So, Chrysler and Fiat walked into a bar together and, surprisingly, it didn’t end with a punch line. The Dodge Dart is the first jointly-developed product of the recently-wed automakers, and it’s not funny at all.
Based on a snazzy Alfa Romeo model with the flowery, Shakespearean name of Giulietta, the Dart has grown both wider and longer to better meet our local requirements for personal space. The compact sedan has a wedgy, yet full-figured body that’s veryu modern and closer in appearance to the Neon that once filled this slot in the Dodge lineup than the Dart’s boxy namesakes from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The only retro touch is a pair of very small buttresses framing the rear window that are more of a tip of the hat to the Dodge Charger of Dukes of Hazard fame.
Inside, there are deep, luscious bucket seats and a racy instrument panel surrounded by a single illuminated frame encompassing both the gauges and center stack infotainment controls. Materials and design above the belt line are both top notch, but it looks like Dodge spent most of the interior budget up there because things get plainer Jane the lower you get.
There are plenty of high tech goodies on the options list, however, including a 7-inch configurable digital display in the instrument cluster, blind spot warning system, rear view camera and parking radar, as well as Chrysler’s ubiquitous UConnect touchscreen infotainment system. With its clear graphics and Garmin-sourced navigation, I’m generally a fan of the UConnect interface, but the last four cars I tested with it, including the Dart, had glitchy GPS systems that weren’t always sure where we were. Or maybe they were just trying to be mysterious.
For more intrigue, if you’re transporting anything that might be interesting to thieves, law enforcement or otherwise snoopy types, there’s a hidden cubbie under the flip up cushion of the front passenger seat, and the glove compartment is deep enough to swallow a laptop computer. But now that I’ve pointed that out, those are both useless places to hide things of value, so I’m sorry about that.
Three engines are available, or will be soon. For now you have the choice of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 160 hp, 148 lb-ft of torque and the fantastic name of Tigershark, or a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 160 hp, 184 lb-ft and up to 41 mpg highway when matched to a six-speed manual transmission and special Aero bodywork package. Later this year, a 2.4-liter Tigershark with 184 hp will be on offer in a sporty GT model, a slightly more appropriate output for the aggressive moniker.
Being the uber-important car that this is, and being the sucker that I am for Italian Americans like myself, I drove a turbo with a manual transmission for a week and spent another with one fitted with an automatic. A spin in the 2.0-liter Tigershark offered context to both.
The 1.4-liter is the same engine found in the super spicy Fiat 500 Abarth, but without that car’s muffler-free exhaust system it sounds much more subdued here. Still, the little motor makes a nice hum and offers good zip once the turbo gets to work. The stick and clutch for the manual offer light, easy to use action, while the dual-clutch automatic works well, but isn’t quite as sharp as the best of this type of transmission. Volkswagen’s, for instance, knock off much snappier shifts. Fuel economy for the auto is 31 mpg combined versus 32 mpg for the manual, so you’re not giving up much efficiency if you chose the lazy route.
Nevertheless, the Euro-style engine does require a fair bit of effort to extract all of its goodness, something still foreign to a lot of American drivers. I enjoy the experience, but expect many buyers to go for the 2.0-liter, which delivers its power in a more direct, if less entertaining fashion. Fuel efficiency drops a couple of mpgs, but that motor can be had in an entry level Dart for as little as $16,745, while the cheapest turbo goes for $20,045.
In either case, the Dart’s best dynamic quality is its ride quality. It soaks up bad roads like a sponge and, while its body does roll a fair amount, the suspension keeps things in check in the twisties. I’m confident that it would do just fine on a trip up the Chianti Highway on a visit to the Old Country to see the cousins.
My biggest grumble is that the backseat could use a smidge more legroom, but only because the behemoth VW Jetta and Hyundai Elantra have stretched the bar in this area for the compact class and ruined it for everyone else. Compared to the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze, the Dart might as well be a double cab Ram pickup.
It’s not, but the Dart is distinctive enough to carve out a niche in its increasingly competitive segment, and proof once again that good things happen in melting pots. It wasn’t that long ago that an Italian-engineered, Detroit-styled, Illinois-built car would’ve definitely been a joke, but this one just makes me smile.
2013 Dodge Dart Turbo
Base Price: $20,045
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged inline-4-cylinder
Power: 160 hp, 184 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual or dual clutch automatic
MPG: 31-32 combined
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.