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The 2014 Dodge Dart, now in its second model year, is already benefiting from a number of running changes made by Chrysler to make its first modern compact car more attractive to buyers. Revised engine and transmission options expand the range of running gear and improve the Dart's driveability, signaling that its maker is determined to keep plugging away in a segment where most buyers had long ago walked away because Chrysler offered nothing remotely compellling.
The Dart is the company's first compact sedan since the old Neon, though in theory it replaced the substandard and unloved Caliber hatchback. It competes against cars that include the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Mazda 3, among others--though it'll be a tough task to lure satisfied Honda and Toyota buyers into a Dodge dealer any time soon. One hidden Dart asset: In interior volume, it's almost a mid-size car, and feels like it.
In terms of exterior design, the Dart is the halfway point between the current Dodge Charger and a mint-condition, old-school Neon. It's larger than the Neon, but the proportions are similar–with a wide stance and a low cowl–but it's brawnier like the Charger, especially from the rear. With its flowing dashboard, the Dart's interior leans toward the sporty end of the spectrum. Well-equipped models come with an 8.4-inch display for the navigation, climate and audio controls, and a smaller screen displaying vehicle information sits between the gauges in the instrument cluster.
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 styling says the Dart is a performance car, but whether the car lives up to that expectation depends on your engine choice. v 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. The 184-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder is now the standard engine in SXT, Limited and GT models, while a 41-mpg version of 1.4-liter is mated to a six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic in Aero model cars.
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.
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. 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 2014 Dodge Dart starts at $15,995 for the base-level SE model, and SXT, Aero and GT trims are available. 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.
- Comfortable seating position
- Class-leading safety ratings
- Distinctive, sporty styling
- Good outward visibility
- Surprising interior space
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- Gas mileage only average
- Tire roar on certain roads
- Anemic base engine