It's been a long time since a Dodge was at the top of the compact-car heap. We named the original Neon our Automobile of the Year back in 1994, but later versions of the Neon and its successor, the Caliber, lagged far behind the competition. The new 2013 Dart, however, appears poised to change Dodge's fortune in the small-car segment.
For one, the Dart uses a stretched version of the chassis from Europe's much-lauded Alfa Romeo Giulietta. In addition, the Dart has fresh, contemporary styling that's among the smartest in its segment. Then a second-place finish in a compact-sedan comparison test cemented our impression that Dodge had finally built a competitive small car. It was time to order a 2013 Dodge Dart for a yearlong Four Seasons test.
"The little turbo four has plenty of energy but is coarse, hoarse, and gravelly."
The story behind the Dodge Dart goes back nearly four years to the period when Chrysler was entering bankruptcy. Italian automaker Fiat stepped in to help rescue the American giant, but the U.S. Treasury set several conditions for the takeover. Among them was a provision that Fiat help Chrysler build a 40-mpg car on American soil. The Dodge Dart was that car, and launching it allowed Fiat to up its stake in Chrysler by five percent to 58.5 percent.
Our 2013 Dodge Dart SXT won't break the 40-mpg barrier -- only the economy-minded Dart Aero does, with a 41-mpg highway rating -- but it is EPA-rated at 37 mpg on the highway. We skipped the standard 2.0-liter Tigershark four, and instead spent $1300 for the optional 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbo-four engine (the same one found in the Fiat 500 Abarth). Another $1100 got us a dual-clutch automatic transmission that is sourced from Fiat, the first-ever dual-clutch unit offered in a Dodge vehicle.
We chose the Dart SXT because it provides a good balance between equipment and pricing. Our car started at $18,790 after a $795 destination charge, but the upgraded powertrain and several other options bumped the final bill to $23,195. We paid $595 for the Uconnect touchscreen and an illuminated dashboard accent, $495 for navigation and a backup camera, $195 for SiriusXM satellite radio, and $225 for LED taillights that resemble those on the Dodge Charger. Finally, the $495 popular equipment group added cruise control, remote starting, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, illuminated cupholders, and an enhanced trip computer.
Because the Dart arrived at our offices in the middle of winter, we immediately called our official tire and wheel sponsor, Tire Rack, to order some cold-weather rubber. The factory Continental tires will wait patiently in our garage while we use Pirelli Sottozero Serie II tires for the rest of the winter. The Pirellis set us back $797.92, plus another $100 for mounting and balancing. Already they have proven their worth by providing plentiful traction in ice, snow, and below-freezing temperatures.
Shortly after arriving, the Dodge Dart took a 480-mile road trip to deputy editor Joe DeMatio's ancestral homeland, rural West Branch, Michigan (where the car posed for a photo-op alongside sheep and a llama at a local farm). DeMatio's first impressions: "The little turbo four has plenty of energy but is coarse, hoarse, and gravelly. The dual-clutch transmission seems to lack the smoothness and refinement of VW's unit, but perhaps it will improve with time."
We're just getting started with our 2013 Dodge Dart SXT, and it's a certainty that it will see lots more road trips -- as well as more mundane driving chores -- in the months ahead.