Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dodge Dart - Old Name, Brand New Car

2013 Dart - Best Dodge compact in decades.
In the early 1960s, American car companies decided to take on the imports, which were starting to sell more widely. The Big 3 introduced the Corvair (GM), the Falcon (Ford) and the Valiant (Chrysler). In 1963, Dodge got the Dart, based on the Valiant. It was the brand's first successful compact, and was sold through 1975, when it was replaced by the less successful Dodge Aspen.

Following the Dart, Chrysler Corporation compacts have ranged from the VW Rabbit-like Omni hatchback in the late 1970's, the  famous company-saving K cars (Dodge Aries) in the  1980s, the listless Spirit (early 1990s), two generations of Neons (1995 - 2005) and most recently, the ill-conceived and strangely proportioned Caliber.

Finally, Dodge has a credible compact sedan to offer in the 2013 Dart. Why the old name? Apparently it tested well in consumer research with both folks old enough to remember the old Dart fondly and with young millennials--the latter a likely source of fresh sales.

1965 Dart - Yes, I've driven this one, too.
The Dart is the first Chrysler product based on a Fiat platform, in this case the well-regarded Alfa Romeo Guilietta. This means it has something of a European driving feel, but the styling, inside and out, is definitely today's Chrysler. That, I'm glad to report, is a good thing.

The look is soft and smooth--something that's sometimes hard to pull off on a compact car. The front has a floating cross-hair grille to give it brand identity, and the first use of an active grille shutter system, which opens the lower louvers when required for ventilation and closes them when not needed, improving aerodynamics for better fuel economy. The tail can be had with a 152-indirect-glow full-width LED display that comes from the larger Charger. In between, sides flow, with short overhangs, for a planted look.

Inside, the surfaces flow from the doors over the dash, with a carved-out door panels and useful console with a "floating" panel. In my Redline Pearlcoat tester, the black and "Light Diesel Gray" interior wore sturdy cloth. The main dash panel is padded, but some of the other surfaces are grained, hard plastic that doesn't feel especially luxurious. There is a notable shortage of sharp edges and straight lines, which evoked for me a little of the feeling of mid 1990s Ford products. But the cabin felt very comfortable as I settled in and the fairly soft buckets, did a good job.

The Dart comes in five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. This means, in plain English, entry level, midrange, luxury and sport. My tester was a Rallye, with about $6,000 in option packages that really upgraded it. I enjoyed using the 8.4-inch touch-screen panel in the center of the dash to control audio, climate, navigation, phone and other settings. With large enough touch areas, it was easy to use quickly, unlike some other electric screens.

Below the screen are basic knobs for audio and climate functions, but I noticed that you could control temperature and fan for the climate, but for deciding where to send the air, you needed the touch screen. It works out well over time. When the phone rings, a prominent spot on the screen makes it easy to answer without much distraction.

The gauges in the instrument panel have white dividers. The speedometer shows 10 mile-per-hour increments (up to a traditional 120 mph) and the tach also features widely spaced lines. I didn't realize that a red line winds its way around them giving five-mph increments--my minor color blindness hid that. The number design is very "Eurotech" for a clean look. A small screen offers fuel economy and other information, which you select using a steering-wheel-mounted button.

You can choose from three engines in the Dart--with a manual or choice of two automatic transmissions. The regular engine is a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter "Tigershark" inline four. My tester had the second choice - a 1.4-liter turbocharged four that also puts out 160 horsepower, and the racer of the bunch, an 184-horsepower 2.4-liter "Tigershark."

The 1.4- and 2.4-liter engines use Multi-Air technology, which delivers optimum combustion at any speed under all driving conditions by allowing direct and dynamic control of air intake and combustion. This means a 15 percent increase in low engine rpm torque and a 7.5 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

The 1.4 liter turbo in my tester earns solid EPA numbers of 27 City, 37 Highway and 31 combined. I got 27.8 mpg in my driving. That's not extremely high, but the Dart, like its ancestor, is not an econobox, but a compact car with space for real passengers. EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are a fine 8 for Greenhouse Gas and a midrange 5 for Smog. This gives it SmartWay status.

The 1.4-liter is not silent in my tester. It had a little graininess, especially during acceleration, but this is not a car meant for serene cruises. It is engaging in a friendly way. I'd like to try a manual-transmission version with the other engines someday to see what the ideal Dart would be. I know that you have 12 color choices and 14 interior color and trim choices, so, like the old Burger King ad, have it your way.

The Dart may have Italian underpinnings, but it's built in Chrysler's Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant. Chrysler sold many Mitsubishi products in years past, but this car, like the Neon, is made in the U.S.

Pricing starts at just $16,790 and go up from there. My Rallye, with a collection of welcome options, came to $24,460, including shipping.

The new Dart is not much like the old one--it's probably better in every possible way. But, as it did 50 years ago, it offers a good choice when you want a comfortable sedan that's neither Spartan basic transportation nor a big car.


ElénaMartina said...

Steve, Thank you for displaying my 1965 Dart on your blog again! :D

Leisa said...

I’m really impressed with your knowledge about cars. Your detailed post is very enlightening. But I wish you could post some pictures of in the interior of the car so people can see more on how great a Dodge car is. But I know that is great!

Leisa Dreps

Danny said...

I have an Old Dodge and im kind of loving it even though it looks old then i just installed a window louvers yesterday and it looks so sporty and cool.