To see the future of the Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge brand, take a long, uncompromising stare at the 2014 Dodge Dart GT.Do you like the lengthened and widened Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform with its Italian styling toned down and “Americanized”? Does it look sporty enough, given this is a compact car that starts for less than $16,000? Are you impressed to learn that 68 per cent of the body structure is made of high-strength steel to help deliver “sporty” handling?
CEO Sergio Marchionne and his lieutenants laid out plans recently to develop Dodge as a “performance brand.” The company is dropping the Avenger sedan and Grand Caravan minivan. Gone, too, are overlapping models with the Chrysler brand, which will morph into a totally “mainstream American brand, designed to take on the mass-market, mainstream brands," said Al Gardner, chief executive for the Chrysler brand.
No one doubts that for this grand scheme to succeed, the Dart and a lot of other new Dodge models will need to become very hot-selling cars, not just solid placeholders. In Canada, Chrysler sold just under 10,000 Darts during 2013. That’s a long way from the 64,000 Honda Civics sold during the 16th straight year of winning the overall car sales crown. Good luck conquering all those devoted Civic buyers, not to mention the 55,000 Elantra, 44,500 Corolla and 40,500 Mazda3 buyers from last year.
The Dart GT I have tested is certainly good enough for a long look, however. Is it the company’s “ground-breaking car”? That claim is a stretch. It is comfortable and interesting, with excellent well-padded front seats, an easy-to-manage infotainment system, strong crash test scores and quite a powerful four-cylinder engine sourced from Fiat and mated to a six-speed gearbox (a six-speed automatic costs an extra $1,495).
The Civic sedan, other than the racy Si, has just a 143-hp four-banger, and to get the Mazda3 with similar power, you need to jump up to the GT model, which starts at $25,855, versus the $21,995 base sticker on the Dart GT tested here. Both the Honda and the Mazda, as well as many other compacts, get better fuel economy than the Dart.
What no other compact can celebrate is the 2014 Connected Car of the Year Award among small cars from Connected Car World magazine. Yes, Dodge nailed the mix of safety, convenience and technology. I am a huge fan of the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen ease of use, for punching up various infotainment features. Don’t underestimate the importance of user-friendly technology. Ford Motor’s problems with its systems have been dragging down quality scores for a few years. You do not need to crack the owner’s manual to establish a radio preset in the Dart. Everyone applaud.
And you don’t need to punch the throttle hard to move the Dart out of its own way. In short, you will not be praying for more power every time you try to merge onto the highway, instead enjoying the move from the entry ramp.
Then there’s safety. The Dart is a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). It’s done well in front crash tests, side impact, roof strength evaluations and in whiplash protection.
Still, for all of the company’s claims about responsive steering and handling, my experience puts the Dart in the middle of the compact pack. It’s happiest on the straight-ahead highway commute, where the cabin is quiet. But certainly the Focus, the Mazda3 and the Civic all seem better suited for the enthusiastic driver. That’s where Dodge will be expected to put its efforts in the future. This is the “performance” brand, after all.
Price: $21,995 ($1,695 freight)
Gas engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 184/171 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/5.9 highway, regular fuel
Alternatives: Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Sonic, Mazda3, Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza.
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