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by David Zatz in December 2012 (4)
Also see: Dodge Dart Limited 2.0 (2013)
For months, we gathered early test drive writeups in our Early Dart Reviews page, seeking a balanced view of the first major product of the Fiat-Chrysler partnership. Eventually, Ma Mopar lent us a 2013 Dodge Dart turbo for a week, letting us put it through its paces: stop-and-go suburban traffic, launches onto busy and unruly Route 4, the odd panic stop or swerve from driving down Route 4. In short, we used the Dart as our daily driver for a week, and exploring how it filled the need for a day-to-day commuter car, a family shuttle, and a fun weekend driver, with various driving styles.
We could spend a day or two on the electronics and conveniences, but let's cut to the chase and get into the essentials: how does it work as a car?
The Dart will eventually come with four engines; for the moment, buyers can choose between Chrysler's own 2.0, and Fiat's 1.4 turbo. Both have a manual transmission standard; the 2.0 has a conventional Hyundai automatic, while the 1.4 has a more sophisticated dual-clutch Fiat automatic.
The 1.4 adds over a thousand dollars to the price, as does any automatic; despite the lower gas-mileage ratings of the 2.0, that might push many buyers to the 2.0, and they'd probably be fine with it, especially since it comes with a conventional automatic. The 1.4 and 2.0 have the same peak horsepower, but the turbo engine has more torque. The 2.0 is sufficiently powerful for the car, not to make it exciting, but to make it a decent daily driver. It also is easier to handle with the manual transmission, and did we mention a thousand dollars cheaper? That's not chump change on a $20,000 (±$4,000) car. The 1.4 also demands premium fuel and synthetic 5W40 oil, which will eat away at any gas-mileage savings. [Dart 2.0 review]
The 1.4 simply will not move if you hit the gas too early (except, of course, in first gear), and has to be kept over 2,000 rpm to respond quickly, without a downshift. It took a long time for me to get used to the proper shift ranges for around-town driving; shooting up the hills on Bear Mountain was easy, making those turns from stop signs 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. 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. (So far, we have been unable to locate a single 2.0 manual).
In any case, the little turbocharged Fiat engine started out slow, then quickly gained its footing — assuming it started out at a good speed to begin with (that speed varied depending on gear and load) — and pumped out more than enough power. First gear quickly ran out, and second didn't last much longer; 0-60 times are deceptively quick, albeit not quite in Charger territory. 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 can, if you like, tool on down the highway in sixth gear, going 55 mph, and downshifting for more power. That should net over 40 mpg, though the car really seemed to like 65 mph. Faster than that, and gas mileage started to fall as engine speed increased. At 70 mph, downshifting became optional for passing.
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.
The stick pattern is ideal — Reverse is to the left of First, and to get there you lift up a ring (just to make sure), and it is way to the left, so you can't get confused. The other six gears have the usual “double H” pattern. Shoving the stick around takes more effort than it should, and while drivers will get used to it, it doesn't help; the Neon's stick-shift required a fraction of this effort, and had shorter throws. The Hill Start Assist was a life-saver on steep hills; it automatically 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 manually, with the handbrake, if you learned to do it that way (as I did, but later I stopped doing that, because I got a car with a foot-brake.)
As Michael Volkmann observed, the car was fun to drive fast, and felt quicker than it is (it is slightly slower than a five-speed 1995 Neon, but far quicker than the Caliber 2.4). The brakes were sharp and confident, taking some 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.
We eventually managed to achieve, briefly, 27 mpg on around town. On the highway, we easily made it into the high 30s, without trying. Just stay at speeds which won't get you pulled over, drive moderately, and 38-40 mpg are within reach.
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 definitely sport-tuned, but it isn't punishing, and it tolerates bad roads well — a gift that can save lives.
The optional stereo on our Rallye (Premium Audio Group, $595; UConnect 8.4 with navigation, $495; satellite radio, $195) was excellent — clarity was more than good enough to reproduce our very different test tracks, bass was strong and clear and easily dialed down for voice broadcasts, and there were, á la GM, three levels of speed-based volume compensation. Stereo separation was superb. The only problem was somewhat thumpy bass on some tracks; and you can't control the sometimes-overactive subwoofer separately. A low-bass slider would be handier than the midrange slider.
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 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 an insane number of options and features that 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. In short, 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 for those not bred to modern Mopars — used a simple black and white control on our Dart, which wasn't equipped with the optional 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 briefly 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, as well. 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.
When Daimler controlled Chrysler, backlights slowly disappeared from key gauges; with Fiat in charge, the backlights have returned with a vengeance. 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, too. The base gauge cluster was eminently usable despite the verging-on-unreadable modern 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 set the cluster to metric numbers, and show the speed in the EVIC.
Gauge backlighting is both black 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, 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, which has seven settings, 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.
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.
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.
I found the seats 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. The seat frames are the same in every trim level, but the leather seemed better cushioned. I would certainly have liked an adjustable lumbar support.
One serious annoyance 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.
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 Diesel (light gray) interior with bright yellow (Citrus) inserts inside; the yellow on the doors is real fabric on top where it's most visible and where you're likely to touch it, and plastic on bottom, where it would get worn if it was cloth. The seats have citrus stripes and stitching, in both front and back, a nice touch; rear doors are also citrus-lined. This interior color scheme makes the car seem much more open and airy than the black preferred by some enthusiasts and pushed by Dodge, and the bright yellow highlights certainly help relieve the gray — 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 standard Caliber either.
The Dart has neat proportions in person; people seemed to like it, though it did not attract the stares some more unusual cars have. The dual exhaust tips are large and well integrated into the rear fascia.
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.
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, which comes with the voice recognition and probably with other packages.
The body seems well assembled and solid; there have been some complaints about particular cars with imperfectly aligned body panels, but that is likely to get ironed out quickly. The car we saw at our dealership was perfectly assembled (our week-long test car doesn't count).
A.J. Schreiber wrote, “One thing that I really liked is the feel of the various knobs and buttons for both climate control and the radio, they felt solid and precise with no cheap plastic clatter at all.” We concur.
This is what we were looking for in 2004, when the Neon's time was up. We didn't get it then, but we have it now.
As of October 2012, the base price for the Dart was US$16,790, with the 2-liter engine and manual transmission. They don't expect to sell many of those, so let's look at the first serious Dart, the SXT; that runs $18,790 (we always include destination charges in the price). For the price, you get 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. 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).
The Popular Equipment Group ($300) 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.
The Premium Audio Group — no explanation — added $600. Satellite Radio added $200. UConnect Voice, so you could demand artists by name and such, added $300 and came with an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Finally, Hyper Black aluminum wheels added $400. Overall, the total cost came to $23,360 — not unreasonable by any means.
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 52% US/Canadian parts (including the engine), 21% Mexican parts, and an Italian transmission.
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. 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 — but in most ways it's far superior, including the 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 do make a difference; the dual-clutch and 1.4 engine are probably the best option for automatic buyers, but some manual-transmission lovers 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 R/T early next year.
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