A fixture at the entry end of the Dodge lineup from 1960 through 1976, the Dart was discontinued in 1977. Decades later, for the 2013 model year, it was resuscitated, affixed to an all-new line of compact sedans.
Following up on powertrain and features changes introduced for the 2014 model year are two major changes for 2015. First, the 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir2 engine that powers SXT, Limited and GT models is newly available as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV), in 14 states. In addition, the 2015 Dart SE includes a Convenience Group at a discounted price, adding air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry, underbody aero treatment and active grille shutters. Also for 2015, the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen radio is updated to include Android smartphone compatibility, and a CD player is now a standalone option. The Blacktop appearance package, introduced during the 2014 model year, continues into 2015.
Although the modern-day Dart occupies the same position in the Dodge passenger car hierarchy as the original, similarities end there. The first car to incorporate engineering elements from corporate parent Fiat, the revival Dart is a contemporary front-drive compact facing a considerably stronger competitive environment. So far, it seems to be a compelling alternative to the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta.
Dart styling is crisp, if not exactly head-turning. The structure is solid, engineering credentials look good, and the number of equipment and trim choices is exceptional.
Like other compacts, the Dart targets young adults. The Dart makes a good case for itself with young parents, thanks to an exceptionally roomy interior by compact sedan standards, and a respectable complement of standard safety features.
Even though fundamental elements of its unibody foundations were adapted from the Italian Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback, they were stretched to accommodate the sedan body style: longer wheelbase, longer overall, wider track, wider body. The dimensional expansions were accompanied by structural enhancements; 68 percent of the bodyshell is said to be high-strength steel, yielding a chassis that feels exceptionally solid.
Just as important, the Dart presents one of the broadest range of choices in its class: five trim levels, nine exterior colors, seven wheel designs from 16 to 18 inches, three different four-cylinder engines (160-horsepower 2.0 liter, 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo, 184-horsepower 2.4-liter), and three transmissions (6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 6-speed dual clutch automatic).
Though some of the engines incorporate the innovative Multi-Air induction technology pioneered by Fiat, Chrysler’s corporate parent, all three engines are assembled in Michigan. Final vehicle assembly is at Chrysler’s factory in Belvidere, Illinois.
Most important, the Dart stacks up well in today’s two most critical considerations: MPG and MSRP. EPA fuel-economy estimates range up to 41 mpg on the highway (for the Aero model). Suggested retail pricing opens at $16,495.
Demerits: just one. For all the emphasis on the weight-saving benefits of high-strength steel, the Darts are a little pudgy by compact standards.
The Dodge Dart looks athletic, with its skin tightly wrapped around the wheels and a hint of Coke-bottle contours: wider at the front and rear axles, slimmer between. A hint of forward-leaning rake, plus modest front and rear overhangs, suggests sportiness. Even so, styling doesn’t provoke many double-takes.
The design team took great pains with aerodynamics. The shape evolved through extensive wind-tunnel testing, and thoughtful details include active grille shutters that close to restrict radiator airflow when cooling air isn’t needed, to reduce aerodynamic drag. The underbody is fully enclosed, and a rear diffuser manages underbody airflow to enhance stability. The net result of all the aero attention is a praiseworthy drag coefficient of 0.285, enhancing fuel economy and also helping to minimize wind noise.
Dodge signature elements for its latest offering include a fresh interpretation of the division’s crosshair grille, and a taillamp treatment, adapted from the Dodge Challenger, that spreads across the entire rear end, incorporating 152 LEDs.
One other exterior note relates to the interior. At 183.9 inches long, 72.0 inches wide, and 57.7 inches tall, the Dart is one of the biggest of the current compact crop. Designers have put those dimensions to work inside, creating one of the roomiest interiors (over 97 cubic feet) in this class. The 13.1-cubic foot trunk can be expanded by folding the rear seatbacks forward. In the base model, the seatback is one piece. In other trim levels, it’s a split-folding setup.
Roominess is always a plus in a family sedan, but it’s much more compelling when nicely appointed. Here, too, the Dart scores well. Nothing inside these cars looks cheap, even in the most basic model, and soft-touch surfaces abound: dashboard, door panels, center console and elsewhere.
The basic cloth upholstery is attractive and looks durable. Leather is standard in the top-of-the line Limited model (perforated in the GT). The seats are long-haul comfortable, with enough lateral support to feel sporty. Like all sedans, the cabin is rated for five occupants; and like all of them, the center rear position will accommodate an adult occupant about as far as the end of the driveway before complaints begin to fill the air. There’s not enough shoulder room for three adults in the back seat, but it’s okay for two adults for short distances.
Thoughtful storage touches: a glovebox big enough to swallow a laptop computer, and a bin under the right front passenger seat, accessed by folding the seat cushion forward.
As we expect of new cars today, there are plenty of optional electronic goodies. Foremost on this list is an 8.4-inch touch-screen display, dominating the center dash of the higher trim levels (not available on the base Dart). A navigation system is offered for the Limited model, as well as a configurable electronic instrument package and an LED-powered light pipe surround for the entire instrument panel, which some may like, while others may find a bit garish.
Like other carmakers, Chrysler took notice of the success of Ford’s Sync infotainment system and responded with one of its own, called U-connect. As expected, there’s good audio, upgrade audio, satellite radio, and connections for MP3, your iPod, Pandora, or what have you.
Chrysler calls the Dart’s two naturally aspirated engines Tigershark. This appellation is a little difficult to fathom with the basic 2.0-liter version, which doesn’t feel very tigerish, particularly mated with the optional 6-speed automatic transmission. This was our primary test sample, and the combination that probably makes up the biggest percentage of Dart orders: 2.0-liter engine, 6-speed automatic, likely in the SXT trim level.
So equipped, the Dart is a rather ho-hum performer off the line, with so-so throttle response and some reluctance by the transmission to kick down a gear or two in passing situations. The Fiat-sourced 6-speed manual improves performance slightly, as well as the fun-to-drive index, and generates EPA fuel-economy ratings of 25/36 mpg City/Highway.
The 1.4-liter turbo engine, shared with the Fiat 500 Abarth, delivers a little more verve. Its 160-horsepower rating is the same as that of the 2.0-liter, but it generates more torque: 184 pound-feet versus 148. The trick with this engine is keeping it in the sweet spot of its torque band, from 2500 to 4000 rpm. Otherwise, the engine bogs.
Suspension tuning in the mainstream Darts is far from whipped cream. The chassis engineers admit they Americanized the suspension specs from those employed in the Alfa Giulietta, which translates as softened. But softened doesn’t mean mushy. There’s more body roll than you’d experience in the Alfa, but the Dart’s responses are still eager, enhanced by one of the best electric power steering systems in this class: accurate, tactile, and nicely weighted.
We should also note that ride quality, the objective of the Americanization, is excellent. Firm enough to retain a strong suggestion of Euro feel, yet supple enough to take the hard edge of sharp bumps and warty pavement.
A little more power, or a little less curb weight, or both, would make the 2.0-liter Dart a little more entertaining; but even so, the fun-to-drive index is well above average. The engineers also get high marks for quiet operation. A little road noise finds its way through the suspension, depending on pavement composition, but wind noise is nil, thanks to the aero refinements.
The Dodge Dart is attractive, roomy, comfortable, and handsomely turned out within. It also has an exceptionally solid feel, with above average road manners, along with attractive pricing and a tempting array of optional goodies.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drives of Dodge Dart models near Austin, Texas.