Scheduled to hit the showrooms around the end of June, the all-new, 2013 Dodge Dart is the latest addition to an avalanche of new and redesigned Chrysler vehicles that earned the recently bankrupt automaker nearly a half-billion dollars in the first quarter — more than it made all last year.
And as good as this new compact sedan is, it ought to add even more to the bottom line of Chrysler and its partner, Fiat, the Italian carmaker that owns 58.5 percent of its stock. After all, compacts have 15 percent of the U.S. market and constitute the industry's fastest-growing segment.
The styling of this newest Dodge suggests that lifting the hood might reveal a set of six-pack abs. And that athletic appearance is validated by the graceful way this car dances when the back-road choreography turns curvy and sudden.
In addition to its aggressive good looks and pleasant driving habits, the new Dart makes a little history.
It puts Dodge back in the important compact sedan business, for openers, replacing a forgettable five-door hatchback called the Caliber with a much more attractive and adroit four-door sedan.
"We had a farewell party for the Caliber, but nobody came," said Joe Dehner, head of Dodge exterior design.
The new Dart is also the first Chrysler vehicle based on Fiat architecture. It is, essentially, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta that has been stretched, widened, and fitted with a new body. In the course of converting the Giulietta hatchback into a sedan, the Dart's length grew more than a foot, making for an exceptionally roomy compact cabin.
The suspension was also tweaked to reflect U.S. driving conditions and our preference for a somewhat softer ride.
In addition to making history, the new Dart bucks it. The trend in recent years has been toward replacing stand-alone options with packages. This reduces manufacturing cost and complexity, but diminishes the customer's ability to customize a car.
The Dart's brain trust figures the car will get a leg up in the highly competitive compact market by allowing buyers to select the colors, upholstery, wheels and other accessories that they want instead of taking packages that may contain things they don't want, and don't want to pay for.
In all, Chrysler estimates there will be 100,000 different ways to equip a Dart. (Ordering a custom Dart will take 30 to 60 days.)
There is, of course, a potential quality problem posed by this multiplicity of builds. But Chrysler believes it can counter that increased room for error by building the Dart in the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant, one of its highest-quality facilities.
The Dart, named for a car that Dodge built from 1960 to 1976, will be available in five flavors. The base SE starts at $15,995, which is $390 less than the Caliber. The more heavily equipped SXT is $17,995; the Rallye, $18,995, and the even cushier Limited model, $19,995. A sporty, top-end model, the R/T, will be available in the third quarter at $22,995.
Two engines are either standard or available in the SE, SXT, Rallye and Limited: A 2-liter, 160-horsepower four of Chrysler design, and the 1.-4-liter, 160 horsepower turbo also found in the Fiat 500 Abarth.
The front-drive Dart can be equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic.
Gas mileage is good news. The 1.4-liter Rallye I tested had EPAs of 29 city and 39 highway. The engineers expect that highway number to go up to 41 or better with the addition of shutters closing off the engine compartment.
The mileage is helped by the fact the Dart is as aerodynamic as it is handsome. That wind-cheating also contributes to the Dart's exceptional quietude, as does attention to insulation and door sealing, and the structural rigidity that derives from the extensive use of high-strength steel.
This is a lively, quiet, comfortable compact that handles, steers and brakes in exemplary fashion. It's also nicely equipped. Even the base car has a big safety menu, including antilock disc brakes and a whopping 10 air bags.