For 2013 the Dodge Dart is replacing the Dodge Caliber. While I have never driven a Dodge Caliber, I have heard some bad things about it, which, judging by its sales numbers, are probably true. Since the Caliber’s introduction, however much has changed at Chrysler, and the company has been turning around at a rather fast pace. Will the Dodge Dart be Chrysler new sales champion?
The Dart is loosely based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (Fiat Bravo, Lancia Delta), but it’s wider and longer. This compact four-door will be available with three engines: 2.0L 160hp/148tq, 1.4L turbo 160hp/184tq (timing belt), and a 2.4L 184hp/171tq (timing chain) which will be available later in the year on the R/T model. There are also speculations of an SRT model, but no official info was provided. I had a chance to drive cars equipped with both the 2.0 and the 1.4T engines, each one mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. I chose the manual transmissions as I found them to be more interesting to the hoons reading this.
So let’s see if the Dart can find the bulls-eye…
Sit in the driver’s seat and you will be greeted with… simplicity. This is a very good thing, often absent from modern cars. The radio and the climate controls had simple, easy to use knobs. The navigational system was equally easy to use, a basic Garmin interface. Interesting fact, on vehicles equipped with the nav system, the CD slot is located in the center console. Another rarely seen thing in modern new cars – great visibility all around.
There is a nifty storage compartment under the cushion of the passenger seat to go along with large door pockets and big cup-holders. The only thing I didn’t like was the light dimmer/dome light switches; both their location and function. I also preferred the cloth seats over the leather, which seemed to be bolstered in all the wrong places, despite looking just like the cloth seat. The manual seats were also easier to adjust; I don’t know why they bother with leather and power seats in an entry level car.
Otherwise there was plenty of room for my 6’2” self, even in the back seat which had enough legroom to allow me to “sit-behind-myself” but was a little low on headroom. The trunk size was adequate for a car in this segment, with a generous cargo capacity with the rear seat folded; a mountain bike with the front wheel removed should fit.
Start driving and right away you’ll notice the clutch catching a little too high. This was the case on both the 2-liter and the 1.4T cars, and it made smooth starts a little difficult. The naturally aspirated 2-liter has a smooth and even power band, but the 6250rpm redline arrives quickly This translates into a lot of shifting just to keep up with the traffic on secondary roads – simply, this car is not very quick.
Start the engine on the Multiair Turbo Dart and you’ll grin right away. The thing makes all the right enthusiast noises: it burbles, it gurgles, and it barks when you tap the right pedal. Start driving and you quickly realize that, unfortunately, there is no bite to go with that bark. Judging by my highly unscientific butt, this turbo isn’t any faster than the 2.0 engine (same hp rating, but the turbo is/should be torque-ier). The engine has the same 6250 redline and it gets there equally quickly requiring an equal amount of shifting. I would even say that around town the 2.0 is smoother but on the highway the 1.4T pulls slightly better.
After driving the two cars, I questioned the need for the 1.4-liter turbo. It is a more expensive engine and its only benefit seems to be that of slightly better EPA estimated fuel economy (27/39/32) versus the 2.0-liter (25/36/29). Not only that, once you get over the sounds, the two engines sort of feel alike.
Engines and transmissions aside, the ride is dialed in for comfort over performance. During the presentation, a Chrysler engineer acknowledged that a lot of effort was spent on reducing cabin noise and noise/vibration/harshness overall – job well done in my opinion. Another engineering focus was safety, both passive and active, but I didn’t get a chance to wreck a Dart, or even come close to it, so I can’t verify how those work.
Starting at less than $16,000 the Dart seems like a good value but most people will want to at least step up to the SXT model, which stickers well-equipped for under $20,000. Features aside, the Dart has one thing that Civics, Corollas and many other similar vehicles don’t – availability of a dozen colors, many of them bright happy little colors too, which stick out from the sea of boring beige and gray cars.
While the Dart will not knock the Civic off its top-selling list, or whatever the top-seller-de-jour is, it offers a nice alternative. It may not have a fancy hybrid version or some kind of MyTouching system, but it is an honest little car and a significant improvement over the Caliber.
Now, about that SRT version…
Note: Chrysler brought the Dodge Darts to the Boston area and invited about two dozen auto journalists and one blooger® to drive them. They also provided a yummy BBQ dinner (locals call it a “cookout”) while various product engineers were giving their PowerPoint presentations. And equally yummy ice cream for dessert. This was nice, I prefer driving a new car on roads that I know, and not have to take a day off work to do so.