The 1968 Dodge Dart was forlorn but still sturdy and willing. It was a two-door, basest of the base, with black bias-ply tires on steel wheels, tiny hubcaps and a manual gearbox with a three-on-the-tree shift lever. There was no air conditioning and only an AM radio.
Its dark blue paint job had long since morphed into a mottled purple and the throw-out bearing howled mightily when you depressed the clutch pedal. But it carried the famed "slant-six" engine, which even with 145,000 miles on the odometer sipped oil only in teacup measures.
On Sunday mornings, like a faithful family retainer, the Dart did its duty delivering the newspapers, which in the 1970s and early 1980s were so fat with advertising that even a few were nearly impossible for boys and their fathers to carry.
After serving years doing that and other family duties, the Dart was sold for a couple hundred dollars, but actually more than the family had paid for it used. Such was the story of one Dodge Dart. There are countless others testifying to this unpretentious servant. In its day, it was called a compact; nowadays, its dimensions would put it well into the midsize class.
The Dart was built in various forms from 1960 to 1976, when it was retired to make way for the ill-fated Dodge Aspen. Now, with its reputation intact after all these years, it is returning, but as something very different.
The all-new 2013 model is as much Italian as American, with all the flamboyance that implies. The styling features flowing lines, comfy and high-tech interiors, and vivid color combinations -- more Milan than Belvidere, Ill., where it is built. There are so many combinations that the Dodge folks brag that owners can personalize their Darts 100,000 ways.
A first impression: if you had a tony cocktail party for cars, you'd invite the Dart. It would fit in nicely with the guests named Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Alfa Romeo -- and, of course, Italy's Fiat, which has now merged with Chrysler.
The really cool thing, according to Ann Wagner, Dart's product planning director, was the attitude of Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat and Chrysler, who told her team to do whatever was necessary to deliver a classy compact sedan, which the Chrysler Group did not have.
That sounds exotic and expensive, but the Dart actually showed up as a contender in the coterie of compacts, against such stalwarts as the Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Nissan Sentra.
In the Dodge lineup, it replaces the frumpy Caliber, and it is the first compact sedan offered by Chrysler Corp. since it stopped making the Neon in 2005.
Though there eventually will be five trim levels, along with three engines and manual, automatic and automated manual transmissions, only three combinations were available for evaluation at the Dart's introduction: 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual, and a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo with the six-speed manual only. A dual-clutch automated manual for the 1.4 was scheduled for later introduction.
Although both engines have the same horsepower, the turbo four has 184 foot-pounds of torque, or twisting force, which makes it a better overall performer than the 2.0-liter engine, which was re-engineered from an earlier Chrysler engine and has 148 foot-pounds of torque.
Still, the 2.0, with modest power, an easy-shifting automatic transmission and a low price tag, likely will be the choice of a good many Dart buyers. For example, the tested Dart Limited had a base sticker price of $18,790 and, with the sort of options buyers demand nowadays, checked in at $23,085.
Though challenged on steep upgrades, especially with more than one person aboard, that version acquitted itself well, comfortable in the company of the Chevrolet Cruze or Toyota Corolla, to the point where personal taste would be the deciding factor.
More intriguing from a driver's standpoint is the tested $22,565 Dart with the Fiat-sourced 1.4-liter turbo motor. The only version available had the six-speed manual gearbox, which would not disappoint motoring enthusiasts.
It is the same basic engine that powers the Fiat 500 and its raucous sibling, the 500 Fiat Abarth. The design is in the vanguard of modern automotive technology, which wrings every smidgen of power from tiny motors while delivering outstanding fuel economy and low emissions.
When you take something like that and swath it in a stylish exterior and an interior with racing-style bolstered seats, all of the modern communications and entertainment systems -- as are present or available in the new Dart -- you have a popularly priced machine that can hold its own anywhere.
Of course, this car is so new nobody knows how it will hold up in the real world. Will it be sub-par in durability and reliability? The answer: probably not like the olden-days Fiats; more in the tradition of the old Dart "slant six" models, and likely strong enough to do Ann Wagner and her crew proud.
Model: 2013 Dodge Dart SXT four-door sedan.
Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 160 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Overall length: 15 feet 4 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 97/13 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,191 pounds.
EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 27/39 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $18,790.
Price as tested: $22,565.