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Driven: the original Dodge Dart

  1. If you’re American, chances are you’re a bit miffed that Dodge has put a Dart badge on a car that’s so resolutely dissimilar to the original. The new Dart announced this week at the Detroit Motor Show has got half the cylinders, the driven wheels are at the wrong end and it looks like something George Jetson’d find in Jane’s bedside drawer.

    In a fit of nostalgic rage, we borrowed an original Dart from the sepia-tinged days of American motoring to see just how much better they used to be.

    But our findings were curious. The Dodge Dart’s actually rubbish. And it’s a bloody good job Chrysler doesn’t intend to build anything remotely similar.

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

  2. First off, some housekeeping.

    If you’re familiar with old American cars, you may have spotted that this isn’t actually an original original Dart.

    It’s a 1970 Swinger (think vinyl roof and snazzy trim, not suburban wife swapping) - the fourth of the breed. But it had the longest production run of all the models and is, undoubtedly, responsible for the nameplate’s ubiquity.

  3. Billed as compact, frugal work-a-day transport, it’s actually quite petite compared to its contemporaries. And by petite, we mean massive - this one’s 4.9 metres long and 1.7 metres wide. Still, that’s almost two feet shorter than a Chevrolet Impala, which was tailored for the same market.

    What about frugality, then? Unlike the new ‘un, you won’t find four cylinders here. Well, you will, but they’ll have another two - or four - strapped to them. The smallest was a 2.8-litre slant six, rising to 3.2 and 3.7-litre capacity. Then there were the V8s. They started at 4.5-litres and rose all the way to a 6.3-litre.

    And while its American stablemates would muster similar, if not worse figures (the popular, middle-of-the-range 318 V8 returned around 16mpg) contemporary competitors like the Honda N600, Datsun 510 and Volkswagen Beetle would manage up to 40mpg. And fit in the boot. Or trunk. Or whatever.

  4. So, the original Dodge Dart wasn’t compact. Or frugal. Which is odd, considering it was built to compete with a new wave of actually compact and actually frugal imports. It’s the exact same problem that the 2012 model is being built to deal with, but this time, Chrysler can’t rely on diminutive fuel costs and brand loyalty.

    Modern day Chrysler was already misfiring before the recession hit, and only a partnership with Fiat saved it from likely bankruptcy in 2009. Its recovery’s been impressive, though. Last year, the Jeep, Ram and Dodge brands managed an 80 per cent year-on-year sales improvement, which brought the manufacturer back in the black come the third quarter.

  5. But its bounce-back to date has been largely down to big, thirsty cars and trucks like the 300C. The Caliber - Dodge’s current not particularly compact and not particularly frugal car - sold 35,000 last year, compared with 240,000 Toyota Corollas in the USA. In short, the new Dart’s got to be good for Chrysler to stay healthy.

    So, like Ford and the Focus, new Dart has turned to Europe for the underpinnings (it’s got Alfa Giulietta underwear). And it’s actually pretty good on fuel - the all-four-cylinder lineup’s golden boy squeezes 47 miles from a gallon. And it’ll handle.

  6. Unlike the original Dodge Dart. Which doesn’t handle. As in really, really doesn’t handle.

    As is often the case with anterior-engined American sedans, its relationship with corners is uncordial at best, tending towards the openly hostile. It begins with an impossibly violent list, then there’s some old-movie cop car-style tyre squeal followed by galloping understeer. Should you prod the throttle at any point, you’ll find the rear end’s broken free at least 40 times more quickly than the steering’s able to react to it.

  7. The interior’s similarly compromised. Despite sharing its length with 2.85 Richard Hammonds, rear legroom’s laughably small. Humans more than four feet tall with the full complement of legs, torso and head can’t fit in the back without careful, uncomfortable bodily feng shui.

  8. So, dreadful MPG, dreadful handling, dreadful packaging. But there is a quiet joy to mastering its idiosyncrasies. And you trade efficiency for a delicious V8 soundtrack. And balls to the packaging - it looks cool. Really, really cool (though the front end looks rather a lot like a Morris Marina’s).

  9. But this thing - and its dependence on visual hormones and brand loyalty - needs to stay in the past. Or Chrysler might not have a brand to celebrate in the future.

  10. And if you’re wondering - we’d much rather have an old one. What about you?

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