Dodge put a great deal of thought into the naming of its new-for-2013 compact sedan.
Continuing to use the name of the Caliber, the model being replaced, was never an option; that hatchback penalty box was almost universally scorned, even by rental car companies. Nor was much thought given to resurrecting the googly-eyed Neon, though it was the last small Dodge to sell in significant numbers. Delving into the 1970s and '80s seemed pointless: Time's passing had not water-colored America's memories of the uninspired Aries K-car or the often-recalled Aspen compact.
Ultimately, the company reached back more than a third of a century to dust off a name -- Dart -- associated with success rather than failure.
The Dart nameplate first appeared on a highly praised 1956 concept car designed by Virgil Exner. The name was then applied to a range of Dodges in 1960-76, including, most notably, a line of compacts that acquired a reputation for being nearly indestructible.
"The Dart was one of the most successful compact cars ever introduced in the American automobile marketplace," R.D. McLaughlin, a Chrysler vice president for sales, said in the mid-1970s as the Aspen was elbowing it aside.
Today, however, Chrysler's starved-for-product Dodge division is so eager for a fresh start, and so desperate for a reboot in the compact sedan segment, that it turned to its European cousins for inspiration.
Under its new skin, and despite its red, white and blue name, the Dart is an Alfa Romeo at heart.
The car's basic structure comes from the much-admired Alfa Giulietta, the runner-up for 2011 Car of the Year honors in Europe. The chassis, suspension, electric power steering, engine, transmission and other driveline components are direct from the Fiat Group, parent of Alfa and the reborn Chrysler Group. A recently announced variant will be sold in China and other international markets as the Fiat Viaggio, and as many as a half-dozen other yet-to-be-announced models -- coupes, sedans, hatchbacks and crossover utilities -- may eventually use the same versatile platform.
The adaptability of this chassis, as well as its relatively low cost, is its core strength. By comparison, the Caliber rode on a Franken-chassis: part Mitsubishi Lancer, part Chrysler Sebring, part Jeep Patriot -- perhaps, for that matter, part Conestoga wagon.
But comparing the Caliber with the Dart is like comparing a scruffy mutt with a pampered best-of-show purebred. A more interesting comparison is between the Dart and the Giulietta. A fully equipped Giulietta costs Europeans about $42,000, whereas a Dart can be had for half as much. But the Dart, which in base trim is priced even more attractively at $16,790, does not feel cheap or dumbed-down; in fact, in back-to-back test drives, I preferred the Dart to the Giulietta overall. Dodge has scored a neat trick here, with an entry-level made-in-America compact sedan -- the Dart is assembled in Belvidere, Ill. -- that trumps a premium European sport hatchback.
Dodge engineers and designers seem to have retained the best of the Alfa, including precise steering and driving dynamics, while improving on features that may matter most to Americans, like comfort, roominess and utility.
The Dart is about a foot longer than the Giulietta and a bit wider. While the extra size -- pushing the boundaries of the compact class -- enhances its premium feel, there is little trade-off in added weight or reduced fuel economy. Comparably equipped, a Dart outweighs a Giulietta by 150 to 200 pounds.
In a mix of similar driving conditions, my average fuel economy in the Giulietta and in three variations of the Dart was in the mid-30-mpg range.
On my best tankful, in a Dart with the optional turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder, I averaged 37 mpg in a combination of city stop-and-go and 80 mph freeway driving (legal in Utah). An Aero trim package, to be available in the fall, is expected to lift the Dart's highway mileage to 41 or 42 mpg.
The potent MultiAir, which is also offered in the zippy Fiat 500 Abarth, makes 160 horsepower, with 184 pound-feet of torque, and it helps the rather large Dart feel robust both around town and on the highway. The EPA rating for this engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission, is 27 in the city, 39 on the highway -- impressive figures for a car that weighs around 3,200 pounds.
The standard engine, the 2-liter Tigershark in-line 4, is a Chrysler design that breathes without turbo assistance while developing the same 160 horsepower as the MultiAir (but only 148 pound-feet of peak torque). The Tigershark carries a federal mileage rating of 25 city, 36 highway.
Another four-cylinder engine will make its debut later this year in the sporty Dart R/T: a 2.4-liter MultiAir 2 Tigershark rated at 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. But I would still check the box for the marvelous 1.4 MultiAir.The little Italian turbo motor is best matched to the ideally geared, entirely satisfying six-speed manual transmission, a reminder that the many Americans who don't know how to shift manually are depriving themselves of automotive enjoyment. Still, the optional six-speed automatic is an adequate alternative. A sporty dual-clutch transmission will be a future option -- though, oddly, not on the R/T.
In keeping with the Dart's Italian ancestry, the packaging engineers deserve a nod for offering more flavors than a gelateria. Twelve exterior colors are available, including retro-sounding paint hues like Header Orange and Citrus Peel; to enliven the interior, 14 color and trim combinations will be offered. Typically, buyers of compact sedans must cover their eyes and choose among a few sleep-inducing shades of gray and beige.
Though the Dart looks distinctively European, despite a dose of Dodge-style aggression -- with a long, wide hood, crossbar grille and up to 18-inch wheels and tires, it shares no exterior body or interior trim panels with the Giulietta. The only obviously shared part is the knob on the manual shifter.
The Dart is offered in four trim levels, the SE, SXT, Rallye and Limited, with the R/T to arrive in the fall. There are options galore, many of them premium features atypical of economy cars, including a backup camera, blind-spot and rear cross-path warning systems, heated steering wheel, heated leather seats and a multimedia command center and navigation system.
The price of a fully equipped Limited approaches $27,000, and a loaded R/T will be about the same.
A Garmin-based navigation system with real-time traffic and satellite radio can be added to models that have the UConnect multimedia center. The system, with its simplistic graphics, limited display and cryptic menus, is not my favorite. But it is still better than the one offered in Europe on the Giulietta.
My complaints about the Dart include the front seats, which look better than they feel. The front passenger sits atop a hidden storage compartment, a clever idea that unfortunately results in a thin and uncomfortable seat cushion.
The electric power steering, which I found to be excellent, may be too precise and sporty for some U.S. drivers. The Dart is afflicted by a bit more road noise and vibration than the Giuletta, but I noticed that only when driving the cars back-to-back.
I was pleasantly surprised that the front-drive Dart exhibited little or no torque steer -- a sideways tug of the driving wheels -- when accelerating.
Nor was there appreciable understeer -- a tendency to plow ahead, rather than turn -- when cornering. While the Giulietta's chassis uses steel subframes, the Dart is equipped instead with weight-saving die-cast aluminum subframes that are bolted to the steel unibody for greater rigidity.
The Dart is surprisingly agile through the most diabolical corners and pavement changes. One supposes that if you're descended from the Italians, with their winding, narrow, angina-inducing roads, this sort of agility must be in your genes. Even on wet pavement, the Darts I drove had tenacious grip.
It is no exaggeration to say that cars like the Dart, Giulietta and Viaggio are vitally important to the Fiat Group's well-being. These are strong new products in a class neglected too long by Fiat and Chrysler. In the U.S. market, where the new Ford Focus is setting a high standard for style, comfort and road manners, and with rivals like the Hyundai Elantra coming on strong, the Dart seems a worthy challenger.