We start a 40,000-mile fling with the first fruit of the Chrysler/Fiat tie-up.
Months in Fleet: 2 months
Current Mileage: 4,863 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 28 mpg
Average Range: 442 miles
Normal Wear: $0
The new Dart is being ballyhooed within the halls of Chrysler’s HQ as the car that will reestablish the Dodge brand among compact-car buyers—an important mission because Dodge hasn’t offered a viable small car in nearly a decade. The Neon had plucky charm, but it was replaced with the crudely executed and unloved Caliber just as small-car buyers were beginning to demand more refinement in the compact class. To find out whether the new-for-2013 Dart is worth any kind of hooing, we ordered one up for a 40,000-mile long-term test.
At first blush, it appears as though Dodge has churned out a potential winner in the Dart. It’s decently styled, has a large back seat for the segment, and is EPA-rated for up to 39 mpg (up to 41 mpg on the special Dart Aero model). Courtesy of Chrysler’s new Italian overlords, the sedan rides on a lengthened and widened Alfa Romeo platform and is powered by a Fiat-sourced turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Dodge says this marriage makes for a sporty and refined ride-and-handling balance—an American-sized small car with European flair.
At launch, the Dart range consisted of SE, SXT, Rallye, and Limited trim levels; a high-efficiency Aero variant arrived later, and Dodge just announced the coming of a sporty GT model. All Darts save for the Aero and GT come standard with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed manual. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional on turbos, while the 2.0-liter gets an optional six-speed auto. (We previously tested a Limited with the available dual-clutch and have driven the base 2.0-liter/automatic combo.)
For our long-term test, we ordered up a mid-range, semi-sporty Rallye with the optional turbocharged 1.4-liter four and a six-speed manual transmission—the zestiest combo available in the absence of the upcoming GT. To add even more spice, we asked Dodge to spray our Dart with the recently introduced Header Orange paint; this eye-searing color bestows upon our long-termer a striking resemblance to a traffic cone.
The Rallye essentially is a $1000 option package that buyers layer on to the Dart SXT, and it adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls, cruise control, a trip computer and driver information display, 17-inch aluminum wheels (which we had covered in a dark charcoal-colored finish for an additional $395), fog lamps, dual rear exhaust outlets, blacked-out headlight bezels, and a black grille with body-color crosshair inserts. The SXT trim comes equipped with power windows and locks, keyless entry, hill-start assist, a tire-pressure monitor, and 10 airbags.
On top of the Rallye group, we splurged on the $895 sunroof and $295 Popular Equipment group, which brings a tire-pressure-monitoring display, front seatback pockets, a headliner-mounted sunglasses holder, an additional 12-volt power outlet for the center console, and illumination for the cup holders and front sun-visor mirrors. The 1.4-liter turbo engine added $1300 to the bottom line, and came with additional underbody aerodynamic cladding and active grille shutters.
We beefed up the infotainment side of things with Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect touch-screen system with navigation and a backup camera ($495), which necessitated an additional $595 outlay for a package filled with automatic headlights, iPod control, SD and USB ports, and an ambient light tube that wraps around the entirety of the Dart’s instrument panel. A $495 nine-speaker, 506-watt Alpine audio system rounded out our choices, bringing our long-term Dart’s grand total to $24,455.
Good From Far, But Far From Good
Including a brief 300-mile break-in period, we’ve put a little more than 4800 miles on our Dart so far. At the test track, the Dart put up respectable numbers: 0–60 mph in eight seconds flat, 0.87 g around our skidpad, and a solid 168-foot braking distance from 70 mph. Out on the mean streets, however, the Dart’s performance feels less respectable. Most of our complaints so far center on the turbo engine’s paucity of power below 3000 rpm, and how the low-engine-speed dead zone doesn’t mix well with the Dart’s hefty 3277-pound curb weight.
Just two months into its stay with us, the Dart has received no shortage of powertrain badmouthing. Leave a stoplight without revving the pants off the Dart, for example, and it takes off with a disappointing lurch as the flaccid engine bogs down and you unenthusiastically creep away. Once moving, things don’t improve much, with several editors noting random power surges and copious turbo lag that can make downshifts tricky.