Test Driven: 2013 Dodge Dart SXT Multiair Turbo (9/10)Posted: August 9, 2012
The new Dart is the first car to market that is truly a joint effort between Fiat and Chrysler. The chassis and mechanicals come straight from the European Alfa Romeo Giulietta, while the exterior, interior, and Tigershark engines are all American. This is a critical product for Chrysler, one that will serve as a first impression for their alliance with Fiat, and the things to come. I went in to find out for myself if this new car marked a positive beginning for “Second Half America”, or a fumbled, Frankenstein-like creation from two companies caught in their own financial struggles. In many ways I felt a lot was riding on this drive when I stepped into this hot blue Dart.
Starting from the exterior the Dart has a very interesting shape, especially by the standards of its notably boring market segment. It is very curvy, and there are a lot of contour lines around the car that give it a muscular, even somewhat sleek appearance. It is undoubtedly the best looking compact car that Chrysler has ever made, and I mean by light years, not mere miles. The Dart is genuinely attractive, but still in an unmistakably Dodge kind of way. This is all fine and good, so long as you haven’t seen the Alfa Giulietta on which it is based. While the Italians definitely seem to have had their hands in the design of the Dart, it cannot match the rolling sculpture that is the Giulietta. Alfa Romeos have always been known for being some of the prettiest things on four wheels, so I cannot fault the Dodge for not looking quite as good. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel a little short changed in the styling department having recently seen the Gulietta in Europe. It is the difference between being a “great looking car” and a masterpiece of design in my opinion.
The Dart’s interior is much the same story from a design perspective when compared to the Alfa’s, but I’m not going to banter on about that. Overall it is very attractive and exudes a level of higher quality for this segment. Everything is very well laid out and attention has been paid to ergonomic niceties such as a center armrest and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. There is lots of useable space for occupants as well. I am 5’11” and, even with my comfortable driving position, I was still very comfortable in the rear seat, having no trouble getting in or out either. Four people of my size would be very comfortable in the Dart on a sizeable journey.
There are also lots of practical features that help make the Dart stand out amongst similar sedans. The rear seats have a small pass through to the trunk for things like hockey sticks, or they fold flat to accommodate larger items. There are also lots of handy cubbies located around the car, including one very incognito compartment under the front passenger seat, which is perfect for hiding your road rage weapon of choice, illicit bag of entertaining herbs, or anything else you may not want found during a routine traffic stop. The Dart also features one of the deepest glove compartments I have ever seen; I could not reach the back of it from the driver’s seat. These convenient features will help secure all of your gadgets while you drive, and there are options available to make the car integrate with those gadgets should you desire. Overall, the Dart is one of the more practically minded sedans I have come across, and that surely adds to its appeal.
This car had the 6 speed manual transmission, and it was very well refined. The gear change was long and a little vague in feel, but it had a silky smooth action to it that I felt was perfect for this sort of car. I also never found myself missing gears, so it wasn’t too bad, just not ultra crisp like I am used to in my own car. The clutch on the Dart was also very well suited for it, being very soft, but offering a good amount of sensation as to where the clutch was in its engagement. As manuals go for normal cars, this one was very good at offering the desired driving engagement while not being cumbersome at all.
On the road I found the Dart to be very smooth and easy to drive. The excellent ride quality softened the jumbled Michigan roadways into just subtle interference. With the windows up I was also very impressed with how quiet the car was, road and wind noise required concentration to notice. The seats were heavily cushioned, but also kept me nice and snug; a great mix of comfort and support.
The motor in this Dart was the same 1.4L Multiair Turbo found in the Fiat 500 Abarth, and I am pleased to announce that they have not softened it up. There is still a glorious crackle from the exhaust on the overrun, like you get in a Ferrari, and it snarls meanly as the revs climb. This engine gives the Dart some genuine character not usually present in a compact sedan. It has an attitude that seems to make it want to smash a bottle over the head of a Toyota Corolla and then say “Oh that’s terrible, what happened to your face?”.
Other than the attitude the 1.4T gives the Dart, it also gives it a great balance of fuel economy and performance. This Dart will do 27city and 39hwy, while also offering the most torque of any of the Dart’s engine options. The little 1.4L makes 160bhp and 184ft/lbs of torque, and this gives it some very decent pull for passing or merging. It is all midrange power because of the turbo, so you don’t have to work it very hard to access its performance; less work means a longer lasting engine and better fuel mileage. For any enthusiast minded types, the 1.4T is also by far the most tunable of the Dart Range, and will easily beat the 2.4L Tigershark motor’s 184bhp with a simple tune (Results on the Abarth show around 200bhp from just a ECU flash). The only downside to the 1.4T is that it should run on premium fuel, a real turn off to some buyers. Dodge says you can run mid-grade, but does not really recommend it. I maintain that is totally worth running premium on a motor like this for the better mileage, performance, and drivability.
The 1.4T made it easy to merge on the highway, and I even got to 90mph by accident on the onramp. It isn’t what I’d call “fast” but it is quick enough to enjoy, and command yourself in traffic. While cruising at 80mph the rev counter read about 2700-2800rpm in 6th gear; that is how you get 40mpg from a decent motor, a nice tall high gear. The Dart’s European build was also quite evident in how solid it felt on the road at speed, it is truly effortless and a far cry from the awful American econoboxes of old. It is a really solid package, one that lets you have your cake and eat it too, regarding performance and economy.
Through corners the Dart’s Alfa Romeo DNA shines through as well. It was very composed on both hard, sweeping onramps and on tight turns around town. Steering is good enough, not sharp and not loose, again best suited for the type of car that it is. The gearing is a little on the taller side, as mentioned above, but the turbo’s midrange torque allows it to work fine in technical situations. There is a noticeable amount of body roll, but it catches itself nicely and becomes very well balanced once the suspension is loaded up. This car will obviously understeer at the limit, but people buying a car like this generally don’t explore that realm too often, so for their purposes the Dart’s handling will be excellent.
So, have Chrysler and Fiat made a good first impression? Absolutely. I honestly came away from this drive pretty blown away. Sure a car in this segment has to be practical and economical in its function. That is where most of the Dart’s competitors end, which makes them very uninspiring. The Dart, on the other hand, does all of that brilliantly, and then adds some flavor that inspires some emotion (at least in the 1.4T). The Italian touches are undoubtedly what add this extra appeal because it is something that present in all Italian cars. So here is the Dart, a mixed product that employs American functionality and common sense with Italian passion and flare. For me this makes the Dart an extremely attractive product, one that really stands out among its competitors. The 1.4L Multiar Turbo is undoubtedly the best engine available for this car, one that is well worth having to buy premium gas for. If you are able to recognize that, then all of the other “Tigershark” engines seem backward and obsolete because the 1.4T outperforms them in every way. I drove the manual transmission here, but there is also a dual clutch available in addition to a traditional automatic, so even if you can’t drive stick you can still get the same fuel economy with the DDCT. The car I drove, an SXT model, came in around $20,000 even, a lot of value for money if you ask me. More bells and whistles will bring prices up into the low-mid 20s, but that is all.
In hindsight I am actually finding myself smitten with this car. I laugh and have to ask, “Why on Earth do I need an epic crackling exhaust in a car that competes with a Honda Civic?” The answer is that extra flavor that I mentioned above. It is a case of needs and wants; the Dart does everything you need it to do and then does many things you would want it to do, while most of its competitors simply do not. In addition to the wonderful crackling exhaust, you also get the cool dual exhaust style, and those definitive wrap around tail lights. The design is also far more sculpted and interesting than anything else like it, it has badass options like black wheels too, and it is available in a host of cool colors that are uncommon these days in the automotive sector. The Dart has genuine character and seems to have been designed specifically to not be boring. The way I see it is, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a car, then why not spend it one that you will truly enjoy? For me the Dart marks the real beginning of “Second Half America” for Chrysler, and they have started by nabbing a touchdown on the first play.
WoM Score: Dodge Dart SXT Turbo
Primary Function: Practicality: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(2), MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9/10