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by David Zatz in March 2013 (4)
Also see: Dodge Dart Limited 2.0 (2013) and Dodge Dart Rallye 1.4 (manual)
One of the odd things about the Dodge Dart is how much the driving is influenced by the various powertrains, given how close they are in power. The base engine is responsive but has limited power and economy; the 1.4 turbo has better mileage and speed, but feels dead under 2,400 rpm or so. The Dart GT, despite only marginally higher power ratings, is likely to be the ideal for enthusiastic drivers, but gas mileage is likely to take a hit.
Extroverts, orange (the fruit) lovers, and anyone who want to make sure the color of their car can never be captured correctly on film will enjoy the Header Orange color. Apparently generating its own luminance on cloudy, gray days, it turned heads wherever we went. If you're trying to figure out exactly what color Header Orange is, well, it's somewhere between these two photos, and don't ask me to provide more accurate color rendition, please.
Those who want the efficiency of the 1.4 without the need to shift, or the awkward feel of the engine in city traffic, can get it with an automatic — but like the 1.4 itself, it is not a conventional automatic for this class. Instead, it's a highly efficient dual-clutch automatic (DDCT) — a poor label for what is, basically, a manual transmission that shifts itself. These have long been popular in trucks and in Europe, but are relatively new for North America. They do not feel or sound like a “conventional” automatic, and while Chrysler worked hard to adapt Fiat's DDCT to American expectations, it's not quite there. That does not make it a bad choice, but it's not going to slip under the radar, any more than the 1.4 turbo can pretend it's just another four-cylinder.
Dart 1.4 Turbo with manual transmission
Buyers who opt for both the 1.4 liter engine and the DDCT will end up paying another good 10% of the car's normal price in transmissions: the 1.4 adds around $1,300 and the transmission, another $1,100. That's a lot on a car that generally sells for around $23,000.
Most buyers who opt for an automatic will probably end up with the 2-liter engine or the Dart GT, which come with a conventional automatic. The 1.4 and 2.0 have the same peak horsepower, but the turbo engine has more torque, and is both considerably faster and more fuel-efficient; any savings on gas, though, will be countered not only by the cost of the car, but by the its need for premium fuel and synthetic oil.
Driving the 1.4 with a manual is sometimes annoying, because it will not move if you hit the gas too early (except in first gear), and has to be kept over 2,000 rpm to respond quickly, without a downshift. Shooting up the hills on Bear Mountain was easy, city and crowded-suburb driving was not. I had to overcome a lot of muscle training on using the gas pedal gently — the 1.4 likes to be prodded when going into first.
With an automatic, a lot of that is hidden — if, of course, the automatic is tuned for sport rather than economy. Our time in a Cruze turbo was unsatisfactory because the automatic was slow to kick down. With the DDCT, if you used a heavy enough foot, you got relatively fast kickdowns, and then the issue was the engine's own response time. The Dart Turbo with DDCT does well with 0-60 sprints; its performance otherwise largely depended on whether it was expecting a downshift or not, because the transmission keeps two gears engaged, switching from one to the other quickly. If it expects to be upshifting and you call for a downshift, it'll take a bit longer to react than if it was expecting a downshift. Most of the time, it guesses correctly.
Driven gently, the DDCT was generally very, very smooth, once you were going a reasonable speed (the exception being at very low speeds, as you'll see below). Driven hard, it generally worked well, too. Either extreme was well tuned.
Under hard acceleration, the DDCT usually downshifted quickly, even immediately; then the engine was allowed to rev high, near its peak 160 hp and within its wide-spread 184 lb-ft of torque. The engine was noisy when run fast, which is to say whenever it was making serious power; the 2.0 is much more quiet. On the lighter side, the DDCT made the most of the engine, taking it up to redline (rather than shifting prematurely) as needed, and not sparing the revs except when cruising or coasting.
It took us a long time to figure out the powertrain's behavior on this car, because it's sometimes hard to separate out turbo lag from transmission lag. Yes, the issue was always turbo lag. On the highway, the car was extra peppy and responsive, because the transmission has a mechanical connection, and the turbo was presumably always active to some degree; gearing is such that the engine is not loafing at highway speeds, though if you want to go 75 mph, you will probably be seeing downshifts to fifth gear, at least to get there, and again when you encounter an incline. But it is satisfyingly responsive; we've driven GM and Toyota cars where it feels as the transmission is reluctant to come down from high gear, and the gas pedal seems to be connected to the engine via a loose rubber band. The Dart DDCT did not normally feel like that; around town and at moderate speeds, the turbo lag felt just like a standard engine hooked up to a moderately slow-reaction transmission.
I learned to drive a manual transmission on a 1979 Rabbit, one of the first mass-produced cars to have electronic fuel injection. With its manual transmission, if you shifted into first and took your foot off the brake, it would start to stall; then the computer would flood the engine with fuel to prevent the stall, and the car would surge forward for a moment. Then it would nearly stall, lurching violently back and forth until the driver shut the engine, floored the clutch pedal, or gave it a lot of gas. I would imagine Chrysler engineers worked hard to avoid that behavior.More than anything, the 1.4 turbo reminded me of my old Dodge Spirit R/T, the fastest four-door sold in America at the time it was made — a five passenger performance sedan with a 2.2 liter turbo pushing 214 horsepower. (You know you're a true Mopar enthusiast when you don't need me to explain this.) In that car, if you started out by simply getting into gear and flooring it, (or for that matter if you went from idle to full throttle while in gear), you could count to around three before the seat slammed your back and you shot off, hopefully in the right direction, watching the gas mileage drop from 30 to 6 mpg.
In parking-lot/traffic-light situations, the DDCT was easy to tell apart from a normal automatic. Chrysler tried to make it seem “normal” to Americans used to transmissions that crawl slowly forward at idle; so the DDCT was programmed to crawl forward when one's foot was off the gas and the brake.
With the car completely stopped, the clutches were released and the transmission was completely in idle; release the brake, and (sometimes with a small noise), the engine was engaged at idle, and the engine quietly went up around 400 rpm. Hit the brake and stop, and it would disengage. This behavior was only true of stops — on the highway, coasting appeared to be in gear, resulting in instant acceleration. Not freewheeling probably lowers gas mileage a bit, but improves the feel.
Sometimes, in unfavorable conditions, the car shook while crawling, presumably because feeding it enough gas for a smooth idle would have also meant crawling too quickly. As long as the driver understands what's going on, that shouldn't be a problem.
Doing 0-60 sprints was interesting; first, you try revving the engine with the brake on, and quickly find out the DDCT will not have any of that. It will rev a little, then cut back, because it doesn't want to die. So you try a plain-and-simple off-the-break-pedal-to-the-carpet [bet you thought I was going to say “metal”] run; at first nothing happens, then the seat presses up against your back, and you're on your way to a reasonably fast 0-60 sprint of around 8.2 seconds. It's hardly world class but it's also not slow, and it's more than enough for getting onto freeways. Just don't bet your pink slip against an SRT driver.
In everyday traffic, the powertrain was reasonably responsive, and one could ignore it except at very low speeds and pretend the Dart is an automatic Avenger or what-have-you.
The transmission was not especially quiet, making odd mechanical noises here and there, mainly as it went into and out of gear; it was not silent, like a typical hydraulic transmission (or silent with mad solenoid clicking, like a typical Chrysler front-drive transmission).
Overall, like the 1.4 engine, nothing about the DDCT was terrible or a deal-breaker; it was something to get used to. People who can't or won't tolerate “stuff that's different,” again, should avoid both. On the other hand, it often seems that the most beloved cars are also those with quirks that the driver has not only mastered but put to their advantage, and Dart owners do seem to be very satisfied, in general. Certainly gadget-lovers should appreciate the uniqueness of the DDCT (other cars have them, but not many). The engine noises may annoy some people; most will probably either learn to live with them, or not notice anything different.
As Michael Volkmann observed, the car was fun to drive fast, and felt quicker than it is. The brakes were sharp and confident, taking a little getting used to, since they engaged earlier and faster than the brakes in most cars.
The four wheel independent suspension handled curves like a champ, even when there were bumps or dirt on the road; the car can easily take corners at inadvisable (because you can outrace your vision) speeds. The car handled wet roads well, too.
As for cornering, the Dart left little to be desired; the car whipped easily around turns, felt solid and competent at all times. The wheels stayed planted over bumps and potholes and all manner of bad pavement.
The suspension was firm enough to pass along a decent feel of the road and to transit the various bumps and lumps, but cushioned the nastier shocks, and made cement roads seem smooth enough. Road noise varied, with cement and some blacktop coming through; the car did not pass along as much vibration as expected on cement, but one stretch of rough blacktop made its way into the cabin. The Dart Rallye's suspension is sport-tuned, but it isn't punishing, and it tolerates bad roads, a gift that can save lives.
For those who wonder why they should look at the Dart after all the things we say about its powertrain, the answer is largely in its ride and handling, and its composure under stress. There is more, in its feel and fit and finish, all of which are above the standards for its class. The Dart feels more confident and solid than the Corolla or Civic, whether it's moving or not.
For once, we got a base stereo on our Dart, and it was an interesting unit. The sound was fairly and well separated, with strong bass that could easily be dialed down, albeit through the touch screen interface. After a while, we realized that some sounds were deeply attenuated or simply missing, which was a bit odd; there seems to be some DSP funkiness going on in there, or perhaps there's just a band of sound that's drowned out by the engine and not compensated for in the software. It's not noticeable most of the time.
Oddly, our iPod played with overly thumpy bass, but the SD card did not (we did check to see if the iPod had the equalizer off); the radio sounded good. Sound is a highly personal thing, but overall, the base stereo seemed to be good enough.
The setup included a three-way tone control (bass, midrange, treble) — many buyers will, sadly, set all three ranges to maximum. If we have gripes, it's that the system can be picky about SD cards (running them through a USB card reader works), doesn't know to ignore Mac resource forks (files starting with ._), and doesn't have knobs for bass and treble. It's all touch-screen driven.
One clever change on this car from past models is the relocation of all audio inputs to the center console. The CD player sits there, vertically, with a sliding cover to keep crumbs and dust from getting in; and the three backlist inputs (on cars that have them) for standard audio, SD cards, and USB input are in there as well. The best option is shoving in an SD card, since that is almost entirely swallowed up in the slot, leaving lots of room free, and is cheaper to replace than an iPod in case of a break-in. USB thumb drives are also cheap and work, but stick out into the cubby. A power supply is in there too, if you really, really want to use a battery-operated portable player.
The Rallye includes steering-wheel mounted audio controls which take away some of the sting from a touch-screen stereo, but they're not really needed, since the car also has audio control (optional) and physical volume and browser knobs. The cruise control is also on the steering wheel — a simple but convenient setup — as is the control for the EVIC.
The surprisingly quiet interior, which we were told is “class-leading,” has no obvious flaws in terms of wind noise, and helps to bring out the best in the stereo. This is an unusually quiet car for the class, and like most aspects of the Dart, would absolutely bewilder a 1970s Dodge Dart owner. The Rallye's engine is louder and more sport-tuned, but not annoyingly so; from the inside, it's audible but not dominating, letting the driver ignore the tachometer and go by engine sounds. Still, if they want to, the drivers can choose to ignore the engine noise while cruising with the stereo on.
The Dart SXT Rallye has features we just did not expect. Chrysler used to forgo remote fuel doors on even its top of the line cars; Dart has one, and it lights up at night, too (along with the trunk release). We used to have daytime running lights, or not, depending on the automaker's whim; the Dart lets you decide whether to use them, and also whether to use headlights when the wipers are on (some states require this). It also lets you set the time the headlights stay on after you lock the car, how long the power stays on, and just about everything else you can set on any car.
The preferences setup (at least with the optional 8.4” screen) is quite extensive; it even lets you pick the screen brightness on a 1 to ten scale, make the voice responses shorter, and eliminate the touchscreen beep.
The EVIC — trip computer, that is — was a simple but well implemented black and white control on Darts without the configurable dashboard. It provides warnings (doors open, tire pressure low, etc), shows the odometer, and displays whatever information you tell it to, one thing at a time — gas mileage, distance to empty, current miles per gallon, tire pressure (each tire individually), etc.
We also test drove a Dodge Dart with the 7-inch TFT screen, and were impressed with Chrysler's work. Going through the preprogrammed screens is easy from the up/down button on the steering wheel, as is resetting trip information. The numbers are clear and legible. The virtual speedometer was so clear and smooth, the passenger didn't realize the entire gauge was virtual.
There are two trip odometers, either way. You only see the regular odometer when the outside temperature is showing; but if you have the big screen stereo, the compass setting always shows, along with the current fan setting. The trip odometers also have timers now.
Overall, the EVIC is one of the better setups we've seen, particularly on a small car, but it would be nice if they had put the odometer reading onto more screens; there is definitely room on the average mileage and distance to empty for it.
With the big touch-screen option, you also get a red glowing thing around the gauge cluster and screen; a separate knob controls its brightness. This seemed rather unnecessary, and GM has a much better implementation of the same basic idea, but it's still a “moderately cool” feature. It's definitely overly bright in the publicity photos for the car, but when we were in Photoshop, we found that it was easy to make it seem too bright when adjusting other levels. There are also red rings around the volume and browse knobs when this is installed.
We mentioned before that both the trunk release and gas cap release are lit at night; the same goes for pretty much every other control. The base gauge cluster was eminently usable, despite the verging-on-unreadable technofont, and unlike most cars, neither tachometer nor speedometer went to unusable extremes; the tachometer ended at the next rounding point after redline, and the speedometer went to a reasonable 120 mph, making it easier to hit 25, 35, or 55 exactly. 60 mph is at dead center, as you'd expect. The km/h numbers are far too small for Canadians, but you can also show the speed in the EVIC. (Presumably Darts sold in Canada have km/h as the primary scale?)
Gauge backlighting is both white and red — the red is used only for trim, with all numbers in the easier to read white. (Amber seems to have disappeared, despite its advantages for night vision). The car has real gauges for temperature and fuel level, as well as car and engine speed. Red warning lights clearly stand out.
The climate controls are partly integrated into the touch-screen, and are not the best thought out part of the car. The sole part of the system to get a knob is the fan, while the temperature controls have up/down buttons with more settings. This is not a problem if you get the thermostatic temperature control, but it's annoying with the base setup.
On the lighter side, the current temperature setting is shown at the top of the touch-screen; and there are separate buttons for a/c, recirculation, and front and rear defrosters. To select outlets, you have to go to the touch-screen, which is an annoyance and potential safety problem; from there, though, a single touch can move the heat or fan speed from one end to the other, or into the middle, and all climate controls are on a single screen. The physical buttons are also reproduced on this screen.
Our car had automatic headlights, but you could manually move a knob to parking lights or headlights or all lights off. I wondered if there was some GM-like system to reset them to automatic each time, because it kept on going back to Auto, but only when I went in and out of the car. It turned out that my knee hit the bottom of the knob when I slid into the seat, not every time, and not hard enough for me to notice, but enough to truly puzzle me as the knob was pushed to Auto.
The 2013 Dodge Dart has numerous other optional tech features one could mention in a car review, but most buyers will likely stick to the ones in our test car. Some of the others are in our Dart 2.0 Limited review.
This car has numerous storage spaces asides from the usual glove box and center console. The cubby under the swing away passenger seat pad has space for a small laptop or lunch bag; a full-sized DSLR camera with zoom-telephoto lens fits into the center cubby; and an iPad easily slides into the absurdly deep glove compartment, which has a separate area for holding tire gauges and such, and a clip for holding a pen or pencil.
Underneath the center stack — not a fair name, really, since it has horizontal styling and does not look like a “stack” — is a deep cubby that's unobtrusively lit at night. The twin cupholders (with bubbles to hold things in place) had a surround light on our car, and a gap between them both accommodated mug handles and let the driver put sunglasses into the space. All four doors have map pockets, and there is a padded drop-down sunglass holder on the roof, by the lights (which, in Chrysler tradition, are “push-to-activate,” rather than “hunt for the freakin' switch.”)
The top of the center console slides forward, for those who want an armrest further up front.
Rear seat denizens get a tiny open rubber-lined cubby, the map pockets on the doors, a small, shallow covered storage console between the seats, and cupholders on the same console.
The trunk is sized with the class. A moderately sized pass-through is there for skis and poles and such, but both rear seats also fold down for larger objects. It remains unusual, but helpful, for cars to have both features. On the down-side, the Dart uses old-fashioned hinges, similar to those on older Darts, that intrude into the trunk when you close it. The trunk lid on our Header Orange Dart was also very heavy; slamming it was definitely overkill, letting it balance on the edge and close itself was the way to get a nice solid “click.”
I found the seats on our first Rallye to be comfortable and moderately bolstered, while my wife found them to be “not shaped for women who have had children,” and I will let you interpret that as you will. Our second Rallye had more agreeable seats, for whatever reason, but the soft Limited leather seats are probably the way to go. The seat frames are the same in every trim level, but the leather seemed better cushioned.
One serious annoyance on our first test Dart was the safety headrests, which are, like those in many new cars, tilted uncomfortably forwards, forcing the driver to put their head down. This is done largely because neck injuries are dramatically reduced when the headrest is very close to the head, during an accident, helping the automakers achieve those increasingly tough five stars or “Good” ratings. Various adjustments helped, but in the end, there's got to be a better way — and maybe there was, because the next Darts we tested seemed fine.
The interior is roomy for a compact, and verges on mid-sized. Even with the front seat all the way back, there is space for the legs and feet of back-seat passengers. The rear seats are comfortable as well, and moderately bolstered for comfort when the driver takes advantage of the cornering.
The contrasting color on the doors is fabric on top, where it's most visible, and plastic on bottom, where it would get worn if it was cloth. The seats have contrasting-color (white or citrus) stripes and stitching, in both front and back, a nice touch; rear doors are also done in contrasting colors. This scheme makes the car seem much more open and airy than the black preferred by some enthusiasts and pushed by Dodge, as does the fact that the front pillars and roof are done in off-white (the roof is lined with a tough-feeling cloth).
Our Dart came with a full telescoping steering column, and a thick leather-wrapped steering wheel. The steering was firm, precise, and well-connected. It isn't an Abarth 500, but it isn't a Caliber either.
Under the hood, maintenance areas are clearly identified and the packaging is clean and neat. Most everything is covered over to cut noise and improve aerodynamics. Our test car had the underbody aero package and active grille shutters, which are not visible to casual inspection.
Visibility is generally good, with strong headlights and inexpensive optional HIDs, wide mirrors, and generously sized sun visors that slide on poles to block the sun when it's in odd spots. Buyers with sensitive eyes should, as usual, avoid the automatic day/night mirror, but since it comes with many packages and trim levels, well, never mind.
The body seems well assembled and solid; we have heard complaints that the 1.4-equipped cars tend to develop rattles, and ours did indeed rattle when cold, unlike the 2.0 car we tested. The issue doesn't seem to affect the 2.0, and is likely to be dealt with in production as time goes on.
The most common Dart is the SXT, a nice balance between goodies and economy; the base model is really there to have a base price similar to other automakers' “you're not really going to buy this one, are you?” models, not to be sold. In March 2013, the SXT started at $18,790, just as it did at launch (we always include the destination charge, which is nearly $800 for the Dart). The SXT includes ten airbags, four-wheel antilock power disc brakes, stability and traction control with roll mitigation, keyless entry, radio-chip theft prevention, automatic locks, alarm, Hill Start Assist, reactive front headrests, tire pressure monitor with warning, power windows, and intermittent wipers. The driver's seat had manual fore/aft, up/down, and recline controls.
Our test car had many options, not least of which was the $1,300 turbocharged engine that boosted gas mileage to an estimated 27 city, 39 highway; another $1,100 added a DCT which brought gas mileage back down to 37 highway, but left it at 27 city, which is a feat (even though it's the same basic gearbox, automatically shifted). That's terrific mileage which we were unable to replicate, but we did get pretty good numbers during our run.
The Rallye Group added exactly $1,000, and included aluminum wheels, fog lights, a blackened look for the front end, dual exhaust, cruise, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, premium cloth with accents, the EVIC, and a big 140 amp alternator (that's about double the power of my old police-spec Valiant/Dart). If you're going to get an SXT in Header Orange, by all means, get the Rallye Group; the darkened effect was striking with the luminescent paint (seen, again, inaccurately in the photo above).
The Popular Equipment Group ($295) added a tire pressure display (for each tire), seatback pocket for the front seats, the overhead console with sunglass holder, the 12V power outlet in the console, lighted cupholders, sun visors with vanity mirrors, and the aerodynamic underbody covers, which may have accounted for some of the lack of wind noise. Then the 8.4 inch display added $595, race-track tail lamps $225, satellite radio $195, voice command / cell phone integration $295, and bigger, blackened wheels another $395. The final addition was a navigation package which added traffic display, remote CD player, remote SD card slot and iPod control, USB port, travel-link, and the backup camera, at $495, which seems reasonable. The total was $24,685, in well-outfitted-Avenger territory.
The powertrain is covered for five years or 100,000 miles; the basic warranty is three years or 36,000 miles, with 24-hour towing assistance. The Dart is assembled in Illinois, using (with 1.4 and DDCT) 57% US/Canadian parts, 19% Mexican parts, and an Italian transmission (whether you get the DDCT or manual; there are no American transmission options).
The Dodge Dart is nothing like the original, except perhaps in the market segment it fills. The car emphasizes cornering, and does that extremely well; it feels stable and solid, and has an almost total eradication of wind noise (event at 75 mph), a superb stereo, and enough gadgetry to open a Sharper Image branch.
The different powertrain options definitely make a difference; the dual-clutch and 1.4 engine are probably the best option for automatic buyers who don't mind unusual behavior, but others may want to look to the 2.0 engine, as the 1.4 took a lot of getting used to — though it does have exemplary highway mileage. Some may prefer to wait for the 2.4 engine, coming with the Dart GT.
Disclaimer: some interior shots are from a different Rallye than our test car. The sole difference is the use of white as a second color, versus yellow.
Our review is coming soon.
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