Chrysler dusted off the "Dodge Dart" nameplate for a small sedan based on an elongated and stretched platform shared with the Alfa Romeo Guilietta, a premium compact sold in Europe and elsewhere. This is the first new Dodge car to emerge from the Chrysler-Fiat alliance, and others are expected to soon follow. Based on our first impressions, it is a significant improvement over the long-retired, chintzy Neon.
For a first drive, we borrowed a Dart from Chrysler. Our loaner was powered by a 160-hp, 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder Fiat engine linked to a six-speed manual transmission. The most popular version is expected to be powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder (also rated at 160 hp) matched with an automatic. There will also be a sporty R/T with a 184-hp, 2.4-liter four. The latter two are updated versions of Chrysler engines that have common hardware with Hyundai and Mitsubishi units.
With the 1.4-turbo, the Dart starts up with a distinctive Italian exhaust bark. The engine also pulls well and feels flexible enough at low- to mid-range revs. The manual shifter is low effort though a bit rubbery and with rather long throws. Handling is quite agile. The body stays flat in corners and the steering is quick and well weighted. The ride is fairly composed, but not as restrained and compliant as in a Ford Focus or Subaru Impreza. The cabin is relatively quiet. Overall, the car instills a feeling of solidity and substance.
The interior is tidy enough but not a breakthrough. We liked the padded dash, but most other surfaces are hard plastic. Our version had Chrysler's big, attractive, 8.4-inch color touch screen that provides the interface for the audio, climate, and other functions. We found it to be quite straightforward to use. In addition, the Dart will offer a host of options that are uncommon in this class, such as heated steering wheel and a backup camera.
The seats drew mixed reviews. Some thought their support wasn't even. One nice surprise is a storage bin under the passenger seat. Given the generous dimensions for the class, with an overall length of 184 inches, you'd expect a roomy rear seat but it turns out to be merely acceptable.
Overall, the Dart comes across as a frisky compact that's entertaining to drive. It certainly seems competitive. We won't really know what to think until we can buy and test the high-volume version, with its Chrysler engine and automatic. Whatever the case, the Dart finally provides Chrysler with a credible entry to go up against the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, and other stars of that increasingly important segment.