2013 Dodge Dart first drive impressions

2013 Dodge Dart first drive impressions

To say that Chrysler really wants (and needs) the 2013 Dodge Dart to succeed is a bit of an understatement. The company hasn’t had a strong competitor in the small car segment since 2005, when the Neon bowed out. Not only can the Chrysler group no longer afford to sit out on one of the largest and hotly contested markets in the auto industry, the 2013 Dodge Dart is important because it represents the first real fruit of the recent union between Chrysler and Fiat. As the child of an awkward corporate marriage and a successor to the terminally dull Neon, the Dart may seem off to a rough start, but Dodge has managed to drum up a surprising amount of excitement for its 2013 revival of the nameplate.

Taking on the traditional segment heavyweights like Toyota and Honda was never going to be an easy task for Chrysler. But our recent (and altogether brief) test drive of the 2013 Dart gives us reason to believe that the current compact crown sitting atop some of the segment’s traditional stalwarts will not be staying put for long.

Italian style, American muscle

We recently had a chance to test drive both the 2013 Dodge Dart Limited and Dodge Dart Rallye editions. While our drive impressions were limited by the fact that we didn’t get to venture outside of the city, we left rather impressed by both models. 

Before we delve into our first-drive impressions of the newest car on the compact block, we’d like to focus on what will no doubt be the focal point of the Dart: its design. There has, and will be, a lot of the talk surrounding the 2013 Dodge Dart’s Italian inspiration, sleek look, and Alfa DNA coursing throughout. Truth be told, it’s all warranted. The Dodge Dart is easily one of the best-looking cars in the compact segment. Both the Dart and Alfa Romeo Guilietta share a platform, but the latest from Dodge is much more than a facelift for the North American market.

2012 Dodge Dart Rallye front

While the Dart and Guilietta may share the same underpinnings, the Dart feature a personality all its own. Compared to the Alfa, the Dart’s 106.4-inch wheelbase is 2.7 inches larger, but the 2013 Dodge Dart is also longer than any other compact you’ll find on this side of the Atlantic. Likewise, the Dart’s front and rear track widths (61.7 inches in the front, 61.6 inches in the rear) are about a half-inch broader than its Italian cousin’s already wide gate. For a compact car the Dart is rather brawny, but it’s the car’s strapping dimensions that lend so much to its visual flair.

From the front, the 2013 Dart is unmistakable. The grill houses Dodge’s iconic split-crosshair design, which connects the car’s angled headlamps. The the car’s Italian-bred bodywork takes on a stretched and windswept form, with hardly any flat surfaces to be found. The front-end’s sloping hood and dipping raked grille give the Dart a distinct, dramatic, and powerful gaze, which also happen to compliment the Dart’s fender formations and pushed out wheels.

The rear of the Dart has been fitted with Charger-inspired “racetrack” LED taillamps that run the width of the rear. Along with the class-exclusive LEDs, the Dart also features available integrated dual exhausts, adding even aggression and attitude to the Dart’s makeup. Between the Limited and Rallye models we spent time with, the former retains more of that traditional compact sedan look, while the Rallye easily broaches sportier territory with its unique performance-based front fascia and black-chrome headlamps.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye side

From the front-end to the rear, the Dart’s design punches well above its weight. Right off the bat, the Dart exhibits a much more energetic attitude that sweeps the length of the car. In fact, lumping the Dart in with some of the more subdued designs we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the segment seems a bit unfair. Line the Dart up alongside your veritable Corolla or Civic and it’s clear which will garner the most attention.

Tech, lights and more

Thankfully the time and effort the Dart team took sculpting the car’s exterior carries over diligently to the inside. Once again the Dart doesn’t feel like your average compact sedan. The interior is not only spacious in both the Limited and Rallye editions we hopped in, but also rather luxurious given both models unassuming price tags: $18,995 and $19,995 respectively. Both the front and backseats felt equally plush with plenty of space up front and in the back.

2013 Dodge Dart interior

For those looking for a more tech-centric cabin the Dart delivers in spades. Our Limited model featured Dodge’s floating island bezel, which houses the Dart’s 7-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LED customizable gauge cluster display. It’s surrounded by a thin light pipe casing that also extends around the perimeter of our Limited’s 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen media center. We didn’t have as much time as would have liked to dabble with the Uconnect or configure the TFT cluster, but the limited time we had showed a lot of promise. If nothing more it’s certainly encouraging to see Dodge implementing new and subtle technology tweaks typically reserved for luxury vehicles.

A brief, yet satisfying ride

First up for grabs was the Dart Limited trim level, which featured Dodge’s 2.0-liter Tigershark four-banger mated to a 6-speed automatic and capable of producing 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Driving through the congested city streets felt smooth and crisp with the Dart’s standard independent front and rear suspension providing a stable and lively ride.  Steering response was virtually the same in both the Rallye and Limited models we tested, however we had a lot more fun shifting our own gears in the Rallye’s 1.4-liter turbo 6-speed manual.

Aside from appealing to our gear-shifting hearts and adding a noticeable boost in torque, the 1.4-liter turbo 6-speed manual provides a boost in fuel economy over the Dart’s standard naturally aspirated 2.0-liter. EPA rating for the 1.4 turbo manual sits at 39 highway, 27 city, and 32 combined miles per gallon, while the manual 2.0-liter returns an equally respectable 36 highway, 25 city, and 29 combined. But be patient, automatic drivers: Dodge will be offering a 6-speed dual-dry-clutch automated manual transmission down the road, and a special Aero trim option will make its way eventually to the lineup, offering at least 41 mpg on the highway thanks to aerodynamic enhancements, low-rolling-resistance tires and an altogether lighter weight.

2013 Dodge Dart rear racetrack LEDs

Unfortunately our time behind the wheel of both the Rallye and Limited was, well…limited. While we were largely satisfied by the Dart’s performance, we found the brakes in both models to be overly sensitive and acceleration in the Limited model to be somewhat lacking, although that wasn’t as much a problem in the Rallye’s 1.4-liter turbo.

Mix and match

As you’re reading this, the first wave of 2013 Dodge Darts are already making their way across the country. In total the Dart will be available in five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited, as well as an R/T model that is expected to roll out later in the year. There will be 12 exterior colors to choose from on top of the 14 interior color and trim combinations.

Standard features across the model lineup include power windows, projector headlamps and LED taillights. The entry-level SE trim prices in at $15,995 and struts its stuff on 16-inch steel wheels.

At $17,995 the SXT adds a six-speaker stereo, higher-quality seat material, 17-inch alloy wheels and access to options like the 1.4-liter turbo engine, navigation, and an 8.4-inch in LCD touchscreen.

Certainly the sportiest of the two Dart’s we tested the Rallye edition, which starts at $18,995 and sees the inclusion of projector fog-lamps, a sleek performance designed front fascia with black chrome headlamps, and race-inspired dual exhaust.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited

The penultimate Limited Dart prices in at $19,995 and features a larger list of creature comforts you would expect from similar trim levels, such as leather seats, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as some not-so-standard-for-its-segment features like cross-path detection, blind-spot monitoring, a 7-inch dynamic and reconfigurable cluster display, andheated seats and steering wheel.

Finally we have the $22,495 R/T, which will stack many of the Limited’s features with a larger 2.4-liter engine, sportier hyper black grille and fascia, 18-inch wheels, and sport-tuned suspension. According to Dodge we can expect to see the R/T sometime in the fall.

A new contender emerges

A lot of chatter surrounding the Dart has focused on its Alfa Romeo heritage, and it definitely shows. Italian influence is apparent in just about every aspect of the car both inside and out, but rather than feeling forced or generic, the Dart engineers have managed to retain that touch of ruggedness we have all come to expect from Dodge. The underpinnings of the car showcase a thirst for Italian style and performance, while the exterior exhibits an unapologetic need to stand-out from some of its segments counterparts. Simply put, the Dodge Dart doesn’t look like it belongs among the compact crowd, and where a lot of credit has to be given to the Dart team.

While we have witness botched collaborations between Chrysler and Italian automakers before (Maserati, anyone?) the partnership between Fiat and Chrysler appears, at least for now, like it will pay dividends. With the Dart, Dodge wants its piece of the compact car pie back. And if the 2013 Dart is any indication, it’s willing to put in the effort to get what it wants. Ironically this time around, it might just be the traditional front-runners like Mazda, Honda, and Toyota playing catch-up for once as the Dart whizzes by.

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