The Dodge Dart was supposed to have been the Messianic Redemption for Chrysler’s passenger car side; a well-built, competent compact car that would draw in young buyers to the Dodge brand while taking the fight to established players like Civic, Corolla and Focus. It had all the right elements on paper too; a large cabin, Alfa Romeo underpinnings and the all-important 40 MPG rating.
Initial reviews were tepid and Chrysler got the model mix completely wrong. Reports of labor unrest, special 40 MPG compliant models and sleight-of-hand dealings between the government and Sergio Marchionne clouded the cars’d ebut. Many in the online peanut gallery were ready to brand the Dart a dud. How could Chrysler be so dense as to release a half-baked product into one of the most competitive segments in the industry?
I finally got a chance to drive the Dart, nearly a year after its on-sale date, and I came away very impressed. The demo I got was a mid-level SXT with boring 2.0L 4-cylinder and 6-speed automatic – not the most exciting drivetrain, but likely the most popular. This drivetrain combination was the biggest blight on the Dart. The 2.0L is an absolute dog, anemic and unresponsive to all but the most aggressive throttle inputs. When fighting urban traffic, it takes an eternity for the engine to wake up, and quick maneuvers are hampered by its total absence of gumption. The 6-speed automatic, oriented towards economy rather than performance, only makes things worse.
Aside from that, everything else was very well executed. The large touchscreen was easy to ready and UConnect is by far the best of Detroit’s infotainment systems. Its menus are clear and easy to use, the system operates without any lag and it quickly and seamlessly integrated my iPhone’s music library. It also passed my all important test: can a passenger who is unfamiliar with in-car technology operate it without any instruction from me.
On the road, the Dart is let down only by the godawful drivetrain. The steering is a tad numb but the weighting is spot on and you still have a good sense of what the front tires are doing. Personally, I think this car handles better than the over-rated Focus. Turn-in is crisp, body roll is fairly well controlled and it changes direction competently. Somehow, it feels lighted than its 3,200 lb curb weight suggests. I wouldn’t mind driving the 1.4T and 2.4 equipped models just for comparison.
Slowly but surely, sales of the Dart appear to be picking up. I’m sure that among the B&B, there will be squabbles about who rules the compact car segment. I don’t know if I would necessarily crown the Dart as my top pick (I would have to go with the Mazda3 and trade some refinement for superior driving dynamics) but I would be happy to recommend it to the 99.9% of the population that doesn’t care about whether a care has electric power steering or not.
More importantly, it’s a deeply encouraging sign for Chrysler. Their sales gain as a whole are largely being driven by Ram trucks and Jeep. The 200 and Avenger may offer a lot of value for money, but they are dated and rather dismal products compared to the competition. The 300 is a great car (as you’ll see next week) but the full-size segment is shrinking.
The Dart, on the other hand, is the first car built off the CUSW platform, which will underpin other crucial products like the Jeep Cherokee and the next generation Chrysler 200. If Chrysler is going to survive as a company, their next wave of products have to be more than just “competitive”. The Dart, despite its teething problems, is a very encouraging sign of what’s to come.