While the design of the 2013 Dodge Dart may say performance car, the base engine falls short on that flashy promise. The standard 2.0-liter 'TigerShark' four-cylinder engine puts out 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, and it's simply underpowered in a car that weighs "about 3,300 pounds"--heavier than many of its competitors. In more demanding driving, whether it's quick acceleration from a stoplight or merging into fast-flowing freeway traffic from uphill ramps, the 2.0-liter Dart feels significantly slower than most competitors.
The optional turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir engine puts out the same 160 hp, but 184 lb-ft of torque, and is considerably more entertaining to drive. But you'd better enjoy driving like an Italian, which is to say keeping your foot in the engine and routinely revving it from 3,000 to 6,000 rpm, because that's where the power is. And we suspect the gas mileage will suffer as a result (we got 26.2 mpg in a couple hours of driving, against the EPA combined rating of 32 mpg for that model).
Both engines are available with a Fiat-sourced six-speed manual gearbox. The base 2.0-liter engine can also be ordered with a six-speed automatic transmission (provided, surprisingly, by Hyundai), and within a few months, the 1.4 turbo will add a six-speed direct-shift automatic manual as well.
To eke out every last point of fuel economy, the transmissions are tuned to keep the engines below 2,000 rpm in most circumstances. That means that when power's needed, not one but two downshifts are required--and the driver has to learn to anticipate and plan for that.
The news is better on the handling and suspension front. The weight that hurts performance gives the car a nicely planted feel, and Dodge has managed to imbue the electric power steering with enough feedback and road feel that you don't notice it--unlike the numb, lifeless steering offered by Toyota and too many other competitors.
Our first Dart road test didn't include the 2.4-liter R/T performance model, which will arrive later than the rest of the range, so we can't comment on how that more powerful engine feels in real-world use.