Sleek compact stands out in crowded field

by: CHRYSLER LLC - The 2013 Dodge Dart looks more like a muscle car than an economy sedan.Chrysler and Fiat have a lot riding on the new Dodge Dart, the first vehicle the two companies developed together since the Italian automaker rescued the American company from bankruptcy.

The stakes are high for several reasons. For one, it is Dodge’s first entry in the hotly contested compact car field since the ill-conceived Caliber. For another, if it proves popular, the basic underpinnings of the Dart are expected to support a number of other jointly-developed vehicles.

And in a stunning reversal, although Chrysler is rebounding these days, Fiat’s sales have fallen because of Europe’s poor economy. If the Dart is a hit, Fiat will share some of the profits.

Given the high stakes, the Dart is a surprisingly unconventional compact car by today’s standards. It doesn’t look at all like an economy car. Instead, it looks like a smaller version of the muscular Dodge Charger, complete with the company’s tradmark crosshatch grill. The option list is as long as those on older American cars, with three available engines, three available transmissions, multiple trim levels and a full palette of color choices.

And one engine and transmission choice is much more sophisticated than what buyers are used to finding in compact cars. It pairs a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automated manual transmission, a combination that would seem more likely to be found in exotic foreign cars.

Our test model was the Rallye version equipped with the turbocharged engine but mated to a more conventional six-speed manual transmission. Although it is the fastest of the various versions, it was not particularly quick. Instead, it was more agile than fast, encouraging the style of driving favored by those who bought underpowered but good handling European cars in the 1960s — cars like the Fiats that used to be sold here, in fact.

The same engine and transmission is available in the Abarth high performance version of the Fiat 500. The results are totally different, however. The Abarth is fast off the line, while the Dart’s acceleration is best described as assured, especially after revs hit 3,000 rpm and the turbo really kicks in. Momentum builds steadily from then on, just don't expect to be pinned to the seats.

The Dart is a much heavier car, which explains a lot of the difference. But the Dodge engineers are clearly not thinking of the Dart Rallye as a pocket rocket throwback, either.

To the contrary, although marketed as a compact, the Dart feels and drives more like a midsize car. Interior room is plentiful in both the front and rear seats, and the ride is very smooth and stable. While some compacts with small engines feel buzzy, the Rallye version of the Dart we tested felt all grown up.

Part of that impression was created by the dash design, which spreads many of the controls out vertically instead of trying to stack everything in a center column. Our car had the optional larger display screen, which takes up so much room the CD player is moved to the storage compartment in the console between the front seats. Many of the climate, entertainment and navigation features are accessed through the screen, and we found the operations to be logical and straight-forward.

That's different than the trim level and option choices, which may baffle some potential buyers. The Dart comes in five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T, which is not out yet. It is also with several option packages, including the Popular Entertainment Group, the Premium Audi Group, the Technology Group and the Uconnect Voice Command package. Each has desirable exclusive features. Dodge may think the choices allow consumers to tailor the Dart to their exact needs, but they might also force some buyers to order everything to get just a few things they want. But at least there are choices, something very limited on compact cars not that long ago.

In just a few short years, Chrysler has gone from offering the uncompetitive Caliber to the offering the very competitive Dart in the compact field. Much of the credit goes to the company's partnership with Fiat, which provided major components and then let Dodge design the final product. The next few years look even more promising.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 Dart.

• Manufacturer: Dodge.

• Class: Compact sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door car.

• Engines: 2.0-liter inline 4 (160 hp, 148 lbs-ft); turbocharged 1.4-liter inline 4 (160 hp, 184 lbs-ft); 2.4-liter inline 4 (184 hp, 171 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic; six-speed automated manual.

• EPA estimated city/highway/average mileage (engine/transmission): 25/36/29 (2.0/manual); 24/34/27 (2.0/automatic); 27/39/32 (turbocharged 1.8/manual).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $16,000 ($23,560 as tested).

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