ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin - Retrieving a model name from a company's past is nothing new. Still, reviving the "Dart" designation is something of a surprise. Though the original Dart, as produced from 1963 to 1976, was a reasonably competent compact for its time, it's hardly a notable historic model, much less an icon of any stripe. Though several moderately sporty and high-performance renditions were issued during the original Dart's lifetime, including some attractive convertibles, it was mainly an everyday automobile aimed at a mass audience.
Dodge appears to have different intentions for its 2013 Dart, the all-new compact that's billed as "groundbreaking." Plenty of automakers use that latter term to describe their latest models, but in at least one sense, it's accurate here. Dart is the first Chrysler Group vehicle to be built on Fiat Group architecture, resulting from the highly-publicized tie between the two companies. Specifically, the Dart rides a lengthened, widened platform that had been used for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta in Italy.
Marketers point to the Dart's "unmistakable Dodge design," including an "athletic, sculpted, fluid and aesthetically agile appearance." As if that list of attributes isn't enough, they also promote the Dart's "world-class aerodynamics." What all that means isn't so clear, but it sounds like a lot to live up to for a car that's aimed more at the mainstream end of the market than the sporty specialty segment.
Five trim levels will be offered: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited, and R/T (the latter not available until fall 2012), with a starting price of $15,995. Buyers may choose from three "fuel-efficient" powertrains, including available MultiAir technology. A Dart "Aero" model, meant to achieve at least 41 mpg in highway driving, is scheduled to arrive in fall 2012.
Up front is a stylized split crosshair grille with piano black accents, promising a modern look that "floats in the front fascia," according to Dodge. Marketers assert that the Dart delivers "just the right amount of attitude" with its "body-in, wheels-out" stance and "coupe-like silhouette." Available extras include Charger-inspired "racetrack" full-width taillamps with 152 indirect-glow LEDs, and "class-exclusive" dual exhausts. Mopar will offer more than 150 customization options and "themed" packages.
Beneath the body, the lower radiator close-out panel is positioned below the front fascia, intended to reduce drag while allowing an 8-inch curb clearance. Underbody panels run the full length of the car, and an integrated decklid spoiler is installed.
Inside, Dodge's Dart promises interior space comparable to that of a midsize sedan, including "best-in-class hip and shoulder room," but with the "footprint" of a compact car. Ten airbags are standard. A Dart can have a Uconnect Touch 8.4-inch touchscreen Media Center.
Two of the available engines were available when the Dart began to reach dealerships, in spring 2012:
* A new 160-horsepower Tigershark, 16-valve, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
* A 16-valve 1.4-liter MultiAir intercooled turbo engine that also generates 160 horsepower.
Available in fall 2012 is a new Tigershark 16-valve 2.4-liter MultiAir 2 four-cylinder engine, ready to deliver 184 horsepower. MultiAir technology delivers optimum combustion at any speed under all driving conditions, according to Dodge, "by allowing direct and dynamic control of air intake and combustion." This is said to result in a 15-percent boost in low engine rpm torque, and a 7.5-percent hike in fuel efficiency.
Three transmission choices will be offered: six-speed manual, six-speed automatic, or six-speed dual dry clutch transmission (available in fall 2012). With manual shift, the 2.0-liter engine gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 25 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway. A manual-shift Dart with the 1.4-liter turbo gets an estimate of 27-mpg city/39-mpg highway.
Built with 68-percent high-strength steel, Dart is the first Dodge vehicle with an active grille shutter system, which halts airflow through the lower intake at highway speeds, when less engine cooling is needed and aerodynamic drag is more of an issue.
Clearly a sizable step ahead of Dodge compacts of the recent past, including the Caliber, the modern-day Dart isnít perfect by any means. Strangely enough, though, a person who recalls the original Dart might indeed feel a kinship to that old-timer in ambience and tone.
On two-lane roads, a Dart SXT with the Multi Air 1.4-liter engine delivered a generally excellent ride, but hit some pavement separators quite hard. Easy to drive, that Dart stays on course reasonably well, and its relatively light feel is appropriate. Manual shift is a drawback rather than a bonus. The gearshift lever has a nice big knob and operates with long throws, but shifting between first and second gears could get balky. All in all, itís not an appealing gearbox, and fails to add to the driving experience. No evidence of the turbo engine could be observed, and acceleration is nothing to get excited about.
Gauges in the turbo Dart are a bit too stylized for easy reading. Front-seat space is very good, with a comfortable spot for the driver. Rear occupants get ample space at the sides, thought toe room is so-so. The center rear position for a fifth passenger is high, with little or no head clearance.
A Dart Limited with the non-turbo engine and automatic proved to be much more appealing. Itís no powerhouse either; but that version delivers civilized powertrain behavior with clean, crisp transmission shifts. Performance, though relatively tame, is appropriate for this class. Ride comfort is satisfying; handling unexceptional but pleasing.
Gauges are better in the Limited model, too. The big information screen can look ďbusyĒ if youíre not at ease with such displays. Dart production began in spring 2012.