Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New Dodge Dart is the Real Deal

2013 Dart - 1965 model in background
I had a chance tonight to see, touch and drive the new Dodge Dart.Yes, it's a name from the past, but Chrysler's research showed that the moniker was a big hit with both target demographic groups--empty nest boomers who remember the nameplate fondly and young millennials who have positive associations with the word without a memory of the reliable 60's and 70's compact. So, that's the name the car received, apparently just before it debuted.

Our press opportunity was graciously provided in an exciting and amusing venue--Sparky's Hot Rod Garage in San Carlos, California. Amid the hot rods (Sparky started up one for us with a deafening roar), hilarious period signage and mysterious rows of mounted deer heads, we learned a lot more about the first car to combine Fiat's European engineering with American design and planning.

First, we got to take short drives in the two demo vehicles. I sampled a Limited model with an automatic transmission. This is the second highest of five levels, which range from the entry SE through the volume-seller SXT to the performance-oriented Rallye. A fifth, higher-powered R/T model will arrive later this year. The car itself is due to start trickling into Chrysler dealerships later this month.

Some fun was added by the presence of a lovely 1965 Dart coupe. The new and old cars hardly resemble each other at all, but their mission remains the same--to deliver some style and performance in the compact segment of their day's car market. It's just that today, the '65 would be considered a midsize car--not a compact. See the photo for a shot of them together.

We were lucky to have four Chrysler folks presenting the car--the PR Manager, Media Relations Manager, Senior Manager of Product Planning, and Platform Engineer. All four were thorougly knowledgeable and gave us a lot of insight into how the American designers took the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and stretched and modified it for U.S. consumption, giving enormous passenger room with the comfortable, yet firm suspension American drivers prefer. We heard about three engine choices, three transmissions, 12 exterior colors, 14 interior  color and trim combinations, and much more to let the buyers configure their Dart to their exact liking.

Taking the car on the road, I was impressed by its solid feel, tight steering and near silence as it flowed down the road. All Darts should average more than 30 miles per gallon. I'd really like to sample the 1.4-liter turbo model with the manual six-speed transmission.

The sweet Italian platforms offer evocative, but restrained styling and a feeling of quality interior fittings (only a little cheap-looking plastic on the center console).The new Dart is built in Belvidere, Illinois, too, bringing employment and pride to that longtime Chrysler assembly plant.

Even the most basic SE model, at $16,790, including shipping includes things like 10 airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, and power windows. The Limited starts at $20,990, but it includes many extras that people like. The SE gets the 2.0 liter 160-horsepower engine, which should be OK. The 1.4-liter intercooled, turbocharged engine is mightier, and the R/T gets the 2.4-liter, with 184 horsepower. So many choices.

The MultiAir technology tosses out the camshaft and gives electronic control to the intake system, meaning it can run extremely efficiently. Chrysler hasn't had the resources to develop and sell hybrid or electric vehicles, but MultiAir brings conventional power-plants up near hybrid or electric levels--without the complexity and limitations of the super green cars.

The body and interior obviously received lots of attention to let buyers know--this is no Neon or Caliber. This is a real car--with all the quality and style of a larger vehicle. The car has aerodynamic aids throughout for a low coefficient or drag, which, of course, leads to higher fuel economy and a quieter cabin. The Chrysler folks pointed out many areas where wind noise was banished. There are body pans to smooth the wind's path. On most models, the grille shutters down to increase efficiency of airflow under certain conditions.

The game has just become much more interesting. A lot is riding on this vehicle, and the folks from Chrysler are quite proud of it.

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