Fiat platform catapults Dodge into heart of compact sedan territory
AUSTIN, Texas - Roughly 350,000 compact vehicles were sold in Canada last year. Less than 5,000 wore Dodge badges...
But by early summer, Dodge should get its compact car groove back, with the arrival of the much anticipated 2013 Dodge Dart, the first Chrysler Group vehicle built on Fiat Group architecture.
"We were in a hurry to get this car to market," says Cyril Benitah, engineering program manager for Dodge Dart. Which worked out well, because we were in a hurry to drive it.
Big compact, big features
At this press launch here in Austin, Texas, we jumped into an SXT model, which Chrysler Canada said would constitute over 40 percent of Dart volume. At $17,995, the SXT is one model rung up from the $15,995 base model, called SE.
The SE offers lots of standard kit, including power locks and windows, 10 airbags and four-wheel disc brakes, but air conditioning and all the interesting new standard and optional features -- like the 8.4" touchscreen, Garmin navigation, in-seat storage, backup camera, 60/40-split folding rear seat, sunroof, and really loud stereo -- only start showing up on models SXT and above ($19,495 for SXT Rallye, $23,245 for Limited, $23,995 for R/T).
Engines choices galore
Our SXT was also fitted with the standard 160-hp 2.0L, 16-valve, Tigershark I4, a significant evolution over Chrysler's previous 2.0L engine.
You'd think 160 horses would provide lots of giddy up, but Dart is big, virtually a midsize; 160 horses moves it along no problem, and within class norms, but the 2.0L is in no danger of gunning down musclecars.
Of course, you can opt for Fiat's 1.4L Turbo with MultiAir, which also makes 160 horses but promises way more maximum torque (184 lb-ft), nice and low in the rev range too (2,500-4,000 rpm). Or even the 184-hp 2.4L Tigershark with MultiAir; the 2.4 is the exclusive engine of the R/T model, which is not available until this fall.
But that base 2.0L four is very quiet and refined, and tremendously aided by the 6-speed automatic transmission's slick and intelligent shifting. The transmission is made by a Korean supplier, which makes a similar version for the Hyundai Elantra.
The 6-speed manual 2.0L Dart is rated at 8.1L/100km city and 5.4L/100km highway (35/52 mpg), which makes it a fuel efficiency standout, and just wanting a wee bit behind the class-leading miser Elantra at 6.8/4.9 L/100km city/highway.
Super solid road manners
The big story of the 2013 Dodge Dart, however, is its rock solid road manners. The architecture was borrowed from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, but lengthened and widened to meet North American wants, needs, and girths. But when it comes to road manners, the Dart seems to have lost nothing in the translation. Benitah noted the rear suspension was modified only slightly, for more lateral movement, to achieve a slightly more comfortable and North American-friendly ride, but that's about it.
The electric power steering system features a quick 15:1 steering ratio, and nicely weighted steering feel. The Dart corners crisply, with confidence, and with very little body lean.
In fact, the predominant feeling of the whole car is the stable and planted feel of a sporty sedan in a larger size category.
The bigger-than-a-compact feel extends to the interior, which can be had in lots of different colour schemes and textures.
Rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity are generous. It may be called a compact like its peers, but also like its peers, it has grown with the times.
Among the interior highlights is the long and low glove box specifically designed to contain a laptop. But the interior is really set off by that optional infotainment system with 8.4" touchscreen. It makes the interior instantly feel state of the art.
Look Ma, no corners
Mike Nicholas, who oversaw the exterior design, told us that the design direction was to move this particular Dodge away from the marque's current square-jawed, masculine design language. As such, there are basically no corners on this car, and lots of curves.
The team spent 600 hours in the wind tunnel, honing the Dart's aerodynamic profile to a very excellent 0.289. Aerodynamics are aided by Dodge's first active grille shutters, underbody panels, and a super smooth laser braze where the body joins the door frames on the roof.
Styling is subjective. To these eyes, the front and rear sections are expressive and distinctive; the profile less so.
Chrysler Canada is keeping Dart sales targets close to the vest, citing the incredibly competitive nature of the segment. It's hard to take over a segment that is so rich in talented competitors, but this Dart -- Dodge's most competitive compact ever -- will surely be right in the thick of things.
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