Almost two and a half years have passed since an ailing Chrysler Group came under the stewardship of Fiat SpA. Since then, the automaker has reinvigorated its product portfolio with overhauled models, drastically improved interiors, and new powertrains. Until now, the only thing we hadn't seen was a vehicle jointly engineered by both firms.
That's no longer the case. The 2013 Dodge Dart, which makes its official public debut at the 2012 North American International Auto Show, is more than just a small car, or an overdue replacement for the underwhelming Caliber. It's the first product to truly be developed from square one by both Fiat and Chrysler teams.
A New Platform With Italian Roots
Despite the vintage moniker, this isn't a plain-jane, spare-all-costs econobox, like several of Dodge's previous small car efforts. Marketing materials boast the 2013 Dart is "infused with Alfa Romeo DNA" - and while that sounds like brash hubris, it's actually fairly close to the truth.
The Dart is the first vehicle to ride upon the Compact U.S. Wide (CUSW) platform, which in turn, is an evolution of the modular C-Evo platform that launched in 2010 with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Structurally, the two differ primarily by way of dimensions. As the platform name suggests, the Dart is about two inches wider than the Giulietta. The Dart's wheelbase and overall length also trump the Alfa by three inches and a foot, respectively. As a result, the Dart is wider, longer, and taller than most competitive compact sedans presently on the market. The Dart's wheelbase is about 2-3 inches greater than the competition and it out-girths the 2012 Ford Focus by two-tenths of an inch. Don't look for a hatchback to counter the Focus, VW Golf, or Subaru Impreza any time soon; Dodge notes the vast majority of the U.S. compact segment is comprised of sedans, something it hasn't offered since launching the Caliber in 2006.
As is the case with the C-Evo, the Dart's underpinnings make use of a tremendous amount of high-strength steel - 68 percent of the car by weight, says Chrysler - in order to improve chassis rigidity. The basic suspension architecture remains unchanged from the Giulietta, with MacPherson struts tucked in front and a multi-link independent arrangement placed in back. Many components, including brake calipers and suspension knuckles are fabricated from lightweight alloys and high strength steel blends to reduce both unsprung weight. Four-wheel disc brakes are also standard across the spectrum of trim levels, as is ABS, traction, and stability control.
Although Dodge promises the sedan will be as fun to drive and composed as its Italian sibling, engineers do note that the Dart's spring rates and damper tuning are a bit softer than the Alfa in order to accommodate American tastes. We're told the sporty R/T trim will be a bit firmer than the SE, SXT, Rallye, and Limited trim levels, but we'll reserve judgment until we can slide behind the wheel.
Copping Charger's Cues
The wide track and long wheelbase not only make for a planted vehicle, but a dramatic looking one at that. Joe Dehner, head of Dodge brand design, says designers were excited to play with the car's proportions, shortening the hood and decklid while maximizing the greenhouse.
The Dart bears some similarity to its larger Charger brother -- especially in the rear, where it also uses a ring-shaped LED taillamp assembly - but its taut form, which looks vaguely European from certain angles, is all its own. Headlamps are placed high on the front fenders; furrowed sheetmetal above them tapers to a crisp edge. Dodge says the lamp assemblies flow into the upper and lower grille sections, giving the Dart a "unigraphic" of sorts, but this really works best on the R/T, which coats sections between lights and apertures in a piano black finish. Trims that forgo the treatment are left looking a little like a Fiat Grande Punto, albeit with a crosshair insert wedged into the slender upper grille.
Subtle rear buttresses and a large rear diffuser -- which retains dual exhaust tips on R/T and Limited models -- may amuse Mopar fans, but they also help aid aerodynamics. The buttresses surround a seal between the rear window and the trunk lid, while the rear diffuser is tied to one of several belly pans underneath the car that help reduce drag. Other aero tricks include active shutters for the lower grille and laser-brazed roof joints, which do away with the clunky-looking and drag-inducing roof ditch moldings.
The Dart's true design renaissance is accessed only by stepping within the car. Interiors have never been a strong point in compact Chrysler models; even Klaus Busse, who led interior design efforts for the Dart, admitted the Caliber's cabin turned out a bit too boxy, and perhaps a bit too low-rent.
The same cannot be said for the Dart. Designers labored to sketch and sculpt every twist of the door panels, instrument panel, and center console by hand; as a result, it looks organic, and is virtually devoid of square edges and straight lines. The driver-centric dashboard is a nod to the Charger, but incorporates a pronounced brow with contrast stitching, along with a red accent ring. On SXT trims and higher, this ring actually glows red, and illuminates before the remainder of the IP upon startup.
That ring also surrounds two digital displays, depending on how the car is equipped. Along with Chrysler's 8.4-inch touchscreen Uconnect infotainment system, higher-trim Dart models are available with a new gauge cluster, which places a seven-inch LCD screen between an analog tachometer and fuel gauge. Drivers will be able to configure the screen to taste, selecting from displays like an analog or digital speedometer readout, turn-by-turn navigation directions, fuel economy displays, audio and phone controls, and vehicle setting menus.
Predictably, Dodge rolled out only the top of the line R/T for us to inspect, which boasted incredibly supple Nappa leather seating surfaces; the black interior shown here in press photos sports perforated bolsters that show a hint of red. Regardless of trim level, all Dart interiors make extensive use of well-grained, soft-touch materials, and hearty controls that exude a solid feel. It's something we've come to love in Chrysler's larger offerings, and something we're glad to see trickle down to the C-segment.
Three New Engines, One From Fiat
Like the car itself, the Dart's powertrain offerings blend both Chrysler and Fiat resources. Two of the three engine offerings are part of Chrysler's Tigershark program, which reworked the existing World Engine range of four-cylinder engines to increase power, improve efficiency, and instill some refinement.
The base offering - a 2.0-liter I-4 -- retains its aluminum block, dual overhead cams, dual variable valve timing, and 16-valve configuration, but gains an all-new cylinder head that boasts larger valves and places the exhaust manifold at the front of the engine in an attempt to reduce in-cabin noise. Chrysler's preliminary specifications suggest the 2.0-liter Tigershark produces 160 hp at 6400 rpm, and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. Compared to the current 2.0-liter I-4, the Tigershark provides an extra 2 hp and 4 lb-ft of torque.
The power increase is even more notable on the 2.4-liter variant, which is unique to the R/T trim. In addition to the head tweaks given to the 2.0-liter Tigershark, the 2.4-liter also receives Fiat's MultiAir electro-hydraulic valve timing and actuation system. As is the case on other engines blessed with the technology, the MultiAir 2.4 sees a notable jump in power. Horsepower rises from 172 to 184 hp at 6250 rpm, while peak torque increases from 165 to 171 lb-ft, which arrives at 4800 rpm. Dodge's revised 2.4-liter is one of the most powerful four-bangers in its class.
But wait, there's more. Buyers seeking a little extra power but are reluctant to step up to the R/T trim can opt for a Fiat-designed 1.4-liter, SOHC turbocharged MultiAir I-4. Similar to the engine used in the U.S.-spec Abarth 500, the engine in Dart guise produces 160 hp like the 2.0-liter four, but offers a heartier 184 lb-ft of torque from 2550-4000 rpm.
Power is sent to the front wheels through one of three transmission options. All engine offerings receive a Fiat-sourced six-speed manual transmissions as standard equipment. 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines are available with a six-speed automatic transmission sourced from Hyundai's Powertech division. That gearbox isn't available with the 1.4-liter turbo-four, but a new Fiat-designed six-speed dual-clutch transaxle, making the Dart the first Chrysler offering to be offered with such a transmission.
There are rumors of a nine-speed ZF automatic transmission being developed for the Dart, but Dodge officials refused to confirm them. We do know the nine-speed is being developed for future applications with transverse-mounted 2.4-liter engines, so it is theoretically possible for this new transmission to end up in a Dart at some point in the near future.
Sooner Than Later
Fuel economy figures for any of those pairings has yet to be finalized, but Chrysler has confirmed that early tests indicate the Dart could return an unadjusted combined mileage rating of 40 mpg. We wouldn't be too surprised if that figure is tied to the 1.4-liter turbo, as Fiat has said that combining MultiAir with turbocharging and a smaller engine displacement can improve fuel economy by up to 25 percent without sacrificing fuel economy.
How well that package -- and the Dart itself -- works in the real world remains to be seen, although we likely won't have to wait that long to find out. Production is expected to begin at Chrysler's factory in Belvedere, Illinois, in the second quarter of 2012. If the Dart drives as good as it looks, is priced right, and delivers competitive fuel economy, we hope it's a sign of the future products coming from Chrysler's latest merger.
2013 Dodge Dart
On Sale: Mid 2012
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC I-4
Power: 160 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 145 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Engine: 1.4-liter SOHC turbocharged I-4
Power: 160 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 145 lb-ft @ 2550-4000 rpm
Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC I-4
Power: 184 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque: 171 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed dual-clutch (turbo only), 6-speed automatic
Length: 183.9 in
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Width: 72 in
Height: 57.7 in
Curb weight: 3173-3297 lbs
Cargo capacity: 13.1 cubic feet