Dodge Dart brings old name to new compact sedan market


by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

Posted on May 4, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:12 AM

For years, the go-to compact sedans came from Japanese brands. Basically, people chose from Civic and Corolla and called it a day.  It’s all some baby boomers have ever known. 

Nowadays it isn’t so simple.  If you haven’t heard, competition is fierce with multiple choices.  The domestics and the Koreans are wooing buyers with style, features and quality.  And for the first time in a long, long time that includes Dodge.  Their new attitude comes with a nostalgic name- Dart.  Please know I will not use the term “bull’s-eye” anywhere in this review.  You’re welcome.

The last time Dodge had a credible entry in this segment was the Neon.  America loves its sedans and Chrysler unwisely replaced it with the unloved Caliber hatchback, complete with a bargain basement interior designed by bean counters to drive away business.

Making a New Point

At the press launch in Austin, TX, Ryan Nagode, Dodge and RAM interior chief says that is now history.  The whole approach to Dart was to aim high and it’s easy to see with one quick glance.  Both the interior and exterior have style and grace that Dodge has never had in this segment.  One look at the available LED “racetrack” rear end lighting shows that.  It’s lifted from big brother Charger, definitely not something you’d see on a Corolla.

It all begins with what you can’t see though.  Remember, Chrysler is now teamed up with Fiat and underneath the svelte Dodge sheetmetal lies the modified architecture of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a hatchback known for its handling.  It’s a little wider and longer for longer and wider Americans.  The Dodge folks say the interior approaches mid-sized D-sedan space but with a C-class compact exterior. 

Their Aim is True

Considering they’re bragging about the Giulietta DNA, let’s start directly with driving dynamics.  Dodge readily admits Dart is not as sharp in the corners as the Alfa.  For most buyers that’s a good thing.  US roads are not as well kept as those in Europe, and realistically, with five different models, Dart is being pitched to a very wide audience.

What remains is a well-balanced car that’s fun for tossing into corners and doesn’t “dart around” on the straights.  At 70 miles an hour the cabin is quiet and comfortable. In terms of ride quality, the closest comparison is Ford Focus.  The suspension tuning is the same on all models, except the R/T which debuts in the fall of 2012. 

No, There Is No Slant-Six

This is a modern Dart and that legendary mill just won’t work in today’s world.  Instead there are a couple four-cylinder engines at launch- a 160-horse turbocharged MultiAir 1.4-liter (which is the torque-rich motor enthusiasts will go for) and the one I’m focusing on, the standard 160 horse 2.0-liter called the Tigershark.  Got to love that name. Tigershark!

When R/T shows up it gets a 2.4 liter Tigershark four-cylinder with 184 horsepower.

For now there are two transmissions- a six-speed automatic or the six-speed manual I’m spending the most time in.  Shift quality with the manual box is average with longer throws and taller gear ratios so it’s not overly sporty.  The automatic aggressively up-shifts for better fuel economy, which is the same as every modern auto box these days.  I spent 15 hard minutes in downtown Austin, Texas traffic trying to trip it up.  Didn’t happen.    

Later this year the 1.4-liter turbo will get an optional six-speed dual dry clutch transmission.  Curiously, the automatic in the R/T will be the standard automatic.

Dart Quick?

Floor it and the base two-liter will move from 0-60 in a guesstimated 9 seconds.  The engine is smooth and refined with a hint of sporty exhaust note.  Those tall gear ratios pay off with good fuel economy, EPA rated at 25 city, 36 highway.

The torquey turbo motor is quicker to 60 by about a second (at least that’s how the seat of my Levi’s feels about it).  A bonus, it goes farther on a gallon of gas.  EPA rates it at 27 city, 39 highway.  A fuel-efficient aero enhanced model is promised soon with a 41 mpg highway number.  No these are not best-in-class efficiency numbers but they are close and for buyers that want more than just a transportation appliance, Dart sticks it.

From Worst To First?

Years ago, Chrysler products were an easy target when criticizing interiors.  They have come a long way recently and Dart hits a high mark. The cabin of the Limited model I’m driving has lots of style and quality materials (however, I did not see any base models with cloth seats).  The space looks a full class more expensive than it is with soft touch materials and real stitching on the instrument panel.  Armrests are nicely padded, seats are aggressively bolstered (perhaps a bit much for some?).  Again, overall it reminds me of the approach Ford has taken with Focus.

The gauge cluster gets a crisp LCD display that changes from an analog-look speedometer to a digital one.  Options include a heated steering wheel.  Dart’s dramatic signature is a ring of red illumination that runs around the instrument panel on some trim levels.  There’s nothing like it until you venture into luxury car territory.

Simplicity is Good

I can’t stress this enough- the touch screen interface on the big 8.4-inch display is fall-on-your-face simple.  This is elegance that many luxury brands can learn from.  There’s unexpected storage under the front passenger seat cushion.  Could a small child fit in the huge glove box?  Possibly.  Very unwise though.  A better and more legal option is a 15-inch laptop computer, which stows with no problem.

My Limited tester has dual-zone climate and a good high-end sound system.  It also has a well-done blind spot warning system (also tested in the heavy downtown traffic of Austin) and a class-exclusive cross-path detection system.  When backing up, it warns drivers if traffic is approaching from the side.  A rear-view camera is helpful too (standard on Limited).

Dodge Bucks The Bundling Trend 

Don’t like the “option bundle” trend that automakers are turning to?  Dodge takes the old school approach with Dart.  Buyers can pick and choose options to build the car exactly the way they want.  Customization is a huge selling point and there are over 100,000 ways to screw a Dart together. 

There are 12 exterior colors and 14 interior combinations, some hues are on the wild side.  Honda Civic this is not.  Dodge is quite proud that this is not a vehicle designed in a test tube.

Back Seat and Cargo

Dodge says Dart is compact on the outside, midsized inside. 
In it’s class there’s generous leg and foot room in the rear seat. Adjustable vents and a power port are missing but generally not found at this price. 

There’s a foldable armrest with cupholders, two seat pockets and door storage.  Two will be very comfortable in sculpted seats; three will be okay for short trips. There are even standard side torso bags, which isn’t very common.

There are no bundles of TP in rural Texas. Eyeballing it, the cargo hold looks about the same as the ones found in Civic, Cruze and Focus.  It is well trimmed and with 60/40 folding rear seats plus a small pass-through, Dart offers up a good amount of flexibility to haul skis or long stuff.  There’s even a spare tire.  Always comforting. 

Can a Strength Be a Weakness?

Ultimately there will be five Dart models, six if they decide to produce a SRT-4.  Some models like Rallye and R/T have “piano black” front end appliqué, others like the Limited I’m driving remain body color.  In theory, this “all things to all people” strategy seems like a total win. 

I have to wonder if it will send confusing messages to the market place though.  Is it a sporty car?  Basic transportation?  Luxurious?  More than most, Dart can be tailored to extreme ends of the market.  Base SEs don’t come with air conditioning cruise control, USB, Bluetooth or remote locking fob.  Limited models can be loaded up with Nappa leather and electronics that can’t be found in some Acuras.   I’m curious to see how Dart is ultimately perceived in the marketplace

Safety?  That’s always important.  The Dodge folks crow that 60 safety features (including 10 airbags) are along for the ride.  The structure is rich in high and ultra-high strength steel.  Besides, that great handling should help keep you out of trouble to begin with.

How Much Is It?

A base Dart goes for around $16,800 with destination.  The sweet spot should be around 20 grand.  The nearly loaded Limited model I’m driving equipped with a 2.0-liter engine and manual transmission is 23K.   People just looking for a comfortable efficient car will be happy with the 2.0-liter and automatic.  Those who like to drive should move to the turbo/manual combo.  

Here’s a sign of the times.  When I asked Matt Liddane, Dart’s Vehicle Line Executive how his baby stacks up against the historical benchmarks Civic and Corolla he paused, and politely replied “I like the VW Jetta. We think Dart is tailored toward that or the Focus or the Cruze. It’s good to have one that can stand tall against all the competition”. 

With its Italian bones and international design inside and out, Dodge is aiming Dart at buyers that want fun and flair to go along with their fuel efficiency.  They’ve certainly nailed the target.