The 2013 Dodge Dart. (Chrysler )
If today's compact car segment is a party, it's a good one. Nearly every automaker is attending; the room is packed with plenty of attractive models that are worth spending some time with. This is a crowd in which even the few Debbie Downers and malcontents are due for updates soon.
Conspicuously absent from this soiree has been Dodge. Its previous offering was a hatchback thing called the Caliber, as in "Boy, this is a really low-caliber product." To no one's disappointment, it left the party in 2011. But now Dodge has returned for the 2013 model year. And this time, it brought along its Italian majority-owner Fiat.
Behold the Dodge Dart, a sedan that starts at $16,790 and should have no trouble making friends. It's American history riding on European success.
PHOTOS: The 2013 Dodge Dart
Beneath the Dart's curvaceous body panels and trademark design cues of current Dodge products is an assemblage of parts sourced from Fiat. (Fiat, you'll remember, owns a majority stake in Chrysler, which owns Dodge). The Dart shares its chassis, suspension, an engine and a transmission with another Fiat entity, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (pronounced like Romeo's paramour with an A at the end).
This Alfa is a popular sell in Europe and critically appreciated, so Dodge decided to use it as a point of reentry into the critical compact segment on our shores. The company then thumbed through the pages of its automotive history and plucked the successful Dart nameplate last seen in 1976. It will ring nostalgic for some generations, and completely fresh for others.
The 2013 Dart, assembled in Illinois, kicks things off with one of the most powerful base engines in the segment. It draws 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque out of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Not only does it have plenty of kick for a car of this size, but this engine's refined composure, even when pushed hard, is truly impressive. This thing is so smooth, it'd ask your sister out on a date and then get you to pay for their dinner.
Buyers can pair it with the six-speed manual transmission that comes standard, or spend $1,100 for a six-speed automatic. The latter wasn't available to test, so my time was spent with only the manual. It's a solid unit and is easy to live with on a daily basis, even in L.A.'s unhinged traffic. My only beef with the transmission was that the vague feel of the shifter meant you occasionally landed in the wrong gear.
Darts with this engine and transmission combination are rated at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway. During 200 miles of testing, I averaged 25.5 miles per gallon, a figure that isn't particularly groundbreaking. If you want better efficiency and a boost in torque, the Dart has you covered via the miracle of turbocharging.
That's because Dodge has as a $1,300 option: a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that you may recognize from its duties in the Fiat 500 Abarth. Horsepower is the same as the Dart's base engine at 160, but torque jumps to 184 pound-feet. Meanwhile, fuel economy increases to 27 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway. I snuck in a few quick days with this engine and certainly enjoyed its eager pull and slightly tuned exhaust note, but wished for more low-end torque.
Regardless of engine, the Dart sails down freeways with quiet aplomb. Wind and road noise are nicely isolated, and the entire car's construction has a robustness rare for this segment. The heavy-duty build comes with a weight penalty, as this Dodge is heavier than almost all of its peers. But the steering and handling remain nimble and encouraging.
Despite its heft, the Dart never looks plodding or slow. The overall look is sporty and sleek, which may turn off a handful of potential buyers who want something more conservative or upscale. But it's never ugly. The front has a pinched nose and a minute version of Dodge's cross hair grille. The back also maintains the company's current aesthetic with wrap-around LED taillamps sitting under a trunk lid with a distinct lip to it.
My tester with the base engine had the Rallye package added to it. For $1,000 you get appreciable items including 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights and a dual exhaust system that features a little more edge in its voice.
Unfortunately, once you turn inward, the kit included in this package gets a little weird. The seats and much of the interior on cars with the Rallye trim are covered in a gray fabric that resembles that of a wetsuit. Dodge then contrasted this with large swaths of trim on the doors in an ungodly neon green. It looked like you robbed a scuba-diving store in the 1980s and then lined the Dart's interior with your plunder.