At the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, we got the first concrete results of the commitment that Sergio Marchionne made back in 2009 in exchange for getting a controlling interest in Chrysler. Dodge rolled out the Dart compact sedan, the first new product based on a Fiat platform. Unlike the ungainly, outgoing Caliber hatchback, the Dart was a four-door sedan that looked vaguely like a blend of the late lamented Neon and the recently refreshed Charger.
Arriving barely 30 months after Chrysler’s emergence from bankruptcy, the Dart certainly looked promising sitting on the show floor at Cobo Hall. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, appearances can be deceiving and once people actually got to drive the Dart, it got some decidedly so-so reviews. While sales of the Dart haven’t come close to challenging the segment leaders, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus or Chevy Cruze, it has done better than its predecessor. So what is the Dart like to live with? I spent a week finding out.
I personally have a long history with the Dodge Dart brand stretching back to late-1970s when my dad had a 1973 Dart Sport, among the most inappropriate trim levels of all time. That green Dart was powered by the wheezy but indestructible 225 cubic-inch slant six paired with a three-speed automatic transmission. It’s a good thing it didn’t have a lot of acceleration capability because the four-wheel drum brakes were nothing to write home about and the front torsion bar/rear leaf spring suspension was best described as weak.
On the other hand, today’s Dart is in most respects a thoroughly modern C-segment sedan. With a choice of three four-cylinder engines and manual or automatic six-speed transmissions driving the front wheels, this car is about as mainstream as it gets today. The overall proportions are attractive with a relatively large glass area that keeps the comparatively unadorned flanks from making it look too bulky. The 17-inch wheels are pushed out flush with the wheel arches to give the Dart a contemporary stance that is quite unlike that 1970s-era Dart that learned to drive in all those years ago.
As soon as the Chrysler engineers and designers got back to work after the company emerged from bankruptcy in July 2009, they immediately went to work refreshing the company’s entire lineup, particularly the hard plastic interiors that previous owners Daimler had saddled them with. Those updated vehicles hit the road within a year and Chrysler has been on an uphill trajectory ever since.
Unlike the decidedly cheap cabin of the old Caliber, the Dart is thoroughly competitive in terms of fit, finish and materials. The high-end Limited model I drove featured leather coverings on the seats, steering wheel and shifter and the dashboard was had a minimum of visible seams and no noticeable unfinished edges unlike Chryslers of the last decade.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest disappointments of this car was encountered as soon as I slipped inside. There’s no way around it, the front seats suck. They appear nice when you look at them, but sitting in them, it’s immediately apparent that they are too wide and flat and offer no lateral support to speak of. Also for some reason, Fiat seats are hinged at the front mounting point so when you adjust the height, the cushion ends up being angled downward and the driver gets little or no thigh support. One of the common complaints in the early Dart reviews was the handling when pushed to the limits, but with these seats you’ll be sliding around too much to worry about the handling. The back seat on the other hand is much better with ample head and leg room thanks to the 106.4-inch wheelbase.
Aside from the seats, the rest of the cabin is well laid out and features physical controls for the climate and audio controls. An 8.4-inch touchscreen dominates the center of the dashboard. The Dart Limited gets a Garmin navigation system as standard equipment along with the UConnect voice control system. The voice recognition in UConnect works reasonably reliably but unfortunately the Garmin point-of-interest database seems pretty limited and had a hard time finding much of interest. As I say all too often, I can’t wait for Android Auto across the board so I can just pair my phone and use Google maps.
One of the more surprising features I found in the Dart in addition to the heated front seats was thermal augmentation for the leather wrapped steering wheel. That’s a feature you don’t often find in this class of car and would have been most welcome a few weeks earlier when the temperatures were frequently falling below zero.
The entry level engine in the Dart is an updated version of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s been powering Chrysler cars for most of the past decade while the Limited gets the 2.4-liter version with 184-horsepower and 174 lb.-ft. of torque. Unfortunately, the torque peaks at 4,800 rpm despite the inclusion of Fiat’s MultiAir technology that features an electrohydraulic system to vary the lift and duration of the intake valve opening. Paired with the six-speed automatic, the engine didn’t feel like it had much grunt off the line. It also didn’t sound very refined at lower speeds although the noise subsided somewhat as velocity climbed.
The powertrain did return a reasonable 27 mpg, inline with the EPA estimated 23 mpg city, 35 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined. Personally, I think I’d be more inclined to go with a Dart with the Fiat 1.4-liter turbo that returns 160-hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque from just 2,500 rpm and is rated at up to 41 mpg highway.
One of the main early complaints about the Dart was it driving dynamics when pushed to its limits. Now as much as I like to push cars to their limits when I can, the reality is that most drivers never do and particularly in this vehicle class. In more typical daily driving, the Dart’s behavior is absolutely acceptable never really exhibited anything that I’d complain about.
The balance of spring rates and damping kept body motions under control in any type of normal driving while easily soaking up the carnage that winter makes of the pavement around these parts. While it wasn’t quite supple as that exhibited by the Ford Fusion I drove a few weeks earlier, I wouldn’t complain about it. The steering also felt reasonably good with no slop and nice balance of effort although there wasn’t much feedback to speak of. Someone like me that likes more of a driver’s car will almost certainly prefer the Mazda3, but frankly most people probably aren’t going to know the difference.
The tester I drove had the technology group that includes auto high beam control, rain sensitive wipers that adjust speed based on rain intensity, an alarm, rear parking sensors and the always welcome blind spot monitor with cross traffic alert. While the blind spot monitor isn’t really necessary if you adjust the mirrors correctly and the Dart has good outward visibility, the rear corner radar sensors are very handing when backing out in a parking lot from between a pair of SUVs.
The base Dart SE starts at $17,490 including delivery and the very thoroughly equipped Limited I drove stickered at a still reasonable $25,435. Personally, I’d probably go for the mid-range Aero model with the 1.4-liter Turbo and a manual gearbox, but then I’m one of those oddballs that still prefers a three-pedal setup. I also prefer a hatchback in this size class of cars, something that Dodge unfortunately doesn’t offer on the Dart. Regardless of which configuration you go with, as long as you’re not in the market for a higher performance compact like a VW GTI or Focus ST, the Dart is worth a look.