Based on a premium Italian compact car, the Dodge Dart boasts an excellent undercarriage, but its turbocharged engine suffers from some serious lag.
The new Dodge Dart embodies the essence of dartiness more than any of the original models, which last saw production in 1976. Underneath its curves, the body forms a wedge shape, with the grille at the sharp end. And the 2013 Dart is nimble, benefiting from excellent underpinnings.
Among compact cars, the Dart may have the best bones in the business. It borrows its platform from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a premium car in the European market. As such, it gets disc brakes all around and a multilink rear suspension, where some automakers go for the cheaper option of drum brakes and a torsion bar suspension in back.
But with a car optioned like the one I tested, you will have to work to exploit that nimble handling. Between engines, transmissions, and trim levels, Dodge offers a lot of choice, perhaps too much. CNET's Rallye trim car was upgraded from a 2-liter four-cylinder to the Fiat-designed turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair engine, a $1,300 option. The six-speed manual transmission was swapped out for an $1,100 dual clutch automated manual.
The engine and transmission combination in CNET's car is certainly the most advanced technology available for the Dart's drivetrain, but its performance left something to be desired. Turbo lag made acceleration an uneven proposition, with a slow start followed by kick-in-the-pants boost. The transmission's shifts also took a few more milliseconds than I would expect from an automated manual.
Taking the Dart down a road with many sharp curves at speed, the suspension gave it excellent manners, but the turbo lag made it tough to exploit the handling. The dual clutch transmission includes a manual gear selection mode, which let me keep it in third, downshifting to second for some sharp turns. Using the transmission to keep the engine speed high eliminated some of the lag, but keeping the turbo spooled up all the time proved difficult.
On city streets and big freeways, the suspension felt very capable, giving the Dart a comfortable ride and reasonably sharp handling. Dodge tuned the electric power steering so as to give the wheel some heft. The turning radius was wider than I would expect for a compact, and made some maneuvers more difficult. I also noticed a hill hold feature, useful to have when stopped on one of San Francisco's steep streets.
On the freeway, the Dart cruised comfortably along, the transmission topped out in sixth gear and the engine speed at around 2,500rpm. But whenever I had to start from a stop on a city street, the turbo lag reared its head, the engine straining and sounding off with an unearthly wail as the car tried to pick up speed.
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine produces 160 horsepower and a healthy 184 pound-feet of torque. The standard 2-liter engine delivers 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, and likely more-even acceleration. The EPA estimates for the 2-liter with a manual transmission are 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. With its upgraded engine and transmission, the Dart comes in at 27 mpg city and 37 mpg highway in EPA testing. During CNET's test, the Dart showed an average of 30.8 mpg, a number we hit without trying too hard.
I previously drove a Dart with the turbocharged 1.4-liter and the six-speed manual. The turbo lag was still in evidence, but the transmission let me control it better than with the dual clutch transmission. However, as the overwhelming majority of American buyers purchase cars with automatic transmissions, the standard 2-liter engine will be a better option for them, as the acceleration will be more linear, although less powerful.
Along with the turbo lag, what stood out most about the Dart was the massive touch screen in the center of the dashboard. At 8.4 inches, this screen has to be the biggest available in a compact car. It is the same system we previously saw in the Dodge Charger.
As in the Charger, the Dart does away with most buttons or dials on the dashboard in favor of the big touch screen. However, Dodge maintains volume and tuning dials just above the climate controls, and more buttons on the steering wheel. The result is a very clean design for the dashboard.
The onscreen interface is another matter. Dodge partnered with Garmin for navigation, shoe-horning its software in with Dodge's own phone and stereo screens. Anyone familiar with Garmin navigation will immediately recognize the bright colors and big icons on the Dart's touch screen. The Garmin theme is not exactly in harmony with the other screens in the Dart's head unit, although operationally everything works very smoothly together. I would really like to see the Garmin software skinned to fit in with Dodge's other screens, which are much better-looking.
Garmin is a proven navigation maker, and its software works very well in the Dart. The system gave me plenty of options for entering addresses and worked quickly. However, it would be nice not to have to dig into a menu to change the map view from perspective to 2D. Under route guidance, the system showed useful graphics for upcoming turns and read out street names with voice prompts. At times, the maps was slow to render, but usually only after first starting the system or when it recalculated a route.
One feature I particularly liked is that the navigation system announced traffic problems on the road ahead even when I did not have a destination programmed. Dodge integrated Sirius Travel Link with the system, making such information as weather, gas prices, and even movie times available on screen, something not often found on compact cars. I was able to look at a list of gas stations and their per-gallon prices, select one, and set it as my destination.
A button on the steering wheel marked VR activated voice command, with control over navigation and some audio features. For destinations, this system let me speak the entire address string, which it parsed correctly then entered into navigation.
As well as the voice command worked, I was disappointed to see that Dodge implemented a separate voice command system for the Bluetooth phone system, complete with its own button on the steering wheel. This button, marked by a phone symbol, let me tell the car to call anyone in my paired phone's contact list by name. The Dart also included a screen with complete phone book access.
The audio screens were also nicely designed and easy to use. With just about any stored music device plugged into the car's USB port, the screen showed album art for the current track. I found it easy to browse the music library of my iPhone when I had it cabled to the car, but after choosing an album to play, the system arranged the songs alphabetically rather than by track number. That was annoying, and would be especially bad for listening to classical music.
The stereo supported Bluetooth streaming as well, but did not show track information on the screen.
Following an old Chrysler design theme, the Dart has buttons for volume control and track selection embedded on the backs of the steering-wheel spokes, making them invisible to passengers. While I quickly learned how to use these buttons by feel, I found myself accidentally hitting the track skip button while cranking the steering wheel hard around. It was annoying.
Dodge makes a nine-speaker Alpine audio system available for the Dart, but CNET's car came with the standard six-speaker system. However, I was very pleased with the music reproduction, which showed more quality than I would expect in a typical compact car. Bass was not very strong, but the music came through with excellent definition. Highs occasionally sounded kind of metallic, which was unpleasant.
Not the most techie trim
One feature of Dodge's new Dart not available on the Rallye trim car is an LCD instrument cluster. It offers excellent versatility, able to show a variety of driver-selectable information. This feature can only be had on the Limited or R/T trim cars.
In the very competitive compact car set, the 2013 Dodge Dart represents some good value propositions. Both it and the Ford Focus gain a lot of influence from European automotive design, including a very well-engineered suspension.
When it comes to the Dart's drivetrain options, it is easy to become confused. A simple axiom would be to get the manual transmission with the turbo engine, or the automatic transmission with the standard 2-liter engine. The R/T model promises a 2.4-liter engine, which will probably take a fuel economy hit versus the other engines.
The cabin electronics in the Dart are ambitious, but generally very feature-rich and easy to use. The big touch screen can be had sans the navigation system, reserving all of that space for the stereo and phone system, preserving the aesthetic theme implemented by Dodge.
|Model||2013 Dodge Dart|
|Power train||Turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||27 mpg city/37 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-memory-based system with integrated traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, Satellite radio|
|Audio system||Alpine nine-speaker 506-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$24,460|