The 2013 Dodge Dart has gotten off to a slow start in the market, but it's a vitally important car for Chrysler.
The first vehicle based on shared underpinnings from its parent Fiat, the Dart has to show Chrysler can build competitive cars--and, even more important, top-quality small cars that compete in the heart of the market: the compact four-door sedan segment.
Based on a weekend test drive, the first Dart we'd driven since the launch event last summer, we'd say that the Dart is a huge step up from the unloved Dodge Caliber hatchback it replaced.
But it's not yet among the best in the segment for driving quality, interior refinement, or performance.
Better than EPA combined rating
On fuel efficiency, though, we were somewhat impressed.
Our car came with the smallest engine, a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine from Fiat that produces 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. To get all that power, however, you'd better like to rev it--at which point it gets considerably noisier.
Combined with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic, our car carried an EPA rating of 31 mpg combined (27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway).
It's worth noting that the same engine paired with a six-speed manual gearbox is not only $1,100 cheaper, but gets slightly better ratings at 32 mpg combined (27 mpg city, 39 mpg highway). There's also a Dart Aero version with a highway rating of 41 mpg.
On a 300-mile weekend test drive that covered our usual route--roughly one-third around-town and suburban driving, and two-thirds highway cruising--we obtained 33.1 mpg.
That makes the Dart one of the few cars to exceed its combined rating on our test by more than 1 mpg, a notable (if minor) achievement.
Mid-size interior volume
The Dodge Dart is spacious for the category it competes in: It's actually deemed a mid-size sedan by the EPA, based on its interior volume, though it's more likely to be viewed and sold in the compact segment.
That puts it up against stalwarts like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Ford Focus. Other competitors include the Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Golf, Subaru Impreza, and Mazda 3.
Our high-end Dart had rich-looking cream and grey two-tone upholstery, with black accents. A nice and unexpected detail was a pair of stitching lines in yellow and white thread across the top of the dashboard.
The seats were comfortable over our highway cruising miles, and we liked the usefulness of the bin hidden under the seat cushion of the front passenger seat. No, you can't use it with another person in the seat, but when driving solo, it's a large and useful storage space.
The dash and interior plastics were mostly soft-touch--that's included in the Dart Limited model we drove, but not on all trim levels--but their shapes were simple, rounded, and somewhat plain.
Thinking through switches
Considering the appalling, cheap Chrysler interiors that were standard just a few years ago, they're a great step up. We still think Ford and Hyundai have nicer dashboard designs, however.
We also liked the graphics in Chrysler's display. While they're not as elegant looking as some other makers'--Ford, in particular--they're very easy to read and comprehend.
One thing that let down the Dart was its switchgear, some of which was inferior to competitors. Two examples:
These are things Chrysler could fix--and drivers will get used to them--but after driving more than a dozen cars this year alone, they stand out as substandard.
2013 Dodge Dart launch at Detroit Auto Show, Jan 2012Enlarge Photo
But the biggest drawback to our Dart was its six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
This is effectively a manual transmission that shifts itself, freeing the driver of that responsibility but providing better fuel efficiency than a traditional torque-converter automatic.
On our first Dart drive last June, Dodge provided only cars with manual transmissions. The automatics arrived later. Now we know why.
The dual-clutch automatic does not feel similar enough to a conventional automatic that drivers can forget it's there.
The transmission hesitates for a moment under power, and then engages to provide quick takeoff. Under continuous heavy acceleration, it shifts fast and smoothly through the gears.
But under light loads, in stop-and-go driving, and especially on multiple fast power on/off transitions, it's tentative and it surges and occasionally bucks in a very unusual way.