Cinderella and her stepsisters didn’t get along very well, and in fact Cindy had to do all the heavy lifting around the house while her homely siblings-by-marriage made use of their resultant leisure time by berating her for her beauty and charm. Dodge is now too a stepchild, its parent Chrysler having been forced into a marriage of financial convenience with the lusty Italian, Fiat.
Dodge may not have received a fairy godmother as did Cinderella, but they did get from sister Alfa Romeo a new platform upon which to base their bread and butter compact sedan. The resultant Dart is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the Caliber. At the recent Motor Press Guild Track Day, I got the chance to street test the 2013 Dart Limited, and thought you might like to know if this Giulietta-based sedan has what it takes to live happily ever after.
What initially jumps out in a walk-around of the 106.4-inch wheelbase sedan is that it doesn’t look anything like any Alfa you’ve ever seen. Chrysler and Fiat have done an excellent job imbuing the Dart with a whole passel of Dodge visual DNA. In fact, if you’re at all familiar with the old Dodge Neon, then you’ll be right at home with the Dart, and just adding to that comfort-food feeling are the brand’s current tropes – the gunsight grille and full-width tail lights.
Overall, the Limited, with its 17″ alloy wheels and clean lines, comes across as modern, agreeable, and wholly inoffensive. It’s not something that will catch your eye driving by, but then you probably won’t get tired of looking at it after a couple of years either.
Pop open the door and you’re greeted by a cabin that’s pretty roomy for its class – more so than a competing Ford Focus or Honda Civic, both of which are in the Dart’s sights. The interior also has a couple of features that the competition lacks – a configurable 7-inch LCD screen flanked by the analog tach and fuel gauge as the instrument cluster, and a freakishly large 8.4″ screen in the center stack which does the eleven-billion multitasking features such things do these days. I was successful in getting it to do Nav, Radio, and HVAC without having to look at the manual or enlist the aid of a tech-savvy teen, so that’s saying a lot.
Redundant steering wheel controls – including a pair of buttons hidden on the back of the horizontal spokes – mean you won’t have to dirty up the center screen with your fingerprints, but otherwise are a little daunting to behold. On the dashboard downside, I couldn’t figure out how to get the IP LCD to keep from displaying the garish and distracting DART at its top. It’s ugly and unnecessary. Also worth rethinking, the brushed aluminum trim around the air vents cause distracting reflections in the windshield.
Starting the Limited means pushing the plastic and very cheap-feeling button above your right knee. Doing so, the turbocharged 1.4-litre MultiAir four fires right up and settles into an almost imperceptible idle. That’s the Michigan-built FIRE (Fully Integrated Roboticized Engine) motor, which is shared with the 500 and here is turbocharged to the tune of 160-bhp.
Backing up the FIRE is a standard 6-speed manual transmission, while a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic is on the options list. The Fiat-designed row-yer-own offers ratios well-matched to the turbo four’s power band, but you’ll need to make good use of both the stick and your right foot as the car feels pretty dead below 3,000 rpm. That makes stop and go driving uneventful, but the 184-kb ft of torque and linear power delivery once the turbo gets on its spool makes the Dart an excellent cruiser. Interior noise levels were not onerous, although on full chat the engine makes some wonderful sounds, some of which thankfully do make their way inside.
All the controls, including the notchy shifter, feel a little sub-par when compared to say the Focus, but nothing in the feel or the apparent quality of the interior materials is a major turn off. There are some nice, as well as odd, details inside that warrant mention. For instance, the instrument cluster hood is covered in a stitched vinyl which has different colors of thread on each side, yellow on one, white on the other. Nice touch. Alternatively, the corners of the dash top – where the radio speakers reside – have a somewhat weird texture to them, and they too reflect in the windscreen.
The long wheelbase (stretched 3-inches from the Giulietta) helps the Dart provide a well controlled ride, and from my modest time behind the wheel I can affirm that the electric power steering assist is one of the best I have experienced. With its quick 15:1 ratio, the car feels sporty even in low speed maneuvers. Four-wheel discs offered unremarkable stopping capabilities and complimented the Dart’s overall solid performance feel.
Another feature in the Dart Limited’s favor is a competitively sized boot with split fold down rear seats for even more hauling capability. The whole back compartment is covered in that material that always reminds me of steamrollered grey mice, but then it is totally what you would expect in this price range.
And what is that price range? Well, the Dart starts out at a not unreasonable $15,995, while the option-rich Limited, as represented here, lists for $19,995. The MultiAir 1.4 adds $1,300 to that over the base 2.0, an engine which also puts out 160-ponies, but only 145 lb-ft of torque. That’s about right in line with the competition and like its competitors the Dart offers a wide range of models and options to meet many a need.
Cinderella finally found her prince at a ball, and she managed to live happily ever after. The 2013 Dodge Dart is – as far as compact sedans go – a ball to drive, and doesn’t cost a princely sum to buy. The marriage between Fiat and Chrysler may seem as odd as that between the Pentastar brand and its previous suitor Daimler, but if they continue to produce compelling offspring such as the Dart, it might just be a match made in heaven
Images: [©2012 Robert Emslie, All Rights Reserved]