Driven: the new US Dodge Dart
It’s an iconic name, but can the new Dart live up to its heritage? Pat Devereux reports…
That name sounds vaguely familiar - is it an all-new car or a new version of an old one?
You might have heard the name before, as it was first used by the company on a compact car it produced in the 1960s and 70s. This one is all new though. It runs on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta's platform, albeit with a 94mm longer wheelbase, 38mm extra width and over 300mm in extra length. It is quite possibly the most important car in the entire Fiat Chrysler line up right now. If it is a success, it will show that the company can make big efficiencies - and profits - which will mean Fiat will do well and there will be lots more interesting Alfas and Ferraris. Proving the point of its global importance, the car will also be manufactured in China, where it will be known as the Fiat Viaggio.
Does the Dart replace something else in the range?
Yes, the very poor Caliber. The less said about that the better as it's all - or mostly - bad. Much better to focus on the Dart, which is a vastly nicer car and gets the company back in the crucial compact car hunt in the US. It is going to go head to head with the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, and Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
So it better be good then. Is it going to work?
Looks like it. The company has really grasped the nettle with the Dart and gone to town on it. You can take your own view on the neat styling, but the equipment and options on offer make it more than competitive. It can be had with one of three engines: a 160bhp turbo 1.4-litre Multiair unit (the same one as fitted in the excellent US 500 Abarth, just with a smidge more torque); a 160bhp 2-litre four; or an 184bhp 2.4-litre four. There are three choices of gearbox, too. All six-speeders, one manual, one auto and one dual-clutch number.
What about the interior?
Leaps and bounds better than the Caliber's. There is still a few swathes of brittle-looking plastic, but it's now absolutely in the right ballpark to fight the competition. And win in certain areas. Even though a Focus has the most modern and crisply operating cabin, the Dart has a few tricks up its sleeve. On certain models the central seat cushion on the passenger seat folds up to reveal a huge storage area big enough to hold a handbag. So no more having to try and stash it under the passenger seat. Likewise the central seven-inch TFT screen is a nice touch, as is the optional and super-easy-to-use 8.4-inch Uconnect media screen.
And what's it like to drive?
Not bad. It feels quite a bit softer than the Giulietta, but that's no bad thing on the broken US roads it's going to have to live on. The steering - on the 1.4-litre powered Rallye model we drove - was pleasantly light and direct but not overly so. The 1.4 turbo engine has to be worked hard to get things moving at an interesting pace, but it's more than happy to spin up and sing along. Similarly, the six-speed manual gearbox is on a par with the best in class. We drove it back to back with the Focus, Cruze and Corolla, and only the Ford felt like it handled better. The Dart was the most comfortable of all the cars we tried.
Any other interesting options?
Yes. Next year there is going to be an SRT version of the Dart which promises to pick up where the previous and hilariously overpowered Neon SRT4 left off. Rumours are circulating that it could have as much as 300bhp. The other option coming next year is a nine-speed auto gearbox. Yes, NINE.
So should I buy one?
If you live in the US - or are planning a fly-drive - and want a neat, modern small saloon that's fun to drive and has a load of kit and comfort as standard, sure. Test drive the Focus along side it and make your choice from those two.
1,368cc I4, 160bhp@ 5,500rpm, 249Nm@2,500rpm, 0-100kph in 9 seconds (est), n/a top speed, 14kpl (combined), N/A g/km, weight: 1,459kg
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