Dodge ‘Darts’ into the mix in the compact car segment

This is actually the fourth generation of a model that first debuted in 1963 as a full-size sedan.

Dodge now has a legitimate entry in the compact car segment with the launch of the 2013 Dart. The new Dart is based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta

Everything old is new again.

At least it is in the automotive field when it comes to naming new vehicles.

It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to dredge up old nameplates from the past and Dodge is the latest to do so with its new 2013 Dart compact.

Many people of my generation will think back to Dodge Darts of the past, particularly the 340 cu. in. Dart Swinger of the early ’70s. Some have fond memories, others like a friend I spoke with this week were less than enamoured with them.

But while the ’70s models are the ones that would first come to mind for many of us when you mention the name Dodge Dart, this was actually the fourth generation of a model that first debuted in 1963 as a full-size sedan.

And while it’s great to reminisce about the “good old days”, the fact is today’s Dodge Dart is about as far removed from the original Dart as you can get.

For starters, the new one has a European heritage based on the same platform as its Italian cousin, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta—all thanks to the Fiat takeover of Chrysler a couple of years back. In fact, the Dart is the first Chrysler Group vehicle built on Fiat architecture, although it is manufactured in North America at its Illinois assembly plant.

Secondly, the new Dart is actually a compact car although it has interior space on par or better than many mid-size vehicles.

The new Dart debuts in Canada with five trim levels— SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. My tester was the Rallye model. With options, taxes and the destination charge of $1,500, the car priced out at $25,185.

Three, four-cylinder engines are offered on the Dart, including the 160 hp 16-valve 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo on my test car. This is a $1,500 option on the Rallye trim and it was mated with a six-speed manual transmission.

Standard on the Dart is a 160 hp 2.0-litre Tigershark engine, while driving enthusiasts will likely opt for a new 184 hp Tigershark 16-valve 2.4-litre MultiAir engine. A six-speed automatic and a six-speed Dual Dry Clutch (DDCT) transmission are the other choices.

Prices start at $15,995 for the base SE, rising to $23,245 for the top-shelf R/T model.

This is an important car for Dodge and the Chrysler Group as a whole because it puts them back in the compact market now that the Caliber has thankfully been put out to pasture.

Chrysler has needed a quality entry in the compact segment for many years because its sales have been weighted heavily towards bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles like Ram pickups, Jeeps and the Grand Caravan minivan.

For all the automakers, the compact market is important because it is the entry point for new buyers and the hope is they will develop brand loyalty. The segment also makes up about a quarter of all vehicles purchased in Canada.

From a styling standpoint, the Dart is certainly a huge step forward from the Caliber.

It has a coupe-like profile from a side view and an aggressive, wide-track stance in front with the signature Dodge split crosshair grille. From the rear, the Dart has dual exhausts and Charger-inspired tail lamps with 152 LEDs.

Inside, the interior is very pleasant with nice use of soft-touch materials, but I don’t think it matches up with the similarly priced 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT that we recently tested.

However, during recent 2013 Car of the Year testing by members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) in the Small Car Under $21K category, the Dart topped the competition as far as interior styling/appearance was concerned with a score of 7.5 of out 10, besting Mazda3 Skyactiv Sedan, Kia Rio LX, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Prius c and Chevrolet Spark.

Overall, the Mazda3 topped the class with the Kia Rio second and the Nissan Sentra third. The Dart was fourth overall, two points back of the Sentra and 12 behind the Mazda. The Elantra GT, meanwhile, was named Best Small Car over $21K.

The Dart has the roomiest interior its the segment with class-leading hip and shoulder room—important for us ‘big bodied” North Americans.

I particularly liked the comfy seats, the nice use of ambient lighting inside and the fact that buyers can “personalize” their vehicle with a choice of 12 exterior colours, 13 interior colour and trim combinations, seven wheel options, three engine options and three transmission choices.

Also impressive was the 8.4-inch touch screen Media Centre on my test vehicle. Sitting atop the centre stack, it was big and bright with easy-to-read graphics, however, the navigation system was very slow and dated looking.

The turbo four with its MultiAir technology has lots of grunt with its 184 lb/ft of torque. Getting up to peak torque range above 2500 rpm takes some work in first gear, but when the engine reaches its sweet spot, the turbocharged engine winds out nicely. I found the clutch a bit temperamental and jerky at first, but it’s probably more because of the driver than the clutch.

In my opinion, the Dart has its work cut out for it against class leaders like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Hyundai Elantra, but it is nevertheless, a huge step forward from the Caliber and a sure bet to help Chrysler continue its month over month sales records in Canada.

If you’re shopping the compact market, the Dart should be on your list.

Dodge Dart 2013

Body Style: four door compact sedan.

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

Engines: 16-valve, DOHC 2.0-litre (160 hp, 148 lb/ft); 16-valve, SOHC 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo (160 hp, 184 lb/ft); 16-valve, DOHC 2.4-litre MultiAir (184 hp, 171 lb/ft)

Transmissions: six-speed manual; six-speed automatic; six-speed dual dry clutch

Cargo Capacity: 371 litres

Fuel Economy: 1.4-litre turbo with manual 7.4/4.9 L/100 km (city/hwy); 2.0-litre with manual 8.1/5.4 L/100 km (city/hwy),

Price: SE $15,995; SXT $17,995; Rallye $19,495; Limited $23,245; R/T $23,995. As tested $25,185 including $1,500 destination charge.

Website: www.dodge.ca

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