Test Drive: 2014 Dodge Dart

Capitalizing on their association with (and injection of Italian cash from) Fiat, Dodge has put together a compelling compact car package that targets a shopper unlikely to buy the “beige one” and drive it 15 under the speed limit in the fast lane. If you’re a bit young, a bit sporty and after something with a touch of attitude, the folks at Dodge (and Fiat) are hoping you’ll go for a Dart.

Under Dart’s sheetmetal and plastic skin, and between its signature racetrack LED taillamp and distinctive front fascia, it’s actually an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Sorta. It’s longer and wider – but based on the same internationally developed, celebrated and proven platform. That’s a good thing when it comes to ride comfort, chassis refinement and the like. And, since the Dart is Italian under the skin, you can tell your buddies it’s pretty much a Maserati.

The tested high-value SXT Rallye model was packed with plenty of the good stuff. The Rallye (pronounced ‘Rally”) package adds dual exhausts, a touring calibrated suspension, sexy alloy wheels and fog lamps for an active and street-smart look that’s distinguishing enough not to get lost in the Sears parking lot amidst the sea of Corollas, Elantras and Civics.

Shoppers test-driving the Dart against competitors like those, and others, will likely notice one of the model’s biggest strengths when they first hop on board: the interior. The tester used sculpting, depth, contrast stitching and some striped seats towards a refreshingly upscale atmosphere backed up by decent materials selection, with soft, quality-feeling plastics dispatched to cover much of the cabin. The instruments are gorgeous, and there’s plenty of storage at hand to keep smaller items organized and out of the way. All said, Dart’s cabin pulls its weight strongly towards its appeal as an overall package.

Feature content helps, too. The tester got a potent 500-watt Alpine stereo for blasting music out of its sunroof, and the best navigation and infotainment system in the segment bolted to the centre of the dashboard. Notably, this central interface is vivid, modern and bright. More importantly, it reacts instantly to driver inputs – flicking through screens and controls and functions as fast as fingertips can dance around the screen. Touch, and it responds right now – rather than lagging like a Commodore 64 trying to play Doom 3D. And, that fantastic navitainment interface and the slick instruments are surrounded by a red light-pipe at night that really sets the cabin off while picking up the red accents elsewhere through the cabin.

It’s a refreshing departure from the crispy grey interiors of numerous competitors that feel like they’re made of melted down Yoplait containers. Dart is on the big side for a compact car too – so even individuals of generous height and girth who typically avoid salad should find it adequately spacious. Your writer is of roughly average Canadian proportion and noted no issues with headroom, kneeroom, legroom and the like.

All of that for the tester’s under $25,000 price tag, which can be dropped to just over $23,000 if drivers omit the $1,400 automatic transmission and self-shift via the standard six-speed stick.

And they should, on account of the Multiair Tigershark. That’s a wicked-awesome engine name if one ever existed, and the big-dog four-banger is now available in the Dart’s SXT trim grade for 2014. The big four makes 184 horsepower from 2.4 litres of displacement – far from mind-blowing specific output-- but running Fiat’s celebrated MultiAir technology means it’s all about how that power is delivered.

Multiair technology lives in the cylinder heads and transmits the action of the camshaft to the valves via oil pressure, rather than a mechanism. Each intake cam lobe drives a miniature oil pump which creates pressure that drives the associated valve. The pressurized oil for each valve is first routed through a solenoid which controls when and how much of that oil pressure is applied. So, engineers get unparalleled control over valve timing and lift, and the ability to control engine breathing on a valve-by-valve, stroke-by-stroke basis. Drivers get instant, on-demand torque when called upon, and the promise of more efficient cruising otherwise.

Even at fairly low revs without a downshift, the Multiair system alters breathing to create a quiet and refined slab of torque. Hammer down, and the system turns in even and linear pull to the 6,500 rpm redline. It’s smooth and virtually vibration-free from idle to redline too, even if the sound effects can be a little gruff.

Add in the smooth-as-silk six-speed automatic, and the brief throttle-cuts it summons between full-throttle upshifts for proper rev-matching, and you’ve got a pleasing, slick and nicely-behaved powertrain. Mileage on your writer’s watch landed at 10.2 L/100 km – a decent real-life figure considering the tester only had 1,300 kilometres on the clock, and considering the excessive use of the remote start due to extreme cold. Owners can expect this figure to drop once engine and gearbox break-in is complete.

The ride is similarly well done. The euro-derived suspension showed minimal sign of being overwhelmed by the frost-heaved crater fields that pass for roadways in my locale. Even on nasty surfaces, Dart’s suspension feels solid, together, and tough – not rattly and flimsy. When smooth roads pass beneath, the Rallye spec suspension enables a largely comfortable ride with a touch of springy tautness to keep body roll nicely in check. That’s backed by below-average levels of wind and road noise on board at speed, and a pleasingly progressive and clamped-on feel to the steering.

Complaints after some 1,200 kilometres with the Dart included the wiper stalk placement on the end of the turn signal lever – which is confusing and awkward. Further, there’s no grab handle in the trunk, which sucks in winter unless you like touching salt and dirt. Finally, the manual-mode on the automatic transmission executes driver-requested shifts slowly and after a notable delay, limiting the manual mode’s use for any sort of entertainment value.

Ultimately, shoppers in this market segment have options galore. Though Civic and Corolla may sell more units because of their established names and reputation, the Dodge Dart should appeal strongly to a shopper with a heavier focus on feature content, styling, ride quality and overall sporty bang-for-the-buck. Most should find it a good value on a car with good manners, a slick powertrain, few weaknesses and many strengths.

Competitors
Chevrolet Cruze
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Mazda 3
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Volkswagen Jetta

Crash Test Results:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): 5-Star
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS): Top Safety Pick

2014 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye
articles_PricingType 2014 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye
Base Price $18,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $26,505
Optional Equipment Cold Weather Group ($450), Sun/Sound Group ($2,295), Rallye Appearance Group ($750), 6-speed automatic ($1,400), UConnect Nav ($525), Compact Spare Tire ($295)
Optional Equipment