In terms of subcompact cars, the Big Three American manufacturers have been more like the Big Two for several years running. Chrysler hasn’t really been in the game since the 1990s. Sure, the Neon had issues, but it had a higher profile than the forgettable Caliber. It was definitely time for some fresh sheet metal at Dodge. That arrived for 2013, and it came with a classic, familiar nameplate as well. The Dart was Dodge’s first compact, produced from 1960 to 1976, and the name has been dusted off and applied to a new generation of compacts. It’s been a while since Dodge was a viable contender in the subcompact market, and it’s good to see the brand return to form.
The Dart represents a change in direction from the four-door hatchback-only Caliber, which was a tall crossover vehicle that ended up having trouble competing with the more traditional Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Rather than continuing with the Caliber’s blocky, high-bodied hatchback styling, the Dart takes things back with graceful curves and a three-box design that … looks a lot like a modern-day Neon might. The Dart is larger though, and it’s got wide-set wheels and a curvy, coupe-like silhouette. Dodge’s crosshair grille is narrow on the Dart, with wide-set, angled headlights and hood sculpting reminiscent of the Charger’s. The design is nicely pulled together with details, so the Dart never looks cheap. At the rear, the Dart’s taillights are a continuous ring of LED light similar to the Charger’s “racetrack” taillight. A wide range of accessories and exterior colors are offered, making the Dart easy to personalize.
Slide inside, and the Dart offers a much more upscale and comfortable environment than the Neon or Caliber ever did. High-quality materials are used throughout, and the ergonomics and amenities are first-rate as well. The dash is comprehensive and handsome, with sporty gauge and a surprising amount of interior room, as well as lots of room for small items. The available leather seats are plush, like old-school ’70s seats. It’s a pleasant surprise in a small car. More than anything else, the Dart feels American, in a way that splits the difference between the Eurocentric Ford Focus and the more austere Chevrolet Cruze. Like the exterior, a wide range of interior environments is available with 14 different trim, color and upholstery combinations. The look of the taillights is echoed in an available light ring around the instrument panel. A 7-inch display in the instrument panel is standard and provides turn-by-turn information, speed info and other handy, easy-to-read info to the driver. There’s also an optional 8.4-inch touchscreen available for the UConnect infotainment system. UConnect also includes a Garmin-based navigation system and provides a screen for the standard backup camera’s display.
The Dart does inherit one of the old Neon’s good traits: It’s a fun driver. Dodge offers a choice of three engines, all four-cylinders. The base engine is a 2.0 liter four-cylinder with 160 horsepower. There’s also a more economical 1.4 liter turbo, also with 160 horses. For more performance the Dart offers a 2.4 liter four-cylinder, with 184 horsepower. In all three versions, the Dart is eager, and it’s capable of high-30s fuel economy on the freeway. The Dart has lost much of the coarseness that characterized its predecessor, and it even feels smoother than the Avenger, its big brother. A choice of three transmissions is available, all with six speeds. Manual, automatic and dual-clutch semi-automatic transmissions are offered, for varying levels of sportiness. With the manual, the Dart feels the most like the old Neon at its best, at once fun to drive and economical. The automatic saps power slightly, but offers the tradeoff of improved fuel economy and a smooth ride.
Out on the road, the Dart rolls smoothly and comfortably, thanks to suspension design and tuning developed by Alfa Romeo. Based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Dart has been made a bit longer and wider, and features a MacPherson strut front suspension and a two-link independent rear. It’s a bit softer-edged than overtly sporty compacts such as the Focus and Mazda3, but the Dart definitely has a fun-to-drive element, and feels very American. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as is electronic power steering. A blind spot monitor is available.
The Dart is definitely one of the best things to come out of the Chrysler/Fiat marriage thus far. Though it’s got Italian roots, the Dart looks, feels and drives like an all-American subcompact. Dodge has also recaptured some of what made the old Neon great. The Dart’s available in five trim levels, with prices starting $15,995. Option packages have been simplified for 2014, bundling popular features into easy-to-order groups.