Dodge loads Dart compact with features
Chrysler threw in some of what Louisiana natives call lagniappe to sweeten the deal and get customers to try the automaker's first compact sedan in years, the 2013 Dodge Dart.
Lagniappe - pronounced "lon-yop"- is a little extra, something on the side to make sure the customer is happy.
The Dart heaps on features you don't expect in a compact car, including some no competitor offers.
The Dart rolls into showrooms next month with cushy materials, sculpted seats, electronic blind-spot alert, and sporty handling and performance.
Consider the deal sweetened. Despite a few shortcomings, the 2013 Dodge Dart's value and features make it a strong competitor for compacts like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.
Prices for the Dart start at $15,995 for a base model with a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic adds $1,100.
A turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder is another option. That engine combines good fuel economy and spirited performance, thanks to 184-pound-feet of torque available from 2,500 to 4,000 engine rpm.
The 1.4-liter comes with a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission will be available with the engine in the third quarter. The $22,495 Dart R/T will have a 184-horsepower 2.4-liter and six-speed manual or automatic when it goes on sale in the third quarter.
I tested a very well-equipped $25,160 Dart Limited. It had the 1.4-liter turbo, manual gearbox, touch screen controls, navigation, leather upholstery and more. All prices exclude destination charges.
The 2013 Dart is the first car jointly developed by Chrysler and Fiat, the Italian automaker that gained control of the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker during the recession.
Fiat provided Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep with platforms, engines and technology to build fuel-efficient small cars and crossovers in exchange for a controlling stake in Chrysler.
Chrysler engineers and designers reworked the platform Fiat developed for the sporty little Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback to create the Dart. Chrysler designers crafted the Dart's interior and exterior designs specifically for American tastes.
I drove a Dart Limited from Chrysler's introduction of the car in Austin, Texas, where I rode with the Dart's engineers and designers, to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. I covered well more than 600 miles from the Texas hill country's sweeping curves to Houston's superhighways and New Orleans' rough surface streets.
The car is roomy and comfortable. The 97.2-cubic-foot passenger compartment is bigger than the competitors', with plenty of head, shoulder and legroom. The 13.1-cubic-foot trunk is useful. The Cruze, Focus, Elantra and Jetta offer more room.
Interior storage includes a cavernous glove box, bins and map pockets.
The interior materials are mostly excellent. Soft-touch padded plastics with attractive finishes cover the dash, arm rests and the top of the doors in most models.
The doors' lower surfaces, around the map pockets, have a hard surface and unattractive look. The sculpted leather seats of the car I tested were comfortable and attractive. The thick leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels solid and sporty.
Chrysler's steering-wheel-mounted controls for cruise, voice recognition, phone and audio are among the best in the auto industry. The rest of the controls are equally easy to use.
The dials and buttons in the center stack and the 8.4-inch touch screen in the car I tested performed well, as did its voice-recognition for phone, audio and navigation.
The navigation voice-recognition had a small glitch when I dictated one address, but worked fine otherwise. You can configure the Dart's LED gauge cluster to a variety of formats. The display is as sharp as high-definition television.
There's not much wind noise. Road noise from rough surfaces was quite noticeable in fast driving, however.
The car negotiated fast curves well, but the ride got bumpy on rough pavement. The electric power steering provides good feedback and assist at all speeds.
The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has surprising power. There's not much low-rpm torque, but performance is good and passing is easy for anybody willing to rev the engine and shift the smooth six-speed fast and frequently.
Fuel economy is good: an EPA-rated 27 mpg city, 39 highway and 32 in combined driving. An upcoming Aero model will use special tires and lightweight parts to hit 41 mpg or more on the EPA highway test.
However, the 1.4-liter turbo uses premium fuel. The Dart's other engines use regular.
The Dart's main competitors run on less-expensive regular. That means the Dart's annual fuel bill will be about the same as less fuel-efficient models of the Focus, Corolla and Cruze, and more than the Civic, despite the Dart's higher mpg. The Elantra's annual fuel cost also undercuts the Dart. The 2.0-liter Sentra and 2.5-liter Jetta will cost more.
The Dart's also a heavy car. The 3,191-pound curb weight of the one I drove is 180 to 485 pounds more than its competitors. While the Dart's weight is partly due to its many features, like 10 standard air bags, Chrysler might have won outright fuel-economy and performance leadership with a lighter car.
Those flaws keep the 2013 Dart from scoring a clean bull's-eye, but the value, features, performance and room of Dodge's new compact are on-target enough to win lots of happy owners and make the competition uneasy.
Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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