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2013 Dodge Dart SXT (Chrysler)
2013 Dodge Dart SXT (Chrysler)

Road Test Dodge Dart

Euro-styled Dodge Dart will make you forget about the Neon Add to ...

The story of the Dodge Dart is one of failed expectations – and in a good way, at least if you’re at the Chrysler Group.

Take Consumer Reports, which has been a consistent critic of Chrysler products in general. Well, it seems fair to say the Dart most likely stunned the CR testers.

“The Dart is the first decent compact car from Dodge in decades,” said Jake Fisher, head of auto testing at CR.

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For those of us who are still recovering from memories of the Dodge Neon – what a horrible car that was – truer words were never spoken. Like the CR people, I’d say the first all-new model from the Fiat-Chrysler alliance feels solid, rides nicely and the handling is acceptable, if a little heavy. In particular, the cabin is quiet even at highway speeds. Yes, the 2.0-litre four-banger (160 hp) is a tad limp, but the turbocharged 1.4-litre four (a $1,300 on the SXT) is strong even though it’s horsepower rating is an identical 160. Go figure.

One big issue CR and a lot of consumers have had with the Dart is the six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. Again, an issue of expectations. Dual-clutch automatics tend to have more solid, aggressive shift manners, gear changes that are inconsistent with what most Americans expect in a compact car’s autobox. The dual-clutch in the Dart feels sporty and engaging and American consumers apparently do not expect to feel engaged.

Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne took a bullet for the decision to go with a dual-clutch autobox. He said he was responsible for the company’s failure to meet the rather-pedestrian expectations of domestic compact car buyers.

“I decided I was going to put a European transmission into the car because I was going to try to teach Americans how to get (better) fuel mileage,” Marchionne told Automotive News. Oops. Not a lesson Americans want to learn. For the record, a new nine-speed automatic will be available in the Dart, perhaps later this year. And a traditional six-speed automatic is already on the order list.

I suspect many compact car shoppers expect the Dart to be a little car, a little traffic dodger. Here’s the thing: the Dart feels big for a compact. Big and roomy and comfortable and more like a mid-size sedan. The headroom is terrific, the knee-room in back better than adequate for six-footers and the trunk will swallow a lot of goods. If you expect to find a teeny, tiny Dart, you’ll be disappointed.

The instruments are also clear, though nothing particularly special. I like the way the radio and climate controls are tilted toward the driver and so will most drivers, I’m sure. Alas, the seats are a bit soft for long trips. I expected Dodge to go with thinner, firmer foam in the seats – to be more European – but these feel mid-America.

Not surprisingly, the seats are not featured in three new television advertising spots touting the best of the Dart. The spots highlight fuel economy (4.9 litres/100 km), the Dart’s five-star crash test rating, the available 8.4-inch touchscreen, the seven-inch customizable gauge display and safety gadgets such as blind-spot monitoring and rear park assist. The latter represent the sort of “upscale options” about which CR’s testers were so excited.

But shoppers beware. If you’re expecting the 8.4-inch screen as standard equipment, you’ll be disappointed. The touchscreen is a $1,000 option on the SXT and, to get it, you must also order the $500 Alpine speaker package with subwoofer. My point: a $17,995 Dart SXT can climb to much more than $20,000 once you start adding the better turbocharged motor, an automatic gearbox ($1,300), touchscreens, speakers. Beware the options list. Though to be fair, even the base model has power windows, door lock and the like and the SXT comes with a standard 60/40-split/fold-down rear seatback.

The Dart has more storage space than most would expect, too. The glove box is so deep you can reach in almost to the elbow, and will easily swallow an iPad. The centre console has auxiliary jacks for your iPod and so on, and throughout there are side-pockets and cubbies. A particular highlight of the interior: ambient lighting for the door handles, map pockets, foot wells, glove box, storage bin and illuminated cup holders.

Finally, the exterior. The Dart’s design defies expectations. It’s a clean look, unadorned and not at all fussy. It’s also functional: aerodynamic to the tune of a 0.285 coefficient of drag, which is good. The smooth side panels have just the hint of a crease running their length just below the greenhouse. At the rear, the tail is lit up with 152 LED lights.

I’d bet almost no one expected Chrysler to successfully turn the platform of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta into a Dodge Dart. Certainly this little feat startled the testers at CR and has failed to meet the low expectations of many – certainly those of us who remember the Neon. A good thing.

Tech specs

2013 Dodge Dart SXT

Type: Compact sedan

Base Price: $17,995 (freight $1,695); as tested, $20,690

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.4 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Rio, Chevrolet Cruze, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Jetta

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