2013 Dodge Dart powertrain keeps compact car from greatness
The 2013 Dodge Dart is a good car, a solid entrant in the compact-sedan segment, but powertrain shortcomings keep it from being a great car.
There's been a gaping hole in the Dodge lineup: the lack of a compact sedan since the Neon departed after the 2005 model year. The Neon's successor, the Caliber hatchback, was never a suitable replacement, but now Dodge finally has one in the 2013 Dart. A sedan with Alfa Romeo origins and a name from the '60s, the Dart is the first Chrysler Group product based on a platform from owner Fiat (Alfa Romeo is a Fiat brand).
We tested Darts with the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and the available turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder. The base SE trim level starts at $16,890, including an $895 destination charge.
The Dart's exterior styling represents a new direction for the brand. There are familiar cues, like a version of the Dodge crosshair grille and available "racetrack" LED taillights like the Charger, but the Dart trades the angular, muscular lines of the Charger and Avenger for a look that's more lithe and svelte. Designers also incorporated small flying buttresses into the sedan's rear roof pillars, a design cue from Dodge's past.
The sedan's sibling is the Alfa Romeo Giulietta that's sold in Europe, but for Dart duty the platform was widened and lengthened. It's a well-proportioned sedan overall, and flared front and rear fenders accentuate its stance.
Euro Roots Influence Ride & Handling
A day spent driving the Dart on the winding roads of Northern California revealed a car with taut reflexes and a willingness to attack corners. Chief engineer Mike Merlo said softer suspension tuning was introduced to suit American tastes, but it's still firm for the class. Long stretches of smooth blacktop highlighted the suspension's ability to control body roll and the Dart's premium-car responses, but every once in a while a rough patch of pavement quickly reminded how firm the tuning remains.
Steering tuning is a critical factor in how engaging a car is to drive, and compact cars vary widely. The Dart's steering wheel feels weightier than most, but this doesn't translate to the desired steering feedback. The Focus provides a better sense of what's happening at the tires than the Dart, whose steering has limited feel and less immediate turn-in. On the highway, the Dart settles nicely and tracks confidently without asking you to make constant steering corrections.
After driving two of the Dart's three engines, the biggest takeaway is that price-conscious shoppers who choose a lower trim with the base 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder will still get a refined powertrain that offers decent performance and gas mileage.
The 2.0-liter engine revs smoothly throughout its range whether equipped with the six-speed manual or the six-speed automatic transmission. Power, unsurprisingly, tapers off at higher speeds, and at 60 mph, there's little left for a last-minute pass around slower-moving traffic. You have to plan your move with care.
The 2.0-liter's available PowerTech automatic transmission is different from the one mated to the optional turbocharged engine, and it's more impressive. The automatic clicks off refined upshifts without an appreciable delay in power delivery. Plus, it has a clutchless-manual mode that's responsive enough to make it engaging -- not the norm with these systems.
The automatic's one deficiency is a tendency to upshift into a higher gear than necessary. This might be good for fuel economy, but it can sap the engine of power when leaving a turn just when you're getting back on the gas. Holding the transmission in 3rd gear with the manual mode took care of the problem, but a modern automatic shouldn't need the driver's intervention.
Less appealing is the Dart's six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which Dodge calls the Dual Dry Clutch Transmission. Available with the midlevel turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that comes from Fiat and also powers the Fiat 500 Abarth, this transmission's biggest problem is its tendency to short-shift when accelerating. This leaves the engine in the wrong gear when you want more power, and the transmission isn't quick to remedy the problem with a swift kickdown; it takes its time stepping through the gears.
The dual-clutch gearbox also doesn't provide one of the traditional benefits of this type of transmission: quick driver-initiated gear changes. It reacts very leisurely -- like a conventional automatic -- as opposed to making rapid shifts like Volkswagen's dual-clutch transmission.
Like the 2.0-liter engine, the turbo four-cylinder is rated at 160 hp, but with its higher torque -- 184 versus 148 pounds-feet -- the turbo four-cylinder pulls harder than the base engine when you get in the higher part of the rev range. Nonetheless, at lower vehicle speeds, the turbo engine and dual-clutch automatic drivetrain deliver unacceptably sluggish gas pedal response and acceleration. A number of Cars.com editors had similar complaints, and it significantly tarnishes the driving experience.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard for all engines. Paired with the turbo four-cylinder, the manual shifter has longish throws, and shift feel is a little vague. The shifting experience is more akin to that of a Mini Cooper rather than the slick, precise movement of a manual Mazda3.
Outside the car, the turbocharged engine's exhaust note surprised me; it has a raspy burble worthy of Chrysler's SRT performance brand. The sound is much more muted from the driver's seat.
All of the engines can run on regular gas, though the turbo four-cylinder prefers premium for maximum performance. As of this writing, EPA gas-mileage estimates have been released only for select powertrains. Darts with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder are rated at 25/36 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 24/34 mpg with the automatic. Cars with the turbo four-cylinder offer better efficiency; manual-transmission versions get an estimated 27/39 mpg while those with the dual-clutch transmission manage 27/37 mpg. An efficiency-focused Aero version with the turbo four-cylinder engine is rated at up to 28/41 mpg with a manual transmission. Chevrolet and Ford follow a similar strategy with the Cruze Eco (up to 28/42 mpg) and Focus SFE (28/40 mpg), respectively. For all these models, the higher mileage adds to the cost of the car.
Interior Quality & Comfort
The Dart continues Chrysler's renewed emphasis on interior quality with things like a standard soft-touch dashboard that would have been unimaginable in a Dodge in this class a few years ago. The upper edge of the doors can be optionally finished in a padded surface as opposed to hard plastic, but I think Dodge should provide the opposite -- a hard plastic dash and standard padded door uppers because you might actually want to rest your arm on the door. Overall, materials quality is similar to what the Cruze and Focus offer.
All Dart trim levels have the same type of front bucket seats, but they can be covered in a number of different materials, including cloth, leather or two-tone leather. The seat cushion provides good thigh support for taller drivers, and the backrest is wide. I preferred the cloth seats overall; they didn't feel as stuffed as the leather ones. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps you find an optimal driving position, but if you like to drive with the steering wheel set low, you might find it doesn't tilt far enough down.
The Dart's cabin volume of 97.2 cubic feet approaches that of some midsize cars, including Dodge's own Avenger. Even so, the backseat -- though passable for a 6-foot-1 passenger like me -- doesn't feel as roomy as the Honda Civic's second row, which has a little less passenger volume overall. The Dart's rear-seat backrest is reclined quite a bit -- nearly too much.
Personalization & Premium Amenities
One of the Dart's defining qualities is personalization. At a time when other automakers are reducing the number of build combinations available, to make picking a model easier on the consumer as well as to reduce the complexity for the manufacturing group, Dodge has gone in the opposite direction: There are 12 exterior colors, 14 interior colors and more than 150 dealer-installed accessories.
Why the different approach? The brand thinks compact-car buyers -- a big chunk of whom are members of the increasingly significant Millennial generation -- want this level of personalization.
The Dart also offers a host of premium features. These include Chrysler's 8.4-inch Uconnect Touch touch-screen with Garmin-based navigation. It's a competitor to MyFord Touch, which is available in the Focus, but I prefer the Uconnect system's simpler controls and quick-to-respond interface. Also optional for the Dart are a heated steering wheel and a 7-inch full-color reconfigurable instrument display. The screen has digital and analog speedometer views and a navigation guidance mode, and it can show audio information, among other things.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Dart its 2013 Top Safety Pick designation for the car's top scores in its various tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Dart a five-star overall rating, its highest.
Standard safety features include 10 airbags, including side curtain airbags. There are also antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which are required on all new cars beginning with 2012 models. Rear cross-path detection, a blind spot warning system and a backup camera are available.
For a full list of safety features check out the Features & Specs page. To see how well child-safety seats fit in the Dart see the Car Seat Check.
Dart in the Market
The past few years have seen a reshaping of the compact-car segment with the debut of new models and redesigns of familiar ones. There aren't many duds left, so it's going to take some convincing for shoppers to give the Dart a look.
It's also missing one thing that's a huge factor in this class: a solid reliability history. As an all-new model, the Dart doesn't have a track record yet, and it's going to be a while before we know how it compares with other models.
Chrysler's track record is troubled, as evidenced by J.D. Power and Associates' 2013 Vehicle Dependability Study. Of its four brands included in the survey, three -- including Dodge -- ranked near the bottom. Vehicles surveyed were from the 2010 model year, however, and the more recently redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango both achieved Recommended status from Consumer Reports.
Dodge needs to address the car's powertrain shortcomings, but the Dart still offers a level of style and attitude that's been in short supply in the segment.