New Dodge Dart aiming for a bull’s-eye

MIDDLEBOROUGH, MA—When you throw a dart at a board, the object is to hit the bull’s-eye.That’s often much easier said than done.

The same holds true in the automotive world where Dodge is launching the 2013 Dart at the growing sweet spot that is the compact segment of the marketplace. Compacts have accounted for 15 percent of new-car sales in recent years, a number that’s grown to 17.6 percent in the first four months of 2012.

The Dart technically replaces the Caliber in the model lineup, but that vehicle was regarded as more of a crossover, meaning Dodge effectively hasn’t been a competitive player in the compact arena since the demise of the Neon in 2005.

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Dodge brought a half-dozen pre-production Darts as well as the vehicle’s chief engineer, Mike Merlo, and head of marketing Chad Robertson to town on June 12 to “introduce”the Dart to the New England Motor Press Association.

We had the opportunity to drive a smorgasbord of Darts equipped with combinations of two nowavailable engines—a 1.4-liter (160 horsepower) turbo and 2.0-liter (also 160 HP)—and both the sixspeed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions.

There is more to come later this year, including a 2.4-liter engine option and six-speed dual dry clutch automatic. Also coming are a 41 mpg highway-rated Aero version and performance-oriented R/T trim level.

“Car Guys”usually gravitate toward a turbo combined with a manual transmission, and that was the case here; however, the automatic seems to be an equally fine choice for daily driving. Its economy ratings with the 2.0-liter engine are 24 mpg (city)/34 (highway)/27 (combined). With a manual, the combined figure rises to 29. The turbo-manual combination number is 32 (and 39 on the highway).

Compact cars traditionally have competed with a triple-appeal of affordability, fuel economy and reliability.The Dart plays that field with a starting price of $16,790 (including destination), the coming 41 mpg Aero, and chief executive Sergio Marchionne’s world-class quality initiative—a company-wide mandate that seems to be producing results.

The Dart is an example of the industrywide trend towards“global”engineering. Merlo spoke of the collaboration with Alfa Romeo engineers and how the Dodge engineers modified the basic design, resulting in a vehicle that’s three inches longer and has a low, stable look.The US-built Dart will be marketed in 60 countries, mostly with US specifications.

Merlo described how the bulk of the underbody is covered by aerodynamic belly pans and that an automatic“shutter”system behind the front grille cuts drag by three to five percent on the highway. In addition, Dart adds available power, handling refinement, quietness, mid-sized cabin room, an array of standard and available safety features, a surprising amount of technology, and even Charger-like LED taillights (158 if you want to count them).

We found much to like at first drive:

• The basic car reflects its Alfa DNA, and the driving dynamics have a distinct European feel.

• The cabin is quiet, blocking engine and road noise.

• The available customizable gauge display is technically advanced but simple to use. Select digital or analog, then individualize where the information is displayed.

• Customization.This is a big Fiat marketing point in Italy and extends to the Dart, which Dodge foresees appealing to both the millennial generation and empty-nesters. Choose among 12 exterior colors, 14 interior color/trim options, six wheels and more. Dart is predicting a 50-day order-to-dealer delivery time frame.

• There’s a slick hidden storage bin under the passenger seat cushion.

• Navigation is by Garmin, a familiar technology to many consumers, and the 8.4-inch touchscreen display is the monitor for the rear back-up camera.There’s also available blind spot monitoring (showing an alert light in the side mirrors) and rear cross-traffic alert.

• Among the ambient lighting options is a“racetrack”display that surrounds the gauges and center stack in a shape similar to the rear taillight package.

Leather heated seats and a heated steering wheel also are among the options. Competition is tough in this division. The Dart will go against the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, andToyota Corolla.

A consideration is that when you start “loading up”a compact, you push the price up to the entry level vehicles in the midsized class; however,a mitigating factor here is that Dart is on the large end of the compact spectrum and seems to have made good use of the available space.

Though it’s rated as a five-passenger vehicle, only two good-sized adults fit comfortably in the rear. The trunk opening is wide, but not particularly high, which will limit some bulky items.A pass-through and folding rear seats help accommodate longer cargo.

Our first impression is that the new Dart will make Dodge a formidable player among compact cars and may even siphon some mid-sized shoppers.

The market will determine whether they’ve done even better and hit the bull’s-eye.