Photo: Autoviva.com | Flickr
AUSTIN — The 2013 Dodge Dart is significant in so many ways, including that it happens to be a very, very good compact, if the preproduction test cars flogged around the Hill Country around here were representative.Production begins soon, and most of the models will be in showrooms by June. A hot-rod version called R/T and a high-mileage “aero” model both are planned for third quarter.
What’s especially significant about a modest-size car with a throwback name, last used on a Dodge sedan in 1976:
- First credible compact from Chrysler Group’s Dodge brand since nearly forever. The previous try, Dodge calibre, never caught on.
- Fuel-efficient, modest-price sedan that automakers must offer to attract and retain buyers.
- Test of how well the rapidly rebounding Chrysler Group — first-quarter profit was $473 million, up more than 300(per cent) from a year ago, and sales are up 40(per cent) — can battle the best companies in a segment where many of them do their best work.
- First car based on a model from Fiat, which owns 58.5(per cent) of Chrysler, revised to American tastes and standards.
Dart is based on Fiat’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta, well regarded overseas for its exemplary driving behaviour.
The Giulietta chassis was lengthened a foot, widened 2 inches, and the sheet metal is different.
If Dart’s a market winner, it’ll be the first of many Fiat-based designs to get slightly enlarged and restyled for the U.S.
The 1.4-liter Dart with manual transmission has a window-sticker rating of 32 mpg in combined driving, and that works out to about 41 mpg using the CAFE formula the government uses to set fuel-economy regulations, says Mike Merlo, Dart’s chief engineer.
- The 1.4-liter, turbocharged model with manual transmission test-driven here was a delight. Pep-aroonie, plus a soft-engagement clutch for easy driving both in traffic and on the uncrowded way.
- The 2-liter, automatic was merely pleasant.
It’s a genteel cruiser, quiet, calm, collected on fast two-lane roads. (Texas, a big state, understands about not wasting your time in transit and so applies 70 mph speed limits to back roads.)
Interiors are roomy, thoughtful, comfy and classy. Available: front passenger seat cushion that flips forward to expose a roomy storage bin, as in the Dodge Journey SUV.
Dodge plays with the lighting, too. Taillights on high-level models are rings of hundreds of LED bulbs.
Inside, strips of red light outline portions of the dashboard. Not functional, but nowadays high-end lighting is a premium statement in the minds of many folks.
There’s no automatic transmission version of the 1.4-liter car yet. That’s due later this year. Dodge is developing a dual dry-clutch automatic, which uses two electronically controlled gear clutches rather than a conventional automatic’s fluid torque converter.
Such boxes are great for mpg, and can shift with the joyful precision you get only from having made a pact with an undesirable being at a crossroads at midnight.
But they are heck to tune for smooth operation from a dead stop, and in stop-and-go traffic. It can be done about perfectly, but the only place we’ve noticed it thus far was in a $126,000 Porsche 911 where the gearbox is a $4,080 option. So if Chrysler can do it well in a sub-$20,000 car, it would be quite an accomplishment.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be Chrysler’s move to restore complexity to the manufacturing process for the Dart, so that buyers can order exactly what they want a la carte and get it in a month or two if it’s not on the dealer lot.
That’s opposite what the industry’s been doing. Complexity has become a villain, providing more chances for goofs and driving up costs from keeping many different interiors, engines, transmissions, paint colours, options and so on in stock.
Dodge insists it has such a good factory and supply system that it can return to the customer-thrilling days of the 1950s and 1960s when buyers could specify a car that was nearly unique.
Meantime, the two preproduction test cars that we wheeled around Texas speak loudly and well Dart’s chances. Plus,
it has the distinct advantages of being roomier and more powerful than rivals.
In fact, among open-minded shoppers, it’ll be hard to justify a Corolla or Civic or Elantra after driving a Dart.
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