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Test drive: Dodge Dart

The Dodge Dart that most people remember was a V-8, rear-wheel drive, drag strip king that put fear into any driver who dared to cross its path. 
Of course, it also had an interior that could be rivaled by a Greyhound bus and put fear into many Dart drivers because its brakes worked about as good as a Roman Chariot’s. 
But the new Dart is related to the old one in name only. Instead, it is the first child of the Chrysler/Fiat marriage, and its half-brother is the front-wheel drive Alfa-Romeo Giulietta (Alfa-Romeo is owned by Fiat).
When I say half-brother, I mean it literally. When Dodge engineers where developing the Dart, they took a Giulietta and cut it in half. They then stretched and widened it to better fit the American physique.  
Because of its Alfa-Romeo heritage, the Dart is arguably one of the most attractive cars in its segment. The front starts with Dodge’s recognizable crosshair grille, which flows ever so gently over the fenders and to the sides. In the rear you’ll find the Charger-like “racetrack” taillights with 152 LED lights and a vintage-looking, chrome “DODGE” badge right in the center. Add in some gloss black accents and chrome tailpipes and you have what my photographer called a “very photogenic car.”
Sadly, the beautiful design of the exterior doesn’t flow inside where our test car was fitted with monotonous grey interior appropriately called Diesel Grey. It was about as exciting as the interior of an old Freightliner.
But a boring interior doesn’t necessarily mean a cheap interior. Dodge did a good job putting the right textures on plastic surfaces, and the cabin is about as quiet as your grandmother’s old Cadillac.
The front seats proved to be both supportive and comfortable, but the back seats, like most cars in this segment, seat you in a near 90 degree angle and would be miserable for anybody over 6 feet tall. 
Under the hood, you won’t find a 340 cu. in. V-8 but a turbocharged and intercooled 1.4-liter four cylinder good for 160-horsepower and 184 lb/ft of torque. The engine is an $1,800 option from the base 160-horsepower, 145 lb/ft of torque 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four cylinder and is a step down from the 180-horsepower, 171 lb/ft of torque turbocharged 2.4-liter four cylinder found on the R/T model.
The 1.4-liter engine seems to have dual personalities. When all 22 psi of boost pressure is built up in the turbocharger the Dart has effortless acceleration. However, keep it under 3,000 RPMs (especially in sixth gear) and you’ll give your right arm a workout from all the downshifting. 
Since you’ll be doing a lot of downshifting, it would be nice to know if the transmission is at least be fun to use. Unfortunately, the six-speed manual transmission has a sloppy and imprecise feeling with throws so long that my elbow hit the seat every time I shifted into second gear. However, there is a six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission that will be available in the near future that might be worth a try. 
Our test car equipped with the 1.3-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission managed the 60-mph sprint in eight seconds flat. While this is not too disappointing, it is a half second slower than the Ford Focus we tested last August.
 You can tell the engineers at Dodge took some time on the suspension, as it seems to have the best of both worlds. It absorbs bumps and potholes without much more than a shiver and can hold its own on a track with any of its competitors, with only a slight hint of understeer. 
But it is missing one important dimension: the fun-to-drive factor. While it handles just as well as the Ford Focus it just doesn’t have the same exhilarating, sporty feeling. After getting to the end of a tight, curvy road I just don’t have the urge to say, “let’s do that again!”
The base price of the Dodge Dart Rallye is $18,995 and comes standard with nice features such as 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, leather steering wheel and dual exhaust. Our test car came fully equipped with the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine ($1,800), GPS satellite navigation with rearview camera ($495), premium audio ($595), satellite radio ($195) and Bluetooth hands-free calling ($295). Add it all up and with our destination fee of $795 and the grand total comes to $22,670.
The bottom line for the Dart is that I wish it drove as nice as it looks. But this is Dodge’s/Fiat’s first entry into this segment and it was quite a start. I just hope that the guys at Dodge’s SRT division come up with an SRT-4 version. They can call it the Dart Demon.