Is it a Dodge or is it an Alfa Romeo? Actually, it’s a little of both, although both automakers used to be worlds apart.
After a long wait, Dodge has come up with a decent compact car—this time with the help of Italy’s Fiat-controlled Alfa Romeo. The new Dodge is the 2013 Dart model, which looks good, runs strong and is affordable.
The front-wheel-drive Dart replaces the regrettable Dodge Caliber model and reminds us of just how international the auto world has become. For example, the Dart rolls on a lengthened and widened version of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform and is given various modifications to make it suitable for U.S. driving.
Alfa Romeo and Dodge? Strange partners, indeed. While Dodge was once America’s trusty, stodgy car for conservative city and rural folks, Alfa in the 1920s and 1930s, was the car for wealthy, hot-blooded Europeans. Alfa employees, including Enzo Ferrari (yes, that Enzo Ferrari), put together the wildest racing cars anyone had seen, and Alfa’s road cars were immediate champs.
Alfa and Dodge have come together, thanks to financial circumstances forcing the curious alliance of Chrysler and its Dodge division and Fiat’s Alfa Romeo operation. Alfa left America decades ago, but is scheduled to start selling cars here again in a year or so.
Meanwhile, car buyers looking for an attractive compact sedan with virtually mid-size interior room should try the Dart. It’s fun to drive, although it’s no sports sedan despite its Alfa connection. It is affordable, with list prices ranging from $15,995 for the moderately equipped SE to $19,995 for the top-line Limited.
The Illinois-built Dart is offered with three different engines and a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with an easily used manual-shift feature. I recommend the automatic, which most Dodge dealers will order anyway.
There seems to be a 2013 Dart model for everyone. They are the entry SE, Aero, SXT, Rallye, and Limited.
Even the SE has an AM/FM stereo, CD player, adjustable steering wheel, power windows and all-disc brakes. It’s the usual equipment game after that, with higher-line models getting more features. For instance, the Aero’s added items include air conditioning, cruise control, power mirrors and keyless entry.
I drove a 2013 Dart SXT Special Edition model that lists for $17,995. It had a bunch of option packages that upped its price to $21,770, including a $795 destination charge, but a $745 “package value” savings.
My test car had a 2-liter four-cylinder engine with 160 horsepower and 148 pound/feet of torque—not to mention nifty looking dual exhaust outlets. Also offered is a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with the same power rating but with 184 pound-feet of torque. The extra torque gives the Dart more zip in traffic, but is louder and not as smooth as the normally aspirated 2-liter four-cylinder, which is the best Dart engine for most folks.
There’s also a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, but it really isn’t needed for the Dart, although the car is fairly heavy at 3,186 to 3,346 pounds.
The non-turbo “four” provides good in-town acceleration and quick 65-75 mph passing. At 60 mph, the engine is only doing a dead-even 2,000 r.p.m. It loves to rev, but gets somewhat noisy during hard acceleration—like all Dart engines.
The regular and turbo 2-liter engines can use 87-octane fuel, although Dodge says 93-octane is “preferred” for the turbo engine. The 2.4 also only requires 87-octane gas.
All Darts deliver decent estimated fuel economy—from the mid- to high 20s in the city and mid-30s to 41 on highways. My test Dart was rated at 24 city, 34 highway, but seemed to get a few more miles per gallon in the city and highway with its automatic transmission during mostly typically moderate driving.
Although officially a compact car, the solidly built Dart is roomy, with decent room for a 6-footer with long legs in back. Rear windows roll nearly all the way down, but rear door openings are rather narrow.
The Dart’s quiet, snappy interior has supportive front seats, easily read gauges and a good dashboard information screen. There’s a mixture of handy large and small controls, a sliding front armrest and a fair amount of cabin storage, with pockets in all doors and a deep covered front console bin.
The bottom of the front passenger seat flips up to reveal a fairly large cargo area that most thieves would likely overlook. Front console cupholders are conveniently located, and a hefty rear center armrest contains dual cupholders.
The large trunk has a low, wide opening with a lined interior lid, but conventional hinges instead of struts and no interior pull-down assist—a curious omission. Rear seatbacks can be flipped forward for considerably more cargo room.
Safety features include plenty of air bags.
The steering is firm and precise, and the all-independent is supple. However, bad bumps cause the suspension to become clunky and “tire thump.” The suspension “danced” a lot at 25-30 m.p.h. on a brick section of my test road, but handling was steady on most roads, helped by electronic stability control. The brake pedal has a comforting linear feel, and normal stopping distances are short.
The hood has a prop rod—a sign of cost-cutting, instead of hydraulic struts, but fluid-filler areas are easily reached.
The Dart is selling fairly well, but has lots of competition and is said to be a bit of a sales disappointment. Maybe it needs some of that old Alfa Romeo excitement.
Pros: Stylish. Roomy affordable. Lively. Supple ride. Fuel-thrifty.
Cons: Occasionally clunky suspension. Engine loud when pressed. Narrow door openings.
Bottom Line: An attractive, room, fuel-sipping new compact sedan.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.