2013 Dodge Dart SXT first drive review: Point man

The three engines will be available with three transmission choices, a six-speed manual, six-speed automatic or six-speed dual dry clutch (DDCT) transmission, the latter with the 2.4-liter in the R/T. Good news do-it-yourself drivers, all models will be available with a manual transmission. The manual gearbox is part of a new family of Fiat developed transmissions, lighter and compact, and designed for quicker shifts and quieter operation.

2013 Dodge Dart SXT instrument panel

The 2013 Dodge Dart SXT has a dogleg instrument panel similar to that on the Dodge Charger. (click image to enlarge)

Front suspension is by MacPherson strut, with aluminum alloys for the knuckles and brake calipers and high-strength steels for the suspension linkages. The combination reduces unsprung weight for a more responsive and smooth-riding suspension. Dodge engineers tout bushing selection combined with the front aluminum cradle, rear upper/under body structure reinforcement and superior suspension attachment stiffness for both quiet operation and improved handling.

The suspension layout specifically took into consideration the flat bottom aerodynamics of the 2013 Dodge Dart, designed to match the aerodynamic shields that produce a smooth surface to reduce underbody turbulence.

At the rear, the Dart uses “bi-link” independent rear suspension designed for “European handling” and a smooth ride. An aluminum crossmember reduces weight and increases lateral stiffness and reaction to lateral loads. Aluminum, hollow for reduced weight, is also used for longitudinal arms in the rear suspension.

Read why this car must not fail

Electric power rack and pinion steering is standard, with assist variable with vehicle speed and integrated into the Dart’s standard stability control system.

Like the outside, the 2013 Dodge Dart passenger compartment shares Dodge interior design themes, with the instrument panel in a dogleg arrangement with the primary instruments ahead of the driver with a hole in what would be the center stack if it had a vertical arrangement for the radio or, if so equipped, the 8.4-inch touchscreen media center used in other Chrysler Group vehicles, significantly larger than any other screen in the class.

2013 Dodge Dart SXT back seat

The longer wheelbase on the 2013 Dodge Dart SXT allows a bigger back seat.

The 2013 Dart also has an optional 7-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) reconfigurable gauge cluster display that replaces the conventional needle-and-dial gauge layout and allows the selection and positioning of secondary information readouts.

Like the Mini and Fiat 500, the 2013 Dodge Dart is highly customizable, with 14 interior color and trim options in either cloth or leather that can be combined with 12 exterior colors—although there are combinations that Dodge will not allow. And the Dart will not be available with faux wood trim but rather splashes of color inside. While dealers will order cars for stock, Dodge is also encouraging custom ordering with a four-to-six week wait between order and delivery—can’t that be shorter?—along with the ability for the pending owners to track their new car’s progress via computer.

Of course, all that is for naught if the car isn’t worth driving…but Dodge has a winner in the Dart. The 2013 Dodge Dart’s look is aggressive and distinctive and definitely Charger’s little brother, not just another compact.

The Dart drives like it looks, too. We had first drives in a 2013 Dodge Dart SXT and Dart Limited, both with the six-speed manual but the SXT with the 2.0-liter Tigershark four and the Limited powered by the 1.4-liter MultiAir engine. We spent more time with the Dart SXT, however, and despite it being the model with the next-to-most-modest equipment level—above only the bargain basement Dart SE—it still had a quality feel with lots of soft touch surfaces. Knobs, buttons and switches have the right heft and resistance. The various noise insulation and control efforts paid off. Road noise is minimal and wind noise didn’t show up for work.

Steering was precise, well weighted with the right amount of feedback, and the Dart rode bigger than it is. Size matters with the different engines, however. The 2.0-liter provided acceptable acceleration through the gears if one is willing to wind it to redline. But the engine’s high rpm torque peak combined with the tall gearing—the tachometer showed revs not far about 2000 rpm at 70 mph—required downshifts from sixth gear to fourth to conquer even moderate inclines. Of course, one could drive it like a four speed and forget the downshift, but the tall overdrive fifth and sixth gears are a large part of the reason we saw 30 mpg while driving on roads in Texas Hill Country west of Austin. The 1.4-liter MultiAir didn’t require any downshifts on the same type of hills, however, a consideration for those who venture off the flatlands and prefer to stay in high gear. On the same types of roads, we recorded 31.7 mpg with the 2.0 and 26.5 mpg with the 1.4-liter MultiAir.

2013 Dodge Dart SXT rear

The taillight assembly of the 2013 Dodge Dart SXT deliberately imitates the Dodge Charger’s rear end. (click image to enlarge)

Fortunately the shift lever is a tactile delight and it wasn’t hard to find the next gear—or any gear, for that matter. Clutch take-up was smooth, as if someone had been studying up on how these things should be done. But for all of the things that came over from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, pedal placement wasn’t one of them. Most likely to placate lawyers, the brake and accelerator pedals are on a noticeably different plane and too far apart for a size nine to straddle the gap for sporty heel-and-toe downshifts.

Chrysler Group needs the 2013 Dodge Dart to be a success and by all rights it should be. It’s fun to drive and good to be seen in, and should be an authentic hoot to drive with the Dart R/T with the 2.4-liter engine arrives this fall. Dare we hope for an SRT version in the works?

In the meantime, the base Dodge Dart SE lists under $16,000, if just by five bucks, while the SXT has an asking price of $17,995. The sport trim Rallye goes for a grand more while Limited is another $1,000 up from that. The Dart R/T, which will come with sport suspension and more, will be priced at $22,495. Add another $795 for destination charges.

The Dodge Neon was cute and said, “Hi.” The Dodge Caliber was peculiar and said, “What?” The 2013 Dodge Dart is a slick piece of work and says, “Catch me if you can.”

The 2013 Dodge Dart is not the first Dodge to wear the name. Read more about the first Dart here.


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