Chrysler/Dodge + Fiat/Alfa Romeo = 2013 Dart

Story and Photos by Bill Griffith, NEMPA

When you throw a dart, the object is to hit the scoring section of the board. The same is true in the auto world, where Dodge is launching its 2013 Dart at the sweet spot in the compact segment of the market. Compacts, which compete in the trifecta of affordability, fuel economy and reliability, have accounted for 15 percent of new-car sales in recent years, a number that’s grown to 17.6 percent in the first four months of 2012.

The Dart replaces the Caliber in Dodge’s lineup, but that vehicle was regarded as a small crossover, meaning Dodge hasn’t been competitive in the compact niche since the demise of the Neon in 2005.

Mike Merlo, chief engineer for the Dodge Dart.

Mike Merlo, chief engineer for the Dodge Dart.

On June 12, Chrysler stalwart Lisa Barrow brought a six-pack of pre-production Darts as well as the vehicle’s chief engineer, Mike Merlo, and head of marketing Chad Robertson to the Automotion garage to meet the New England Motor Press Association. We were able to drive Darts equipped with the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo (160 HP, 184 lb-ft) and 2.0-liter Tigershark (160 HP, 147 lb-ft) motors and both the 6-speed manual and 6-speed automatic transmissions.

MPG ratings for the 2.0-liter engine with the automatic are 24 city/34 highway/27 combined. With a manual, the combined figure rises to 29. The turbo-manual combination is rated at 27 city/39 highway and 32 combined.

Soon to come are a 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir II engine (184 HP, 171 lb-ft) and a 6-speed dual dry clutch automatic, as well as a 41 MPG Aero edition and an R/T performance model. Dart prices start at $16,790 (well-equipped and including shipping) and reach up into the mid-20s.

The Dart is an cutting-edge example of “global engineering.” It represents the collaboration of Dodge and Alfa Romeo designers, who began with the basic FWD Giulietta platform and wound up with a vehicle that is being built in the United States and will be sold in 60 countries. Merlo described a comfortable working relationship with the Italians that led to a long list of innovations meant to improve nearly every aspect of owning and driving a Dart. There’s a lot going on here, all spelled out in an unusually long and detailed press kit.

Chad Robertson, head of Dart marketing.

Chad Robertson, head of Dart marketing.

To reduce drag, the underbody is covered by aerodynamic belly pans and an automatic shutter behind the front grille closes whenever possible. Body-panel and windshield gaps have been reduced or eliminated, also to reduce drag. The result is better fuel efficiency and a cabin that is noticeably free of engine and road noise. Several short drives also indicated distinctly European handling dynamics.

After giving us chapter and verse on design (and impressing everyone with their enthusiasm), the Dodge Boys threw up screen after screen comparing Dart features and prices to the established players in its segment. Chrysler appears to have done its homework, positioning the new car not only as a value leader, but also as a leader in standard equipment, in safety (10 air bags, for example, as well as pre-tensioners on both ends of the seatbelts) and in available options, including a surprising amount of technology.

Navigation is by Garmin and the 8.4-inch touch screen serves as the display for the back-up camera. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are available. Among the ambient lighting options is a “racetrack” display that surrounds the gauges and center stack in a shape similar to the distinctly Charger-like rear array of 158 LED taillights.

Dart butt: 158 LED lamps, echoing the Dodge Charger.

Dart butt: 158 LED lamps, echoing the Dodge Charger.

The available customizable gauge display is technically advanced, but simple to use-just select digital or analog, then decide where the information is to display. Cool. Choose among 12 exterior colors, too, plus 14 interior color and trim options, six wheel sizes and styles, and more. Dodge predicts a 50-day order-to-dealer delivery time frame.

When a buyer starts ticking the order boxes on a compact, the price can quickly rise to meet entry-level mid-size vehicles, and many buyers think Bigger is Better. Dart, however, is a compact car with a mid-size interior, with ample room for two adults in the back and a reasonably commodious trunk that can be “stretched” by folding down the rear seats.

Dodge is aiming the Dart at both Millennials and empty-nesters in a segment where the competition is especially tough: the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla and more. Our first impression is that the new Dart will make a splash among the compacts and may pull in some mid-size shoppers, too.

The interior has been dressed up with a bit of Italian flair.

The interior has been dressed up with a bit of Italian flair.

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