The Neon came in saying "hi". The Dart just came in saying "yo". First off, it's no secret that the Dart's name pays homage to an American classic. However, while driving around in the Dart, I couldn't help but feel that rather than driving a Dart, I was driving around in a modernized, much improved Neon. It lacks the blocky, monotonous styling of the Caliber and brings back the rounded lines of the car that came in saying "hi".
Do you remember the Dodge Caliber? Oh, you do? My sincerest condolences to your memory. For those that don’t remember, it was the Neon replacement, produced from 2007 to 2012 and slotted below the Avenger in Dodge’s lineup. Powered by a horrid 4-cylinder and for the most part, coupled to a CVT, the Caliber was an Avis-queen. It was so bad, in fact, that certain Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealers at one point were even offering a free Caliber to those who purchased an Aspen at full price. Yes, they literally gave them away. So last year, when I got my first glimpse of the replacement, the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart, I immediately realized that it may even get more praise then it deserved if for the sole reason that its introduction means the Caliber gets put out to pasture. My personal favourite in the class currently is the Hyundai Elantra, and I was sincerely hoping that this 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye would trump it.
First off, it’s no secret that the Dart’s name pays homage to an American classic. However, while driving around in the Dart, I couldn’t help but feel that rather than driving a Dart, I was driving around in a modernized, much improved Neon. Based on the Fiat platform it shares with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Dart lacks the blocky, monotonous styling of the Caliber and brings back the rounded lines of the car that came in saying “hi”. Where the Neon looked happy, the Dart seems to exude confidence, as if saying “my older brother, the Charger, will kick your a** if you mess with me”. If anything, I feel as though while the car looks better than the majority of other cars in its class, even the optional 17″ wheels look a bit small and take away from the looks of the car.
My tester was a Rallye model, which, priced at a steep $23,285, came with the 1.4L “MultiAir” turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Keeners will note that this is the same engine that I raved on about in the Fiat 500 Abarth I recently spent a week with. Coupled with the 6-speed manual rather than the 5-speed in the Abarth, I quickly came to the conclusion that in no way was this Dart anywhere close to being similar to the little black hornet I befriended.
The 1.4L is more than adequately quiet at cruising speeds, making it one of the most comfortable driving experiences in its class. The observed 8.2L/100km in combined driving is nothing to scoff at either. The Dart’s shifter, while a little bit clunky at times, was positioned perfectly and a joy to row through. I do wish however that the throws were a little bit shorter, as the Jeep Wrangler-esque long throws tend to get a tad tedious when trying to drive the Dart in a spirited manner. The Abarth’s exhaust was wonderful at first, but it quickly got old for me. The same engine in the bigger Dart sounds much more grown-up and while muffled, sounds quite good. I would happily listen to this little motor all day long.
The Rallye is the “performance”-oriented model, slotted above the SE and SXT and below the Limited. Optioned up with nearly everything available on the Rallye save for the power sunroof, my tester was even equipped with the premium multimedia system with the very generous 8.4″ touchscreen. I will go as far as to say that when it comes to entry-level mainstream cars, Chrysler has the multimedia system down pat. It’s not as agitating to use as MyFordTouch, and the main controls (volume, track-toggle) are available in easy-to-find knobs. As my Dart didn’t have the premium 9-speaker system, sound quality was nothing more than adequate, but in this class I’m not really complaining.
Here’s my gripe though; the Rallye isn’t the bread-and-butter base model. It’s not the one you’d see mostly on rental fleets. It’s the one that enthusiasts or young bachelors/bachelorettes would think about buying. There are a couple things that shouldn’t be optional for this price point. For one, heated seats. I once (briefly) owned a 2006 Mazda3 that had heated seats. My non-S 2005 Mini Cooper had heated seats. At over $23,000 for this model, I’d expect them thrown in. My second issue with the Dart is the driving position. I’m just over 6′, and I have a relatively short torso and long legs. If I move the seat back far enough to stretch my legs out comfortably, the steering wheel won’t telescope out far enough to hold it comfortably. Ultimately, the position I settled on meant my knees were cramped up against the steering column, but my upper body was comfortable. This brought back memories of how the seats in a 2011 Charger SE were terrible enough to cause months of chiropractor visits after a week with the car.
Okay, so my verdict on the Dart? I love the little car, I really do. I would have thought that objectivity would be difficult, especially when hopping into the Dart directly following a few days with the 2013 Audi S6, but I still had nothing but praise for the Dart to anyone who asked about it. Is it Elantra-levels of good though? Okay, so for $19,949, the Elantra GLS with the 6-speed manual offers heated front and rear seats, Bluetooth, and even a power sunroof. Granted, the Dodge Dart has a turbocharged engine that’s a bit peppier, but I’d gladly make that sacrifice for $3500 and drive the “slow” non-turbo Elantra. I know this makes me sound like an anti-enthusiast, but hear me out. Those shopping in this class (especially those who even bother shopping the Corolla or Sentra) don’t care about “fun”. They care about value, efficiency, and overall features for your dollar. That’s where the Elantra excels. Even so, this new Dart is easily my second favourite in the class, and when that class includes cars like the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Mazda3, the Subaru Impreza, and even the much-praised Ford Focus, that’s something to not be taken lightly.