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A Touch of Milano

2013 Dodge Dart Review

Jeremy Clarkson, the host of BBC’s Top Gear, often says that you can’t really call yourself a car person if you’ve never owned an Alfa Romeo. Having been fortunate enough to have had an ‘84 Spider 2000 for a while, I agree fully.

2013 Dodge DartThe pedals were so close that your knees were bent sharply, causing you to constantly bang your kneecap painfully on the edge of the center console. The steering wheel was about three feet away from the seat, so your arms had to fully extend to reach it. It had a nice 5-speed manual transmission, but the shifter stuck out horizontally from the center of the dashboard. It was a convertible, so every time you hit a bump, you could feel the front bend in a different direction from the back, because there was no torsional rigidity to the frame. But when you hit a curving set of fast sweepers, none of that mattered. It was just…sublime. Somehow it just worked. It made you feel like a better driver. It made you feel like a better person. And that Pininfarina bodywork was just timelessly perfect.

Then some odd electrical problem would crop up, you’d lose all power, and, without a cell phone, you’d be stranded at the side of the road for several days, sleeping under the stars like some kind of animal.

But, no matter how unreliable they might have been, no matter how insane the ergonomics, the driving experience of an Alfa was worth it. The trouble is, Alfa Romeo stopped importing cars to the US in 1992, so most Americans have never had the bittersweet pleasure of Alfa ownership.

Since then, Fiat has bought out Alfa Romeo, bringing their reliability standards up to modern standard. And, of course, thanks to the auto bailout, Fiat now owns a majority stake in Chrysler. Because of that, you can, in fact, now buy an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, clothed in a Dodge body kit. Though it’s a bit wider and a whole foot longer than the Giulietta, the Dodge Dart is built on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta’s frame, engines, and drivetrain. Since it’s a Dodge, it won’t have the cachet of an exotic Italian Import, but if it has the driving feel of an Alfa…do you care?

How it looks

From the outside, the Dart is an attractive small sedan, and, apart from the crossed grill inserts, it looks like nothing else Chrysler makes. It has a European flair to its curves. In fact, very European. Compare and contrast the following:

Dart Style Comparison

The top row is from the Dodge Dart. The bottom row comes from popular European cars. The similarities are obvious.

2013 Dodge Dart CockpitFrom all angles, the Dart is a noticeable departure from Chrysler’s current crop of car designs. It’s also surprisingly roomy inside, with plenty of leg and head room—front and back—for adults. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, considering the extra foot of length the Dart carries. It’s called a small sedan, but it’s actually as large inside as a BMW 3-Series.

The version of the Dart I evaluated was the higher-spec Aero version, and it had every comfort and technological feature you could possibly want, but even lower-spec Darts are surprisingly well-equipped for the price.

Consumers get a lot of choice in the Dart, with a base-spec SE version starting at $16,000, up to a fully-optioned Aero or Limited version at $25,000. Even in the base version, you get Bluetooth and USB connectivity and a fully-adjustable steering wheel. In the higher-optioned cars you get a color TFT driver instrument display, nappa leather seats, and an 8.4 inch touchscreen display in the center console. In all versions, the use of hard plastic has been minimized in favor of soft-touch materials.

It is nicer inside the Dart than it is in the Challenger SRT8, which costs twice as much.

How it drives

First of all, the Dart isn’t immensely powerful, but with Alfa’s 1.4L Multiair Turbo engine, it will deliver you to 60 MPH in about 8 seconds, which makes it one of the quickest in its class. And the 1.4L turbo is the engine you want, as it outputs 160 HP and 184 torques. There is a naturally aspirated 2.0L engine available, but its weedy 148 lb-ft of torque pulls the 3,200 lb Dart along painfully slowly, with a 0-60 time of almost 10 seconds. On the other hand, it gets 41 MPG on the highway, so there’s that.

Happily, the upcoming GT version of the Dart, which should be available at dealers in late September or early October, has a 2.4L Tigershark engine which promises 184 HP and 171 torques. That should bring the 0-60 time down to close to 7 seconds, which approaches the edge of being properly quick.

Though the 1.4L turbo offers better performance, it’s a little noisy and unrefined. If you get it with the manually shiftable automatic transmission you wont like it, what with the slow response and the tendency to choose the wrong gear in automatic mode. No, the sweet spot of the Dart currently is the 1.4L turbo with the manual gearbox. When the 2.4L GT version becomes available…well, we’ll have to take another look.

But I suspect you’ll want the manual transmission with that, too, as Dodge’s DCCT shiftable automatic just isn’t satisfying, and doesn’t work particularly well outside the narrow parameters of slow and easy commuting. Though, having said that, it’s better than Ford’s similar tranny. For any sort of spirited driving, though, the manual transmission is infinitely more satisfying.

Where the Dart really shines—and where the Alfa Romeo underpinnings come through clearly—is in steering and handling. The Dart is not a stoplight to stoplight muscle car, but it is a good corner-to-corner handler. The steering is responsive and well-weighted, with the electric system providing a good simulation of road feedback to the chunky steering wheel. The smooth ride belies the tautness of the suspension in the corners. The Ford Focus and Mazda 3 are more agile, but the Dart has a far better ride, while still inspiring confidence in the corners at speed. This is a car that’s very happy on fast sweepers.

Understeer still rears its head when you push it. It is, after all, a front-wheel drive car, with all the dreariness that implies when going sporting. Traction control and the moderate engine output keeps it steady, though the traction control can be a bit intrusive.

Braking is another highlight in the Dart. The brakes can haul the Dart to a stop from 60 MPH in less than 130 feet, which is class-leading performance. The downside is that in less severe situations, they can be a bit grabby at low speeds. But under hard braking, the ABS cuts in without annoying juddering, and the Dart tracks straight under hard braking.

What’s good about it

The interior is fantastic for the price. It’s roomy and, at the upper spec levels, offers near luxury-level appointments. The huge center console touch screen is great. It rides and handles like a larger car than it actually is. The steering is one of the best implementations of electric power steering available, and the brakes are pretty darn good, too.

What’s bad about it

The shiftable automatic transmission is mediocre, and you really need the manual transmission to wring the performance out of it. The 2.0L naturally aspirated engine is painfully slow, while the 1.4L Turbo is a bit loud and unrefined. The longer wheelbase takes away from the agility a bit, though, of course, providing more stability.

Conclusion

In my senior year in high school, I got a 1970 Dodge Dart with a 318 cubic inch V-8. It was fast, but the suspension was wallowy and it guzzled fuel like nobody’s business. The new Dart is not that car. It’s much nicer inside, handles far better, and gets much, much better gas mileage. Fiat leveraged the Alfa Romeo Giulietta into getting Dodge back into the small-car segment where they haven’t competed since the death of the Neon, which was, by the way, a much worse car.

Rebadging and revising the Giulietta seems like a winning strategy for Chrysler, because the Dart is a good little car. The competing vehicles in its class are, as a general rule, nastier inside, smaller, and less comfortable. Getting out of, say, a Honda Civic and into a Dodge Dart is like entering an entirely different—and far better—world.

I’m really liking this idea of bringing in rebadged European cars to America. Ford has done it by making the Euro versions of the Fiesta, Focus, and Fusion their standard cars worldwide. If the Dodge Dart is any indication, Fiat’s stewardship of Chrysler may result in some pretty interesting products, indeed.

Now, if only Chevy could rebadge a BMW M3 and cut the price by half…

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