The new 2013 Dodge Dart gets the post-bankruptcy Chrysler back into the compact car game with a dose of rakish style and more than a little attitude. The Dart is not only visually distinct on the road, it's one of the roomiest cars in the compact sedan segment. It's not necessarily the best car in the class, but it will find many buyers who like its combination of style, features, and personalization--and it's light years better than the grim Dodge Caliber hatchback it replaces.
Unfortunately, the fuel economy of the two Dart versions that have been rated thus far is only about average for the compact class--one where the bar is being raised continuously, and where the Dart may need further tweaks to stay abreast of rising averages. The most economical version out now, using a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, gets a combined EPA rating of 32 mpg. That's good, but we're curious how the version with a new, six-speed direct-shift automatic will be rated, since that's likely to be the version that more buyers go for.
The base 160-horsepower 2.0-liter four is cheaper, slower, and less economical, at an EPA combined mileage rating of 29 mpg. Again, that's with the six-speed manual; we don't yet know what rating the 2.0-liter automatic version will get. The base engine, however, is simply underpowered; it has far less torque than the smaller turbo. The Dart is a heavy car, and the base engine makes it feel significantly slower than competitors at the times when you most need acceleration.
We recommend opting for the 1.4-liter engine under pretty much any circumstance. You'll find it more rewarding to drive, though like most cars with six-speed transmissions, you'll have to keep the engine revs up to get that spritely performance, because the default engine speed is less than 2,000 rpm--for best fuel economy.
There's also a Dart Aero model coming later, with some design tweaks to reduce drag and give at least 41 mpg on the highway cycle, Dodge says.
If a Dodge Charger had a one-night stand with an old Plymouth Neon, the 2013 Dart might just be the result. It appears to have the old Neon's low cowl and wide stance, but at the rear it's all Charger--stubby trunk, raked rear window, and full-width LED taillights. The all-new interior features a flowing dashboard and console, with a very large 8.4-inch center touchscreen display on high-end models. There's also a smaller digital display between the two large instruments behind the steering wheel.
There's lots of room inside the 2013 Dart, and the front passengers sit higher than you might expect from its visual close-to-the-ground aspect. Handling is good though not spectacular, but performance junkies will be waiting for the upcoming 2.4-liter engine that'll appear in the Dart R/T model arriving later this year.
The base SE model starts at $16,790 including delivery, and the high-performance Dart R/T will start at $23,290. But among three engines, three different gearboxes, various trim levels, and a lengthy list of personalization options, the Dart can be ordered in more than 100,000 different combinations, and no two Darts may be identical--which Dodge says will help it appeal to young buyers who want their cars to be unique and different.
So Dodge is back with a viable competitor in the critical compact sedan category. We look forward to spending more time with the Dart, not only because it's rakish and distinctive, but because more competition can only be a good thing for all buyers.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Dodge Dart range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.