New & Used Dodge Dart: In Depth
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The Dodge Dart is the smallest car Dodge has made since the Neon. It’s a compact four-door sedan that has replaced the Caliber in the Dodge lineup, and it’s better in every imaginable way than its predecessor.
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 reviewThe 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.
A six-speed manual transmission can be ordered with any of the three engines, and the larger two also have the option of a six-speed automatic transmission. For customers who don't want to shift themselves but want the highest fuel economy, the 1.4-liter four can be fitted with a six-speed direct-shift gearbox. It functions more or less like an automatic, but is essentially a pair of automatically shifted three-speed manual transmissions. The shifting quality isn't quite as smooth as that of a conventional torque-converter automatic, with some delayed downshifts and a little bit of surging.
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.
Safety equipment includes ten airbags, the usual array of electronic safety control systems, and a few that are new to the compact class--blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection. It also offers hill-start assist, trailer-sway control, and a rear backup camera. And the Dart has already achieved top-of-the-class crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the federal government.
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 it went on sale 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.