The new Dodge Dart embodies the essence of dartiness more than any of the original models, which last saw production in 1976. Underneath its curves, the body forms a wedge shape, with the grille at the sharp end. And the 2013 Dart is nimble, benefiting from excellent underpinnings.
Among compact cars, the Dart may have the best bones in the business. It borrows its platform from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a premium car in the European market. As such, it gets disc brakes all around and a multilink rear suspension, where some automakers go for the cheaper option of drum brakes and a torsion bar suspension in back.
But with a car optioned like the one I tested, you will have to work to exploit that nimble handling. Between engines, transmissions, and trim levels, Dodge offers a lot of choice, perhaps too much. CNET's Rallye trim car was upgraded from a 2-liter four-cylinder to the Fiat-designed turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair engine, a $1,300 option. The six-speed manual transmission was swapped out for an $1,100 dual clutch automated manual.
The engine and transmission combination in CNET's car is certainly the most advanced technology available for the Dart's drivetrain, but its performance left something to be desired. Turbo lag made acceleration an uneven proposition, with a slow start followed by kick-in-the-pants boost. The transmission's shifts also took a few more milliseconds than I would expect from an automated manual.
Taking the Dart down a road with many sharp curves at speed, the suspension gave it excellent manners, but the turbo lag made it tough to exploit the handling. The dual clutch transmission includes a manual gear selection mode, which let me keep it in third, downshifting to second for some sharp turns. Using the transmission to keep the engine speed high eliminated some of the lag, but keeping the turbo spooled up all the time proved difficult.
On city streets and big freeways, the suspension felt very capable, giving the Dart a comfortable ride and reasonably sharp handling. Dodge tuned the electric power steering so as to give the wheel some heft. The turning radius was wider than I would expect for a compact, and made some maneuvers more difficult. I also noticed a hill hold feature, useful to have when stopped on one of San Francisco's steep streets.
On the freeway, the Dart cruised comfortably along, the transmission topped out in sixth gear and the engine speed at around 2,500rpm. But whenever I had to start from a stop on a city street, the turbo lag reared its head, the engine straining and sounding off with an unearthly wail as the car tried to pick up speed.
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine produces 160 horsepower and a healthy 184 pound-feet of torque. The standard 2-liter engine delivers 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, and likely more-even acceleration. The EPA estimates for the 2-liter with a manual transmission are 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. With its upgraded engine and transmission, the Dart comes in at 27 mpg city and 37 mpg highway in EPA testing. During CNET's test, the Dart showed an average of 30.8 mpg, a number we hit without trying too hard.
I previously drove a Dart with the turbocharged 1.4-liter and the six-speed manual. The turbo lag was still in evidence, but the transmission let me control it better than with the dual clutch transmission. However, as the overwhelming majority of American buyers purchase cars with automatic transmissions, the standard 2-liter engine will be a better option for them, as the acceleration will be more linear, although less powerful.
Along with the turbo lag, what stood out most about the Dart was the massive touch screen in the center of the dashboard. At 8.4 inches, this screen has to be the biggest available in a compact car. It is the same system we previously saw in the Dodge Charger.
As in the Charger, the Dart does away with most buttons or dials on the dashboard in favor of the big touch screen. However, Dodge maintains volume and tuning dials just above the climate controls, and more buttons on the steering wheel. The result is a very clean design for the dashboard.
The onscreen interface is another matter. Dodge partnered with Garmin for navigation, shoe-horning its software in with Dodge's own phone and stereo screens. Anyone familiar with Garmin navigation will immediately recognize the bright colors and big icons on the Dart's touch screen. The Garmin theme is not exactly in harmony with the other screens in the Dart's head unit, although operationally everything works very smoothly together. I would really like to see the Garmin software skinned to fit in with Dodge's other screens, which are much better-looking.