Austin, TX – Right out of the box, the brand new 2013 Dodge Dart is designed, equipped and priced to go head-to-head with the best compact cars on the market.
There was some skepticism when it was announced several months ago that Chrysler was about to bring back the iconic Dart name, attached to an Italian chassis. But you don’t have to drive more than a hundred metres in the 2013 Dodge Dart before you realize they got it right.
The combination of Italian DNA along with Dodge engineering and execution has resulted in a brand new small car that instantly feels at home in North America while showing off some European driving dynamics.
The early pre-production models we drove here, fresh off the Belvidere, Illinois assembly line, eliminated any fears about Italian quality left over from vehicles from that country decades ago.
From the time you first close a door to the last pothole, the 2013 Dart feels as though carved from a billet of steel. That positive impression grows even more when you turn the steering wheel. This is a small Dodge like no other before it.
The Dart is the latest of 20 new or significantly refreshed vehicles introduced by Chrysler in the past two years and plays a critical role in the company’s remarkable comeback. The Dart was unveiled to the Canadian media here the same day Chrysler reported record first quarter profits that helped offset losses at parent company Fiat.
The Dart will play a significant role in maintaining this latest comeback for Chrysler. The company has enjoyed 29 consecutive months of year-over-year sales growth. By the end of March it had 15.2% of the Canadian market compared to 14.9% for Ford, 13.5% for GM and 10.9% for Toyota.
And it has done this without a single entry in the largest segment of the Canadian market! Compact cars account for almost one-quarter of all new-vehicle purchases in Canada. There are 23 vehicles competing in the category and Chrysler wants a piece of that 350,000-unit pie.
The competition at the top of the sales charts would be well-advised to look over their shoulders, because the Dart is not only capable of making a mark, it has the goods to jump right to the top tier.
The exterior design is a bit characterless at the front but the rear is really good looking for a small car. The designers used lights as an accent with projector beam units up front and 150 LEDs at the rear.
First unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January the Dart’s styling showed a car that looked bigger than the competition. And it is, offering the longest wheelbase and overall length in the class, the widest front track and greatest width and, best-in-class front shoulder, hip and rear seat legroom and more overall interior volume than many mid-size cars.
Broad model range
Chrysler product planners have ensured there will be a Dart for all takers with an incredible array of models ranging from $15,995 to $23,995. The computers at the Belvidere assembly plant might be challenged to keep up with five trim levels, 12 exterior colors, 14 interior combinations, seven wheel choices, three engines and three transmissions. Chrysler claims there are more than 100,000 ways to customize a Dart.
The 2013 Dart will come in five flavours. The base SE at $15,995 comes with remote keyless entry, power windows, locks and mirrors, six-way adjustable driver’s seat, four wheel disc brakes and hill start assist, but no air conditioning.
The $17,995 SXT is expected to be the volume model. It adds air conditioning, an audio upgrade, 17-inch wheels, alarm system, split-folding rear seat back and an automatic is available at $1,300. Other available options include the 1.4-litre MultiAir engine and a giant 8.4-in touch-screen navigation system with back-up camera.
Alfa Romeo origins
All this would be a waste if the base vehicle was merely average or worse. But that is not the case with the Dart. It starts out with the platform used by the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a sporty two-door coupe known throughout Europe for its Italian attitude and driving dynamics.
A little break here for a family tree lesson. Fiat owns controlling interest in Chrysler after saving it from bankruptcy a few years ago. Alfa Romeo is the affordable, sporty branch of the Fiat family; the other sporty branch is a little company called Ferrari. To say the Dart has driving dynamics in its genetic code would be an understatement!
With that proven and widely respected beginning, Chrysler engineers set out to adapt the platform to North American needs. We don’t have the tight confines of European streets and do have a preference for more interior space so the donor platform was widened by 50 mm (2.0 inches) and stretched by 300 mm (about a foot).
I know what you are thinking – they’ve fattened it up and dumbed it down. But no they have not. The Dart has a pleasant, European-tight ride quality as well as the nimble and responsive handling associated with Alfa Romeo.
The drivetrain consists of three distinct engines and three transmissions. The base unit on the SE and SXT is a carried-over 2.0-litre 160-horsepower DOHC four.
A Fiat-developed, turbocharged, 1.4-litre four is next up the ladder featuring that company’s patented MultiAir intake technology. Despite its much smaller size, it produces the same horsepower and 25% more torque while using 10% less fuel!
Coming in the fall is a 2.4-litre Chrysler four with a Multi-Air intake system. A six-speed manual is standard equipment, a conventional six-speed automatic with torque converter optional and a dual shaft six-speed automatic is on the way.
All the safety bases are covered. In addition to the now-mandatory ABS and electronic stability control, the Dart has 10 airbags, four-wheel disc brakes and electronic traction control.
Room and refinement
Step into the Dart and the initial impression is of room and refinement. There is a lot of design work but it is not overdone. A clever use of material, colors and technology is everywhere.
There are no piano black, chrome or satin metal finishes. Rather, contrasting or exterior colors are used in small, subtle ways. There are a lot of thick, soft-touch coverings on the dash, door panels and armrests, overall, one of the nicest interiors in the sub-$35,000 class.
The seats are a new design and even on the most basic model offer commendable support and comfort. Thanks to a compact and vertical Fiat-derived HVAC system, the glove box is extremely deep, so much so it will accommodate a full-size laptop computer! There is also a hidden storage compartment beneath the front passenger seat.
On the road, the Dart is commendably quiet, the result of the stiff chassis, more than 600 hours in the wind tunnel and innovative use of insulation and acoustic materials.
The standard engine proved smooth and quiet if not exactly exciting. The 1.4-turbo is a sweetheart with good grunt once the tach passes 1,500 rpm or so, but rather lifeless below that. The six-speed automatic has well- programmed shifts and the six-speed manual a light, progressive clutch. The handling, as indicated above, is exemplary!
Chrysler has managed to bring choice, size, style, performance and unexpected features to the compact class. Sounds like a recipe for success to me!