New Dodge Wears an Old Name

2013 Dodge Dart.

As Chrysler has recovered from the auto industry meltdown of several years back, the company has offered up a lot of solid new products. The Chrysler brand has a new 300, Dodge got a revamped twin to it in the Charger, an all new Jeep Grand Cherokee debuted, and the Fiat brand was brought back to our shores with the cute little 500.

Where the company was still lacking was in the small sedan category. That one’s pretty hot right now, as buyers looking for value and fuel mileage are flocking to the new breed of competent 4-doors like the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic.

With Chrysler now part of Italian brand Fiat (which in turn owns other brands in Europe), it was somewhat easy to adapt an existing European model forU.S.consumption and give the Dodge brand its first small sedan since the Neon was discontinued in 2005. (It was replaced by the hatchback Caliber, which turned out to be a bit of a dud on many levels.)

So behold, the new Dodge Dart, going on sale in the next few weeks. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because for all of the 1960s and most of the ‘70s, the Dart was Dodge’s wildly popular economy car. Kind of like the VW Beetle and Ford Mustang, chances are that someone you know had a Dart at one point in years past.

But obviously the new Dart can’t be like the old one, due to both consumer taste and safety regulations. This 2013 example is thoroughly modern, and in European markets is sold as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The transformation into an American car was fairly easy and quick by modern auto industry standards, and Chrysler’sBelvidere,Illinoisfactory has been upgraded to build it.

The most prominent styling feature is the full-width taillight cluster, mimicking that of the larger Dodge Charger, with D-O-D-G-E spelled out in large chrome letters across the portion on the deck lid. (Unlike the Charger, however, the middle part doesn’t light up. It’s just a reflector for now.)

Up front, a version of Dodge’s current signature “crosshair” grill design, with a small badge in the corner. From the side, no clue at all as to what kind of car this is, save for a very small brand name in each wheel center. In a side view, it just looks kind of generic. Not bad or unattractive, but generic.

The interior is thoroughly modern and very roomy, which is important in this segment now. For the most part, compact cars these days have the same room that midsize models did just a generation or two ago.

Two touches are present which should be familiar to anyone who’s owned or driven a modern Chrysler product. Right in front of the driver is the corporate steering wheel, optionally fitted with controls for the audio system on its front and back. There’s also the large LCD display for the available uConnect system, with or without an optional Garmin navigation unit.

Engine choices are limited right now, with two four cylinder engines that are very European in character. (In other words, fuel efficient but lacking some of that “grunt” right off the line that American drivers might be used to.) The base power plant is a 2.0 liter which produces 160 horsepower, or there’s an optional turbocharged 1.4 that makes the same 160 but delivers a little more excitement and garners better fuel economy numbers of up to 39 mpg highway.

My test car was a Rallye trim example with the base engine mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. It felt a little pokey in traffic, since the car weighs around 3200 pounds and is geared for fuel economy. Still, the engine is very smooth and revs up nicely to its 6750 rpm redline, providing a nice exhaust note in the process.

Base price for an SE (base level) Dart is $15,995 and most buyers will likely choose a nicer trim level. The top trim Dart Limited with automatic transmission is just over $21,000, and various others with different trim and options will fall somewhere in the middle of those two prices.

This Dart is something Dodge needs right now, and customers will likely want. A smaller, sensible car that doesn’t cost much to buy or own. Kind of like the Dart from back in the day.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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