2012 Dodge Dart: Drive review

The Alfa Romeo-derived Dodge is a winner

What is it?

The 2012 Dodge Dart is Chrysler’s first all-new car designed and built since the takeover/rescue of the company by Fiat. the compact car rides on a modified Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform and will be available in five trim levels with three engine choices, three transmission choices, 12 exterior color choices, 14 interior trim combinations and more than 100,000 ways in which to configure it. And right at launch, the Mopar accessory group will have 150 parts to help people further customize their Darts.

Chrysler has not had a player in the compact-sedan market–which makes up 85 percent of compact sales–since the Dodge Neon left the lineup in 2005. But with its bold styling, including the 152-LED “racetrack” taillights taken from the Dodge Charger, a sport-tuned suspension and an interior unlike that of other compacts in the market, the Dart stands out in a crowded field that includes, among others, the Ford Focus, the Chevrolet Cruze, the Honda Civic, the Hyundai Elantra and the Toyota Corolla.

When the Dart launches later this spring, it will be available in five trim levels: SE ($16,790), SXT ($18,790), Rallye ($19,790), Limited ($20,790) and R/T ($23,290), with the latter model not available until the third quarter. (Chrysler execs were tight-lipped about a possible SRT version, but if we were gamblers, we’d bet the farm that there will be a high-performance Dart in the future.)

The three engines, all built at Chrysler’s Dundee, Mich., Engine Plant., range from the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 160 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, to a 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder making 160 hp and 184 lb-ft, up to a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 184 hp and 171 lb-ft. there are three transmission choices: a six-speed manual or automatic and a six-speed dual dry clutch that is available on turbo models.

What is it like to drive?

Our first drives of Darts came in four different cars, sampling two engine choices, two transmission choices and three trim levels. Dodge did not make available a base SE model that comes with the “Tigershark” 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed manual.

We were, however, able to sample the base engine in a two different cars with two different transmissions: an SXT with the Powertech ATX six-speed automatic and a Limited with a six-speed C635 MTX manual.

The base engine is adequate in hauling around the 3,186-pound car (the automatic adds 56 pounds), but the lack of torque is noticeable when trying to make a quick start and when trying to make a two-lane pass. it gets a bit buzzy when working hard high in the rev range, but overall, the noise and vibration are handled quite well for a compact car. the six-speed auto can be shifted manually, helping to get at what torque is available. the manual transmission, with its nicely spaced gearing and relatively short throws, would be our choice among the two transmissions.

The 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo is the same engine powering the Fiat 500 Abarth edition, although tuned differently for a bit more low-end torque. And until we can drive the 2.4-liter that will power the R/T version, this would be our choice powerplant. the engine revs quickly, spooling up the turbo in an instant with little lag, and delivers enough punch to keep you engaged in driving. we only drove the turbo with a manual transmission–the dual dry clutch will be the only other option–and we really liked the combination. the MultiAir has a wide, relatively flat power band, making its most torque from 2,500 rpm to 4,000 rpm. There’s a slight hint of turbo whistle that quickly gives way to a mid-range exhaust note.

Besides being the most fun to drive, the MultiAir is also the most fuel efficient, with EPA numbers of 27 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. the 2.0-liter engine returns 25 mpg and 36 mpg.

The Dart rides on either 16-, 17- or–in the case of the R/T–18-inch tires. the Dart also sees the first application of electric power steering from Chrysler. Engineers spent a lot of time on the handling characteristics of the car and tuning the variable-rate steering. the result is a car that feels solid on-center, with precise response from steering inputs letting you know at all times where the front wheels are.

Do I want it?

If you are in the market for a compact car, you certainly need to take a look at the Dart, as it takes a back seat to no one in the segment. the Dart has more interior room than the leading competition, and with all of the engines, transmissions, exterior colors and interior options, you can outfit the car to your specific liking.

If there is a spot where the Dart separates itself from its compact-car competition, it is the interior. it feels more like that of a midsize car than a compact, with ample front-seat space and rear-seat legroom. the seats are excellent, with the front buckets being class leaders, with good side bolstering and seat bottoms that keep you planted. we liked both the cloth and leather-covered models.

The instrument panel has a seven-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) display in the center of two analog gauges. the display can be configured in a variety of ways, including a digital speedometer, or another analog gauge and the vehicle-information message center. Surrounding the entire IP is what the designers call a “lit floating island bezel.” In essence, it’s a thin strip of light that highlights the IP. our test cars were all fitted with Chrysler’s Uconnect 8.4-inch touch screen with voice command to handle navigation, Bluetooth phone connection and the sound system. the heating and cooling controls are simple dials located below the large screen that dominates the center stack.

Interior storage is good throughout, with a glovebox large enough to hold a laptop computer, the front seat cushion flips up to reveal a large storage area and the door pockets all have deep storage pockets. the 60/40 rear seats fold down to open up the trunk, creating an even larger cargo area.

This is a significant car for Chrysler, and it seems the company has given the car every opportunity to be a big hit. with an attractive base price, oodles of options and solid EPA numbers, the Dart should be a solid hit.

2013 Dodge Dart

ON SALE: Second quarter 2012

BASE PRICE: $16,790

DRIVETRAIN: 2.0-liter, 160-hp, 148-lb-ft I4; FWD, six-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 3,186 lb

0-60 MPH: N/A


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