By Allen Penticoff
I have been asked when I would review a car built at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill. My answer has been — when the new Dodge Dart is available for a drive. While I could have reported about the Caliber a few years ago, it was not the greenest of vehicles … not bad, but sort of average. Now comes the new Dodge Dart, and it will be a winner, both for the environment and sales of an American-made car.
First, I’ll step back in time to look at the Dart’s namesake grandfather. The Dodge “Dart” appeared on the market in 1960 as an inexpensive, full-sized car. It was very popular, with strong sales. The styling changed the following year, and sales plummeted. Over time, the Dart evolved into a compact car that was available with engines ranging from the thrifty 170-cubic-inch “Slant Six” to the massively powerful 440-cubic-inch V-8 “Hemi.” I think much of the Dart legend comes from the higher-powered versions, some of which were factory-made drag racing cars.
The mid-’70s brought a redesign that lost much of its sporty appeal, and production ended in 1976. So, unless you’re at least 36 years old, you could not have ridden in a new Dodge Dart. This means the name means nothing to the younger buyers to whom it is targeted. It is a nice, sporty name — and a good one.
The Dart joins the ranks of other reincarnated car names that evoke performance names from the ’60s and ’70s, like the Camaro, Challenger and Charger — although it looks nothing like its namesake. Ah, but gone are the days of 39 cent per gallon gas. Thriftiness with fuel is the new competition among manufacturers.
The Dart enters the fray with a chassis based on the stylish Italian (Fiat) Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The U.S. version has slightly different track and wheelbase, but it is otherwise the same well-engineered chassis.
The Giulietta and Dart share some engine technology as well. The Dart engines are presently built in the U.S. at a Michigan plant. Fiat, which owns Chrysler now, also is building the Giulietta/Dart in China, for the Chinese market under the
name Fiat Viaggo. But your Dart will be built mostly by the hands of your UAW neighbors in Belvidere, Ill. — 21 percent of content is sourced from Mexico.
I had to wait to drive a Dart. They were hard to come by. When I first stopped by Sawicki Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Freeport, Ill., a couple of months ago to see about a test drive of the Dart, I was told they had yet to see one themselves. I began to see them on the streets of Rockford, then I saw one on the front row of Sawicki’s lot in Freeport and knew the time had come to take one out for a spin.
I was assisted in the drive and information by sales representatives Mark Whitehead and Joe Grossman, the latter of whom was most interested in my old veggie diesel Rabbit I arrived in. Soon, I had the keys to a nice red six-speed manual Dart Rallye.
I felt instantly at home. The exterior is very stylish and sleek, no boxy hard corners — and the interior is equally stylish and comfortable, complete with several features that are interesting and
useful. With the help of Grossman, I found the steering column adjustment — expecting only to adjust the height — he pointed out the wheel telescopes as well. This is a first in a car of this price range — the ability to tailor your driving position to your comfort precisely.
Grossman also explained how the reverse lock worked, and showed me that there was a storage space under the cushion of the front passenger seat. On my own, I discovered the CD player in the center arm rest and the rear-seat fold-down arm rest with a pass through to the trunk.
On start up, the analog speedometer and tachometer got my attention as quite good. Between them is a large display area where not only the usual information is displayed, but so is navigation information — right where it should be. To the center of the dash is a large touch-screen infotainment display. Climate and cruise controls were well placed and easy to use. The shifter was a sporty, big chrome knob … rather like the one I used when I drove the Fiat 500. The steering wheel was wrapped in a light suede leather (like?) material. All very impressive.
Upon driving the Dart Rallye, I was presented with a bit of disappointment. Getting going was a
bit sluggish. Throttle response lagged. But given a chance to reach 3,500 rpm, it really took off. Heading south on Baileyville Blacktop into a stiff wind, I found that it was having a tough time pulling fifth gear and even worse in sixth. To get over the first small hill, I had to downshift.
On a curvy, more remote piece of road leading to Freeport’s Albertus Airport, I stayed in lower gear and revved it up — now the Rallye was breathing fire and accelerating exceptionally well. I pushed hard through a big, sweeping curve, and found the Dart handling superb, taking the bumpy corner entirely too fast, yet in confident control. Sweet.
Later, a high-speed acceleration test to a mph I won’t disclose showed the Rallye was fast. Yet, there was this agonizing lag when driving at lower speeds. I was beginning to suspect it was turbocharged.
Indeed, when I safely returned the Dart, Grossman pointed out that it is powered by the 1.4-liter “Multiair” turbocharged engine. That explains the perplexing lag in throttle response, yet plentiful horsepower. I was surprised at the small displacement of the engine — it is the smallest thing I’ve driven lately, and smaller than my old Rabbit’s 1.6-liter engine. But the turbocharger gives it 160 hp and 184 foot pounds of torque — but they occur at higher revs than most drivers are accustomed to using. This combination yields the best fuel economy of the Dart versions — with 27 city mpg and 39 highway mpg.
The yet-to-arrive “Aero” version of the Dart will provide up to 41 mpg with this same engine. To get the performance and economy in the same package without being a hybrid, you may have to adapt to how this car drives, but it will be worth it.
There are two other engine options available to U.S. buyers — the normally aspirated (no turbo) 2.0-liter “Tigershark” engine and the 2.4-liter Tigershark Multiair. The “Multiair” refers to a valve control technology that allows for varying intake valve lift and timing to suit the needs of the engine to improve power and efficiency. Both of these engines are available with a 6-speed automatic transmission or the 6-speed manual, while the 1.4 T is available with the 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual clutch automatic.
Sources indicate a 9-speed automatic is slated to be available in the Dart in 2013. Considering the 2.0 Tigershark engine obtains fuel economy of 25/36 mpg, I’d suggest it may be the choice for use with an automatic or mostly city driving.
The Europeans get start/stop technology with their engine choices. They also get a liquid propane gas (LPG) version and several diesels to chose from. Mr. Green Car would like to urge Chrysler/Fiat to make the 60-mpg, 2.0-liter diesel available here as well — we Americans need to learn to like diesel, too.
Well, I’m already well past my normal word count for the column, and there is much more about the Dart I could write. I’ll close in saying that I think you’ll find the Dodge Dart an excellent value in an entry-level compact car, built to high-quality standards in the U.S. and with no compromise in technology and features. Go check one out online or in person to learn more. I’d have no qualms about taking one home.
In my next column, I’ll write about the industry trend in downsizing engines with the aid of turbochargers as an extension of this Dart report.
From the Oct. 3-9, 2012, issue