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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dodge Dart

The Dodge Dart is the first compact four-door sedan from Chrysler since the departure of the old Neon almost a decade ago. The new car, bearing an old and honored name, is technically a replacement for the Caliber compact hatchback in the company's lineup, but it's far closer to the mainstream of that segment than the unloved and unsuccessful Caliber ever was.

The Dart is meant to compete with the high-volume entrants in this crucial sector of the car market. The perennial leaders in the compact class are the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, though the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus at last give U.S. brands serious and respectable entries as well. Other models fighting for a share include the Hyundai Elantra, the most recently successful entry, and the Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, and Mazda3.

For more details of the Dart, including options, prices, and specifications, see the full review of the 2013 Dodge Dart.

Chrysler got off to a slow start with the Dart, and the car has a tall task: It must convince a lot of buyers that it offers something different--in styling, on-road performance, and customizable features--to make noticeable headway in a tough category.

The Dart's exterior styling blends the full-size Charger's aggression with a bit of the friendliness of the old Neon. It may sound like a confusing mix, but it works pretty well. The low cowl and wide stance make the compact Dodge visually eye-catching and distinctive compared to the tamer, taller, slabbier compacts from Toyota and Honda.

Based on its interior volume, the EPA actually deems the 2013 Dodge Dart a mid-size sedan--the same class as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry. But Dodge has priced it to compete with compacts one class smaller, and its exterior dimensions are more in line with that class as well. The net result is a spacious interior with lots of knee room for adults, along with a large trunk to boot.

The Dart can be fitted with one of three engines: a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four that's expected to be the fuel economy champ, a 160-hp 2.0-liter four that will likely be the lowest-cost option, and a 180-hp 2.4-liter four fitted with Fiat's MultiAir valve technology that will provide the best performance in the Dart GT.

A six-speed manual transmission can be ordered with any of the three engines, and the larger two also have the option of a six-speed automatic transmission. For customers who don't want to shift themselves but want the highest fuel economy, the 1.4-liter four can be fitted with a six-speed direct-shift gearbox. It functions more or less like an automatic, but is essentially a pair of automatically shifted three-speed manual transmissions. The shifting quality isn't quite as smooth as that of a conventional torque-converter automatic, with some delayed downshifts and a little bit of surging. Tuning of this transmission to match U.S. tastes was one of the reasons the Dart got off to a slow start.

A special lightweight version of the 1.4-liter Dart, with aerodynamic improvements, will be dubbed the Dart Aero, and will earn 41 mpg on the highway, the highest figures of the lineup. On the other end of the spectrum, the base Dart with a six-speed automatic earns just 34 mpg on the highway, at the lower end of the fuel-economy scale in the compact class.

Inside, high-level Dart models feature a 7-inch color thin-film-transistor (TFT) display between the gauges, designed to appear as a part of the gauge cluster rather than a discrete screen. Other snazzy appearance features include an optional LED ambient lighting system, and 14 combinations of colors and fabrics--including one with red stitching on black upholstery.

Safety equipment includes ten airbags, the usual array of electronic safety control systems, and a few that are new to the compact class--blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection. It also offers hill-start assist, trailer-sway control, and a rear backup camera. And the Dart has already achieved top-of-the-class crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the federal government.

The most base model--which will no doubt be hard to find at dealers--has no air conditioning and even has roll-up windows. Top-of-the-line Dart models, however, sport Nappa leather upholstery, voice-controlled navigation, and blind-spot monitors among other amenities.

The Dart's base price in this launch year is pegged at less than $16,000. Dodge offers many options bundled in packages, but also leaves many of them as stand-alone options that can be mixed and matched by buyers and delivered as ordered in as little as a month--a real rarity among new vehicles these days. That flexibility offers more than 100,000 possible combinations, which almost guarantees there will be no two Darts alike.

Dart sales got off to a slow start after it went on sale in the summer of 2012. Blame a model mix that was far too heavy on manual transmission cars--which many Americans couldn't even test-drive. Another challenge was the quality of the European direct-shift gearbox fitted in place of an automatic to some Darts, which behaved differently than the conventional automatics U.S. buyers are used to. Dodge hopes that the launch of the Dodge Dart GT, slated to arrive in the second quarter of 2013, will give more buyers a chance to revisit the showroom.

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