Automobiles, Motorcycles and Libertarian Politics
The original (’70s-era) Dart, I mean.
They were as durable as the pyramids. Well, the famous Slant Six” engine was. The bodies tended to rust away long before that inline six gave up the ghost. That’s the main reason you don’t see many original Darts anymore.
But back in the day, people loved ‘em – and Dodge sold millions of them.
This new Dart? Not so much. Sales have been way below what was anticipated – what Chrysler (uh, Fiat) had hoped for.
Not because it’s a crappy car.
The problem for Dodge (and for its Fiat owners) is that – unlike the original Dart – this new one doesn’t stand out in any particular way. It is too much like too many others. But those others (Corolla, Civic, etc.) have established followings and a loyal buyer base.
The Dart does not. It’s been a long time since 1976 – the last year the original Dart was sold new.
People who remember the original see nothing in the new to make them recall the good ol’ days (like the New VW Beetle does) and besides, people who remember the original Dart are mostly in their 40s and up now – and not really the new Dart’s target audience.
To woo the first-time buyers and 20-somethings who are the bread and butter of the compact economy car market, you need to do more than resurrect a successful name from the past.
The Dart has a really nice (though optional) super-sized touchscreen – the same basic unit you’ll find in higher-dollar Chryslers like the 300 – and a large trunk (13 cubic feet) for a small car and isn’t objectionable in any way. But it sorely needs something like an available diesel engine (which Fiat has in inventory) that would give it 50 MPG capability and the can’t-kill-it-longevity of the venerable Slant Six.
Or – how about an R/T version to go heads-up against the Honda Civic Si?
Then it’d be a worthy inheritor of the name.
And would almost certainly sell much better than it has so far.
WHAT IT IS
Prices start at $16,495 for the base SE with 2.0 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission and crest at $23,795 for a top-of-the-line Limited with 2.4 liter engine and six-speed automated manual transmission.
In between are SXT and sporty GT trims, as well as an economy-focused Aero Dart that features a Fiat-sourced 1.4 liter turbocharged “Multi-Air” engine capable of delivering 41 MPG on the highway. This version of the Dart stickers for $20,495.
The Dart’s electronics have been updated (Android smartphone/music streaming compatibility) but if you want an old-timey CD player, it’s extra-cost now. On the other hand, the more powerful 2.4 liter engine is no longer exclusive to the sport-oriented GT; it’s now the standard engine in the SXT and Limited, too.
Unfortunately, the high-performance R/T version of the Dart that Dodge teased us with a few years back is still just a “concept” car and may never be offered for sale.
Low base price relative to rivals; better odds of being able to haggle it down vs. a Toyota or Honda.
41 MPG capable.
You don’t sit down low in the thing, bathtub-style.
You can rest your left arm on the top of the door frame when the window’s down.
Exceptionally easy-to-use electronics. Best in class.
Strong on paper engines.
Manual or automatic transmissions available with all three engines.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
41 MPG capable … with extra-cost engine. Standard engine’s mileage (24/34 with the automatic) is a bit less than par for the class.
Under-par acceleration with standard engine(10 seconds to 60 with the optional automatic) due to fatbody curb weight.
No diesel engine option.
The Dart does offer pretty much the widest range of engines in this class – three vs. the typical two (or just the one, as in the case of the ’15 Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic) as well as the choice to go manual or automatic with any of them.
The standard-issue engine is a 2.0 liter, 160 hp four paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automated manual. On paper, this comes off as superior equipment relative to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla – which come standard (respectively) with a 1.8 liter, 143 hp engine (paired with a five-speed manual) and a 1.8 liter, 132 hp four (comes paired with a six-speed manual but the optional automatic has just four speeds).
But the less-potent-on-paper Civic and Corolla are both quicker and more fuel efficient – because they’re several hundred pounds lighter than the Dodge: 2,754 and 2,820 lbs, respectively – vs. an appalling portly 3,297 lbs. for the Dart.
This “compact” sedan weighs more than an Accord mid-sized sedan (3,192 lbs.).
Hence its thirst: 24 city, 34 highway with the doggy six-speed automatic (more on that below), though you can get that up to 25 city, 36 highway if you stick with the standard six-speed manual. Either way, though, 0-60 acceleration lags behind others in this class: Expect a 10 second run with the automatic – significantly slower than automatic-equipped rivals like the Mazda3, which gets there in about 8.3 seconds and also manages 30 city, 41 highway. You’ll get to 60 about half a second sooner with the manual.
If the Dodge weighed 300 pounds less, it’d probably be the quickest car in the class – and deliver class-leading mileage, too.
Higher trims (SXT, GT and Limited) counteract the curb weight with more engine – a larger 2.4 liter four that makes 184 hp – much more hp than is available in the Corolla and exactly even with the Mazda3’s optional 2.5 liter, 184 hp engine. On the plus side, it’s available with either the six-speed stick or the six-speed automated manual and the zero to 60 time is reduced to a more class-credible 8.2-8.3 seconds. An even bigger plus is that the EPA numbers for this engine (23 city, 35 highway) are almost as good as the base 2.0 engine’s. Probably because it’s not working as hard to haul all that weight around.
If you want maximum mileage, you can order your Dart with a Fiat-sourced 1.4 liter turbocharged four. There’s on-demand power (160 hp) via the turbo but when the engine’s not on boost, there’s less engine to feed. Hence the EPA rated 28 city, 41 highway (with the manual; mileage declines slightly to 28/40 if you go with the six-speed automatic).
Unfortunately, this version of the Dart – the Aero – will cost you $4k more than the base SE Dart. It’s also about $1,530 more than the ECO version of the Toyota Corolla ($18,965) which can deliver as much as 30 city, 42 highway.
So many new cars are so fundamentally alike it is sometimes as challenging as doing differential equations to come up with any meaningful differences to write about.
Which is why it was something of a relief to notice right away the pleasantly retro seating position you find inside the Dart. The door tops are low – and the seats themselves mounted pretty high – the net effect being you can rest your left arm on the top of the driver’s side door when the window’s down – perfect for summer-time one-hand-on-the-wheel cruising. I haven’t been able to do that in a modern car since I began reviewing modern cars more than 20 years ago. Most manufacturers build their cars with doors that almost seem to come up to the roofline, so that you feel you’re sitting in a bathtub. This is probably marvelous for side-impact crashworthiness, but it makes the car – especially if it is a small car – feel claustrophobic.
You also won’t feel much in the way of g forces when you accelerate – at least not with the base 2.0 engine and especially not when the base 2.0 engine is teamed up with the six-speed automatic. Given the much better performance – and nearly the same mileage numbers – you get with the larger 2.4 liter engine, it’s probably the engine you’ll want to go with. Also because it doesn’t have to work as hard to get the Dart’s 3,000-plus pounds of deadweight going – which may mean it lasts longer than the constantly struggling 2.0 engine.
The Aero Dart’s 1.4 engine give you mileage and performance – but its price premium makes it hard to justify buying relative to the mileage/performance you can get elsewhere for less.
While the extra beef does dial back what the Dart would otherwise be capable of both performance-wise and economy-wise, it also endows the car with the heft – the plantedness – of a larger car. Light is good when it comes to many things, but it can also result in a car that bounces a bit more when it hits a ripple in the road – and which is more susceptible to being pushed around by a strong crosswinds. The extra couple or three hundred pounds – along with an Italian-tuned suspension – make the Dart a very pleasant (because bigger-feeling) car to drive.
Kudos also are due the very good sight lines ( a function of the higher-up seating position) and the secondary controls – especially the optional eight-inch touchscreen, which has large buttons that are much easier to touch accurately with the vehicle in motion and one hand on the wheel.
The Dart’s tail has Challenger/Charger-esque wraparound tail-lights and a cleanly integrated trunk spoiler lip that bleeds off from the bone lines that run down the car’s flanks. Fatty pressed oval exhaust tips (GT models) add a further sporty touch.
The nosepiece has the Chrysler crossbar in a recessed (and narrow at the top) grille that wide-mouths as it descends to the lower valance – offset on either side by bullet-point driving lights. I think the car looks best from this angle.
But it also looks good from any angle – even if the side profile is something of a letdown, but only because it’s so shy relative to the front and rear clip treatments.
Big breadbox-style dash, into which is fitted the main gauge cluster in front of the driver and then, a bit down and to the right, the iPad-like flat screen for the secondary systems and their controls. Surrounding this is a thin belt of contrast-color LED piping that glows cheerfully at night. Another clever touch: The seat cushions hide storage cubbies. Just pull up on the little tab at the back.
More needs to said about the touchscreen interface – about how good it is. It’s the best such system I’ve encountered in any new car to date – irrespective of price. The size of the screen alone (8.4 inches) is helpful, because the touch-icons are not scrunched down to Chiclet-sized and hunkered together into a too-small space.You can clearly see each one at a glance – and use each one without accidentally using another one. I generally hate these electronic interfaces – because they almost always make simple tasks such as changing the radio station or adjusting the AC more difficult than mechanical dials and buttons, all for the sake of looking “high tech.” But this system is both high-tech and can’t be faulted, ergonomically. The only thing I would fear – as a potential buyer – is the potential repair/replacement cost of the screen and whatever’s behind it eight or ten years down the road from now.
Of course, that’s just as true for other cars equipped with similar system… which is pretty much all of them.
I mentioned the Dart is heavier than other cars in this class. It’s also a little bigger than other cars in this class. At 183.9 inches bumper-to-bumper, it is six inches longer over than a Honda Civic sedan (177.9. inches), 3.9 inches longer than a Mazda3 sedan (180.3 inches) and 1.3 inches longer than the Toyota Corolla (182.6 inches).
The Dart also has a bigger car’s wheelbase – 106.4 inches – vs.103.2 for the Civic (the Corolla and Mazda3 are closer at 106.3 inches each). However, the Dart comes up way short – relative to the amazing (in this respect) Corolla when it comes to second row legroom. The Toyota has an incredible 41.2 inches of it – comparable to a Mercedes S Class or BMW 7 full-sized luxury car in terms of spreadin’ out space – while the Dart is way back there, with 35.2 inches of second row legroom. But the Corolla’s anomalous – far better thanothers in this class, second row-legroom-wise. The Dart’s backseats are just as roomy as those in the Mazda3 (35.8 inches) and nearly as room as those in the Honda Civic (36.2 inches).
The Dart has a good-sized (13.1 cubic foot) trunk, which is large for a small car. The Mazda3 sedan’s truck is 12.4 cubes; the Honda Civic sedan’s 12. 5 cubes.
It’s ridiculous that the 2015 Dart – a compact-sized FWD car with an aluminum four-cylinder engine – weighs several hundred pounds more than a RWD (and mid-sized) ’76 Dart with a cast iron slant six engine. If it weighed a more class-appropriate 2,700 lbs. instead of almost 3,200 lbs., the new Dart would probably be capable of 45 MPG with the 1.4 liter Fiat-sourced engine.
And if it had a diesel engine… .
But, don’t blame Fiat – which like every other automaker has diesels in inventory and sells them widely everywhere except here.
Because of Uncle.
Washington has made it both costly and difficult to “certify” diesel engines for sale in passenger cars, which is why there are so few of them available. And the few that are available (VW Golf TDI, for example) don’t deliver mileage that’s spectacularly better than many current gas engines do – and meanwhile, diesel fuel costs about 50 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded. Which makes it hard to justify buying them – which is why so few car companies offer them.
It’s shame, though. If the Dart weighed less – and if Uncle relaxed just a little bit – a car like the Dart with a small turbo-diesel engine would probably give you 55 on the highway and the thing would outlast you, probably.
Kind of like the original Dart.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not a bad choice – or a bad car. The problem for Fiat is there lots of other choices.
And some of them are better.
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