Driving Impressions – October 2012

The Chrysler-Fiat Marriage Proves Fruitful
2013 Dodge Dart Rallye Edition

By Greg Cavanaugh

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye Gallup JourneyLet’s just start this off by saying the Dodge Dart is a much better car than the car it replaces, the Dodge Caliber.  In fact, had Dodge come out with the Dart instead of the Caliber six years ago, there’s little doubt in my mind that the Dart would be the segment leader, with the competition following obsequiously.  It didn’t however, and the compact market is now the fastest growing segment in the auto industry and the competition is fierce . . . I know because I’ve driven some of them.

So does this mean the brand new Dodge Dart has arrived, already a has-been?  As nice as it would have been to have the Dart years ago, it would not have been possible.  It wasn’t until the great recession and Dodge’s massive financial woes that Fiat and Chrysler got married.  The Dart, of course, is their first-born.  Borrowing a platform from Alfa Romeo allowed the new Chrysler-Fiat partnership to fast track the Dart into existence and it also gave the Dodge some decidedly Euro flare.

That Euro flare manifests itself nowhere more than in the Dart’s excellent handling and steering combination.   This car just drives really well.  The steering is neither too heavy nor too light and feels very direct and quick.  Even the steering wheel itself feels good in your hands. The handling is sporty, tight and controlled.  The combination makes the Dart fun to drive.  The tradeoff, in this case, is ride.  There is a short list of cars on the market that both handle well AND ride well; typically you get one or the other.  It’s not that the Dart is overall too stiffly sprung, but the interstices of our local rough pavement send quite a bit of vibration into the cabin, as if the suspension bushings are too firm or there’s not quite enough suspension travel.  Also, the amount of road and suspension noise seems a bit high, further exacerbating the lower quality of the ride.  Don’t take this as a deal breaker, however; if I had to pick one over the other I’d take the Dart’s handling any day.

Of course, what fun is sporty handling if it’s coupled to a boat anchor of an engine?  I was fortunate to drive the Dart equipped with the base 2.0-liter “Tigershark” 4-cylinder with VVT.  The four makes 160 hp and 148 lb.-ft. of torque and sends the power to the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic.  While the hot engines are the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo or the R/T’s 2.4-liter four, realistically, most Dart’s will dart off the lot with this base 2.0, thus giving me a realistic impression for you consumers.  And I’ll be the first to say this 2.0 is a fine little engine and hardly a punishment for being thrifty at the dealership.  The Tigershark is appropriately smooth and rarely leaves you truly needing more power.  I didn’t have the chance to drive on any two-lane highways, but only during passing in those circumstances could I see a driver really needed more oomph.  Otherwise the base 2.0 returns nicely respectable fuel economy numbers of 24 city / 34 highway, with 27 combined – saving you money at the dealer and at the pump.

Styling, while subjective, can still be broadly evaluated.  On the exterior, the Dart gets high marks.  The short overhangs, raked glass front and rear, retro touch “race-track” rear taillights, and an aggressive “cross-hair grill” front end set the Dart apart from the Focus, Cruze, Elantra and Civic. Where the competition can be called stylish, very few, as with the Dart, can be called sporty.  Inside the Dart is a mixed bag.   The Rallye edition is hardly the base, sitting above the base SE and the SXT Darts in the pecking order.  But for some reason, the radio appears to be a filler item and its trim looks like a low budget aftermarket piece.  Undoubtedly, the trim is designed to be swapped out for different versions of the Dart and various interior color schemes, and the spot behind it is intended to house Dodge’s cool 8.4-inch touch screen infotainment system, but the finished product does little to match the Dart’s cool exterior vibe.  With controls on both the front and rear of the steering wheel however, everything is easily accessible.  The interior plastics are a bit too hard, circa 2001 and there are some odd cubbies in the center near your knees that seem incapable of holding anything.   The gauge cluster matches the exterior with sporty white and red graphics, although it is a bit hard to read your speed at a glance.  While I really like the racing strips on the seats, they’re not for everybody.

Interior space is par for the course with good width in the front and rear, but very limited headroom in the back.  As stated many times, I’m hardly a man of stature, yet my head hit the ceiling.    Bonus points, however, for what might be the biggest glove box in the compact car segment; it’s practically deep enough to hold a 10” pizza.   The trunk, though not class leading, will hold a couple of suitcases just fine.

At the risk of sounding cliché’, as build quality has always been a perceived factor with Dodge, it nevertheless called attention to itself. There are few cars I’ve driven in the last four years where I was quick to question the overall build quality.  Even with the low miles of this tester, it exhibited some unexpected rattles in the driver’s door, a flimsy hood over the gauges and radio, and rear quarter panels that met the trunk lid at different heights.  Perhaps Chrysler-Fiat’s push to get the Dart to market so quickly required compromises.  Frankly, they seem to have gotten so much correct out of the gate with regards to powertrain, handling and styling that the small quality quibbles are fairly easy to overlook.

Reasonably equipped, this Rallye-edition Dart had a base price of $17,995 and an as tested price of $20,890.  A quick comparison of the competition shows the Dart right in the mix of the compact car segment.  Interestingly, the Dart appears to be in such high demand that the price actually needs to be market adjusted to almost $25K to keep them from flying off the lot before any customers even get to check them out!

If this new “first-born” Dart is any indication of the other products that will soon roll off of the production lines from this new Chrysler-Fiat marriage, it’s fair to say that the real winners are going to be the consumers.

* A special thanks to Rick and the new owners of Gallup’s Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership, Tate Autocenter, for the test drive.

**For more of the Dart in action, visit my YouTube channel by searching for gcavy1.

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan 
BASE PRICE: $17,995  PRICE AS TESTED: $20,890
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection Displacement: 122 cu in, 1995 cc 
Power: 160 hp @ 6400 rpm 
Torque: 148 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm 
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode 
Wheelbase: 106.4 in 
Length: 183.9 in 
Width: 72.0 in Height: 57.7 in Curb Weight: 3266 lbs. 
EPA 24 city/ 34 highway

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