also within range of those two perennial class favorites.
The look is sleek yet still conservative, and we liked the tail-light treatment, which echoes the Dart's big brother, Dodge's full-size Charger sedan.
Overall, it's a looker, and it also happens to be longer than the key competitors listed above. It may be a compact, but it's on the large size for a compact (we should note that the Dart is 12 inches longer than the Giuletta). Still, it doesn't look or feel bloated--it may be just right. Goldilocks would approve.
Fuel Economy and Safety
In addition to its complement of 10 airbags, the Dart has ABS, traction control, and a vehicle anti-skid system. It's also available with the aforementioned safety tech such as blind-spot alert system, a rear park assist system, a rear cross-path detection system, and a rearview camera.
Fuel economy is rated as follows: 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined for the 2.0 and 27/39/32 for the 1.4. The R/T isn't rated yet, and Dodge has plans for an Aero model that will get at least 41 mpg (according to the company) this fall.
For pure sportiness in the compact segment, Ford's Focus is hard to beat (same goes for the Mazda 3), and for those with more practical leanings, the Cruze, Corolla, Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and others are solid offerings. Meanwhile, Dodge's last entry in the class, the Caliber, was and is a laughing stock.
So that's the challenge the Dart faces. It has to be fuel-efficient (and cost-effective) and match size and sportiness with the rest of the class, all while offering plenty of features for the dollar and attractive looks. While all compacts face those challenges, Dodge started with less to work with than its competitors.
Based on what we've seen so far, we'd say Dodge has mostly met its objectives. The Dart doesn't stir the soul in the twisties like the Focus does, and hyper-milers might choose the Cruze Eco (at least till the Aero hits the market) for maximum mpgs, but that's OK. The Dart is composed, comfortable, and offers some nice available features. It's quick enough with the 1.4 (open letter to Dodge: please add more guts to the 2.0 before the 2014 model year), relatively fun to drive, and good-looking. It's not at the top of the compact class, but at least it's close enough to the front that it won't need glasses to read the chalkboard.
Caliber who? Finally, Dodge has a compact it can be proud of.
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