Three years later: Dodge Dart Aero car review

2013 dodge dart

Three years ago, readers contributed to our Early Dart Reviews page, then we drove a Dodge Dart for a week. 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?

Powertrain and handling

Dodge tried charging more for the turbocharged 1.4 liter Fiat engine at first (over a thousand dollars more), but few wanted it after they had a choice. The 1.4 is better on paper, with the same horsepower, more torque, and better mileage, but it’s quirky, to say the least, wants premium fuel, and needs synthetic oil. The 2.0 is powerful enough, easier to drive, and more conventional in its needs. [Dart 2.0 review]

dart engine

We wrote in 2013:

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. 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. The 2.0 has a more even temper; all its power comes from within, with no need for an air pump spinning at 22,000 rpm.

I’ve gotten better at smooth and fast launches, and 1,800 rpm is usually enough with the air conditioning off. At 1,500 rpm, though, you have roughly a 37 horsepower engine with 100 pound-feet of torque pushing over three thousand pounds of car; that won’t get you far. Over 2,000 rpm, you start to get real power; by 2,500 rpm you have full torque.

Leaving the throttle in the same position and starting from 1,800 rpm in second or third gear, the little turbocharged Fiat engine starts out slow, gains its footing, and goes through two or three program changes, each one accompanied by a shudder, as the engine climbs in revs. You don’t have to move your foot at all for the car to jerk forward as it hits particular rpms and some programming somewhere hits a critical point.

From a start, first gear quickly runs out, and second doesn’t last much longer; there are really too many gears (six) for a car that can putter along in top gear at 40 mph. Still, 0-60 times are deceptively quick. On the highway, a quick downshift yields 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. (You don’t have a choice if you’re at 70 mph.)

If you don’t give the engine enough gas from a start, it balks; something to get used to, as is moderate acceleration without sucking down too much fuel. It’s easy to get stuck at low engine speeds when you suddenly need to accelerate, and you get faster at shifting if you want to move. The old Neon 2.0, the PT Cruiser, and the older 2.2 cars all had a decent low-end reserve of power; not the Fiat 1.4. Of course those couldn’t break 40 mpg, either.

The engine is still quite enjoyable when you go full-throttle and feel that turbo kick in, but like the Fiat 500, it’s not like you’ll win a lot of street races; acceleration feels good but it’s pretty mediocre. At high altitudes you’ll have a big advantage over non-turbo cars and you’ll probably always have all the acceleration you need .

The stick pattern is good; Reverse is well to the left of First, and to get there you lift up a ring. The rest have the usual pattern. Both the clutch and shifter seemed awkward compared with the 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. As you lift the clutch, it releases the brake — just like you used to do yourself, with the handbrake, if you learned to do it that way (I did, but found it hard to do in my Sundance which had no handbrake).

mpg

My city mileage was mostly in the mid-20s, peaking at 27 mpg. On the highway, the mid-30s come without trying; the longer the trip, the better the mileage. I got up to 45 mpg on a hundred-mile trip largely by freewheeling down a mountain, but the return trip still left me with 42 mpg (which I forgot to photograph). Using the air conditioner full-time on a hot day cost me 4-5 mpg on the same trip, same speeds, same conditions. Notes for anyone questioning these numbers: I stayed at normal center/left lane highway speeds in each case, clearing out of the passing lane for faster drivers; five to eight cars were pulled over by patrolmen on each trip, so higher speeds were possible but foolish).

Cornering and handling

The car is still 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). 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.

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 really 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-grip, I mean limited-rolling-resistance, tires, along with, I believe, 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 very quiet and much smoother. This is like a throwback of a car, and if I’d been a better car buyer, I would have waited for a better Dart to come onto the market — preferably a 2.0 but certainly not an Aero. The handling is still quite fine and enjoyable.

Stereo and sounds

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. (This all matches my impressions of past Darts.)

The setup also 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 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. What we thought were nasty USB card handling bugs turned out to be a bad USB drive, but we also found it likes having some free space on the drive. It recognizes a huge drive very quickly and remembers it after it’s been removed, which is unusual; and when we say a huge drive, we mean a well-over-design-spec 32GB one.

The CD player sits in the center console, 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. (I haven’t figured out how to get it out and sell it yet.) USB thumb drives stick out into the cubby, but they make some very low-profile models now and that works. A power supply is in there too, if you really, really want to use a battery-operated portable player.

cubby

The Aero had optional steering-wheel mounted audio controls which take away some of the sting from a touch-screen stereo.

We already noted that the interior is nowhere near as quiet as in our review cars, none of which were the Aero. Engine noise is not a problem and it’s easy to tell when to shift without the tachometer.

Dodge Dart electronics, gadgets, and gizmos

Chrysler used to forgo remote fuel doors on even its top of the line cars; the Dart has one. The Dart lets you easily decide whether to use daytime running lights and to turn on headlights when the wipers are on, both in the 8.4-inch touch screen menus. 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. It even lets you pick the screen brightness on a 1 to ten scale, make the voice responses shorter, and eliminate the touchscreen beep.

stereo

The trip computer (EVIC) is quite snazzy on our Aero, far nicer than the base panel. 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. There’s no boost gauge, even with this, and we’d like one. The numbers are clear and legible. The virtual speedometer was so clear and smooth, the passenger didn’t realize the entire gauge was virtual when we set it to “speedometer only.” You can choose a digital or analog speedometer.

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. GM has a better implementation of the same basic idea, but it’s still a “moderately cool” feature. It’s overly bright in the publicity photos for the car. There are also red rings around the volume and browse knobs when this is installed (which are not adjustable).

dashboard

Most controls are backlit, which is an improvement over past cars. Gauge backlighting is both white and red — the red is used for trim, with all numbers in white. Red warning lights clearly stand out, which they did not in Pontiac’s old “all red” setup.

The climate controls are partly integrated into the touch-screen, and 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 bound to be an annoyance with the base setup.

Current temperature setting is shown at the top of the touch-screen; 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 a 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.

navigation

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. This still happens and I’ve owned the thing for two months.

Sadly, if you do not get the navigation system, you also do not get a compass — at all. That’s unusual these days.

Storage, space, and seats in the 2013 Dodge Dart

This car has numerous storage spaces asides from the usual glove box and center console. We wish we had the cubby under the swing away passenger seat pad, which has space for a small laptop or lunch bag, but the poor Aero just gets a regular cheap seat. Still, an iPad easily slides into the absurdly deep glove compartment if that’s your thing, and there is a separate area for holding tire gauges and such, and a clip for holding a 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) has a surround light, and a gap between them both accommodated mug handles and let the driver put sunglasses into the space. 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.

The trunk is sized with the class, in theory, but in reality seems quite generous. A 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. Also, our car did not come with a spare, but with a “tire puncture kit,” so at some point we will need to hunt down a spare through the junkyards.

trunk

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.

Dart styling, visibility, and such

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.

Our Dart came with a full telescoping steering column, and a thick leather-wrapped steering wheel. The steering was firm, precise, and well-connected. That was nice. 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 few Darts seem to have them. The ordinary headlights are about average, 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. 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.

Dodge Dart prices, features, options, and such

The base price for the Dart Aero was around US$20,000 when new, and we paid half that for ours. 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 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.

Conclusion

The Dodge Dart is nothing like the original, though it fills the same market segment it fills. The car emphasizes cornering, and does that extremely well; it feels stable and solid. (The pre-1968 Dart compact was quite good at cornering, for the time, too.) Some aspects of it don’t quite match the first-generation Neon — which was far easier to shift and had a lighter feel overall, with greater responsiveness and fewer rattles and nicer seats— but in most ways it’s far superior, including much lower wind noise, a superb stereo, and enough gadgetry to open a Sharper Image branch.

The different powertrain options make a huge difference, with the 1.4 engine definitely “enthusiasts only” and the 2.0 ideal for most economy-conscious buyers, and the 2.4 best for everyone else. Used, the best bet is to avoid the 2013s entirely, as many changes were made to make the 2014s more reliable and to sand off the rough edges. As for us, “oops.” 

Dodge Dart Main PageDodge Dart Limited 2.0Earlier Dart Reviews and Road Tests • Other Reviews

SRT4 • Comparisons • Rally Car • InteriorFactory • Dart 1960-62 • 1963-66 • 1967-76 • Forum
Dart reviews: 2.0 Auto • 1.4 Stick • 1.4 DDCTReaders’ Reviews • Also see Dart-Mouth.com

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