We are witnessing a significant shift in the tide. The “Big Three”, as they used to be called when Detroit ruled the sales charts, all have foreign-based products at the small end of their product line, the point where sales are most active.
For GM it’s either Daewoo or Opel that provide the basis for a variety of smaller cars. Ford has its own European lineup which is now directly supplying product to North America and Chrysler is delving into the Fiat/Alfa Romeo product line.
The result is a significant upgrade in small car offerings from the Detroit-based companies. Instead of paying lip service to this segment with pretty terrible product, GM Ford and Chrysler showrooms are now stocked with neat cars.
The 2013 Dodge Dart is a perfect example of this new era of cross-ocean development, the product of the Fiat-Chrysler union. Initially the Italian company rescued the American one from bankruptcy but more recently Chrysler profits are propping up Fiat.
The recent strength of Chrysler and its huge growth in sales and market share are possible in part because of the development funds made available by Fiat. A steady string of new or heavily-updated product has resulted in a resurgence for the folks in Michigan. Perhaps the best example of this partnership is the 2013 Dodge Dart.
Filling a void
That's a big market to leave vacant.
Once the legal and financial issues related to Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler were covered, the Italian and American engineers began work on filling that gap.
They started with the platform developed for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, widely acknowledged as one of the best-handling cars in Europe. But unlike similar programs at Ford and GM, they did a lot more than adapt the European car to American roads and expectations.
The development team heavily modified the chassis widening the track by more than 50-mm and adding 300-mm to the wheelbase.
Spacious and stylish
The result of that increased size is class-leading interior space and building the new Dart in Illinois makes it possible for customers to choose from 12 exterior colours and 14 interior colour and trim choices.
The Italian connection is evident inside with a distinct flare for fashion, including contrasting stitching (red on dark grey on my test vehicle) and trim combinations. Soft-touch materials abound and carefully thought-out ambient lighting adds an air of refinement uncommon at this price point.
The glove box is exceptionally deep and there are numerous other storage spaces scattered throughout. A wide array of technologies are also standard or available including a 21-cm media center with voice recognition and a full-colour TFT(Thin Film Transistor) instrument cluster.
My test vehicle had the Garmin-based navigation system which is much more intuitive and far less expensive than units available in competitive products.
Sweet new engine
The Dart is initially available with two engines – the standard unit being a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that's common among a variety of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles.
But my test vehicle had the new 1.4-litre Tigershark engine, direct from Fiat with its MultiAir technology and high-pressure turbo. It produces the same power as the larger 2.0 – 160 horsepower – but much more torque – 184 lb-ft compared to 148 lb-ft for the standard engine.
Fiat owns Ferrari and the Italian love of engines surfaces here. The Multiair engine uses hydraulics to control the amount the intake valves open and how long they stay that way as a method of controlling engine airflow. The result is impressive fuel economy and emission benefits as well as 10% more power – and a really neat exhaust note.
But, while there is an impressive amount of power on tap you have to concentrate to keep it available. Using as much as 22 pounds of boost, the turbo provides the punch, but be careful not to catch it snoozing, below 2000 rpm, because it takes a while to wake up.
Work the gearbox to ensure you are near the engine’s sweet spot, however, and the little devil will put a smile on your face, especially when paired with the six-speed manual gearbox which has well-defined gates, a progressive and positive clutch and perfectly-spaced ratios.
There is another side to this engine. Despite frequently sampling its power potential, I averaged 7.2 L/100 km over a 350-km mix of city and highway driving – hybrid mileage without the sacrifices associated with driving a hybrid – but definitely not hybrid-like performance!
Those same Italian genes crop up when you turn the steering wheel. With independent suspension at each corner and a solid chassis the dynamics are decidedly European with just a touch of American softness.
There is a lightness to the controls unfamiliar to the Dodge brand, as is the alacrity when tackling the turns. Kudos to the chassis and suspension team for coming up with such a pleasant blend of ride and handling in a small family car.
In addition to the above, the new Dart has another weapon in its arsenal as it goes into battle in the toughest segment of the market – price.
At less than $16,000 the base SE model comes with 10-airbags, remote keyless entry and a tilt & telescope steering wheel.
The next step up the trim ladder is the SXT, followed by the subject of this test – the Rallye. Further up the ladder rest the Limited and R/T.
The Rallye starts at $17,995 which includes 17-in wheels, six-way adjustable (manual) front seats, a six-speaker audio system, power windows and locks and air conditioning. The test car also had $5,650 worth of options, among them the Multiair engine at $1300.
It has been a long time since a small car wearing the Dodge label was competitive and this much fun to drive.