Dodge puts a finer point on its sporty compact
The marching orders for executing this midyear revamp of the Dart lineup appear to have roughly paraphrased Colin Chapman’s famous engineering directive: “Simplify and add lightness.” The marketing team has simplified the model roster and lightened the pricing, all with an eye to sharpening the brand’s sporting image. It’s a classic strategy often employed in the “autumn” of a model’s lifespan. The Dart was introduced in mid-2012 as a 2013 model, so its replacement could reasonably be anticipated in the next year or so. But that future was thrown into doubt in January when boss-man Sergio Marchionne announced that FCA would not be engineering and building replacements for the Dart or Chrysler 200. (He openly invited joint ventures and manufacturing partners to collaborate on a replacement, and indeed Magna might be in talks to do just that.)
But for now, the five Dart trim levels that started the 2016 model year have been culled to three, each of which gets its own unique engine. The former SE and SXT are replaced by an entry SXT Sport model powered by the 2.0-liter Tigershark engine still making 160 hp and 148 lb-ft. The turbocharged gas-mileage special Aero gives way to the zippier-sounding and -looking Turbo model motivated by the 1.4-liter MultiAir four cranking out 160 hp and 184 lb-ft. The always sporty GT ups its apparent verve quotient by becoming the GT Sport, still powered by a 184-hp, 174-lb-ft 2.4-liter Tigershark. Alas, the lux-oriented Limited range-topper is shelved, but anyone left pining for its visual tinsel can opt for a $695 USD Chrome package on SXT Sport models.
The SXT Sport and Turbo both start at $18,990 USD. The old SE was $1,000 USD cheaper, but the SXT Sport’s standard equipment list now includes $1,290 USD worth of formerly optional package items like air-conditioning, 16-inch aluminum wheels, active grille shutters, Uconnect hands-free calling, and a remote USB port. That Turbo base price marks a $3,100 USD discount relative to the outgoing Aero model—formerly the only variant to get the 1.4T engine. That looks like a super deal, but you should know that here the standard-equipment list has been severely pruned, and there’s no option for adding any of this equipment back: six-speaker audio, 8.4-inch touchscreen, park-view rear camera, and a tire-pressure monitoring display. Also note that the Aero’s optional six-speed, dual-dry-clutch transmission has been axed, leaving the six-speed manual as its sole offering. Hey, when the Dodge gang goes for a sports model, they go all in. The big-dog GT now opens at $21,990 USD, down $1,100 USD from before, but the standard wheel size drops from 18 inches to 17 inches (a $600 USD Blacktop package restores the 18-inchers), and the perforated-leather, heated front seats move off the standard equipment list and into a premium group that is $600 USD dearer than the former Tech group that included all its other goodies. So GT Sport pricing is pretty much a push.
I jumped at the chance to sample a Turbo and a GT Sport model while the memory of our latest compact-car Big Test was still fresh in my mind. Upon first settling into the driver’s seat, the Dart feels like a bigger car than its competitors, and it pretty much is on the outside, particularly in width. At 72 inches, it’s almost 2 inches wider than all seven of our recent comparison test cars, and its interior shoulder-room measurements are predictably superior. The front seat room is best in class, but with a wheelbase that’s only 0.1 inch longer than the others’ the rear legroom measures smallest in class. That makes the back seat best suited for three broad-shouldered, short-legged occupants. I like the distinctly American-looking exterior styling, with the “racetrack” taillamps—a look that is echoed on the instrument panel surround. Interior materials look and feel egregiously cheap in the Turbo, especially some highly pixelated instrument displays.
The little turbo engine feels a little flat until 3,000 rpm, after which you feel a rush of power that persists to redline. Shifting at redline keeps the engine operating in its power zone. The shifter ball knob feels rather too large, and the linkage is just slightly notchy, but acceleration felt quicker than all seven of our Big Test compacts. Indeed our last 1.4 turbo manual Dart hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, with the quarter falling in 16.2 seconds at 85.1 mph (137 km/h) —comfortably ahead of the 1.4-liter turbos in the Chevy Cruze and VW Jetta that led the pack in our test, giving some teeth to Dodge’s sportiness-champ market positioning. Of course the market for row-your-own compacts is probably fairly small. The car demonstrated admirably neutral dynamic handling behavior with pleasingly linear steering and brake actuation, good body-motion control, and minimal tire squeal on the handling circuit at Fiat Chrysler’s Chelsea proving grounds.
Jumping into the GT Sport, the ambiance feels far more upscale, with a stitched, leather-look dash upper, red accents and stitching, and modern, high-res instrument cluster and center console displays. The 2.4-liter, six-speed automatic drivetrain makes a lustier sound when you’re working it hard, though it trails the compact turbos in performance, and would have ranked third or fourth in our comparison field.
But underneath this Dart lies Alfa Giulietta architecture that dates to 2010 and is beginning to feel a tad elderly. Engine vibrations can be felt through the steering wheel, and tar strips and other road imperfections reverberate through the body structure a bit more than they do in the freshly minted compacts. So for now, it would seem that the biggest purchase motivation for this lame-duck Dart are its still fresh styling, overtly sporting looks, performance and dynamics, and killer value on the purchase price—though beware resale value at the other end of the ownership experience.