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The Dodge Dart is the first true small car from Chrysler since the Neon disappeared, but it's hardly small. By government standards, it's nearly a mid-size car, and its large back seat gives the Dart and edge on much of the competition in the segment. The Dart's rakish look also helps, as it fights for buyers with the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus–not to mention the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra.
The Dodge Dart is the first true Chrysler small car since the Neon went away, but it's hardly small. By the Feds' standards, it's practically a mid-size car, and the large back seat gives the Dart one of the few trump cards it has in a tough segment brimming with excellent competitors. The Dart's rakish look also helps, as it fights for buyers with the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus, and the Mazda 3--not to mention the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte.You could imagine the Dart as the product of a one-night stand between the latest Dodge Charger four-door sedan and a well-kept Plymouth Neon. It has the proportions of the old compact, with a low cowl and a wide stance, but many of the styling cues--especially at the rear--of the big, brawny, brute that tops today's Dodge car lineup. Inside, a flowing dashboard and console convey a sporty air, with the higher-end models featuring an optional large 8.4-inch center display and a smaller screen between the gauges in the instrument cluster.
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.
Like many cars with six-speed transmissions, the Dart is tuned to keep the engine running below 2,000 rpm under steady load, for best fuel economy. The 1.4-liter gives you power, but not until it revs past 3,000 rpm--which may mean not one but two downshifts. We weren't able to drive the 2.4-liter R/T version of the Dart in our early road tests, so we can't comment on how that engine does in real-world use.
For gas mileage, the 1.4-liter turbo Dart is rated at 27 mpg city, 39 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 32 mpg. The base 2.0-liter model gets a combined rating of 29 mpg, with both those figures being for the six-speed manual gearbox version. There's also a Dart Aero model coming with extra tweaks for slightly higher fuel efficiency.
At the wheel, the Dart's seats are comfortable front and rear, and the seating position isn't as low as you'd expect from the car's lines. Soft-touch materials on most parts of the dash coordinate nicely with harder plastic elements, though big swathes of hard black textured plastic still crop up in a couple of places inside the littlest Dodge.
The Dart has achieved what's essentially a bulls-eye in U.S. crash-test ratings--with top five-star ratings overall from the federal government and Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). That combination makes it one of the highest-rated cars for safety in this class--next to only the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze. The car comes standard with 10 airbags, along with the usual suite of electronic safety systems and also both blind-spot alert and cross-traffic detection, which are new to the compact segment. Outward visibility is admirable--far from the case in these days of strengthened roofs for rollover safety.
The 2013 Dodge Dart starts at $15,995 for the base-level SE model, with the highest-priced Dart R/T performance model (coming a few months after the rest of the range) at $22,495. On top of that you'll have to add the mandatory $795 delivery fee, plus options from a lengthy list of ways to accessorize and personalize the Dart--which can be ordered in more than 100,000 different combinations, Dodge says.