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Dodge Dart

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Dodge's Dart is a four-door sedan that replaced the Caliber in the brand's small-car lineup. It is the most compact car Dodge has offered since the Neon went out of production, although it's in no way little. The Dart is better than its weird hatchback predecessor in every measurable way. The Dart is meant to compete with the high-volume entrants in this crucial sector of the car market. The... Read More Below »
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Dodge's Dart is a four-door sedan that replaced the Caliber in the brand's small-car lineup. It is the most compact car Dodge has offered since the Neon went out of production, although it's in no way little. The Dart is better than its weird hatchback predecessor in every measurable way.

The Dart is meant to compete with the high-volume entrants in this crucial sector of the car market. The perennial leaders in the compact class are the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, though the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus at last give U.S. brands serious and respectable entries as well. Other models fighting for a share include the Hyundai Elantra, the most recently successful entry, and the Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, and Mazda 3.

MORE: Read our 2014 Dodge Dart review

The Dart's exterior styling blends the full-size Charger's aggression with a bit of the friendliness of the old Neon. It may sound like a confusing mix, but it works pretty well. The low cowl and wide stance make the compact Dodge visually eye-catching and distinctive compared to the tamer, taller, slabbier compacts from Toyota and Honda.

Based on its interior volume, the EPA actually deems the Dart a mid-size sedan--the same class as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry. But Dodge has priced it to compete with compacts one class smaller, and its exterior dimensions are more in line with that class as well. The net result is a spacious interior with lots of knee room for adults, along with a large trunk to boot.

The Dart can be fitted with one of three engines: a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four that's expected to be the fuel economy champ, a 160-hp 2.0-liter four that will likely be the lowest-cost option, and a 184-hp 2.4-liter four fitted with Fiat's MultiAir valve technology that will provide the best performance in the Dart GT.

All three engines are available with a six-speed manual transmission, while the automatic options vary from engine to engine. Those in search of the best fuel economy should choose the 1.4-liter engine with the dual-clutch automatic and active grille shutters; it's not the smoothest dual-clutch, slurring its shifts instead of responding crisply like better units. The naturally aspirated engines get conventional automatics, which aren't much smoother.

The styling says the Dart is a performance car, but whether the car lives up to that expectation depends on your engine choice. The standard 160-horsepower 2.0-liter four is simply underpowered in this heavy compact. A 2.0-liter Dart feels significantly slower than competitors in the most demanding duties, like merging into heavy freeway traffic on an uphill ramp while heavily loaded. Opt for the turbocharged 160-hp 1.4-liter engine, however, and you'll find more torque, better acceleration, and a sportier, more responsive drive. But you'll have to keep your foot firmly into the accelerator to make it happen.

A special lightweight version of the 1.4-liter Dart, with aerodynamic improvements, is dubbed the Dart Aero, and earns 41 mpg on the highway, the highest figures of the lineup. On the other end of the spectrum, the base Dart with a six-speed automatic earns just 34 mpg on the highway, at the lower end of the fuel-economy scale in the compact class.

Inside, high-level Dart models feature a 7-inch color thin-film-transistor (TFT) display between the gauges, designed to appear as a part of the gauge cluster rather than a discrete screen. Other snazzy appearance features include an optional LED ambient lighting system, and 14 combinations of colors and fabrics--including one with red stitching on black upholstery.

The Dart has achieved top-of-the-class crash performance in testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the federal government. Safety equipment includes ten airbags, the usual array of electronic safety control systems, and a few that were new to the compact class when the Dart entered--blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection. It also offers hill-start assist, trailer-sway control (although we don't imagine many buyers pulling a trailer with one), and a rearview camera.

The most base model--which will no doubt be hard to find at dealers--has no air conditioning and even has roll-up windows. Top-of-the-line Dart models, however, sport Nappa leather upholstery, voice-controlled navigation, and blind-spot monitors among other amenities.

Dodge offers many options bundled in packages, but also leaves many of them as stand-alone options that can be mixed and matched by buyers and delivered as ordered in as little as a month--a real rarity among new vehicles these days. That flexibility offers more than 100,000 possible combinations, which almost guarantees there will be no two Darts alike.

Dart sales got off to a slow start after the model was launched in the summer of 2012. Blame a model mix that was far too heavy on manual transmission cars--which many Americans couldn't even test-drive. Another challenge was the quality of the European dual-clutch gearbox fitted in place of an automatic to some Darts, which behaved differently than the conventional automatics U.S. buyers are used to.

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