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First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart

It's been said that fashion repeats itself on a twenty-year cycle. If you don't believe that also applies to the automotive industry, might we suggest you blow the dust off a January 1994 issue of this very magazine, in which we celebrated the new Dodge Neon, our surprise choice for Automobile of the Year.

Back then, the Neon delighted us with its impossibly low base price, distinctive styling, spacious interior, great handling, and gobs of horsepower. The biggest surprise was that the compact car happened at all -- it was developed quickly at a time when Chrysler's very existence was hanging by a thread, and the Neon debuted in the middle of what would be a highly successful onslaught of new, design-led Chrysler products that included the stunning LH cars (Intrepid, Concorde, LHS, and 300M), the handsome Cloud cars (Cirrus, Stratus, Breeze), and even a desirable supply of minivans.

A whole new lineup of great-looking Chryslers appearing in record time after the company almost went out of business -- sound familiar? In case you hadn't noticed, Chrysler almost ceased to exist a few short years ago, and now, just like in 1994, we're in the midst of a product assault: Chrysler will launch sixteen new cars this year. As before, that includes a new compact sedan for Dodge, and, just like two decades ago, it's a car defined by its looks and its low base price. Also like the Neon, the Dart is the biggest car in its class and rides on the lengthiest wheelbase. It also has the biggest interior and the most standard horsepower.

In fact, it's all so familiar that we're almost expecting a re-hash of the Neon's "Hi" advertising campaign. Except this time, the cute little car would have to say "Ciao," thanks to its Italian ancestry. Based on a widened version of Alfa Romeo's Giulietta platform, the first progeny to emerge from the Fiat-Chrysler union isn't exactly a small car. It's a foot longer than the Neon, making it closer in size to the mid-size 1990s Stratus, and with an even bigger interior than that sedan's, the Dart is also branded mid-size by the EPA. It falls short of its contemporary rivals in trunk space, but cramped luggage rarely complains as loudly as uncomfortable rear-seat passengers, and the Dart's rear seat is, by "compact" car standards, vast.

The front of the cabin is also a pleasant place to spend time. Dodge is especially proud of the wide assortment of color and material combinations available, a pleasant break from the monotonous beige, gray, and black interiors so common in this class. The asymmetrical dash is refreshingly uncluttered, dominated by what Dodge calls a "floating island bezel" that contains, optionally, a large and clear touchscreen for audio and navigation controls. Upper trim levels of the Dart come with an LCD screen in place of an analog speedometer -- a first at anything close to this price point. And in front of the passenger is a genuinely nice but often overlooked feature that disappeared twenty years ago when passenger-side air bags first popped out: a glovebox deep enough to store a laptop computer. Like every vehicle the Dart competes against, some of the interior materials are hard plastic, and unfortunately some of the Dart's are in places you might want to rest an elbow, like, say, the tops of the door panels. However, Fisher-Price-quality hard plastics like those that marred the Neon's interior are nowhere to be found.

The Dart is distinctive-looking car, if not as radically different from its competitors as the Neon once was. Its front end reads a lot like the current European-market Volkswagen Scirocco, and the relatively flat, featureless hood draws attention away from the enormous front overhang. The rear of the Dart was clearly inspired by its big brother Charger, and upmarket Darts even feature a ring of LED lights around the full-width taillight. (For the record, the Dart's narrower derriere means it gets away with only 152 LEDs versus the Charger's 164.) The brand identity is absolutely clear with the LEDs alight, but from some angles, the relatively narrow and tall stance makes the Dart's big taillight a bit reminiscent of the 1998-2002 Ford Escort ZX2. Whoops.

The switch to Alfa's platform required substantially revising Chrysler's DOHC 2.0-liter four-cylinder World Engine. Renamed Tigershark, the engine's exhaust now exits the front side of the cylinder head -- moving its sound and heat much farther from the firewall -- and extensive work was done to remedy the old engine's lackluster NVH performance, including a considerable reduction in piston stroke. The engine's tone is decidedly sharp, but the sound is distant and 160 horses of thrust is accompanied by a mere fraction of the vibration of the old 2.0-liter.

The optional SOHC 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is far more vocal. Its delightfully boisterous exhaust aside, the tiny-bore, long-stroke Fiat unit isn't nearly as smooth as the normally aspirated base engine. The Multiair 1.4 produces exactly the same amount of horsepower, but where the 2.0's torque peaks briefly at 148 lb-ft, the smaller engine's turbo blows out 184 lb-ft over a 1500-rpm plateau, and accordingly, this Dart is far zippier in traffic. It's also about ten percent less likely to dart into gas stations, as its 27/39-mpg EPA ratings easily best the 2.0-liter's 25/36 mpg.

Those figures are for cars equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission, which is a pleasure to row through the gears. Throttle calibration on the 2.0-liter manual car wasn't final, and engineers promised us its considerable lag would be corrected before production. The tuning of the 1.4, an engine we know from the Fiat 500 Abarth, was great, although the Dart's heft (it weights between 3100 and 3300 pounds) highlighted the port-injected engine's turbo lag and relatively narrow power band.

A third engine will be available later this year -- a 2.4-liter, long-stroke version of the 2.0-liter Tigershark. It eschews the second camshaft in favor of the 1.4's MultiAir variable valve lift system, which promises improved fuel economy and increased torque, and produces 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque.

The normally aspirated engines can be optionally paired to a six-speed automatic that's so good we had to ask Chrysler where it came from -- and the answer was Hyundai. Of course, the Tigershark engines are descendants of engines created by the Global Engine Alliance, a joint venture among Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai, so it's not all that surprising to see a Hyundai-sourced automatic transmission attached to them. The PowerTech torque-converter unit has a wide ratio spread, appropriate gearing, and seamless shift quality, and it even has a manual shift gate with the correct (in other words, racing) layout -- forward for downshift, backward for upshift. Overall, the transmission is so good, and such a vast improvement over Chrysler's other transmissions, that we're in no rush to try the ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne promised the Dart would receive next year. (The original Neon's automatic, for the record, had but one-third that many gears.)

The 1.4-liter turbo is a Fiat-sourced engine, so it gets its own automatic, a dry dual-clutch six-speed automatic, which will likely help to ensure that the downsized turbo powertrain remains the most efficient in the Dart lineup.

The Dart's Italian DNA is perhaps most visible to the driver. While the steering rack isn't especially communicative -- what electrically assisted system is, these days? -- it makes up for it with a quick ratio, a natural feeling of heft, and excellent straight-line stability. Our drive of prototype Darts took place during a major Northern California winter storm that dumped three inches of rain and felled trees, but it didn't dampen the Dart's spirit one bit. In the challenging conditions, the Dart remained composed at all times, although dashboard reflections on the steeply inclined windshield and wiper controls that are somewhat confusingly located, Mercedes-style, on the turn signal stalk were distracting.

The Dart's independent suspension is tuned for a smooth, very well-controlled ride, and cabin noises are admirably hushed. It feels both more substantial and more capable than most of its competitors in a hugely competitive segment. Chrysler points out that so-called compact cars are the single largest retail segment in the market, and the fastest growing. The Dart comes at the perfect time to take advantage of that, and it bolster the numbers of a car company that's already experiencing enormous growth.

Of course, this all happened once before -- we predict that, like the Neon, the Dart will be a sales success for Chrysler. At this point you might be wondering: whatever happened to the Neon? Well, someone decided that it was too cute and replaced it with the Caliber -- an ill-conceived, poorly executed quasi-crossover with a mug so unappealing that even Dodge's ad agency couldn't come up with a tag line better than "It's anything but cute." Luckily, the Dart is anything but a Caliber -- and to it, we say "Ciao, bello -- and welcome back."

On sale: Summer
Base Price: $16,745 (est. )
Engines: 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 148 lb-ft; 1.4L turbo I-4, 160 hp, 184 lb-ft
Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA fuel economy: 25/36 mpg (2.0L manual), 27/39 mpg (1.4L manual)