Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye front
Photo by Curtis Reesor
The Dodge Dart is the first compact sedan from Chrysler since the Neon, and the first since the company’s new Italian owner, Fiat, has been at the helm. It’s definitely got Italian DNA including some Alfa Romeo Giulietta underpinnings (Alfa Romeo is also owned by Fiat) and the Fiat-sourced 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo, also found in the Fiat 500’s turbocharged models. Dart gets unique sheet metal, interior design, and more.

When we first reported on the Dodge Dart from the launch in Austin, TX in 2012, we said it was the best small car Dodge has ever offered. I still stand by that. The real question is the Dart good enough to stand up to the fierce competition in the compact segment?

Our test model is the Dart in Rallye trim, which includes 17"x7.5" wheels, fog lamps, dual exhaust, cruise control, premium seats, and a host of other bits. Our Dart also included the previously mentioned 1.4-liter MultiAir engine (a $1,300 option).

On the outside, we think the Dart’s non-Alfa Romeo (or Fiat) sheet metal is attractive. There’s the trademark Dodge cross-hair grille, a lower honeycomb grille, and a low-sloping hood and blacked-out headlamps. It’s hard to believe this came from the same company that offered the Caliber, frankly. There’s a slightly raked stance, attractive dark-colored wheels, and we love the Dart’s backside. Speaking of, the “racetrack” taillights look great during the day, but if you want to light the whole thing up at instead of just the corners, it’ll be an extra $225 option (a feature standard on the Dart GT). The large dual tailpipes add some sportiness to the package. I think the overall appearance is sophisticated without being too boy-racer; a premium look that maintains an unmistakably Dodge appearance.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye
Photo by Curtis Reesor
Back to those tailpipes: They make quite a sound once the Dart is fired up. Thanks to the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine, it sounds similar to the exhaust on the Fiat 500 Abarth, but with a volume level dialed at a livable 7 instead of the Abarth’s always-on 11 (there's your Spinal Tap reference for the year). It’s got a distinctive burble that’s not overwhelming, but it lets you know it’s there—we like it. Our Dart also came with the six-speed manual, which has long throws. It also has a giant shift knob. In addition, clutch uptake is vague. It isn’t the best manual shifter combo on the market, but we’re glad Dodge offers it.

Dodge Dart 6-speed manual transmission
Six-speed manual transmission
The 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled Dart makes 160 horsepower and a healthy 184 ft./lbs. of torque. Peak twist comes on at 2,550 RPM, and it makes an obvious appearance once it kicks in. Under 2,500 RPM, there isn’t much grunt. But once that torque kicks in, it’s as if the Abarth’s spirit has been summoned. The little 1.4 revs out very quickly, making the Dart feel quick (above 2,500 RPM, that is). Unfortunately, power delivery feels non-linier. There’s lag, boost, bits of what feel like more lag, more boost, then … SHIFT! Rev it up to redline, shift to second, and you’ll fall out of the power band, and have to wait to come back in. It’s an in-and-out game of power. Keep in mind Dodge does not consider the 1.4-liter turbo its performance engine—that’s reserved for the 184 horsepower 2.4-liter non-turbo MultiAir II Tigershark mill, although it makes 13 fewer ft./lbs. of torque. Our Dart is EPA rated at 27 city MPG and 39 highway MPG on premium gasoline. We achieved the city mileage in mostly urban driving. We feel it’s a good combination of performance and economy.

So while the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo is a bit scrappy, the Dart’s suspension is refined and poised. This is where the European DNA is most apparent. It feels very stable at highway speeds, corners confidently without much body roll, and has a suppleness that was not expected. This great chassis makes the Dart a lot of fun to fling into the curves and maintains a composed European-like ride on the open road.

Dodge Dart underseat storage
Dart seat storage
We like the look of the Dart’s interior, especially in higher-end two-tone trim levels. This Rallye tester had a lot of drab grey plastic, but most materials were at least above average. Also above average were the number of squeaks and rattles; among the most I’ve heard out of any new test vehicle recently. The good news is the interior is comfortable and roomy. Both the front and rear seats offer plenty of space, and those front buckets offer decent support. There is one feature that is great, but makes you wonder, “Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?” That’s the passenger’s seat bottom storage bin. Flip up the cushion and—BAM—storage space! Great idea, and a fantastic place to stash some stuff.

Dodge Dart Uconnect system
7" touch screen
Our Dart came with the fantastic Uconnect system. The combination of dials and a seven-inch touch-screen work shockingly well together, and it’s apparent that Chrysler has done its homework on this system. It’s among the best touch-screen infotainment and climate control systems we’ve experienced. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and provides simple-to-read information. Well played, Dodge. Our model also comes with navigation by Garmin, which we found simple and functional. As tested, our Dart Rallye came in at $23,560 including $795 in destination, which we think is on par for the segment.

The Dart has a lot going for it. It looks good, it performs well, and it’s not a run-of-the-mill compact. It’s got some personality, some spunk, and a great chassis, and we like that. We assume you could likely tune that 1.4-turbo for more power, too. Yes, there are some rattles, the interior color is a bit drab, and the engine has an off-and-on delivery. But, we still think it’s the best compact Chrysler has ever offered, and believe the Dart can certainly be competitive with others in the C-class. Is it going to start wooing Civic and Corolla die-hards or those looking for a VW GLI, MAZDASPEED3, or Focus ST? Likely not, or at least not until an SRT4 version comes out. But it’s certainly good enough to be considered by shoppers. And since Dodge's last compact wast he Caliber, that's a big deal.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye driving
Photo by Curtis Reesor

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