For those over 40 years old, the name is a familiar one. From 1960 through 1976, Dodge sold more than 3 million Darts, from bare-bones commuter cars and convertibles to the fire-breathing Dart Swinger, with its powerful V-8 engine.
The name returns for 2013 on a new compact sedan, Dodge's first since the Neon's demise seven years ago — and its importance can't be overstated.
The compact car segment is the largest one in the United States, with 15 percent of new car registrations in 2011. Their sales jumped 16 percent that year in an industry that was up 11 percent.
More importantly, the 2013 Dodge Dart is the first vehicle collaboration between Chrysler and Fiat — which now owns 58 percent of Chrysler and has assumed management control.
If the Dart is any indication of what's to come, then this is one merger that will work out well indeed. Quite simply, the 2013 is a compelling compact sedan and among the top in a field of interesting compacts.
It starts with the Dart's genetics. The car rides a platform adapted from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. For the Dart, engineers tailored the car by letting out the seams a few inches for corn-fed Americans. They lengthened the platform by 12 inches and widened it almost two inches, which makes the Dart one of the larger compacts in its class, with bountiful interior space front and rear, along with a commodious trunk.
The extra size doesn't hurt the styling either, which is a conservative take on the normally aggressive Dodge look. The front end is as adventurous as it gets, with the rest of the car seeming to be a modest update of the Neon. Out back, an optional full-width tail lamp with 152 LEDs distinctively accents the dual exhausts mounted in the rear fascia. With the lighting option, there's no mistaking this car for anything other than the Charger's kid brother.
But the good news continues inside. The interior has satisfyingly soft materials in most places you're likely to touch. The test car, dressed in Limited trim, featured soft leather trim on the seats, which were not only surprisingly comfortable and supportive, but featured seat heaters. Leg room was more than sufficient throughout the cabin.
Thoughtful touches abound. The glove box is large enough to hold an iPad. The center console features auxiliary jacks for electronic devices, and side pockets, for storing mobile phones, or other bits of life's clutter.
While the Dart can be ordered with traditional gauges and controls, the options list offers some high-tech alternatives, including a 7-inch customizable gauge cluster, which uses a thin film transistor displays similar to those used on full-sized luxury cars. Next to it is an 8.4-inch touch screen that controls the audio, phone, climate and navigation systems, as well as the rear back-up camera. All of this is framed by a tube of LED lighting.
There are five Dart trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. Unlike some competitors, who have dramatically cut down their option choices, the Dart is available in 12 exterior colors, 14 interior color and trim combinations, along with seven wheel options, three engine options and three transmissions.
How's that for choice?
But the most important choice is what lies behind Dodge's signature cross-hair grille. SE, SXT, Rallye and Limited models have a new 160-horsepower 2.0-liter engine. A 160-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder engine is a $1,300 option on SXT, Rallye and Limited models. While the two engines share the same horsepower rating, they differ in torque. The base four has 145 foot-pounds of torque, while the optional turbo has 184 foot-pounds.
Come summer 2013, Dodge will offer an R/T model, with a new 184 horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
These engines can be paired with one of three transmissions: a six-speed manual, a six-speed automatic or, when the 1.4-liter turbo is ordered, a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with traction control are standard on all models. A long list of optional safety options is offered, including blind-spot monitoring, a rarity in this class.
As you may have guessed by now, this is one car whose interior is well-thought out, with an ambience that is at once high-tech and inviting. It offers many of the options once reserved for larger cars. My personal favorite: a heated steering wheel.
But it's the driving demeanor of this little Dart that seals the deal. That's when the Alfa Romeo genetics shine through.
The Dart is responsive and fun to drive. The steering is quick and returns some feel. Body lean is minimal in corners except when the Dart is pushed hard. Given the Dart's truly athletic personality, you'll welcome its ride-handling compromise. This car is positively posh over the rough stuff. Better yet, you'll be hard-pressed to notice any engine vibration at idle.
The test car was fitted with the turbocharged engine and dual-clutch transmission.
When left to its own devices, this driveline shifted smoothly, just like an automatic transmission. But slip the lever into manual shift mode, and the car becomes positively lively. You will have to deal with noticeable turbo lag — a delay in response while waiting for the turbocharger to engage. You do learn to work around it, however. Overall, it's impressive how well engineers were able to give this driveline a refined feel, just like the rest of the car.
Interestingly, the turbo engine not only returns superior performance than the base engine, it also is more fuel efficient.
The base engine is rated by the EPA at 25 mpg city, 36 highway with the manual transmission. That drops to 24 and 34 with the six-speed automatic. Opt for the turbo mill and that jumps to 27 and 39 with the manual, 27 and 37 with the dual-clutch. But the turbo mill requires premium fuel, while the base engine uses regular, so fuel costs are the same. Careful driving returned 37 mpg on the highway, while overall mileage was 30.6 as I couldn't help but indulge in this engine's well of power.
It was made better by the sexy-sounding exhaust note.
It will easily seduce you, as will its appealing price.
If you're looking for a compact, be it in the price range or several thousand dollars more, you owe it to yourself to test drive the Dart before deciding on something else.
Because when it comes to building an impressive compact car, Dodge has scored a bulls-eye with the Dart.
It's that good.
2013 DODGE DART:
—Engine: Turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder
—Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
—Length: 183.9 inches
—Weight: 3,211 pounds
—Cargo space: 13 cubic feet
—Base price, base model: $15,995
—Base price, test model: $19,995
—Price as tested, including destination charge: $25,870
ABOUT THE WRITER
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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