By Al Vinikour
With all apologies to Mr. Pun, just as Robin Hood had a quiver full of arrows, so, too, does Chrysler’s Dodge Division have an arsenal of Darts. In automobile lore, Dart has a storied past, selling more than 3.6 million between 1960 and 1976. During its run it had something for everybody, power-wise. The legendary 225-cubic-inch Slant Six was available during the entire production while a host of V8s also were offered. The watershed year for raw performance was 1962, when purchasers could equip their Dart with a 413-cubic-inch Ram induction V8 that pumped out 410 horsepower. It quickly became the terror of the drag strips.
Fast forward to present day where Dodge has reintroduced the Dart as a 2013 model. Not surprisingly it has nothing in common with the original except the name (as one would expect after a 37-year lapse). It may not sport a high-performance, gas-guzzling V8, but it has everything else and, as Martha Stewart is fond of saying, “That’s a good thing.”
For starters it’s the first Chrysler Group vehicle built on Fiat Group architecture, noted for its low, wide and long dimensions, body-in/wheels-out stance, and coupe-like silhouette. Furthermore it mimics the styling cues of its bigger sibling, the popular Dodge Charger, with its crosshair-grille and “racetrack” taillamps. The sculpted sides are designed to reduce wind-resistance, as are the projector-beam headlamps. (The roofline extends slightly beyond the rear widown to direct air over the trunk and smooth flow coming along the side of the car.) To its credit, Dodge didn’t create this vehicle to be “pretty.” However, it is very “handsome” with a great stance, especially from the rear. A really slick pair of chrome exhaust tips, part of the Rallye appearance package, accentuate the rear fascia. In order to improve visual quality, these pieces are attached to the fascia itself, not the pipes.
At a time when most automakers are cutting back on models and packaging options in order to reduce assembly complexity and cut costs, the 2013 Dart comes in an eye-popping five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. The base model comes with a wealth of standard equipment, and a price that begins at $15,995 (excluding $795 destination charge). It’s quite the bargain. There’s a $2,000 price jump between the SE and SXT, a $1,000 increase for each of the next two trim levels, and a $3,000 bounce between the Limited and R/T. And you can actually option up the lower levels to a level at or above the entry price for the R/T, so be careful when ordering.
Naturally, if there are five trim levels, there have to be a number of powertrain choices, and the 2013 Dart has three engines and two transmission with a third gearbox (a dual-clutch) on the way. Standard on the first four trim levels is a 2.0-liter 16-valve Tigershark inline four that produces 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Optional is a 1.4-liter 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled MultiAir four that produces 160 horsepower. This is the same engine found in the Fiat 500, but with more torque — 184 lb-ft due to the fact that the transmission in the Dart can handle the greater output. Unlike the 2.0-liter, the1.4-liter MultiAir doesn’t feel as sluggish, and gets better fuel economy. The third selection, and the one most TVD readers will want, is the 2.4-liter 16-valve MultiAir 2 Tigershark engine that arrives later this year. It’s the standard engine in the R/T, has a ridiculously long name, and produces 184 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque.
All three engines are available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The manual has a light clutch that even novices to stick shifts could adapt to easily. It is easy to modulate. Plus, unlike the pressure it used to take to push the clutch pedal down on the old, high-performance Darts, you won’t develop a left leg like you would after a membership to Gold’s Gym.
The first two engines offer decent highway operation, but both are weak on acceleration. The 2.4 would be the engine of choice but, as mentioned, is only available on the R/T (which would be my trim level of choice). In the flatlands of the Midwest this wouldn’t present much of a problem, but in hilly or mountainous terrain it could involve a lot of downshifting. Depending on the model, the new Dart sits on 16-in., 17-in. or 18-in. wheels and tires.
Slow acceleration aside, the 2013 Dart offers a terrifically-smooth and solid ride. Handling is superb —on par if not better than the Ford Focus — and wind noise is practically non-existent. Extensive use of sound-deadening materials, one of the highest high-strength steel contents in the industry — 68% — and ride characteristics tuned for North American roads. The result is a car that has a phenomenal ride, precise steering and minimal body roll. Now there are a host of engineering elements that make the handling what it is, but I don’t understand most of it. (The editor does, but when he starts talking about “roll couple” and “damper curves” and “steering gain” I want to shoot myself. You probably do, too.) However, these things are so well done, the Dart jumps to the top of the list in terms of ride and handling.
As good as Dart looks on the outside, the inside is where it all happens, and there’s enough user-friendly gadgetry and appointments to make Bill Gates take notice. It starts with Ruby Red LED accent lighting that frames the available “floating island” gauge cluster, audio and heating, ventilation, air conditioning controls. It’s reminiscent of the Dart’s racetrack taillights. This bezel houses an available segment-exclusive 7-in. Thin Film Transistor (TFT) reconfigurable gauge cluster that sits enshrouded in black until the driver pushes the start button, and then it’s the 4th of July. The TFT display has full-color graphics, and the gauges are backlit with LEDs. A large “performance” font makes the numbers easier to read in both digital and analog mode. Also available in an 8.4-in. touchscreen media center — the largest touchscreen in the compact car class. If ever it’s possible to call an automotive device like this “fun,” this is it. Just don’t be surprised when your youngsters reconfigure your settings to suit their tastes.
The standard four-gauge analog gauge cluster also uses Ruby Red LED for illuminating the rings around the speedometer and tachometer. It’s not bad either, but once you see the floating island unit with its TFT display, you’ll want it. Which gets back to the number of permutations possible with the Dart. There are 14 interior combinations with a total of seven interior environments in cloth or leather. If that isn’t enough to get your attention, how about this: there are quite literally 100,000 ways to individualize a Dart.
But what about the space inside, does the Dart measure up? It’s larger than any other car in the segment, but all that size doesn’t translate into greater interior room. There’s decent room in the front seat — within tenths of an inch of the best-in-class — but the rear seat room is no better than you’ll find in a Honda Civic or Chevy Cruze, despite the Dart being larger. For a family it would be adequate; for a car pool of adults it could get a bit tight. Trunk room is a generous, but not spectacular, 13.1 cu. ft., and the trunk is regularly shaped and bolstered by a split-fold rear seat.
The 2013 Dodge Dart has way-too-many features — both standard and available — to fit within the confines of this review. To prove my point, the press booklet we were given listing all the features and pertinent history was almost 300 pages thick. All it needed was a hero, a villain and great cover art to be a novel. Nevertheless, I was able to pull out a few gems for you reading: 10 airbags, all-speed traction control, ABS, blind-spot monitoring, brake assist, electronic stability control — and that’s just some of the safety features! The 2013 Dodge Dart goes on sale later this year, and sales are expected to be brisk. You can easily wait a few more months; you’ve already done so for 37 years.