NEW ORLEANS - Chrysler threw in some of what Louisiana natives call lagniappe to sweeten the deal and get customers to try the automaker's first compact sedan in years, the 2013 Dodge Dart.
Lagniappe -- pronounced "lon-yop" -- is a little extra, something on the side to make sure the customer is happy.
The Dart heaps on features you don't expect in a compact car, with cushy materials, sculpted seats, electronic blind-spot alert, and sporty handling and performance.
Consider the deal sweetened. Despite a few shortcomings, the 2013 Dodge Dart's value and features make it a strong competitor for compacts like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.
Prices for the Dart start at $15,995 for a base model with a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission.
The 2013 Dart is the first car jointly developed by Chrysler and Fiat, the Italian automaker that gained control of the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker during the recession. I drove a Dart Limited from Chrysler's introduction of the car in Austin, Texas, where I rode with the Dart's engineers and designers, to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. I covered well more than 600 miles from the Texas hill country's sweeping curves to Houston's superhighways and New Orleans' rough-surface streets.
The car is roomy and comfortable. The 97.2-cubic-foot passenger compartment is bigger than the competitors', with plenty of head, shoulder and legroom. The 13.1-cubic-foot trunk is useful.
The interior materials are mostly excellent. Soft-touch padded plastics with attractive finishes cover the dash, arm rests and the top of the doors in most models. The doors' lower surfaces, around the map pockets, have a hard surface and unattractive look. The sculpted leather seats in the model I drove were comfortable and attractive. The thick leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels solid and sporty.
Chrysler's steering-wheel-mounted controls for cruise, voice recognition, phone and audio are among the best in the auto industry. The rest of the controls are equally easy to use.
The car has surprising power. Performance is good and passing is easy for anybody willing to rev the engine and shift the smooth six-speed fast and frequently.
There's not much wind noise. Road noise from rough surfaces was quite noticeable in fast driving, however.
The car negotiated fast curves well, but the ride got bumpy on rough pavement. The electric power steering provides good feedback and assist at all speeds.
The new compact may not be a bull's-eye, but the value, features, performance and room it offers are on-target enough to win lots of happy owners and make the competition uneasy.
2013 DODGE DART LIMITED
BASE PRICE: $15,995
PRICE AS TESTED: $25,160
EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway
ENGINE: turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder
POWER: 160 horsepower at 6,400 rpm
LENGTH: 183.9 inches
HEIGHT: 57.7 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,186 pounds
BOTTOM LINE: Surprisingly nimble compact that should worry the competition