Road Test: Italian resurrection

Dodge Dart re-make shows Latin flair

October 10, 2012
by Tony Whitney & Emily Atkins

It’s interesting that Chrysler should resurrect the “Dart” name for the latest product nurtured by its collaboration with Italian auto giant Fiat. The original Dodge Dart was launched in 1960 as a low-cost, smaller alternative to the boat-like sedans of the day. It proved very successful at the time and large numbers were sold, but it was not a car with a whole lot of glamour—although today’s classic Dart enthusiasts might disagree on that point.

The latest incarnation (2013) of the Dart is also an affordable small sedan, but it has strong Italian roots, being based on a platform used for both Alfa Romeo and Fiat vehicles in its native home. Alfa Romeo is one of the most storied names in the entire world of automobiles, with a history going back as far 1910 and an auto racing record that’s still the envy of most rivals.

Dodge has a long history too, with over 100 years of auto manufacturing experience to brag about. Even so, many observers of the automotive scene (and especially Alfa fans) believe Chrysler should have marketed the car as an Alfa Romeo Giulietta (it’s name back in the old country) and added some Italian brio to its ranges.

The problem is that Alfa Romeo has been absent from the Canadian market for decades and most buyers would have no notion of this automaker’s products and even less of its heritage. Chrysler/Dodge spent over $1-billion converting Alfa to Dart, so there’s obviously a lot of confidence in its potential for major success. Dodge hasn’t had a product in this class since the demise of the Neon over seven years ago, so the Dart is long overdue. It costs several billion dollars nowadays to develop an all-new model from scratch, so the Fiat tie-in was an obvious solution to filling Chrysler Corporation’s compact sedan gap.

So Dart it is, whether we like it or not and after all, in the end it will be the car’s attributes that will win over North American markets and not some vague notion of days gone by. Because of its price and size class, the Dart should have considerable appeal for the fleet market. Of course, there hasn’t been a Dart at the dealerships since 1976, so that name will not mean much to many buyers either. Clearly, Dodge is seeking to build a new image for its Dart and move on from there.

Eye-catching looks

The Dart's face is designed to resemble a Roman gladiator peering out of his helmet.

The new Dart is certainly a good-looking automobile—very contemporary and svelte—and its Italianate heritage is clear. Dodge design team leader Tim Doyle describes the car as “sleek, aggressive and modern” and told us the aim was for the car to “scare you a little” when it loomed in your rear-view mirror. Doyle suggested that the front end had the appearance of a “Roman

gladiator peering through his helmet” and the Dart certainly has a dramatic presence and boasts plenty of character.

Some of the sheet metal seems almost identical to that of the related Alfa Romeo and it wouldn’t surprise us to see one or two enthusiasts “convert” their Dart back to an Alfa by ordering grille components from Europe. It looks good enough in the styling department to go head-to-head with close rivals from automakers like Hyundai, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, GM, Honda and all the others vying for a piece of what is one of the most competitive of all market segments—compact sedans.

Pricing is competitive too, with the base model starting at less than $16,000 and the top Dart running at just under $24,000. Interestingly, the least expensive Giulietta costs over $23,000 in Italy, so there are advantages to the path Dodge has taken. Incidentally, the Dart is built in the US.

There are five Dart variants: Dart SE, Dart SXT, Dart Rallye, Dart Limited and Dart R/T, with the R/T being the most expensive. We tested a Limited and two Rallyes with differing option packages. Extensive option lists can complicate selection even more, but at least Dodge is offering a wide variety of choices, including cosmetic packages to attract the tuning crowd, but many of these are unlikely to interest economy-minded business operators.

Unfortunately, they’re all four-door sedans and we’d have liked to see a coupe or certainly a hatchback in the range. The Alfa Romeo version comes as a five-door hatchback in Europe, which is one of the most practical of all configurations and a great choice for business users. It would be nice to have Europe’s diesel model too, but that’s not even on the horizon right now.

Engine options

There are three engines available for the Dart, all of 4-cylinder configuration. At the entry level there’s a 160-horsepower 2.0-litre Tigershark unit, and moving up the range, another 160-horsepower motor but this time of 1.4-litres displacement with a turbocharger. The 1.4 turbo engine is the “economy king” in this range and might be the to choice for business users. At the top of the range is a 2.4-litre Tigershark, putting out 184-horsepower. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions are available, depending on model choice and trim level.

As with so many new vehicles these days—even at modest price levels—the Dart features a long list of safety features, many of which could be found only on high-priced imported luxury cars a few years back. There are no less than 10 air bags in every Dart, which might be some kind of record in this class. The body structure has a 68 percent high-strength steel content which is claimed to be one of the highest in the industry. There’s also a reactive head restraint system, which is a great aid in preventing whiplash injuries.

All models have four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and traction control. There are other electronic braking aids too, plus electronic braking aids too, electronic stability control (almost universal now) and hill-start assist, which is handy. There’s also a rear back-up camera and rear park assist, which adds up to fewer unintended scuffs on the rear bumper paint and a safer way to back out of busy parking lots.

Snug but spacious

The Dart’s cabin is an interesting mixture of free-form modernism and domestic car tradition with its expansive dash, sculptured panels and door pockets with almost an organic look. It’s snug when you get behind the wheel—“womb-like” was the way one CAR tester described it—but it’s roomy enough for most people. The dash seems a long way off, as with many large domestic cars, and we’d have like it to be closer and easier to reach for. The instrument panel is easy to scan, though.

The under-seat storage compartment is a clever and useful innovation.

One tester had problems with the centre armrest, which interfered with shifting the manual transmission. It needs to be adjustable, as it is with many products around the market. The seats weren’t the best feature of the Dart, though they are reasonably supportive.

We liked the under-seat storage, which is easy to get at by flipping up the cushion to reveal the compartment beneath. It’s a great place to safely store anything up to a medium-sized purse or several small electronic devices. All cars should have something like this—normally, the space under the seats is more or less wasted.

On the road, the Dart has fairly stiff suspension, but the bonus here is that the car handles well (Italian genes, no doubt) and is capable of quite hard driving on winding roads, even if the surface wasn’t that great. The 1.4-litre turbo engine, in particular, was very responsive and it sounds good too when you open the throttle. The manual transmission shifted smoothly and the clutch was light and positive. The brakes are excellent, although there was some minor control loss if they were used hard at highway speeds. The Dart’s ride is very good, whether on city streets or on the highway.

This car is bound to gain in popularity as word gets round, though we had no indication at the launch that fuel economy was a key priority. Though the 1.4-litre version is very thrifty and will improve when the “aero” version arrives soon, there’s no way the car can compete against the horde of hybrids in this class. But with its striking design, multiple features, reasonable prices and Italian heritage, there’s no reason to doubt that the Dart is poised to make a major contribution to Chrysler’s future success.     c.a.r.