The Great Pumpkin
Get ready, fans of early/mid-20th century pop culture, cartoons, children’s entertainment, and oddly paired references: I’m about to mix and match two unrelated works of pencil and ink together to make a point about a car. Ready? Here we go.
The 2014 Dodge Dart GT, resplendent in can’t-miss-me-unless-you’re-an-L.A.-cab-driver-rolling-a-red-light orange, is a car I very much wanted to drive and love. It’s a great-looking car, inside and out. It shares DNA with Alfa Romeo. It’s loaded with features. It sounds better than any of its direct competitors. It’s a sport model. But alas, as Peanuts’ Linus was always so hopeful that the Great Pumpkin would deliver presents that wouldn’t come, the Dart GT left me feeling like Cinderella after midnight, wishing the carriage was more than a gourd.
Before I get too harsh, let’s talk about the good. As I said, the Dart is a great-looking car. The exterior is bold for the segment and doesn’t try to blend in, even without the bright paint. The interior is likewise stylish, with its “racetrack” effect circling the dash and sharply designed digital instrument cluster graphics. (Female members of the staff remarked that the design is very masculine, too much so for one.) As a bonus, that interior is replete with quality materials that make the car feel more expensive than it is.
The Dart also makes a strong value argument. Our tester came loaded with heated front seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, a big UConnect infotainment touch screen with satellite radio and navigation, rearview camera, parking sensors, keyless entry and starting, remote starting, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power driver’s seat, blind-spot monitoring, automatic headlights and wipers, HID headlights, and more. All of that for an as-tested price of just more than $25,000, which is very competitive with similarly equipped competitors’ cars. Some of those features you can’t get anywhere else, or only on one other competitor.
The Dart is also a safety ace, picking up a five-star crash rating from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick from IIHS. While it didn’t get the coveted Top Safety Pick+, which requires a rating of “Good” in the new small overlap front impact test, the Dart’s rating of “Acceptable” in that test is still better than several competitors.
Behind the wheel, there are many things to like. This GT model has very heavy steering for the class, but it alludes to the sportiness, and it is sporty. The Dart GT takes a corner well, handling flatly and confidently. Outward visibility is pretty good despite the rising beltline, and the blind-spot monitoring, cross traffic alert, and parking sensors are handy. The top-spec 2.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder engine makes a pleasant and surprisingly deep burble, though it turns to a bit of a drone as the revs rise. Performance is class-competitive, falling right in the middle of things. Sixty mph arrives from a halt in 8.7 seconds, and the GT will stop from that same speed in a nearly class-leading 117 feet. The standing quarter mile is done in a competitive 16.6 seconds at 82.7 mph. It proves its GT-ness on our skidpad and figure-eight track with a segment-busting 0.85 average g of lateral grip, though it translates to an upper mid-pack total lap time of 27.4 seconds at 0.58 g average.
Unfortunately, behind the wheel is also where things start to fall down. The Dart GT’s most significant drawback is its brain-rattling ride. There’s precious little travel in this GT suspension, and you will be reminded of it with every bump, dip, crack, and hole in the road. Head-toss is almost constant, as is that shaking feeling in your gut. This isn’t sport sedan ride quality; it’s Viper ride quality. While it clearly pays back in handling, the last Dart I drove – a top-shelf Limited model – was an equally confident handler without the punishing ride, and its performance on the figure eight and skidpad wasn’t that far off the GT’s. Unless I lived at the end of a freshly paved and world-class driving road, I just couldn’t justify the GT’s marginally better handling with the price of that ride. The standard Dart isn’t a magic carpet ride, but it’s worlds better than this.
Then there’s the drivetrain. I can confidently say the six-speed automatic is a better gearbox in just about every driving situation than the dual-clutch transmission I sampled last time, but it’s not perfect. When you’re constantly on and off the throttle, particularly with light throttle inputs such as during commuting, the car bucks slightly as the drivetrain lashes against its mounts. Throttle tip-in is also extremely aggressive. If you use anything but a very gentle touch it’ll whip your head back against the headrest. The shifts, at least, are quick and crisp and well-timed. The brake pedal, for what it’s worth, is firm and linear in application but feels vague, as if you’re requesting stopping power rather than mechanically commanding it.
The engine, despite its burble and linear pull, isn’t especially refined and will make the whole car vibrate slightly at idle. You feel it most in the steering wheel and headrest. It’s also among the worst in the class when it comes to EPA-estimated fuel economy, at 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 26 mpg combined. Our RealMPG testing returned slightly better results of 24 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 27 mpg combined, but all those numbers are still behind the other cars we tested in the class.
There’s also the rear seat. Despite the Dart being larger and heavier than the rest of the class, its rear seat is on the small side. Thanks to the car’s width, there’s plenty of shoulder and hip room, but the leg room is adequate but disappointing compared to the competition. The middle rear seat has the least amount of headroom of the competition as well, thanks to an overhead console. The front seats, meanwhile, are wide and flat and clearly built for much larger Americans than I, and I’m no supermodel. Despite the side bolsters, I found myself sliding from side to side in them through every corner.
There’s also cost of ownership. Per our partners at IntelliChoice, this Dart GT’s five-year cost of ownership rings up to $36,639, a thousand dollars more than the closest competitor, the oft-maligned Volkswagen Jetta. Strong depreciation and higher fuel and maintenance costs are the primary contributors.
Then there are little things. The rearview camera is surprisingly low-resolution and grainy, so much so that it’s barely helpful at night. The raised casting line on the face of the injection-molded door handles looks like an oversight and is sharp enough to feel in the palm of your hand every time you open or close the door. The light-up “racetrack” circling the instrument cluster and infotainment system doesn’t light up directly above the steering column, which makes it look broken to my eyes, even though it isn’t. The hard plastic lower center console looks perfectly fine but occasionally bangs up my right knee. There was also a small dead spot in the steering wheel’s heating element at the 7 o’clock position.
Like Linus, I’m enticed by the promise of the Great Pumpkin. There’s so much to look forward to, but in the end, it doesn’t deliver. Cinderella’s beautiful coach reverts to a pumpkin after the ball. I wanted the coach to be real. But after the glitz wore off, what was left wasn’t what I’d hoped for.
The good news: Like Cinderella’s situation, this problem can be fixed should Prince Chrysler see fit.
|2014 Dodge Dart GT|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$25,125|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.4L/184-hp/171-lb-ft SOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3293 lb (62/38%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||183.9 x 72.0 x 57.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.6 sec @ 82.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||117 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||22/31/26 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||153/109 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.77 lb/mile|