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2013 Dodge Dart. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
2013 Dodge Dart. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

2013 Dodge Dart

Dodge Dart blends Italian flair and American muscle Add to ...

Italian flair coupled with American muscle – that’s the heart of the 2013 Dodge Dart, the first Chrysler Group vehicle built on Fiat Group architecture.

Based on Italy’s award-winning Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Dart is one of 20 new or improved vehicles in the Chrysler fleet in the last 24 months. And even though the Dart falls in a highly competitive and overcrowded market it’s a much-needed vehicle in Dodge’s portfolio, making amends for the Caliber.

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“We haven’t had a super-competitive compact car. … The all-new Dart enables us to play in the compact car segment, which accounts for 23 per cent of the sales volume in Canada,” says Ed Broadbear, vice-president of marketing at Chrysler Canada.

Chrysler officials are banking the Dart will steal a large share of those sales. Its price makes it a strong selling point. Starting at only $15,995, the base SE model is well-equipped with 10 airbags, a tilt and telescoping steering column, electronic stability control with hill start assist, keyless entry and ABS.

Four other trims are available (SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T) and even the most expensive R/T model won’t break the bank. For $23,995, you’ll get extra items such as a heated steering wheel, sport suspension, 18-inch aluminum wheels, nappa leather seats, funky, wrap-around tail lamps with 152 LEDs – and integrated dual exhausts mounted in the rear fascia to create a sporty, muscular look.

On the Dart, the Giulietta’s platform was lengthened and widened to meet the needs of North Americans. While not as stylish as the Giulietta, the Dart’s exterior is still attractive with curvy body panels. Dodge’s trademark split crosshair grille alludes to a baby, bad boy feel – like its big brother the Charger, but less intense.

Two trims are available to drive – a Rallye and Limited. I take the Rallye (base price $19,495; as tested $20,895) for a spin first. Compared to the base model, the Rallye adds cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Powering it is a 1.4-litre turbocharged inline-four, which is borrowed from the Fiat 500 Abarth. It’s mated to a six-speed manual transmission, delivering 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.

This isn’t your typical four-banger – it’s powerful. Nail the throttle and it returns plenty of kick. It has ample guts to merge onto the highway easily. The shifts are smooth and precise. The steering is tight and the car well-balanced. It feels solid and composed, even when pushed hard.

It’s also quiet in the cabin, too. Inside, it doesn’t feel like a cheap compact car. It’s spacious with better appointments and a lot less plastic than the old Caliber. The cloth-covered seats have contrast stitching to add some punch, but there’s not enough padding in them – they get uncomfy fast. The leather seats, however, are more comfortable and supportive. The rear seats are tight on knee-room, but offer decent headroom for rear passengers.

The trunk is large and deep – at 371 litres, it’s on par with some mid-size sedans. The rear seats also fold down easily with the tug of a latch on the rear outboard seating positions. All-around visibility is great – thanks to three windows on each side of the car.

The Limited model costs slightly more - $23,245 ($26,915 as tested). But it is loaded with extra features you’d expect to find on pricier, luxury brands. A technology group package adds rain- sensitive wipers and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-path detection.

Another package, dubbed the popular equipment group, adds another smart feature – a secret storage spot built into the cushion of the front passenger seat. Just tug on a strap and the seat cushion flips up, revealing a cool spot to hide smaller items. Unfortunately, my big purse won’t fit.

Powering the Limited is a new 2.0-litre Tigershark inline-four engine, which is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. With 160 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, it’s also very responsive with nice, smooth shifts and pleasant road manners.

But the interior steps it up a notch thanks to upscale touches such as an 8.4-inch touch-screen media display, a rear back-up camera and illuminated instrument panel, which are part of another package called premium audio group II.

Clearly, there are many options offered – too many for my tastes. But they offer buyers a lot of choice. In fact you can choose between 12 exterior colours, 13 interior colours and trim combos, seven wheel options, three engines and three transmission choices.

The third engine, which comes out in a few months, is a new 184-hp Tigershark 2.4-litre Multi-Air inline-four-cylinder engine. The MultiAir technology, which is also in the 1.4-litre turbo, results in a 15 per cent increase in low engine rpm torque and a 10 per cent improvement in fuel economy.

The all-new Dart is a perfect blend of Italian DNA and American performance.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

TECH SPECS

2013 Dodge Dart

Type: Four-door compact sedan

Price range: $15,995-$23,995

Engines: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four/1.4-litre, SOHC, turbocharged, inline-four/2.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/148 lb-ft for 2.0-litre; 160 hp/184 lb-ft for 1.4-litre turbo; 184 hp/171 lb-ft for 2.4-litre

Transmission: Six-speed manual, six-speed automatic or six-speed dual dry clutch

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.4 highway (2.0-litre with manual); 7.4 city/4.9 highway (1.4-litre turbo with manual); regular gas for both

Alternatives: Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra

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