2013 Dodge Dart

Italian sport DNA in a roomy compact sedan

Those above a certain age may recall the Dodge Dart as a long-running series of personality-plus compact cars that sold fairly well from their 1960 debut (originally as mid-sizers) through their 1976 demise. Those a bit younger may not recall it at all.

But Americans of every age should see this timely resurrection of that happy name on this all-new 2013 Dodge Dart as a great choice for a thoroughly modern, hugely important and potentially popular new series of compact sedans.

Most folks know that, since its 2009 partnership with Italy's FIAT and emergence from government-guided bankruptcy, the new Chrysler Group LLC has rolled out nearly nothing but excellent all-new and substantially improved cars and trucks. The first few were pleasant surprises, but excellence has now become expected from this hard-working bunch.

For 2011 alone, now that what we have known all our lives as Dodge trucks have been spun off into their own new Ram brand, no fewer than six of those surprisingly good new and improved vehicles-Avenger, Charger, Challenger, Durango, Grand Caravan and Journey-wore the Dodge brand. But something very important has been missing, not just from Dodge but from the entire fast-improving Chrysler portfolio: a competitive compact entry.

The last small sedan Chrysler offered was the so-so 1990s-2000s Neon, which was replaced in 2007 by the less-than-great Caliber compact hatchback. So Chrysler has been playing with one hand and most of a leg behind its back in this hugely important segment.

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Alfa Romeo DNA

But now here comes this fine looking, fuel-efficient, roomy, comfortable and highly competitive all-new 2013 Dodge Dart, which rolls on a stretched and tweaked European platform originally developed in Europe for FIAT's legendary Alfa Romeo brand. Compared to its Alfa Guilietta five-door hatchback platform-mate, it's a foot longer on a 2.7-in.-longer wheelbase and slightly wider and taller to provide nearly midsize interior room.

Unique in this segment, Dodge Dart powertrain choices include three engines and three transmissions, its interior is available in no fewer than 14 color combinations, and most of its many available features (some class exclusive) can be ordered individually instead of being bundled into packages. While this greatly complicates the build process (Chrysler insists it can handle that with no problem), it enables buyers to order 2013 Darts pretty much any way they want them. And Mopar, Chrysler's parts and accessories division, will offer more than 150 customization options and themed packages specifically developed for the Dart.

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Exterior Styling

Styling is subjective, but the 2013 Dart designers say they went for an "athletic, sculpted, fluid and aesthetically agile appearance," and we think they've achieved it. "The Dodge Dart was a dream to design," says Joe Dehner, Head of Dodge Design. "The Alfa Romeo-based architecture allowed us to design an exterior with great proportions that say 'fun-to-drive'.... Add in the Charger-inspired 'racetrack' taillamps, a new, sleek crosshair grille and piano black accents, and it adds up to a performance-inspired design with just the right amount of attitude."

Its "wheels-out" stance is stable, its flowing silhouette more coupe than sedan, its sculpted skin visually stretched over its bones, and its Dodge split-crosshair grille a new, sleek, "floating" design. Its nose is designed for smooth airflow around, above and below the car, and a close-out panel below the front fascia reduces drag while preserving an eight-inch curb clearance. Around back is the segment's only full-width taillamp, available with a (Charger-like) distinctive-at-night 152-LED "racetrack" border, and (on some models) class-exclusive dual exhausts. The body's coefficient of drag (Cd) is a slick 0.285.

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Appealing Interior

Beyond the 2013 Dodge Dart's handsome exterior look, probably its most appealing feature is its modern, stylish, spacious (best-in-class hip and shoulder room) interior, which offers soft ambient lighting, customizable displays, soft-touch materials and other features typically found in more expensive vehicles. Its "driver-centric" layout puts all controls within easy reach, and its designers' philosophy of customization-with 14 interior color and trim combinations-allows each Dart to be personalized by its buyer.

The interior's centerpiece is its floating island bezel, surrounded by available "racetrack" lighting, which houses the available (class-exclusive) 7-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LED customizable gauge cluster display and the available Uconnect Touch 8.4-inch touchscreen Media Center, the largest touchscreen in its class. The large glove box easily stows an iPad, and the center console has handy storage pockets on its sides and auxiliary jacks inside for a variety of electronic devices.

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Engine Choices

"Tigershark," Chrysler's new marketing name for its four-cylinder engines, may be memorable but sounds more prop-driven fighter plane than 21st Century auto. Standard in the 2013 Dodge Dart is a new 160 hp 2.0-liter Tigershark four. Optional are a 160-horse (same power, 36 lb.-ft. more torque) 16-valve 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo four (not a "Tigershark" because it's from a different engine family, borrowed from the hot FIAT 500 Abarth) and a new 184-horse 2.4-liter MultiAir 2 Tigershark four. Also unique are the Dart's three transmission choices -- a six-speed manual, a six-speed automatic or a six-speed dual dry clutch (DDCT) transmission.

The FIAT-developed MultiAir valve timing and lift control works to optimize combustion at all engine speeds under all driving conditions to provide up to 15 percent more low-end torque and 7.5 percent better fuel efficiency, and the 2.4-liter gets the MultiAir 2 second-generation version. The 2.0-liter with the six-speed manual is good for 25 mpg city, 36 highway and 29 combined EPA economy ratings, while the 1.4-liter MulitAir Turbo with the six-speed manual is EPA rated at 27/39/29 mpg. A late-arriving "Aero" model will join the vaunted 40-mpg club with a promised 41-mpg highway rating.

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Driving Impressions

We test-drove several Darts on freeways and twisty two-lanes as well as around town and came away impressed in almost every way. Not surprisingly, given its Alfa Romeo architectural DNA (slightly softened for American roads), its chassis dynamics-steering, handling, braking-proved outstanding. We also loved its comfy, quiet, roomy (for a compact) interior and its state-of-the-art infotainment features.

The only element we found a bit disappointing was the Dart's performance. The base 2.0-liter engine is acceleration-challenged, even with its standard six-speed manual gearbox, and the six-speed automatic is smooth but somewhat reluctant to downshift. Both transmissions' ratios seem too widely spaced, and the top two are way tall to optimize highway economy. The available turbo four is better, but not as lively and fun as it is in the 500 Abarth. The late-arriving 2.4-liter four and the DDCT transmission were not yet available for testing.

That aside, this 2013 Dodge Dart comes across as at least as good as its toughest competition, including its strong-selling domestic rivals, Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus. Available in five trim levels starting with the $15,995 SE (plus $795 destination), with standard power windows, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and a full suite of safety features that includes 10 airbags, it deserves a spot on the test-drive list of anyone looking at compact sedans. www.dodge.com

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