For Chrysler, three looks like the magic number. First it was purchased by Daimler, which didn’t really know what to do with it. Then came investment company Cerberus, which mostly seemed intent on breaking off and selling its more marketable nameplates.
Then came Fiat, and no one was sure which way it would go. But Chrysler has since flourished and is now aiming at the compact market — the biggest slice of the pie in this country — with the 2013 Dodge Dart, its first model based on Fiat’s architecture.
It’s a segment where Chrysler has never been a serious threat, not with substandard offerings like the Dodge Caliber and before it, the Neon. Now it has one that really looks like a winner. I can’t think of a competitor, domestic or import, that clearly outranks this new model.
Built in Illinois, it rides on a platform from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, but widened and lengthened for more interior volume.
Three engines will be available, two of them when the Dart goes on sale in June. The base engine is a 2.0 L four-cylinder that makes a healthy 160 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque and comes on the four trim lines that will initially go on sale: SE, SXT, Rallye and Limited. All but the SE can be optioned to a Fiat-based turbocharged 1.4 L that also makes 160 horses (although it peaks sooner, at 5,500 r.p.m. versus 6,300 in the 2.0 L) but increases torque to 184 lb.-ft. Later to come, and not included on my drive, is the sportier R/T model, which will use a 184-horsepower 2.4 L four-cylinder engine. There will also be an extra-fuel-efficient Aero model — details on it haven’t been unveiled — that promises a highway fuel figure of 4.7 L/100 km.
All three engines start with a six-speed manual transmission. The 2.0 can be optioned to a six-speed automatic on all but the Limited, which uses the autobox exclusively. The R/T will also be available with that automatic, but the 1.4 turbo will have an optional six-speed dual-clutch transmission, a quick-shifting automatic unit that doesn’t have a torque converter, and works more like an automated manual. These units can be hit-or-miss — Volkswagen’s is very good, for example, while Ford’s is less than stellar — and I would have liked to try it, but it wasn’t available for the test-drive.
Pricing starts at $15,995 for the SE, but you probably won’t buy one of those. Like most mainstream automakers in the compact segment, Chrysler has the nasty habit of advertising its rock-bottom price on a model that doesn’t include air conditioning. It also can’t be added to that base model, although oddly enough, you can stick on optional Bluetooth. So for most buyers, the Dart starts at $17,995 for the SXT, while the Rallye begins at $19,495, and the Limited is $23,245.
I drove a Limited with 2.0 L engine, and then moved to an SXT with the turbo and stick shift. Both engines have crisp acceleration from a stop, and they’re smooth and torquey through their mid range, especially the gutsier turbo, although you really need to put your foot into them for extra passing power. The automatic moves up to the higher gears as quickly as possible and isn’t really keen on downshifting, but that’s the norm for the segment these days as automakers strive for better fuel economy. The stick shift was a bit of a disappointment: I expected sporty, but it has long throws and it’s mushy.
There are no complaints about the excellent handling. The power steering is electric, but you wouldn’t know it; it’s beautifully weighted and responsive. It’s stable on hard curves and while most of my drive was on smooth roads, the odd patch of broken asphalt didn’t upset it. Four-disc brakes are standard on all models. There’s a big-car ride and very quiet interior, and overall, it feels like a scaled-down Dodge Charger. It looks like it from the back as well, with that model’s sharp-looking, full-width LED tail lights. Styling is subjective, but I find the front-end design less satisfying.
Chrysler’s recent focus on interior quality shows on the Dart, with padded soft-touch surfaces and handsome colour accents, enough to be named one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors earlier this year. The seats — cloth on the lower levels, leather on Limited — are supportive and comfortable, although XL clothing buyers will probably find them too snug. Headroom was more than sufficient for my 6’6” co-driver. There’s hidden storage under the passenger seat cushion, and the massive glovebox will hold an iPad. At 371 litres, the trunk’s about midpack with the competition. It’s fully lined, which looks good and cuts down on road noise, but a pull-down interior handle is glaringly absent. All trim lines have ten airbags; standard or available features will include heated seats and steering wheel, backup camera, navigation system, and customizable electronic instrument cluster.
Building a new model is only half the battle, of course. Getting buyers behind the wheel is the other half, especially if they weren’t impressed with Chrysler’s compacts before, but even so, you owe this one a test-drive. A few faults aside, this is a sweet little machine that feels like value for the money. From Neon, to Caliber, to Dart: the third time really is the charm.
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