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Wayne Cunningham/CNET

2013 Dodge Dart: A compact sedan with full-size sensibility

CNET's first drive in the all-new Dodge Dart revealed a very comfortable and quiet compact car with some surprising tech.

2013 Dodge Dart
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Behind the wheel of the 2013 Dodge Dart, there is no indication of its Italian underpinnings. Although the Dart was built on the same platform as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a small hatchback, it does not sip Limoncello or gesture excessively.

Granted I was driving the top, Limited trim model with a leather seat option, the cabin felt like a bigger sedan. The driver's seat could have handled someone with a wider torso than mine, and if a hypothetical passenger had just downed a plate of garlic fries, the cabin is wide enough to have kept me out of the danger zone. The front seats, although very comfortable, boast slim backs, allowing increased leg room for the rear passengers. Contributing to the premium feel was the 8.4-inch touch-screen head unit, the same as in the Charger, which Dodge uses to effectively limit the spread of physical button over the dashboard.

The most innovative feature, and unheard of in a car with a price tag of $19,995 (for the Limited trim; the base model starts at $15,995), is the LCD instrument cluster. Some people will question whether it is a good idea to use an LCD instead of good old-fashioned gauges, but I have seen probably as many failed gauges in my time as LCDs. I do not think the LCD will be any less reliable, and it lets the driver choose different configurations, bringing forward the data he finds most relevant.

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This Limited trim Dart was powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine using Fiat's Multiair valve timing technology, similar to the engine in the Fiat 500 Abarth. However, in the Dart this engine runs quietly, with none of the roar and backfiring fun of the Abarth. Running through the gears of the six-speed manual, turbo-lag made the acceleration a little uneven. Dodge's base engine for the Dart is a naturally aspirated 2-liter, which should produce more linear acceleration. However, the 2-liter produces less power and gets lower fuel economy than the 1.4-liter. After the initial launch, Dodge will also offer an R/T version, featuring a 2.4-liter engine.

The manual transmission had a very tight shift gate, fine for a performance car but not in keeping with the bread-and-butter compact class in which the Dart lives. I would expect most Americans would prefer something a little looser, less prone to making a wrong gear selection. As most of us prefer automatics, the manual will probably not see much adoption. Dodge will offer a six-speed automatic transmission with the 2-liter and 2.4-liter engines, but the 1.4-liter gets a much more exciting option. Dodge is using the same six-speed dual-clutch automated manual as in the Giulietta. I have not driven this transmission yet, but generally these types of automated manuals offer the efficiency of a manual with the convenience of an automatic.

The roomy, comfortable cabin of the Dart would seem to suggest a springy, wallowy ride, but that was not the case. The Dart felt very solid. In my brief drive the body felt very rigid while cornering, and the ride quality was never rough. Much of that ride quality can be attributed to the Dart's platform. Instead of using a cheap torsion bar suspension at the rear, the Dart benefits from the Giulietta platform's bi-link suspension. Dodge did not cheap out on the brakes, either, sticking with discs on all four wheels. Some compact car makers use drums on the rear wheels as a cost-saving measure.

The compact-car segment offers fierce competition. Dodge sees the new Dart as going up against the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Hyundai Elantra, among others. From my experience behind the wheel, it is certainly a car worth considering. Its tech options alone make it one of the top contenders, and the one I drove felt like a more expensive vehicle than it was.

The 2013 Dodge Dart will begin appearing at dealerships this month, with a base price for the SE model of $15,995. Tech options do not hit until the SXT model, which has a base price of $17,995. The Limited trim model, at $19,995, comes with the most standard tech features and offers further options, such as blind-spot detection and a rear cross-path detection system, which uses radar to warn of oncoming cars when the Dart is backing out of a parking space.