Test Drives of the 2013 Dodge Dart Compact Cars: Manual and DDCT
I test drove my Graphite Dart Limited on the New Hampshire sea coast during the afternoon, just after a summer rain. Larry Foss of Foss Motors in Exeter was gracious in allowing me access to his only Dart, and his salesman Scott was equally gracious in setting up the time in his busy schedule for the test drive.
The 17” polished aluminums and brightwork suit this car well, and the Franco-American styling, while subtle, is decidedly sexy. When walking up, you can't deny her Italian DNA. I'm not saying that like it's a bad thing. She's got curves that'd do Sophia Loren proud. My tester was well equipped, with all of the things you'd expected in the top of the price range Limited trim at $22,900 delivered, including Nappa leather bucket seats that invite a caress and melt around you but still provide all the necessary support for some serious road burning. The Dart also had a sunroof, dual zone air conditioning, remote start, and cruise control.
The system had steering-wheel mounted controls and handsfree Bluetooth UConnect controls with an 8.4 inch touch screen entertainment/information/navigation center. The satellite stereo included ten-speaker sound by Alpine. I also fiddled with the 7 inch reconfigurable gauge cluster for several minutes, like a child with a new toy.
Cubbies and pockets and cupholders, oh my! This car has a ridiculous amount of storage spots in addition to the industry-standard center console. The cubby under the swing away passenger seat pad easily has adequate space for a laptop.
Not as evident as the other tech was the 1.4l MultiAir turbo under the hood. To quote Yoda, “Size matters not.” This engine is surprisingly mighty once you get past the usual turbo lag. The Fiat 6 speed manual I found fantastically smooth, and the pair powered it up to highway speed quite cheerfully heading up NH 101 towards the Seacoast. Transition was smooth, with the gears being tall enough in range to allow me to hop from second to fourth without serious lag.
Coming off the highway we hit some country roads, and the four wheel independent suspension handled both the curves and uneven New England roads like a champ, without knocking one vital organ or spinal joint from place. I also give high marks for the four wheel disc ABS brakes. The sightlines are an exponential improvement from my second-generation Neon, and with 10 airbags neatly tucked in every conceivable place, passenger safety is all but assured.
The quirks are minor, but these are things which should have been addressed. On the interior, which is for the most part gorgeous, I spotted a few corner cuts that some might see as “typical American car,” and could be quickly addressed at the dealership.
First, the shifter. Ping Pong, anyone? For all the work Chrysler engineers put into getting the “cheap” out of the interior I can't see how this was overlooked. The shifting mechanically is quite nice. But the knob and also the door handle have the tactile feel of a ping pong ball, and the shift boot feels like craft store grade vinyl. They draw you away from the good points and don't fit with the overall feel of the interior. That can easily be addressed in the Mopar accessories catalog by the dealer in the first year, and at its Belvedere birthplace down the road. A little harder to work out is the numbness of the clutch, but this is typical of cable driven units and easily addressed in part with a good set of silicone bushings.
Another thing that raised an eyebrow was the rear pass-thru. My post office box has a larger opening.
While I'm a great fan of the remote button on the fuel door, I don't see this thing lasting long, especially if gas prices rise. The plastic would probably be nothing to snap off if someone chose to get aggressive. That is something you can't band-aid. The hood latch sounded like when you stepped on one of those spring doorstops as a kid. That won't sit well with folks who are intent on calling it a “Fix It Again, Tony.”
Going through the price ranges, around 70% of the first year's model production are to be split evenly between the “value leader” SXT (starting at $19,885) and the sportier Rallye at $21,870. Most buyers will find good value in these trims and be quite comfortable. I found the Limited I drove to offer the best bang for the buck at $22,900, but it goes up to $24,070 fully decked out. If you have the money to go for it, I suggest the Limited for the sheer creature comfort level, but all of them are good, and I rather like the yellow pinstripe accent in the Rallye seats. If performance is your thing, wait until next year when the 184hp 2.4L MultiAir R/T hits showrooms along with the long awaited SRT-4.
Overall I found this incarnation of the Dart a great little car, and a true successor to the heritage of the original nameplate in providing a solid daily driver with good economy, and more creature comforts than one has been led to expect at the price point. Would I buy one? Most definitely. It has room to improve and I am certain it will do just that, but overall I would say Chrysler did well in adapting this car to the American road and have created a good market competitor for the segment. It, like most immigrants, have adapted to fit in and thrive in America. I think this little car will do about as well as many who came before it. Pass the Chef Boyardee, Sophia.
One of the key features of the 2013 Dodge Dart is Chrysler's first use of a dual-clutch automatic (DDCT), essentially an automatically shifted manual transmission. Dual-clutch automatics are usually quicker and more efficient than conventional automatics because they shift near-instantly and there's no fluid coupling — standard automatics spin a fluid to move power from engine to wheels, but the DDCT has a full mechanical grip. The one in the Dart is a Fiat unit, using the same gearset as the manual transmission.
We tested a 2013 Dodge Dart with the new dual-clutch at Chrysler's Chelsea proving grounds, on a road with both high-speed stretches and deliberately “bad” pavement. The dual-clutch was stunningly smooth, feeling like the new eight-speed automatics, except with even less indication that shifting is, indeed, going on behind the scenes.
We tried to trip up the system, slowing down and then hitting the gas, going from idle to full throttle, and suddenly going from high-throttle acceleration to coasting, then hitting the gas again; it reacted quickly and smoothly to each situation without a single mis-step, unlike most conventional automatics.
The DDCT felt like a standard automatic when coasting, without much of the extra drag normal in manual transmissions. Using the electronic range select (gear up/down buttons) resulted in nearly instant, and still very smooth, shifts.
This is a dual-clutch automatic which, unlike some competitors' units, will not surprise or dismay drivers new to the technology (or, for that matter, the uncaring "point A to point B" driver who just wants an appliance.)
Gas mileage on the DDCT has been revealed as being somewhat less than the stick-shift, but we were told the reason is different gearing, and that a second gearset would be released later. This could be destined for the Dodge Dart Aero.
I was staring at the clock at work, waiting. My buddy Brian was waiting for me downstairs in his Nitro Yellow-Green '95 Neon Sport Coupe. We were on a mission to find a new Dart.
We arrived at Allen Samuels Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram near Texas Motor Speedway and circled the lot. We spotted one, and stopped in our tracks. Being fans of the Neon, we have been waiting for this car for a while. In front of us was a 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye wearing Redline two-coat pearl paint. The interior was “Diesel Gray” with standard cloth seats and the 8.4N stereo system with the full UConnect functionality (backup camera, Bluetooth, etc.). Under the hood was a 1.4 Multiair Turbo engine connected to a six speed manual transmission. The list price was $22,670. It was a good 90% car that should easily cover most of the average buyers. It was optioned well, but not over optioned.
Sitting in the Dart, I found comfortable seats that were moderately bolstered. The fabric felt warm to me, and we cranked the A/C up a little more. The climate control was very similar to what we have seen in the Charger and 300; the redundant controls were easy to reach and the screens on the 8.4N were simple to use. I found myself using the redundant controls for stereo volume and the screens for the climate control and to change Sirius radio stations. All the controls were straightforward and simple.
The materials were nice, soft, and comfy in all the right places. We did notice the material wrapped around the top of the dash that brows over the stereo had a corner loose. It was minor, easy to fix... but it should have already been fixed.
The interior is roomy. The rear seat leg room reminded me of the 2004 Stratus my parents still have today. Even with the front seat all the way back, there was still ample space for the legs and feet. The rear seats are very comfy and a drop down arm rest was well positioned and the cup holders were not forgotten. There was even a small cubby on the back of the console for back seat passengers to throw peppermints or a phone into.
One of the big things for me to look at was the door panel. There had been discussion on Allpar about the door panels and an optical illusion that seemed to happen in some of the pictures. I can assure everyone, it is an illusion and what you see is the compound change in the shape of the plastic — the issue is one of perspective. Viewed from above, the “dimple” is clearly just the division of the storage areas. Viewed from the side, in photos but not so much in real life, the “dimple” is visible.
The Diesel Gray is very light colored... reminiscent of the "Light Mist Gray" on the early Neon. Overall the quality of the interior, regardless of the color and the spot on the dash, was leaps and bounds over the Neon, Caliber, and even the Stratus.
A full telescoping steering column with thick leather wrapped steering wheel is ready to adjust and and the wheel was firm and connected. I never pushed the steering or handling of the car, but it did feel well connected. It isn't an Abarth 500, but it isn't a standard Caliber either. The shifter is more solid feeling than the one that was in the Abarth. Visually it seems tall in relation to the opening in the console and the shift knob is perfectly shaped for your hand to cup over it.
The instruments were clear and easy to read and the standard vehicle information system has several different screens you can run through including a moving bar graph to show instantaneous mile per gallon. This bar graph moves around quite a bit while driving. I think the 1.4 is capable of high gas mileage once the buyer gets used to its power curve. It is easy to sink your foot into and feel the turbo come on which isn't good for gas mileage. The waste gate tuning on this car seems different than the Abarth, which has the same engine. When the pressure from the turbo begins to build you know it. (The first photo below shows the base model gauges, not the optional TFT, which is shown in Bill Cawthon's review.)
On the highway, the car is as docile as a kitten. Smooth and easy going, even with two adult back seat passengers. Compared to the Neon, it is much smoother down the highway. Passing leisurely was easy but a quick pass did require a downshift because the 1.4 was being lazy in 6th gear. When cruising on a flat road in sixth gear at 65 the instantaneous bar graph hovered in the mid forties and dropped into the upper thirties when going up gradual hills. (Tests by car magazines showed 0-60 times of around 8.2-8.4 seconds, with the engine running at mid-to-high rpm when started. Chrysler's own published 0-60 of 9.3 seconds was likely done starting with the engine at idle.)
On city streets, the car was fun. The 1.4 felt quicker than it probably was; I would say it was just as fast as a second generation five speed Neon, but I think a first generation would beat it in a drag race. Generally if felt Neon-ish and it would chirp second gear at ease even in low RPMs. Don't get me wrong, it isn't the Abarth 500 or ACR Neon, but it was sporty. It was certainly not a boring sedan when on a wandering road that allow for some spirited driving. The brakes were sharp and confident and the car never felt uncomfortable even in emergency braking situations.
The pictures don't give the exterior of the Dart enough justice. It has neat proportions from the long nose to the short trunk. The curved shape of the rear of the car is cleanly done. The dual exhaust tips are large and cleanly integrated into the rear fascia, but on closer look, you will find the pipes are fully connected to the tips which is similar to the Charger and 300.
Under the hood there isn't much to see unless you like large engine covers. The basic maintenance areas are clearly identified and the packaging is clean and neat. Just about everything is covered over in one way or another, not only for aesthetics but to also help control noise.
The Dart, in my opinion, takes everything I love about the current Charger and mashes it into all the things I loved about the Neon. The doors shut with an authoritative thud that shuts out ambient noise. You can still hear the engine, which I like... but it is not overly loud and could be canceled out by the stereo if you wanted too. The back seat passengers can hear a faint, throaty tone from exhaust.
When I say this car is good, I mean it. This is what I wish the second generation Neon actually was. If the Rallye is this good, I can only imagine what the R/T will be like. This is the true replacement for the Neon, plain and simple. The Caliber was a good vehicle, but it simply did not have the best of the Neon, as a driver's car. I look forward to the future of the Dart and any other versions that may come with it.
The Dodge Dart and I go back a long way — all the way to the Dodge-on-a-Plymouth-chassis introduced car launched in 1959. Twelve years later, my first American car was a 1971 Dart Swinger with a Slant Six and three-on-the-tree.
Fast-forward four decades to Texas, as Chad Robertson, head of Dodge Car Marketing, gave us a product and positioning overview of the new Dart; and Jeff Gale, Dodge Exterior Design Studio, took us through the creative process of developing a distinctive body language that is definitely Dodge but not a junior Charger.
Ryan Nagode, Chief Designer for Dodge and Ram Interior Studios, talked about the upgraded interior of the Dart, which has features seldom found in a car in this class, and Cyril Benitah, Engineering Program Manager for the Dodge Dart, showed us the new powertrains and underlying body structure.
After the presentation, it was off to a parking lot near the W hotel to meet our rides for the day. We were paired up, two writers to a car. Each team would take a car to our destination in Albert, Texas, with a break along the way to switch drivers. I paired up with Rich Truesdell of AutomotiveTraveler.com. Since we were the senior members of the bunch, it seemed like a good fit.
There was a nice assortment of Darts from which to choose, with all trim levels except the base SE. Rich and I selected a Dart Limited in Tungsten Metallic Clear Coat with the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine and the C635 6-speed manual transmission.
Stickered at $23,275, not including destination, our car was well equipped with black Nappa leather, the digital instrument cluster, Uconnect Touch 8.4N CD/MP3/Garmin Navigation with Voice Command, and more.
After a little experimentation with clutch throw, we were off to the hill country west of Austin via an assortment of farm-to-market roads, ranch roads, and thoroughfares lovingly laid out long ago by meandering cattle.
The Dart was quite comfortable; controls were well laid-out and the climate control was more than competent, though it wasn't competing with summer heat in Texas, which can be toasty at times.
The MultiAir engine was a fine powerplant: responsive and eager to rev. The car never felt like it was short on power in spite of the Dart's relatively high weight. The transmission shifted smoothly and I found myself doing more gear changes than strictly necessary because it was so much fun to control the car with engine speed instead of the brakes.
The brakes deserve mention. There's no doubt they will stop the car, especially the first time you use them. The brakes on our Limited had a tendency to grab abruptly and it took careful modulation of the brake pedal to come to a smooth stop. However, we quickly grew accustomed to this and it never created any problems. [This might have also been an artifact of preproduction and/or journalistic abuse. Editor's note: we had two Darts, and while the automatic 2.0's brakes seemed grabby, the 1.4's did not.]
The seats were comfortable and supportive in both cars, though the Nappa leather in the Limited would have to get the nod. There was some tire noise but little wind noise even at higher speeds, in both the Limited and Rallye. Nothing was intrusive; it was easy to carry on a conversation in a normal tone or listen to the stereo without having to crank up the volume.
Steering was precise with almost no perceptible torque steer, even in a high-speed pass through the twisties. In spite of the car's extra weight, the Dart took every curve like it was on rails, even at extra-legal speeds.
The nature of the roads worked against any really high speeds. As we were the last of several groups taking the Dart Drive over the same route, the Texas Highway Patrol and various sheriffs' departments smelled easy pickings; I saw more black-and-whites that day than I had ever seen in the eleven years I lived in Central Texas. Nevertheless, I did find one nice long, unpatrolled straight section and the Dart showed it would easily hit triple digits with room to spare.
We stopped at the Sac ‘N Pac in Wimberley, Texas, to switch drivers. Rich took the wheel and I took my turn as the navigator. While the car was equipped with a nice navigation system, the folks running the show had issued route books and told us to ignore the electronics.
The Dart was comfortable with a good ride. The car's suspension was set up as a compromise between the performance-oriented firmness of the original Alfa Romeo and the softer ride desired by most Americans. While it wasn't as stiff as I am used to, the handling was good and the car was sure-footed, even over some roads that hadn't seen much maintenance since the Coolidge Administration.
Rich commented about the Dart's weight a couple of times, but I found it gave the car a smoother ride than some others in this class.
Long about noon, we arrived at our destination, the Ice House and Dance Hall in Albert, Texas, population four, where we had lunch and changed cars. We got another Tungsten Dart: this time, a Rallye with the Tigershark 2.0-liter engine. We stayed with the manual transmission. The car had a lower level of amenities, but still had the Uconnect Touch and Garmin Navigation.
We also had one of the colorful interiors mentioned by Ryan Nagode in the morning's briefing: “diesel” gray with accents in a nearly fluorescent yellow-green called Citrus Peel. The lower door panels had a large insert in the accent color that could most kindly be called eye-catching. I am not opposed to brightening the interior with bright color accents; just maybe not that color.
We encountered a problem very quickly: the six-speed transmission, the same type that had worked so well in our other Dart, had a gremlin in the gearbox. Not only was it difficult to make a smooth start, there was a problem shifting into second gear, either shifting up or down. Once you got going, the upper gears worked just fine, but second gear proved to be a problem all afternoon. [Note: the cars driven were pre-production models.]
I had heard reports that the Tigershark engine was too underpowered and had trouble maintaining speed going uphill. This was one of the reasons for selecting the manual transmission. I have driven cars with engines weak enough that you were going to creep up some inclines at low speed, no matter what gear you select, and the Dart isn't one of them. I encountered only one hill where a downshift to fourth was needed but, in the proper gear, the Tigershark had no trouble maintaining speed. Perhaps the other drivers were more accustomed to more torque, but neither Rich nor I found any problem with the engine's power.
Unlike many drivers these days, I haven't embraced in-car connectivity. Rich was accustomed to the in-car technology but using it still required too much attention being diverted from the road ahead. Like others cars, Dart uses a touch screen interface; it works well and there's all sorts of useful information. Trying to access it, though, means taking one's eyes off the road, and often requires repeated interactions, something I observed Rich trying to do as we were whizzing down the road at 75 mph. Reading the screen requires still more attention. Then he was trying to sync his cell phone to the Bluetooth system and we began to leave the lane [no automaker intends for this to be done while driving].
The problems are not unique to the Dart. It's a lack of understanding how humans work combined with the engineer's native "gee whiz" instinct that causes them to add complexity just because it's neat and they can with never of thought of whether they should.
In contrast to the center-stack system, the new digital instrument panel with controls on the steering wheel was very nice: easy to use with no more than the same glance you would use to check the instruments in a conventional instrument cluster. This is the way more in-car information systems need to work.
Other than the balky second gear, the Dart Rallye was an equally pleasurable driving machine. A comfortable ride, supportive seats and decent highway-speed power made it easy to imagine the Dart being a good companion on a long drive.
As a family car, the Dart is probably best for those with younger children. The back seat conditions might be a bit cramped for a full-size teenager or adult, especially on longer trips. I would not want to be sitting behind me on a long drive but in fairness, that's true of a lot of smaller cars.
The last small Dodge I drove was a Neon SRT4; the Neon was a rocket. In terms of everything but fun-to-drive, the Dart is light-years ahead. The cars we were driving were practically-hand-built pre-production vehicles and, as such, had some minor issues with fit that should be corrected before actual production begins, but even so, the cars we drove had a higher quality feel, especially the interiors. The only areas that Rich didn't like were the lower door panels, but I thought they were fine for components that have to withstand harder use than the upper sections. There weren't any of the hard, shiny plastic surfaces or cheap fittings that used to bring so much criticism of Chrysler interiors.
The SRT Dart, like the 2.4-liter MultiAir engine, is in the future, but if the 1.4-liter MultiAir is any indication, the hot Dart will be just as much fun as the Neon SRT4.
One of the questions any reviewer has to answer is would recommend the vehicle they are evaluating to a friend or neighbor. I take it a step further and ask myself if I could see the car in my own driveway. To either of these questions, my answer would be yes.
My first impression of the Dodge Dart sitting on the show room floor is that this car looks leagues and bounds better in person. The “Redline 2-coat Pearl” paint shines. When Dodge said this car sticks out amongst the crowd of bland compact sedans they weren't lying, it's finally nice to see a car that isn't afraid to be a little ostentatious, this car oozes personality and attitude. The Dodge Dart combines the coolness factory of a Scion tC and the practicality of Toyota Corolla and amplifies both.
17 inch aluminum wheels are surrounded by 225/45 Continental tires and show the 4 wheel disc brakes behind them; the “Rallye” package blacks out the headlights, fog lamp trim, and the center bar through the grill. Further inspection of the headlight housings will reveal the Dodge logo just forward of the turn signal bulb, a subtle touch.
My Dart came with the optional 1.4 liter turbocharged engine from Fiat, pumping out 160 horsepower and 184 pound feet of torque — the same horsepower as the 2.0, but with more torque, and a broader curve. The engine cover is painted and accented nicely, though gear heads may prefer removing the cover to show off the actual engine. The battery is covered with a thermal wrap. Fluid receivers are clearly marked and labeled for easy service. Mechanics will be surprised how much room they have under the hood.
Sitting down in the Dart and closing the door instantly muted the sounds of the busy dealership around me. It was astonishing how quiet the cabin is, even the most subtle whispers seemed to resonate clearly in the cabin. My Dart had the standard instrument cluster and radio, the controls were large and easy to use and understand. The A/C fan was particularly good with 8 speeds ranging from a light spring breeze to hurricane force winds. 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, even the base instrument cluster is surprisingly upscale and had your typical tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge, and engine temperature gauge. The font they used for the numbers adds to the sporty feel of the car. The numbers are slightly on the small side but are still legible.
There is a small screen in the lower part of the cluster that displays various warning such as the parking brake being on, doors open, key in ignition, etc. The steering wheel is wrapped in stitched leather; the 10 and 2 sections of the steering wheel are slightly swollen, a simple touch.
The hands-free calling and cruise control are right on the steering wheel, within easy reach of your thumbs. On the back of the wheel were controls for the radio; left side for tuning and changing between presets, right side volume control and mode control. The standard six speakers are good for a base setup, but many would prefer the premium sound system. The USB and AUX inputs were inside the center arm rest, that way you don't have wires hanging down from the radio.
On the left hand dash forward of the wheel are your headlight and interior light controls, just below the is the trunk and hood release. Windshield wipers and high beams are on the turn signal stalk. Power window controls with rear control lock out, power door lock controls, power adjustable mirror controls were located on the driver's door. Forward of and below of the driver's left armrest is the release for the gas tank filler door. The door doesn't have a cup holder.
The seats are comfortable; they have sufficient side bolstering and the seat ends just about 2-3 inches behind and below my knees. I'm 5'9” with most of that being my legs, and I rarely sit in a car that has enough support for them. I wish I could take the seats with me. The Rallye has manual-adjustable seat height, but no adjustable lumbar support. There was, though, a felt backing to the seat belt buckle in both the driver and front passenger seats, so the buckle wont rub and make a groove in the center console over time.
The glove box is cavernous, about a foot and a half deep; it also had a nice little holder for a pen or pencil. My Dart did not come with the front passenger underseat storage, but the glove box and center armrest/storage bin made up for it. On either side of the center console near your shin are two tiny bins that look like they can hold something but cannot, my Blackberry could barely fit, and even then it was held so loosely that it would have surely fallen out during normal driving. There is also storage in front of the gear shifter, but a manual renders it useless if you need to grab something while driving.
The rear seats are as comfortable as the front. The Dart can seat three in the rear but I wouldn't seat three adults in the back for anything longer than an in city drive. With the front seat set to my height, I had around 6 inches of knee clearance. There is a fold-down armrest for the back seat with two cup holders and a small cubby. Behind the armrest was a fold-down door to access the trunk from within the car, or put long items (2x4s, skis) into the trunk and car.
The trunk was larger than expected, with the lid assisted by gas shocks; some people have complained of a lack of a grab handle to close the trunk lid with, I however found no difficulty in closing it. There is a compact spare tire underneath the floor of the trunk, and a grocery bag hook on either side.
Visibility is good, with the rear deck a bit too high, not so much that it interfered with the rear view mirror's line of sight. I was pleasantly surprised with the look and shape of the side view mirrors, angular yet fluid looking.
The ability to drive a manual in an automobile is a dying art these days, but it's a skill that I'm glad to possess. The shift pattern is a typical double-H setup with Reverse being on the far left and up, only engaged when one pulls up on a lockout ring. The long gear throws are not unlivable, but I would look into getting a different grip and a short throw shifter from Mopar. I wish the parking brake lever came with the same wrapped leather as the steering wheel, but then again you don't drive around holding the parking brake. The clutch feels good, with even and smooth engagement. One odd thing I did find was the shortness of the range of the gas pedal, which was only about 3 inches.
I adore the Dodge Dart; I expected it to be good but it went beyond that and proved to be great. Dart has a flavor for everyone, it can be mom's comfy town car with the Limited; but with a starting price of $16,000m, the SE trim is good for beginning drivers while providing piece of mind for parents when their kids drive it; and the R/T and SRT4 should be good for gearheads. The Dodge Dart brings style and charisma not recently seen in this segment, and rival car companies are taking notice. This is a car that'll turn heads. I'll have mine in red, please!