Dodge's new Dart, which revives the name of the compact from the 1960s and '70s, should go a long way toward banishing some of the bad memories of mediocre Dodge econoboxes of the past. Names such as Shadow, Neon and Caliper come to mind. The Dart is the first Chrysler product based on parent Fiat group's architecture.
Appearance: The Dart's looks are, if not striking, certainly handsome with a low-to-the-ground and wide stance, thanks in part to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform on which it's based. The car is fully integrated into Dodge's product line through several styling cues, such as the full-width taillights that look so good on the Charger. The car also has Dodge's split, cross-hair grille, which is given an aggressive treatment that includes black mesh and a body-color bumper. The grille is further complemented by elongated, wrap-around headlights.
Performance: We liked the Dart's 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbo, which isn't bad for your average compact. It even has a throaty exhaust note at startup. The Dart has lots of spunk in highway driving, and the six-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly with short throws. (It also has one of the largest shifter knobs we've seen in a small car.) On the other hand, we felt the car's performance suffered a bit from noticeable turbo lag and a too-light clutch that doesn't provide enough feedback. We wondered if an automatic might be a better fit.
Interior: Peter found that a taller driver's field of vision can be hindered slightly by the rake of the windshield and roof. (The seats also sit on the high side.) In the rear, head- and legroom are tight. This isn't a car you'd want to take on a long drive with backseat passengers. Still, the accent-stitched white-leather seats (an option as part of the Premium Group package) are well-bolstered and some of the most comfortable we've found in a small sedan. Elsewhere, the cabin is much better than those ghosts of Dodges past. The fit and finish are good, with the dash a mix of soft-touch materials; only in the doors and consoles does plastic predominate. We really liked how the ambient lighting highlights the instrument cluster and the center display, which features an 8.4-inch touchscreen. (One drawback: Most of the audio and navigation controls are on the screen.) The CD player is in the armrest bin, not the most driver-friendly place for one. But with iPods and smartphones, does it really matter? Speaking of iPhones, Peter could not get his to synch with the car's Bluetooth despite several attempts. This is the first car that has refused his phone.
Our 3 favorites
Upscale: Our Limited trim came with some features once only available in luxury cars, such as blind-spot monitoring.
Size: I like Dodge's 8.4-inch nav screen.
Options: Six trim levels, three engine choices and a base-model price of $15,995.
Seats: Comfortable and well-bolstered.
Hidden nook: The front passenger seat cushion lifts up for a bin.
High-end features: Rear cross-path detection, blind-spot monitoring, heated steering wheel, more.
The bottom line: The Dart is now a contender in the highly competitive compact class and makes us eager to try one with a 6-speed automatic transmission as well as the sporty Rallye version.