by David Zatz in October 2016 (3.5)
Three years ago, we drove several Dodge Darts for a week each — but what are these cars like after they’ve aged a bit, and when you drive them month after month? How close was our initial impression, and what did we learn from driving other cars? With the Dart leaving production last week, this (September 30, 2016) seems like a good time to revisit the much-maligned compact car.
When the Dart was launched, Dodge actually charged a thousand dollars extra for the Fiat engine! On paper, the turbo-1.4 has the same horsepower as the 2.0, with more torque, and better mileage — but it’s quirky, to say the least, and wants premium fuel and synthetic oil. The 2.0 is easier to drive and more conventional in its needs. [Dart 2.0 review]
In 2012, I wrote, “The 1.4 will not move if you hit the gas too early, and has to be kept over 2,000 rpm to respond quickly. Shooting up the hills on Bear Mountain was easy, leaving stop signs less so. The 2.0 has a more even temper.” With any sort of load, it’s downright unresponsive below 2,000 rpm (though on a level surface, with no air conditioner, it’s fine). At 1,500 rpm, though, you have roughly a 37 horsepower engine pushing over three thousand pounds of car. By 2,500 rpm, you have full torque, and horsepower’s up to around 67.
Leaving the throttle in the same position in second or third gear, the little engine starts out slow, gains its footing, and goes through two or three program changes, each one accompanied by a lurch, as the engine climbs in revs. It feels crude, even compared with the oldest 2.2 turbo cars. If you don’t give the engine enough gas from a start, it balks and surges. There’s no low-end reserve of power.
Six gears are too many for a 40 mph spread. On the highway, downshifts yield more than enough power for passing, and if you keep it running at a less-than-thrifty 2,400 rpm or so, you don’t need to downshift, either. If you exceed the 65 mph speed limit most highways seem to have, you’ll be in the power band by default and hill climbing doesn’t usually require a shift. 0-60 runs can be quite fast and it’s thrilling to run the engine up to the redline, but the acceleration numbers are still mediocre.
The stick pattern is good; Reverse is well to the left of First, and to get there you lift up a ring. The clutch and shifter are awkward when compared with the old Neon’s easy, silky shifting and user-friendly clutch.
Hill Start Assist is terrific on steep hills; it puts the brake on when you stop on a hill and go into first gear, with the clutch down, and releases the brake as you lift the clutch, for flawless steep-hill launches.
My city mileage was mostly around 25-27 mpg according to the trip computer (so far, the trip computer seems to be pessimistic by one mpg). On the highway, mid-30s come without trying; the longer the trip, the better the mileage. On one trip, I got to around 42 mpg, but using the air conditioner full-time on a hot day dropped me down to 37 on the same trip, same speeds, same conditions, without hypermiling or slowing down to median traffic speeds.
The car is fun to drive fast, and feels quicker than it is (it is half a second slower than a five-speed 1995 Neon, around one second slower than a 2016 Mazda 2.0 — but feels faster than both once the turbo kicks in). The brakes are confident, but engage earlier and faster than most, making it harder to be smooth.
The Dart leaves little to be desired in cornering; even with the Aero’s “limited rolling resistance” tires, the car whipped easily around turns, and felt solid and competent at all times. The wheels stayed planted over bumps and potholes and bad pavement, handling curves well even when there were bumps or dirt on the road. You hit the bounds of visibility long before the limits of traction. I’d put it above the Neon in terms of not letting go of the pavement.
The suspension is firm for a strong feel of the road and its various bumps and lumps; while higher models such as the Limited cushion shocks well and smooth out cement roads, the Aero doesn’t, with its little steel wheels and special tires. Road noise is louder than in other models, too, no doubt to save some weight. The Dart Rallye had a much more comfortable suspension and a far quieter interior.
What is different about my 2013 than the loaners I had back then? Well, first, it’s an Aero, so it has the smaller, steel wheels and limited-rolling-resistance tires, along with lighter/cheaper window glass and possibly less sound insulation. The result is a more jittery, less comfortable ride, and much more noise in the cabin; the other Darts I have had were all quieter and smoother. If I’d been a better car buyer, I would have waited for a better Dart to come onto the market. The handling is still quite fine and enjoyable, but the ride isn’t.
The best feel of the cars in this class, as far as I’m concerned, come from the Mazda3 (see above), for fun and handling-bias without punishment, and from the Volkswagens, for sheer insulation from vibration and shock. (When I drove a Rabbit I never thought I’d say “If you want a luxury car ride, get a VW.”) I can’t recommend Volkswagen due to their sheer criminal audacity, but the Mazda3 is really a good deal for a new car. That said, the Dart has a more solid feel — if you don’t get an Aero — and better controls. If not for my buy-American bias and probably-foolish Mopar loyalty, there could be a Mazda sitting in my driveway.
The optional stereo on our Aero — the UConnect 8.4 without navigation — was excellent, with fine clarity that worked well with just about every type of music and strong stereo separation. Bass was strong and clear and easily dialed down for voice broadcasts, and the speed-based volume compensation worked well. This one has no subwoofer, which is fine by me — oddly, it also doesn’t have the trunk speakers, and doesn’t seem to be missing them.
The setup included a three-way tone control (bass, midrange, treble) but has no real knobs for tone or balance. It deals with USB thumb drives better than any other system I’ve used, but can’t deal with Mac resource forks (files starting with ._); what I thought were nasty USB card handling bugs turned out to be a bad USB drive. It recognizes a 32GB drive very quickly and remembers it after it’s been removed, right down to resuming from the same place in the same song after taking a drive out and putting it back in — which is unusual. (Technically I guess you could hook up an SSD drive to have 256 GB of music but I've never been that audacious.)
The CD player sits in the center console, vertically, with a sliding cover to keep crumbs and dust from getting in; and the three inputs (on cars that have them) for standard audio, SD cards, and USB input are in there as well. USB thumb drives stick out into the cubby, about halfway up. A power supply is in there too, if you really, really want to use a battery-operated portable player.
The Aero had optional steering-wheel mounted audio controls, which take away some of the sting from a touch-screen stereo.
Chrysler used to forgo remote fuel doors on even its top of the line cars, but the Dart has one — and a remote trunk latch, but, on my Aero, no actual button anywhere near the trunk. It’s the dash button, the fob, or nothing.
The Dart lets you easily decide whether to use daytime running lights and to turn on headlights when the wipers are on, how long 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, all from a convenient menu system on the 8.4” screen — following a trend they started with the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Since the Aero doesn’t have nearly as many options as some Darts, some of the menus only have one item in them; the Controls tab is particularly silly, with just “shut off screen.” Some people would use if/then statements...
The trip computer (EVIC), which includes the speedometer is snazzy on our Aero, though no more informative than the base version that comes with a physical speedo (yes, that’s a real gas mileage number, but there was a lot of downhill!) 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, etc.
You can configure the big 7-inch cluster, within tight constraints; certain things must be on bottom, others must be on top. You can’t put gas mileage on bottom, and, again, there’s no compass if you don’t have a nav system. You can leave nearly any part blank.
There’s no boost gauge, and we’d like one. Still, the numbers are clear and legible. The virtual speedometer was so clear and smooth, one passenger didn’t realize the entire gauge was virtual when we set it to “speedometer only.” You can choose a digital or analog speedometer.
One cool thing about the 8.4 inch screen, incidentally, is that the icons show information. The navigation button shows the compass heading (our car doesn’t have a nav system and, as a result, it’s lacking a compass — which is absurd on a car with all these features; my cheap Sundance with no screens at all had one!). The climate control shows the fan setting and vent direction, and the phone shows signal strength when it’s connected. The radio, player, and controls icons don’t seem to change.
There are red rings around the volume and browse knobs, possibly only with the 8.4 stereo, which also has a faint red outline over the dash.
Most controls are backlit, with white used for numbers and red for trim. Red warning lights still stand out.
The climate controls are perhaps 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 an annoyance with the base setup. The temperature up/down, fan, a/c, recirculate, and defrost buttons all have physical controls; the rest are in the touch-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 then I realized that my knee hits the knob when I get in. This still happens and I’ve owned the thing for three months.
This car has numerous storage spaces asides from the usual glove box and center console. We wish we had the cubby under the passenger seat cushion, but the poor Aero just gets a regular cheap seat (looks and feels cheaper than the seats in our Sundance or Neon). Still, an iPad easily slides into the deep glove compartment, and there is a separate area for holding tire gauges and such.
Under the dashboard is a deep cubby that’s unobtrusively lit at night. The twin cupholders have a surround light and an opening for mugs or sunglasses. All four doors have map pockets; the overhead lights are, 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. Our car did not get normal floor mats, but rubber ones, which saved us from going out and buying them. They’re not slush mats but they do the trick most of the time.
The trunk is sized with the class, but seems generous. The Aero doesn’t get the pass-through or separately folding rear seats; it’s both rear seats or nothing. Amusingly, the Dart uses old-fashioned hinges that intrude into the trunk when you close it — is this some sort of homage to the 1970s cars? It has hooks to keep shopping bags steady, but instead of being mounted near the top of the trunk, they’re halfway down and fairly useless (they may be present for an optional cargo net).
Finally, our car did not come with a spare, but with a “tire puncture kit,” so we need to hunt down a spare through the junkyards.
Higher models have better cushions for the seats. I did not find mine to be bad, and after a while my main gripe is how far back the stick is; in traffic, it became a nuisance. It really belongs further to the front of the car. I would have liked more padding.
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.
Our car had the black interior, and boy, it is black. Unrelieved by anything black. No yellow stripes and stitching, just black, except for the front pillars and roof, done in off-white (the roof is lined with a tough-feeling cloth). Can you say “cheap looking”? Well, that’s the seating area. The dashboard is quite nice — as for everything else, a base model Plymouth Sundance would seem like a luxury car in comparison. They did try to alternate textures and contours so it wouldn’t look like “acres of plastic.”
Our Dart came with a tilt/telescoping steering column, though it’s a low-end model. The steering was firm, precise, and well-connected. Under the hood, maintenance areas are clearly identified and the packaging is clean and neat.
Visibility is generally good; the optional HIDs were inexpensive, but still, few Darts seem to have them — the factory really should have just made them standard, I suspect, or at least thrown them into the 8.4 package. The ordinary headlights are nothing special, not too bad, not great; but you can replace the bulbs and make them better, according to Daniel Stern (to be reported on later).
The Dart has wide mirrors and nicely sized sun visors that slide on poles to block the sun when it’s in odd spots. Avoid the semi-useless automatic day/night mirror if you can; it comes with the voice recognition since it holds the microphone.
The body seemed well assembled and solid when we drove new Darts; the Aero rattles like mad, with a cacophony of different noises. On hard turns there’s a generalized creaking/rubbing sound from the headliner that goes from one end of the car to the other and which we were told is normal. There are few owners of old Darts who talk about how few squeaks and rattles they have (there are some, I admit).
Did we mention the scrape from the front fascia on even mild driveways? It’s one of very few cars to be unable to handle our own mild driveway ramp.
We had compared this car to the Neon earlier, but now ... the Neon aged better. The Dart is slower than the Neon on the straight and feels like it has less available power unless you’re already at 2,600 rpm, in which case “advantage Dart;” but the squeaks, rattles, and other odd noises just never appeared on our 120,000 mile old Neon (which we bought new). The interior of the Dart is quieter because it has more sound insulation and heavier glass, though, and the stereo is better. It handles better, too, though the Neon was a fun little car to throw around the curves. Still, the Neon’s interior looked better, for the most part, and, again, aged very well.
The base price for the Dart Aero was around US$20,000 when new, and we paid half that for ours when it was less than three years old and still under warranty; it’s a good buy as a used car but really didn’t hold its value well (it takes a Corolla around five years to lose less than half its value). Standard features were 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, tire pressure monitor, power windows, and intermittent wipers; the driver’s seat had manual fore/aft, up/down, and recline controls. Our own car added the 8.4” stereo package (no navigation) with the remote USB and SD ports, and a CD player. It included the $1,300 turbocharged engine that we could have lived without.
The seven-inch deluxe trip computer was standard on the Aero — we don’t know why — as were the racetrack tail-lamps. Those seem like odd choices for a car that was otherwise pretty much the base model with some extra aero and weight-reduction treatments. Nicer seats and a compass would have paid off better than the admittedly cool tail-lamps.
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. Unfortunately, extended Chrysler warranties for used cars are prohibitively expensive, which on the lighter side means there should be a lot of parts available for the survivors.
The three year record of this particular car does not bode well. It has had sensors replaced before we got it; the cruise control module or switch has failed; and one rattle has been addressed by the dealer, leaving only five or six separate rattles.
The Dodge Dart, while nothing like the original, filled the same place in the market — a market that’s moved on. Like the original Valiant-based Darts, the car emphasizes cornering, and does that extremely well; it feels stable and solid. It’s lost some positive aspects of its most recent predecessor, the Neon, which was far easier to shift and had a lighter feel overall, with greater responsiveness, fewer rattles, and nicer seats, but in other ways it’s far better than either classic Dart or Neon. The new Dart has low wind noise, a superb stereo, and enough gadgetry to open a Sharper Image branch, and many conveniences and safety features unavailable on past models were standard or at least common on the Dart.
The powertrains transformed the Dart, with the 1.4 engine for enthusiasts only, the 2.0 ideal for most buyers, and the 2.4 for those who found the 2.0’s power to be inadequate. As a used car, try to avoid the 2013s, as many changes were made to make the 2014s more reliable and to sand off the rough edges. The Dart may nickel and dime used-car buyers, with numerous weak spots talked about by owners.
Before writing this, I tested some key competitors and found that the Dart was still a good choice, but the Mazda3 truly tried me, and if I could bring myself to seriously consider Volkswagen, I would have, though you pay for what you get. I also tested a new Chevy Cruze and perhaps would have considered it more seriously if their ordering system wasn’t so bewildering. The Cruze has the same size engine as my Aero but has much, much less lag, and in many ways is more cleverly designed. As soon as I chose to go used, my decision was made for me.
As for why the Dodge Dart failed in the marketplace and ended their run in September 2016: well, you can read all about it in our analysis. We also have a comparison to the 1970s Darts.
Dodge Dart Main Page • Dodge Dart Limited 2.0 • Earlier Dart Reviews and Road Tests • Other Reviews
SRT4 • Comparisons • Rally Car • Inside • 1960-62 • 1963-66 • 1967-76 • ForumRetrospective: why the Dart failed • 1974 Dart vs 2013 Dart • The FactoryDart reviews: 2.0 Auto • 1.4 Stick • 1.4 Auto • Readers’ Reviews • 2013 Aero in 2016
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