2012 Detroit Auto Show: 2013 Dodge Dart
By Chris Haak
What’s in a name? A name can be powerful, both in good ways and bad. There are some names that no automaker would dare use again. Can you imagine a press conference for the 2013 Chevrolet Vega? There are others that have been besmirched by sub-par products years ago, yet the original holders of those names generate such strong positive, nostalgic feelings that sins of the Malaise Era may nearly be forgiven. The Dodge Charger falls into the latter category, and so does the Dodge Dart.
When I hear “Dodge Dart,” the first thing that comes to mind is that Al Bundy, the frustrated shoe salesman from the sitcom Married With Children, drove one, and his Dodge was a recurring joke. Driving a 20 year old rusty Dodge was as perfect of a match to the character as Michael Scott’s Sebring Convertible was in The Office.
In its day, the Dart was seen as a responsible purchase. They were available with V8s, were reasonably reliable, and inexpensive to operate. people didn’t make jokes about those who drove piece of junk Dodges back in the sixties. Now, with the 2013 Dart and the resurrection of the Dart name, Chrysler is hoping to restore some luster to the name and remove references to the likes of Al Bundy.
Built on a platform that shares many of its greasy bits with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the 2013 Dart will – at long last – bring some style and interest to small cars in the Mopar world. Chrysler’s neglect of the C segment has been almost legendary ever since the Neon faded into the sunset. Rather than replacing the Neon with something similar, the company zagged and gave us the truck-like Caliber. Not like the Neon was God’s gift to small-car refinement, but the Caliber was hard, unfriendly, and old-tech in so many unfortunate ways. Your elbow would actually be sore after it came in constant contact with the center armrest. And refinement, performance, and fuel economy? The Caliber SRT4 performed pretty well if you could get past the torque steer thing, but that’s about all.
Now, things have changed. The Dart is stylish – with a design that echoes the larger Charger, but a front clip that’s even angrier-looking. LED taillamps and xenon headlamps are available; can you imagine those features in a Neon or Caliber? There will be three engine choices; a 2.0 liter four cylinder producing 160 horsepower; a 1.6 liter turbo four also producing 160 horsepower, but with more torque and better fuel economy; and a 2.4 liter four producing a competitive 184 horsepower, but with a likely fuel economy penalty. Transmission choices include three different six-speeds: manual, automatic, and dry dual-clutch (DCT). In its most fuel-sipping guise, the Dart is expected to top 41 miles per gallon highway in EPA tests.
The design is clearly an improvement, and continues the recent trend of offering attractive C-segment cars that finally embrace design. It was never fair that only people who paid $30,000 and up for a car could get attractive designs. The Focus and Elantra broke down that barrier, and the Dart can hold its own with those two. The front and rear look great; only profile is a bit tame in the vein of the previous-generation Hyundai Elantra, but with a little kick-up at the edge of the trunklid.
While the outside is nice, the inside is where the Dart really steps up Dodge’s game in the small-car business. It’s not a Lexus, or even a Cadillac in there – you’ll still find hard, shiny plastic in the lower dash and lower door panels. But there is much to like inside, with the focal point being the optional large touchscreen 8.4 inch LCD that’s the same as the unit found in the Charger and 300. In a smaller car like the Dart, it seems even bigger and more useful. The Dart one-ups its big brother, though, with a 7-inch TFD gauge cluster display that gives a virtual rather than mechanical speedometer, not unlike what you’d find in a Jaguar, Range Rover, or Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The display is configurable and looks great. The rest of the cockpit is full of interesting organic shapes and bright colors that have a cheap and cheerful feel, but without the cheap.
Production of the resurrected Dart begins in second quarter this year – and the car goes on sale shortly after that. Pricing seems as if it will be extremely aggressive, with a “15” at the beginning of the entry-level price. With upscale options such as LED taillamps, xenon HID headlamps, navigation, a 506-watt sound system, and even a heated steering wheel, there’s no doubt that it will climb quickly when all the boxes are checked. However, offering all of those features is a smart way for Chrysler to raise its small-car transaction prices, not to mention its margins.
We look forward to some seat time in the car that has the potential to restore the Dart’s good name – while also restoring respectability and competitiveness to Chrysler’s small-car portfolio. Without cars like the Dart, Chrysler has no chance of hitting its CAFE targets in the next few years, so expect to see a full court press to market and sell this new car.