Test Drive: 2016 Dodge Dart Blacktop

As honeymoons go, the Dodge Dart's sure didn't last long. Fiat-Chrysler's lovechild sedan burst onto the scene in 2012 amid great fanfare: It was the first Dodge-branded compact sedan since 2005 and was based on the same Fiat Compact platform as Alfa Romeo's Giuletta. As such it promised an engaged, European driving experience with plentiful North American conveniences, all at a sensible mainstream price. And it delivered too, although not always in a helpful manner.

It's arguably one of the best-looking compact sedans out there, in a conservatively sporty way (it looks like a miniaturized Chrysler 200, I reckon).

Take the initial 2013 model year launch, for instance: The first shipment of cars were all equipped with manual transmissions – very European, and quite awesome from an enthusiast point of view, but not what the average North American consumer was looking for. By the time the automatic-equipped cars starting arriving at dealerships a few weeks later much of the initial buzz had already faded, well before potential buyers had even gotten behind the wheel. "It wasn't the launch that I wanted," lamented Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne at the time.

Now, little more than three years later and amid continuing slow sales (2015 Dart sales ranked below the Mitsubishi Mirage in Canada) comes word that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will be discontinuing both the Dart and the Chrysler 200 after the 2017 model year, effectively abandoning the small- and medium-size sedan market altogether.

As Marchionne explained it, "one of the things that we have decided to do is to effectively de-focus – from a manufacturing standpoint in the U.S. – to de-focus on the passenger car market. There are two cars in particular, the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200, which will run their course," In their place, FCA will use the freed-up manufacturing capacity to churn out in-demand Jeep and Ram products.

All of which is rather a pity, because as I was reminded during a week behind the wheel of a Laser Blue Pearl-painted Blacktop edition, while the Dart may a bit bigger and softer than the Italian thoroughbred on which it's based, it's still a refreshing (albeit imperfect) change from the typical compact fare. It deserved better.

Part of the Dart's problem is simply a matter of market saturation: Sure, it's a decent little car in its own way, but decent isn't really enough when you're competing against segment heavyweights like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta and Ford Focus.

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The Dart simply doesn't stand out. It offers plenty of space for a compact (3,123 L of interior volume and a 371 L trunk) but it's hardly unique in that regard, with the Civic, Corolla and Elantra all similarly treading into midsize territory. It offers fairly sporty driving dynamics, too, but not in any way that surpasses the zippy and well-rounded Mazda3. Despite its European roots the Dart doesn't really play the Euro card as effectively as the Volkswagen Jetta (or Golf, for that matter), yet neither does it beat out the Chevrolet Cruze at feeling familiarly North American.

This doesn't mean the Dart lacks unique strengths: It's arguably one of the best-looking compact sedans out there, in a conservatively sporty way (it looks like a miniaturized Chrysler 200, I reckon). But those swoopy wedge-shaped lines extract a price in terms of poor rearward visibility and the need to duck quite low when using the rear doors. Forward visibility isn't stellar either thanks to the thick, swept-back A-pillars.

 

Back to strengths, the Dart also has absolutely the most rip-roaringly snorty engine note of any compact sedan. Tromp on the accelerator and the 184 hp, 175 lb-ft Tigershark 2.4L four-cylinder engine fitted to most models pulls plenty hard through the revs with a raspy exhaust note full of Italian gioia e fiuto, dispatching the 0-100 km/h run in a quick 8.5 seconds. My test car was equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, adding to the fun factor (a six-speed automatic is a $1,495 option).

But once again, there are caveats: the Dart's snorty little powerplant will surely plaster a smile on your face when you're out thrashing on it, but it can feel frustratingly unrefined when you're simply trying to get from A to B. Mostly this is due to a remarkably touchy and abrupt transition between on and off throttle, so your passengers' heads bobble back and forth whenever you change from deceleration to acceleration (I checked with the dealer in case this was simply a problem with my test car, and was told that there was nothing wrong with the tester and that it was indeed a characteristic of the engine).

Meanwhile, although the manual transmission does add to the fun factor when driving with enthusiasm, it's hard to recommend it overall because it has a numb-feeling clutch and long, vague shift throws that mute the joy to a considerable extent. They also conspire with the twitchy throttle to make it fiendishly difficult to shift smoothly during normal driving.

On the highway the Dart is relaxed and reasonably quiet (save for some tire noise transmitted into the cabin when running on textured asphalt), and in the corners it's pleasantly tossable and responsive. The suspension features MacPherson struts in the front and multilink setup in the back, and my test car got an added dose of handling prowess thanks to its optional touring suspension and rear stabilizer bar. The downside of these go-fast bits is that they gave my test car a decidedly stiff ride, with the payback being that they made it as entertaining to drive in the corners as in a straight line.

Fuel economy with my test cars's 2.4L engine and manual transmission is rated is rated at 10.5 / 6.7 L/100km (city/highway). I got closer to 11.5 L/100 km in the city thanks to my rather gung-ho driving style, while my highway numbers averaged in the mid-7s to low 8s.

Inside, the Dart is a bit of a mixed bag both in terms of design and materials. Overall it's functional and relatively pleasing to look at, with the notable exception of the steering wheel, which appears to have been sourced directly from the Grand Caravan minivan and which looks utterly out-of-place here, devoid of any style or sportiness. Couldn't we have had the wheel out of an Alfa Romeo instead?

Minivan steering wheel aside, there's stitched leatherette covering the instrument binnacle, armrests and console bin lid, and the upper dash pad is also soft-surfaced with a decent-looking urethane material. Elsewhere the interior is built of rigid plastics (as expected in this segment) with some painted brushed metallic-look trim at the door handles and dash vents, and a cool metal-look gearshift knob. A unique optional detail is some red plastic trim that surrounds the instrument binnacle (and audio control knobs) and glows at night, echoing Dodge's iconic "racetrack" taillight treatment.

Standard equipment in SXT trim (which is the entry level trim if you want the 2.4L engine) includes air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, security alarm, 60/40 split folding rear seats, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with Bluetooth connectivity and auxiliary input. My test car added to this with an upgraded 8.4-inch navigation-enabled touchscreen system featuring a USB input in lieu of the CD, iPod control, back-up camera, and the glowing "racetrack" instrument panel surround. Other options on my test car included the Cold Weather Package (heated seats and mirrors), Sirius Radio, and the special edition Blacktop Package.

The Blacktop Package is actually marketed as a distinct model on Dodge's Canadian web site, but essentially it's based on the SXT and adds most of the features of the Ralleye Appearance Group (which includes fog lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, blackout grille, dual exhaust and the previously-mentioned rear stabilizer bar and touring suspension), plus gloss-black mirrors and gloss-black 18-inch alloy wheels. Adding to these exterior goodies, my test car had the $835 Mopar Dual Exhaust Package which includes a rear air diffuser, front chin spoiler and black side sills.

Reading carefully through the test car's build sheet, however, is a bit of an exercise in bafflement and befuddlement, to the point that I imagine if Dart sales failed to live up to Dodge's expectations the confusing options packaging might just be part of the problem. For example, the test car's $350 Cold Weather Group includes "All-Season Continental brand tires," but its Blacktop package then added 18-inch wheels with "All-Season Yokohama brand tires," while the $750 Rallye Appearance Group that's included as part of the Blacktop Package already supposedly added 17-inch alloys with unspecified all-seasons.

The car itself was shod with the 18-inch Yokohamas, so the Blacktop package clearly took precedence, but when I went to the build feature on Dodge's website to try to confirm that you don't end up paying twice for the conflicting Ralleye and Blacktop alloys, I experienced more confusion: First off, I couldn't even find the Ralleye Appearance Group. Also, while the SXT-based Blacktop is marketed as a separate model, you can also get a GT-based Blacktop, but that's done by building a GT and adding the Blacktop Package.

Then there's the Cold Weather Package, which is listed at either $350 or $450 (depending on what model you're adding it to) but which requires you to also get either the $795 8.4-inch Uconnect Touchscreen Group or the $1,645 Sun & Sound Group. I'm guessing the connection here is that the Dart has no actual switches for the heated seats, so you need the bigger touchscreen in order to accommodate the seat heater controls, but for me that's just doubly annoying because I missed having real seat heater switches, which are much quicker and easier to use than virtual touchpoint selections. At any rate, the takeaway is that the packaging is just plain confusing, and it appears you need to spend at least $1,220 extra in order to get heated seats.

Happily, once settled into those seats you should be able to get decently comfortable. I found them a good fit for my average-sized 5'11' frame at any rate, although my hair was brushing the roof in the back seat (rear seat legroom is plentiful, however). Standard upholstery is a good-looking mesh type cloth, with leather a $1,525 option.

Also happily (and presuming you can get over the lack of real switches for things like seat heaters), the Uconnect system is excellent, being both responsive and intuitive to use. It's not without quirks however: if you attempt to turn both seat heaters on or off at once, the system responds as if you pressed the touchpoint in the middle, which turns the touchscreen off. Another ergonomic irritant is the twist-to-operate wiper control located on the end of the signal stalk: In a region where the precipitation is as constant, varied and rapidly-changing as Vancouver's, you can quickly tire of constantly taking your hand off the wheel to twiddle around with the wiper control. I did appreciate the big control knobs for the audio volume and tuning however, and I had no complaints regarding the powerful and clear-sounding six-speaker audio system.

Overall, at a starting price of $18,995 (before freight) for the base 2.0L SE model and running up to $25,995 for the range-topping Limited model the Dodge Dart isn't the North American Alfa Romeo that many enthusiasts were originally hoping for, but it is a roomy and practical compact sedan with an above-average dose of character and the ability to specify a manual transmission in all but the uppermost trim. If Dodge had been able to sell enough to justify a redesign (or even a significant refresh) it could have become something truly special. As it is, if you desire a well-equipped and sporty sedan with an entertaining personality (especially if you prefer one with a manual transmission) and you're willing to overlook a few foibles, then you might want to give the Dart a look while it's still on the market.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Cruze
Ford Focus
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Mazda3
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

2016 Dodge Dart Blacktop
articles_PricingType 2016 Dodge Dart Blacktop
Base Price $23,070
Optional Equipment $2,855 (Cold Weather Group $350, 8.4-inch Uconnect Touchscreen Group $795, Sirius Radio $350, Navigation $525, Mopar Dual Exhaust Package $835)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,745
Price as Tested $27,770
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.6
7 Interior
8 Fuel Economy
8 Exterior Styling
8 Performance
7 Comfort