2013 Dodge Dart: Motoramic Drives
"You don't need to put on your sunglasses and hide because you're embarrassed about your ride," the Chrysler flack was saying as we sat in a dim chamber at the W Hotel in Austin, a velvet-tinged barroom which, eight hours earlier, had played host to several vulgar birthday parties for cologne-slathered men in off-brand golf shirts. "The Dodge Dart is a vehicle you can be proud of."
After years of incompetence and humiliation with the much-derided Dodge Neon and other models, Chrysler is desperate to reclaim its rightful share of the compact-car market. Enter the Dart. A dependable early compact, the Dart enjoyed a nice run from 1960 to 1976. But despite the continual drum circle chanting about the Dart's "iconic styling," there's a Texas-sized gulch between the new car and the Darts of yesteryear.
This new version, the first full collaboration between Fiat and Chrysler since the Italian automaker bought Chrysler, has much to prove. The revived Dart is based off Fiat architecture, using the same essential parts as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Dodge engineers have lengthened the platform by a foot and widened it a couple of inches, turning it from a hatchback to a sedan, but that makes for a thin disguise. It's basically an Italian car wearing an American mask. But instead of marketing its new creation as a sporty little Italian job, Chrysler is placing its chips on a brand more well-known for being continually mocked on Car Talk than for automotive excellence.
The Dart comes in five different trim levels, from the SE, costing a very affordable $16,790 for the standard package, to the R/T, which will come in at $23,290. There are three different engine options: Chrysler's 2.0- and 2.4-liter "Tigershark" motors, and, more significantly, Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo, the same engine used in the Fiat 500 Abarth. The 2.4 delivers 184 horsepower, while the other two offer 160. The different models, in combination with the different engines, claim anywhere between 29 and 32 combined mpg, though Dodge recently announced an Aero model of the Dart that it claims will get up to 41 mpg.
On a beautiful spring day, off we drove in our Darts into the Texas Hill Country. My drive partner and I started in a fully-loaded 2.0L "Limited" edition, which costs just under $20,000. The steering was solid and intuitive, but the brakes acted a little mushy. The ride felt flat overall, the middle of the pack. It got better when I downshifted into "manual" mode, which allowed me to open up the six-gear automatic transmission. At that point, the Dart hummed a little. No one was going to confuse it with a sports car, but you also can't get a new sports car for $20,000 anymore. This little Alfa Romeo disguised as an American icon started to seem modestly cool.