If you're old enough to remember the Carter administration, the name may be familiar but that means you're beyond the target demographics for the Dart revival. A fixture at the entry end of the Dodge lineup from 1960 through 1976, the Dart was discontinued in 1977 and its badge went into mothballs, forgotten, but obviously not gone. Now it's been resuscitated, and affixed to this all-new line of compact sedans.
So the name is the same, and the new 2013 Dodge Dart occupies the same position in the Dodge passenger car hierarchy as the original. But the similarities end right there. The first car to incorporate engineering elements from corporate parent Fiat, the revival Dart is a contemporary front-drive compact facing a considerably stronger competitive environment than its 20th century namesake. Does it have the chops to be a compelling alternative to the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, and VW Jetta?
The answer is a definite maybe. Its styling is crisp, if not exactly head-turning, the structure is solid, the engineering credentials look good, and the number of equipment and trim choices exceptional.
Like other cars in the compact class, the Dart is aimed at young adults, primarily in their early to mid-20s, many of them married, many of them with young kids. The Dart makes a good case for itself with young parental types, thanks to an exceptionally roomy interior by compact sedan standards, and a respectable complement of standard safety features.
Basics. The Dodge Dart is as all-new as all-new gets in today's car business. Although fundamental elements of its unitbody foundations were adapted from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the snappy Italian hatchback, they've been stretched to accommodate the sedan body style: longer wheelbase, longer overall, wider track, wider body. The dimensional expansions are accompanied by structural enhancements; 68 percent of the bodyshell is composed of high-strength steel, according to the Dart development team, yielding a chassis that feels exceptionally solid.
Just as important, the Dart presents one of the broadest range of choices in its class: five trim levels, contemporary safety features, a dozen exterior colors, 14 interior trim variations, six different wheel designs ranging from 16 to 18 inches, four different grille treatments, three different four-cylinder engines (160-horsepower 2.0 liter, 160-horsepower 1.4-liter turbo, 184-horsepower 2.4-liter, limited to the R/T model), three different transmissions (6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 6-speed dual clutch automatic).
The Dart has a strong made-in-America story. Though some of the engines incorporate the innovative Multi-Air induction technology pioneered by Fiat, Chrysler's corporate parent, all three engines are assembled at Chrysler's Dundee, Michigan plant, and final vehicle assembly is at Chrysler's factory in Belvidere, Illinois.
Most important, the Dart stacks up well in today's two most critical considerations: MPG and MSRP. EPA fuel economy estimates range up to 41 mpg on the highway (for the yet-to-be-seen Aero model). Suggested retail pricing for the five trim levels opens at $15,995 and climbs to $19,995 for the Limited model. The sporty R/T version carries a $22,495 base price.
Demerits: just one. For all the emphasis on the weight-saving benefits of high-strength steel, the Darts are a little pudgy by compact standards. Listed curb weights start at 3186 pounds for a Dart 2.0-liter with manual gearbox and go as high as 3348 pounds for a model equipped with the 2.4-liter engine and automatic transmission.
It might also be noted that the wide array of models and trim packages could pose an assembly quality challenge for the Belvidere factory. But the cars presented at the Dart's press preview measured up well in this regard.