By being at the wrong place at the wrong time, FIAT managed to acquire a controlling stake in Chrysler for no cash. They did have to agree to provide Chrysler with platforms and powertrains. Three years after that deal, Dodge has introduced the first car based on Italian innards, the Dart compact sedan.
The Dart's exterior is fairly attractive, at least with the right wheels, but looks more like a product of the 1990s than today. The competing Ford Focus is crisper. Parts of the interior similarly appear dated, such as the pudgy contours and non-flush faceplates of the center stack. The optional reconfigurable instruments and 8/4" uconnect touchscreen, on the other hand, could not be more 2013. Colorful trim avaiable in the upper level cars also adds visual interest. The quality of materials is better than the class average, if not quite up to the Focus and Cruze.
The driving position is higher than the current norm. This would make for very good forward visibility if the instrument panel wasn't so deep. Rearward visibility is poor. The front seats provide decent lateral support in turns but feel overstuffed rather than form-fitting. The rear seat is among the tightest in the segment--it's just barely roomy enough for a six-foot passenger--and its cushion is undersized.
The 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged engine would be plenty powerful in a lighter car. Unfortunately, the Dart weighs about 3,200 pounds, as much as some midsize cars. Also, the engine produces little power below 3,000 rpm. You must rev it to get the car to scoot. This engine was initially offered only with a manual transmission. The shifter feels a little clunky and long of throw, but is passable. The clutch is awful, grabbing only at the very top of a long, spongy travel. EPA ratings of 25 city, 36 highway are decent, but a few mpg short of the segment's best.
The Dart handles pretty well, with decent balance, moderate lean, and little float. But the Ford Focus feels better still. The Dodge's steering provides little in the way of feedback. While the norm these days, as a result I didn't find the car fun to drive. On the other hand, the Dart rides very smoothly and quietly, the latter thanks to triple door seals.
The Dodge is one of the more expensive cars in the segment. The tested car listed for $22,965. Higher trim levels with options can cost well over $25,000. To thoroughly compare prices and features with competitors, or to research reliability or real-world fuel economy, visit the site I created to gather information on these areas: truedelta.com.
To be fair, I am implicitly or explicitly comparing the Dart to the Ford Focus, which is a surprisingly good car. Compared to most other compacts, the Dodge would stand a much better chance. For someone who cares less about peformance and handling, and more about features available only on the Dodge in this segment (e.g. heated steering wheel, rearview camera, rear cross-traffic detection, auto-dimming headlights, reconfigurable LCD instrumentation, power four-way lumbar support), the Dart is worth a look.
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