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

Road test Dodge Dart

Dodge Dart misses the mark Add to ...

The biggest car in the compact class? The new Dodge Dart.

The car with the second-smallest engine in the compact class? The new Dodge Dart.

How’s that working out? Surprisingly well, actually.

At least as far as the Dart SXT Rallye – equipped with a turbocharged 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual gearbox – is concerned.

The Rallye fits into the middle spot among five Dart offerings starting with the $15,995 SE then the $17,995 SXT, $19,495 Rallye, $23,245 Limited and the $23,495 R/T. The optioned-up test unit pegged the price meter at $23,945.

The new Dart is 100 mm longer than rival compacts, and has an interior volume that leads the field. And the suit of sheetmetal it wears can’t disguise this. It appears to be a bit, well, big. Although there’s little to complain about with the aerodynamic look its stylists have created for it. At 1,445 kilograms, it’s also the heaviest compact, with only the Chevy Cruze coming close.

Big and heavy – relatively, keeping in mind we’re talking compact class – are usually things that mitigate against a car with a diminutive engine being able to generate anything approaching entertaining levels of performance. But the Dart Rallye manages to muster at least a modestly enjoyable amount.

Adding the ‘e’ makes Rallye sound Olde English but its heart and soul – words likely never employed in a review of a Dodge compact – come from a place a bit further south. Instead of employing the rather-tired, 1960s-sounding “Rallye” to describe this step-up version of the SXT, it might have been better named the SXT Con Brio.

Chrysler compacts have been dreary devices in recent years, the more-than-a-little nasty Neon and its successor the Dodge not-very-high-Caliber, both born-in-America designs.

For the new Dodge Dart, Chrysler, now about 60 per cent owned by Fiat, turned to the Italian company for a little assistance. Fiat provided this with the specs for the platform its Alfa-Romeo Giulietta has won kudos for. This was stretched and widened to create a compact car, for Americans increasingly migrating to this segment, that wasn’t quite so “compact.”

The idea is likely good, but the execution hasn’t been entirely brilliant. Climbing into the back seat requires a little caution to avoid whacking your head, as the roofline slopes quite sharply, which also results in headroom being less than generous. Three adults will not be happy in there. The trunk, accessed by a 60/40-split rear seat, offers 370 litres of room – a lot less than a Chevy Cruze, about the same as a Ford Focus, more than a Honda Civic.

Front compartment occupants will find themselves happily and comfortably enough ensconced in the Rallye version’s premium cloth upholstered seats that look racy and have medium-firm bolsters. And facing a smoothly formed dash, centre stack (with large touch screen) and console, while gripping a leather-wrapped wheel with cruise and audio controls in the spokes.

Standard equipment includes the usual power features, A/C, etc., but the tester’s interior option tally added major items such as a $1,000 audio system, $350 phone connectivity, a $450 nav system and various other features that added up to, well, just about everything you really might want in a car like this. And you get to enjoy it all in a cabin that’s quiet at highway speeds.

Exterior Rallye touches include black headlamp bezels and grille, fog lamps, twin chrome exhaust tips, 17-inch alloy wheels and, of course, a Rallye badge.

On the mechanical side, the Dart’s Alfa-esque chassis is equipped with a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear independent suspension that takes advantage of its stiffness with springs, dampers, bushings, etc., and a steering system tuned to deliver a surprisingly good driving experience.

The steering has a weight (resistance) that feels natural and the front wheels – shod with beefy enough P225/45R17 all-season rubber – respond to its movements with a degree of directness that makes you feel comfortable with the car, and want to take the next corner quicker than the last. It’s also happy with rapid directional changes, Dart-ing and dodging through slalom course cones with surprising agility.

It’s no good having all that handling if it won’t go, though, given its mini-motor. At 1,368 cc, it’s the smallest to power a Dodge vehicle, and a $1,300 option on the Rallye. The standard motor is the U.S.-designed, 2.0-litre, Tigershark four rated at 160 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque.

The Fiat-sourced 1.4 litre Turbo Fire – What’s with these stuck-in-a-time-warp sounding names, including Dart itself? – is a single-overhead-cam four that employ some clever valve actuation technology called MultiAir. It’s just 4.0 cc bigger than Chevy’s turbocharged 1.4-litre Cruze engine, but makes 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque compared to the Cruze’s 138 hp and 148 lb-ft.

This is enough to make the car as speedy as most in the category, with a 0-100 km/h time in the low eight-second range, and plenty of mid-range poke available to make things happen in the intermediate gears for merging or passing. The motor emits a breathy/sporty exhaust note on start-up that that turns into a revvy snarl. Downsides are a not-very-slick shifter and the moment or two it takes to tap into the turbo-produced-torque.

The optional $1,300, six-speed dual clutch automatic is likely a better choice for both performance and driveability.

Fuel economy ratings are an impressive 7.4 litres/100 km city and 4.9 highway. The onboard readout was showing an average of 7.8 litres after a week of driving, and 6.6 litres on a moderately hilly highway run.

Despite its Rallye badge and a few sporty touches, there’s nothing (the engine aside) that enhances this model’s performance. If you’re determined to own a Dart with some serious moves, spend some additional coin for one with an R/T badge.

Tech specs

2013 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye

Type: Compact sedan

Base Price: $19,495; as tested, $25,185

Engine: 1.4-litre, SOHC, turbocharged, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/184 lb-ft

Drive: Front-wheel

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.4 city/4.9 highway; regular gas okay, premium preferred

Alternatives: Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra

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