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by David Zatz in September 2015
Replacing the Neon after a nine year absence, the Dodge Dart handles very well, but its large size (and, therefore, weight) is a handicap in the compact-car world. The Neon took the compact world by storm until reliability problems caught up with it, thanks to a superior mix of power, acceleration, space, handling, and comfort; the Dart, not a standout in any of these areas except handling, has almost been ignored.
The Dart is oddly sized, one of the biggest “compacts” you can get. That results in less than ideal fuel economy and acceleration, until the Hurricane 2.0 turbo four-cylinder engine or nine-speed automatic show up in 2017 or so.
Every model gives you a choice between a stick-shift and a six-speed automatic. It’s not much of a choice after you’ve driven the cars: if you can handle the stick, buy it.
The Dodge Dart originally came with the laggy but spirited 1.4 engine and the quick-starting but fast-peaking 2.0. Now, the 2.4 is now the sole engine on all but the base and “Aero” model.
At highway speeds, the six-speed automatic keeps the 2.4 engine at 2,400 rpm at 70 mph, killing real-life mileage — if you stick to 55, you should meet or beat EPA numbers; if you sometimes run 65, you should be okay. If you run with traffic in the passing lane, expect to get roughly the same mileage in the city and on the highway. (The EPA insists on 23 city, 35 highway. City mileage seemed roughly accurate; highway mileage was much higher than we got, albeit in aggressive “testing” driving. Due to the gearing, we suspect you will see a sharp dropoff after 55-60 mph.)
If you care about gas mileage and can’t abide a stick-shift, get the 1.4 and hope you don’t have too many traffic lights.
City mileage suffers from attempts to make the Dart as responsive as possible: an aggressive tip-in which makes slow starts harder, a high idle speed, quick downshifts, and such. The system is balanced more towards fast response than economy.
On the highway, the engine responded fairly well to slight demands from the throttle; heavier pushes resulted in near-instant downshifts, providing acceleration on demand, though the transmission was far too soft for the character of the car. Passing was absolutely no problem at all, with the air conditioning on, uphill, at moderate speeds (55 mph) or higher speeds, but there was a small rubber-band effect, and the Dodge image does not really allow for the slow-and-soft shifts of the Hyundai automatic. What’s more, since getting power seems to rely on going over 4,000 rpm, the angry-sewing-machine sound of the 2.4 became quite evident when accelerating.
Even with the 2.4, we found acceleration for the automatic Dart to be disappointing. On the highway, the 1.4 / DDCT seemed like a better combination. Around town, the 2.4 automatic and 2.0 automatic were both good, though the fast tip-in (response to slight taps on the accelerator) make it moderately hard to be smooth. There was no loss of traction when flooring the pedal to make a turn from a full top, even on concrete, which is good.
The Dart handled curves very well, taking corners faster than the driver can see around the turn. Unlike some cars in our past, it can deal with road imperfections and other surprises reasonably well. The more you drive the Dart, the more fun it gets, though some may find the busy, almost bouncy ride out of place on the Limited. The ride is still higher quality than one would expect, given the grip on pavement.
The relatively large size of the Dart takes away the small car feel, for better or for worse, but it still corners well. Bigger shocks make it through — this is not a minivan — but the smaller stuff is taken care of. The turning radius is too wide, but steering effort is a good compromise of assist and firm feel.
The standard stereo on our Limited was excellent — clarity was more than good enough to reproduce our 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; this car did not have the optional subwoofer, and did not need it. The stereo had good sound quality and balance.
The setup included a three-way tone control (bass, midrange, and treble). The system should, but does not, let you set bass and treble with knobs, though it could be set up to do so albeit with some potential confusion since pressing the right hand knob (our preferred way of entering “adjust audio”) could be confused with pressing Enter. Physical knobs are there for volume and for browsing tracks, and if you spin the knob fast, it automatically accelerates. Voice command is spotty.
Mac users will need to strip out resource forks (files starting with ._) from USB or SD cards, which is easy enough to do, and also remove any Spotlight files. There are free programs which do just that — along with Terminal commands.
Audio inputs and the CD player, when purchased, are in the center console. You can buy very stubby USB drives now, and the system seems to like those best. A power supply is in there, too.
The interior is quiet for its class, which helps to bring out the best in the stereo, but there was quite a bit of wind and road noise at highway speeds.
The Dodge Dart gives you many options, including letting you use or ignore daytime running lights, use headlights when the wipers are on, and set the time the headlights stay on after you lock the car, how long the power stays on, and even make voice responses shorter.
The big touch-screen comes with a red glowing border around the gauge cluster and screen, with a rheostat of its own.
Configuring the cluster is easy from the standard steering wheel buttons, as illustrated below; some items can be put onto the top but not the bottom, which is a little odd. Blanks are OK if you don't like a busy dashboard. The tachometer and gas gauge are always physical.
You can choose an analog or digital speedometer, surrounded by red curves or not; if you don't choose anything to go in the center, the system gives you a full phantom needle, designed to look completely analog, right down to the circular cap on the needle base and “black paint” on the start of the speedometer needle.
The display clearly shows which detectors are showing obstacles and how far off they are (top left), and makes switching to metric distances easy. Missing from the images is the showy “flower” background.
If you're a gauge freak, you can get oil and coolant temperature, transmission temperature, and other measures, though you can't get them all at once (technically, you could if they were less showy). It also gives you cool graphics when you start up or leave a door open.
The trip computer used a simple black and white control on Darts without the configurable dashboard that’s standard on Limited but not SXT. It provides warnings (doors open, tire pressure low, etc), shows the odometer, and other information (gas mileage, distance to empty, current miles per gallon, tire pressure), etc., one item at a time.
Climate controls are partly integrated into the center 8.4 inch 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, 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 (standard on Limited), but it’s bound to be an annoyance with the base setup.
The air conditioning was far too weak for the summer heat — barely enough when it was 85°F, not nearly enough for 90°F, even with the fan turned all the way to “noisemaker extraordinaire.” The car takes modern refrigerant but perhaps the components were sized for R134a? Maximum A/C was deafening.
The temperature setting is shown at the top of the touch-screen; and there are 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 safety problem; a single touch can move the heat or fan speed from one end to the other, or into the middle.
Our car had automatic headlights with a manual override, which could itself be overridden by hitting it with your knee on the way out.
Car seats can make or break a car. I found the seat cushions far too firm for my bruised tailbone, and the rock-hard headrest protruded forward, vibrating madly. This is odd because I found the cloth-covered seats on the 2014 Rallye to be nicer. The seats on the Limited, though, sure looked classy — in both front and back — with matching door panels.
There are several spaces asides from the usual glove box and center console. Some models (not the Limited) have a cubby under the swing away passenger seat pad (see photo in our Rallye review) with space for a small laptop or lunch bag; a DSLR camera with a moderate zoom lens fits into the center cubby even if you have the optional CD player; and an iPad easily slides into the glove compartment, which has a separate area for holding tire gauges and such, and a clip for holding a pen or pencil.
A deep cubby, dimly lit at night, sat under the center stack. The twin cupholders (with bubbles to hold things in place) had a surround light. All four doors had map pockets, and there was 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 sunroof controls were chrome-trimmed. Oddly, the SXT had an under-passenger-seat cubby, and the Limited did not.
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 nicely sized, with a pass-through for skis and poles and such; but both rear seats fold down (separately) for larger objects. The Dart uses old-fashioned hinges, similar to those on older Darts, that intrude into the trunk when you close it. Cars with a subwoofer lose a bit of trunk space.
The interior is verges on being 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 bolstered for support in hard turns.
Our Dart came with a full tilt-telescoping steering column. The steering was firm, precise, and well-connected. Maintenance areas under the hood were clearly identified.
Visibility was generally good, with the optional HIDs; the sun visors slid on poles. The body seemed solid, though there were a couple of rattles, the first we experienced on a Dart.
The Dodge Dart SXT is the value leader of the group; the Limited is the luxury form. Like SXT, it has the “Tiger Shark” 2.4 four-cylinder, airbags (front and rear side-curtain, front and rear side, driver and passenger knee-bolster, and dual fronts), four-wheel ABS, stability and traction control with roll prevention, alarm, hill-start assist, reactive front headrests, CD/MP3/aux radio, steering wheel mounted audio controls, cruise, air conditioner, folding rear seat with trunk pass-through, floor mats, height-adjustable front seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and lighting package. There spare tire has been replaced by a service kit.
The Limited starts at $24,790, including destination. In addition to SXT gear, it comes with a remote starter, backup camera, navigation system, the large 8.4” display with satellite radio (one year subscription) and Traffic/Travel Link (five years). There are heated front seats, leather wrapped around the steering wheel and shifter, a six-way power driver’s seat with four-way lumbar adjustment, dual-zone automatic temperature control, the premium gauges (including the digital gauge), illuminated panel surround, USB and iPod stereo inputs, and ambient LED interior lights. Outside, it has fog lights, “racetrack” LED tail lights, aluminum wheels with 225/45R17 tires, body-color power heated mirrors with turn signals, and an express (one-touch) open/close sunroof with a vent setting and manual-slide cover.
Our test car had just two options:
The powertrain is covered for five years or 100,000 miles (in 2016, 60,000 miles) with towing assistance for that whole time. The basic warranty is three years or 36,000 miles. The Dart is assembled in Illinois; ours was built using 60% US/Canadian parts, with 18% Mexican parts, and a Korean automatic transmission (if you get the manual, it’s imported from Italy). It is safety-rated at five stars overall.
While oil changes are relatively infrequent, with Chrysler joining GM in recognition of the quality of modern oils, the Dart 2.4 does take an oddball weight, 0W20. Beware, those who use quick oil change shops!
The Dodge Dart bears little resemblance to the once-ubiquitous 1970s cars; it emphasizes cornering, feels stable and solid, is generally quiet and well cushioned, has a superb stereo, and packs enough gadgetry to open a Sharper Image branch. It was hard for us to argue with the Dart Limited package, which provides good value, though we would still advise buyers to at least get the HID lights.
The gizmos are well integrated, and don’t just feel like the results of a checklist. That might be why they were not first with most of the additions, but have been coming out on top in customer satisfaction for electronics.
The Dart 2.4 has a sporty suspension, a smooth ride, comfortable and quiet interior. It’s both a good buy and an enjoyable car, a worthy alternative to the Corolla, Camry Four, and such. Whether it’s right for you — is something only you can answer, but it’s worth a drive if you like to go around sharp turns quickly.
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