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Quick Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart

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…

Interior:

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.

Driving:

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.

Conclusion:

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.

  • Jay

    I haven't seen any around yet, but I'm really interested in seeing one. Good review, but this thing is essentially a rebadged Fiat Viaggio (in approx the same way as the Opel/Saturn Astra) not to imply that it doesn't also share some components with the much different-looking Giulietta.

    While Dodge dealers get this, Fiat is still stuck with a one-car model range in the US, at least for the next few months. And Lancia got the Chrysler 300 badged as a Lancia Thema.

  • Is the 1.4 turbo engine the same as the one in the FIAT 500 Abarth?
    Having driven the a non-turbo version (100HP), I concur that it sounds great, especially when approaching the red line.

    • It is, very minor differences in the engines… but there is a very significant difference in cars… about 700lbs worth of difference.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Did you have the revs up in the turbo-equipped car? If you're not well into the power band, you won't be getting much performance. Downshift, nail the throttle, and you should get some response.

    Nice review, and nicer to know that we've finally gottten some refreshed Alfa DNA on these shores again.

    • Yes, the redline approaches very quickly. Where the power-band on the 2.0 is more flat, the 1.4 is a little more peak-y… but still leaves a lot to desire, a VW GTI engine this is not.

  • Number_Six

    That's a great-looking interior and would be a lesson for Honda, who have gone from having the best small-car interiors to a pile of Tonka-toy / Fisherprice crap.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    So, what we have here is the 2013 Reliant K-car, but done properly.

    I'm good with this.

    Now…Mopar…when do we get the SRT-4?!

  • Irishzombieman

    *cough*DodgeDartThumbDrive*cough*subiewheelcaptioncontest*cough*

    I like this car. So far.

    • Oh snap!!!
      Completely forgot about that! Gimme a few…

  • erikgrad

    I believe he necessity of the 1.4 turbo is to meet a 40mpg mandate for the Fiat/Chrysler deal; it opens up how much of Chrysler that they can own? May be wrong about this.

    The difference between powerplants comes out to a 8-12% improvement in mileage, though I suspect those who drive with the goal of fuel sipping can get more out of the 1.4 turbo than the 2.0 engine.

    • Then why even offer the 2.0? Most mainstream buyers won't even know what's under the hood, or what a turbo is.

      • Most mainstream buyers get automatics, too… the 1.4's only self-shifting transmission is a dual-clutch automated manual which doesn't show up till later, where the 2.0 gets a conventional torque-converter/planetary-gear automatic.

  • Wow, that interior is appealing. I was surprised at how many buttons, toggles, knobs and switches there are in modern compact cars.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    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.

    Not to worry, a drunk teenager already launched one into a house.

    It fared well, being as nobody died.

    <img src="http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/17qohj1euc9efjpg/original.jpg&quot; width="400">

    • Scandinavian Flick

      The safety rating of the house, on the other hand……

      • Kogashiwa

        brb installing airbags in my house.

  • Scandinavian Flick

    Nice review, Kamil. One thing I've noticed about modern manual transmissions, which you seem to confirm, is that they engage at an awkward point, and they feel squishy and vague. I'm not sure why this is, but it doesn't have me rushing out to buy a new car… Nowhere was it more apparent to me than when I drove a B7 Audi RS4, but on more entry to mid level cars, it's even more annoyingly hard to drive smoothly.

    • I think they all have clutch delay valves which are installed to prevent hooning. At least that's the way it is in BMWs. The good news is that they can be easily removed.

      • Scandinavian Flick

        Ugh… I had forgotten about that thing… When I learned about that on my E46, I was under the car 2 days later to get rid of it.

        That's also when I discovered the guibo!

        I still think there's more to it though. Even with that thing in there, the clutch and shifter in my E46 felt better than most newer cars. It's that light feeling, with no resistance in the pedal. It's that vague, limp feeling shifter. I just don't get the more definite feeling that I get from my M46, Getrag and T56.

    • Van_Sarockin

      Cables. Not rods or direct levers.

    • Re: smoothness, I blame electronic throttles. The sensor, computer & stepper motor are pretty quick, but I'm not convinced they're as quick or accurate at working the throttle as a mechanical linkage is.

      For example: In my Challenger, when preparing for an upshift I have to consciously get off the throttle a fraction of a second earlier than I ordinarily would to keep the engine RPM from flaring higher at the moment of de-clutching. Drive a vehicle with a mechanical throttle that way, and the experience could be un-smooth from the car getting into a brief moment of engine braking before the de-clutch.

  • Stu_Rock

    I like the parenthetical mentions of timing belts and chains–as if to help out readers who swear never to buy another car that has a scheduled maintenance task every 7 yr/100,000 mi that either costs $1200 or an entire day of knuckle scraping in a confined engine bay.

    • I report, you decide.

    • I'm prepared to swear that I'll never buy a car that has a scheduled maintenance task every 7 yr/100,000 mi.

      • Seriously, what's there to do on weekends if your car doesn't need its valves adjusted.

    • TurboBrick

      Sounds better than $3500 timing chain job because the mfg designed a Rube Goldberg timing system using old bicycle parts. I'd rather take the belt myself.

      • Stu_Rock

        Ouch. Sounds like you got burned by a bad chain design. I contend there are many more bad belt designs than bad chain designs, though.

        Belt-driven valvetrains are only allowed in my driveway if they're both easy to service and in a non-interference engine.

        To reduce my risk (enhance my laziness?), I also have a two-camshafts-or-fewer rule.

        • For engines with poppet valves, I prefer timing gears.

          <img src="http://i596.photobucket.com/albums/tt43/CHMUIR/DSCF2574.jpg&quot; width="300">

          • Stu_Rock

            Is that a Taunus V4?

            • It is indeed. I drove one to work today.

              (I hope to drive it all the way back home today, too.)

          • PowerTryp

            I really wish I could see that pic at work.

            • Just imagine one half of an engine-driven reel-to-reel tape player and you'll be pretty close.

            • Van_Sarockin

              It's really not safe. You can see innards an things.

          • For a moment I thought that geartrain was like the original Smithsonian "Department of Innovation" logo…

            <img src="http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/assets/innov2.jpg"/&gt;

            (They updated it after the well-deserved mocking that it got.)

          • craigsu

            Looks like you've upgraded. Those timing gears appear to be steel, not fiber.

            • They are, but regrettably that's not a photo of my engine. I'll be looking for a similar set when mine inevitably fail, or as part of the next rebuild, whichever comes first. There's no good method for replacing them with the engine in the car, so I'm not inclined to do so ahead of time.

              • craigsu

                I thought all dedicated Saab 96 owners carried a spare engine in the trunk. You could always update the spare first so it's ready to go when the primary fails. Or does this kind of thinking only apply to the 2-stroke owners?

                • Unlike a Mighty Three, a spare V4 is too big to fit in the trunk of a 96. I suppose I could take out what's left of the rear seat, then put down something to protect the fuel line from being crushed….

        • Tazio

          there is many bad chain examples, like Opel and some Volkswagen engines, also BMW and so on. its not so service free than you might think

          • Stu_Rock

            Still more bad belts than bad chains. And look at it this way: would you rather have a good belt or a good chain? If you choose belt, you're either an idiot or rest of the car is so good it's worth it.

            • Tazio

              I choose car not belt or chain

  • mnm4ever

    That underseat storage compartment is where you put the NOS… just like Dom did in TFTF-1! 🙂

    • Too small… maybe a SneakyPete if you dremel out the plastc bin. 200hp, just like that!

  • quattrovalvole

    Nice review! The beige interior looks surprisingly nice, but then I'm a fan of beige interior and wood panels, so there you go…

    The aluminium (real? fake?) shifter is a particularly nice touch, although it'll probably be too hot in the summer / too cold in the winter.

  • Devin

    "I have never driven a Dodge Caliber"

    You lucky man.

    I, on the other hand, have driven a Dodge Caliber, way back in '07 when they were introduced. I was looking for a new car – and then due to other things I bought an old Escort – so I decided to give a Caliber a go. I like hatchbacks, this was a hatchback, I thought I could probably afford it, this could be a good idea. It was not. It was slow, the interior felt like a Rubbermaid reject bin – the most fun I had on the test drive was playing with extraneous plastic on the back of the badly molded steering wheel – the transmission felt like it was broken, you couldn't really see out and it was uncomfortable. Also, the back seat had no room. It was a terrible experience all around, though it was slightly better than the then-new Chevy Aveo which squeaked if I tried to turn left.

  • Kogashiwa

    So, hmm, I had actually put this on my very short list, considering that I'm more or less planning on purchasing something New and Zero Miles for once in my life, this year. Therefore, thanks for the timely review.

    But it sounds … rather dull?

    I guess the Veloster goes back to being my top pick in this segment.

    But hopefully I can shake a few more pence loose from somewhere and step up to a BRZ.

    • It's meant to be an economy car, it's difficult not to make those somewhat dull. Unfortunately I don't have a good point of reference as I have not driven many cars in this class, but it should definitely be on your list. I drove the Elantra briefly, a 2011 I think and din't love it.

  • Savant_Idiot

    Great review Kamil! I appreciate the notations of belt/chain as well. Can you comment as to the quality of the interior plastics and switchgear? The Fiat that I tested seemed pretty weak in this regard, as if after a few thousand twists of the fan knob, it may fail or look worn. The fit of the interior do-dads was a little wonky also.

    • Thanks.
      To be honest I don't comment on the quality of the interior for a reason. What's bad to some is not bad to me (Toyota Venza for instance) and what's amazing to some is blah to me (Bentley Continental).

      That said, nothing fell apart in the cars I was driving… but the touchy/feely, soft vs. hard plastic, I think that's very objective so I recommend stopping by a Dodge dealership and just judging that part for yourself. Sorry.

      • Devin

        Any word on when they're showing up in Dodge dealerships? My local guy said he expected to wait until September when I saw him at a trade show a month back, but he also assumed that the US is getting the first run.

        • Kogashiwa

          My dealer (Manitoba) said they'd have some in August.

        • Not sure, they should be arriving shortly.

          • FWIW, my dealer here in Fargo has their 1st Dart.

    • Tazio

      did you drive the Fiat in China? or where?

      • Savant_Idiot

        Drove the Fiat 500. Switchgear was styled well, engineered and executed cheaply.

        • Tazio

          so are you comparing bigger class more expensive cars, there is really no point to do that, Small cars tends to be cheaper in every way

          • Savant_Idiot

            Nope. The Fiat was indeed styled well and very attractive, but lacked a tactile quality that would be required if I were to consider purchasing; knobs felt as if made by Playschool. At the price-points of the Fiat and the new Dodge there are Koreans with better quality. Hell, the Koreans are out styling that Japanese already…

            • Tazio

              nope? heh small cars are always made with worse materials take it or leave it. You cant compare small cars to mid size cars, there is few exections but not the Fiat 500

              • Savant_Idiot

                The point of my original question was whether the QUALITY of the Dodge switchgear and fit/finish was any better than the quality of the Fiat 500 is valid. I'm sure that the Fiat, as the Dodge, use many of the same knobs, switches and assembly techniques as they are from the same parent company.

                Your assertion that they should be given a pass on the issue of quality because of the price points of the products is ludicrous and proven to be so by my example of the Korean offerings in the same price categories. Fiats cars were dismal failures in the American market for precisely this reason and the reintroduction of them must be accompanied by some evidence that they are at least competitive in quality for them to survive.

                • Tazio

                  Im not sure they have any same parts. There isnt any Korean car in same category so its very hard to compare them. Your point is NOT VALID. I see no reason to compare Fiat 500 to Dodge Dart.

  • BobWellington

    Have you driven a Focus? And if so, how does this compare?

    • Funny, my in-laws whose house I am at at least once week, bought one in March… and I still didn't get to drive it. And I have n't driven one otherwise.

      • BobWellington

        Get to it! ha

  • Tazio

    "The Dart is loosely based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (Fiat Bravo, Lancia Delta), but it’s wider and longer."

    this car has not much doing with Bravo or Delta the platform is generally speaking fully new