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2013 Dodge Dart hits the bull’s-eye

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2013 Dodge Dart hits the bull’s-eye

The Dart drives more like a small sport sedan than an economy car.

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POSTED October 31, 2012 6:01 p.m.

Dodge may have just hit the bull's-eye with its Dart.

This compact sedan is the first offspring from Chrysler LLC?s partnership with Fiat, and the Dart has a modified foundation from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

There is much, well-established competition in this front-wheel drive segment, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla and VW Jetta. But bringing a Dart to a knife fight has its advantages -- like range of choices.

The 2013 Dart is sold in five trim levels with three four-cylinder engine choices, three transmissions, 12 paint colors and 14 interior color and trim combos. And there are 150-plus Mopar accessories, including 3G Internet connectivity and wireless charging for phones and other devices.

Starting prices range from $16,790, including the $795 freight charge from Belvidere, Ill., to $23,290 for the R/T with 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter Tigershark engine, leather and 18-inch wheels. But the R/T won?t be available till later in the year.

The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder and optional turbocharged 1.4-liter each have 160 horsepower, but the turbo trumps with torque at 184 foot-pounds from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm versus 148 foot-pounds at 4,600 rpm in the standard engine. Torque is the difference between fun and functional.

All the engines run on 87 octane fuel, but the turbo gets peak power from premium. The standard engine with six-speed manual transmission gets 25 mpg city and 36 highway. The turbo manual is rated 27/39 city/highway.

The base SE model is plain in appearance, but all Darts have such standard equipment as 10 air bags, projector headlights and LED taillights, power windows, disc brakes, visors with mirrors, four-speaker audio system with digital audio input and denim seat fabric. A six-speed automatic transmission would add $1,100.

The Limited test car had a starting price of $20,790 and was $23,875 with what has to be almost fully loaded with factory options. Among the extras were the 140-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter engine ($1,300) and polished, 17-inch alloy wheels. The Premium group, $895, added such niceties as leather, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel.

Chrysler's Uconnect system, $495, may be the smartest and intuitive system for linking audio connections, navigation, car controls and a hands-free phone connection. The system also can read text messages and offers a series of canned replies, such as Yes, No, Stuck in Traffic, Call You Later and about a dozen more. These prompts aren?t anymore ?distracting? than an annoying back-seat driver.

A six-speed automatic is available for models with 2.0 and 2.4-liter engines and the turbo 1.4-liter can be optioned with a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (automatic).

The turbo has surprising grit and druzzle to the exhaust note that blares through two large chrome tips. Power can be quite sharp when the turbo is spooled and the engine is pulling from its peak torque range of 2,500 to 4,000 rpm. But until the revs catch up to that power band, the launch force feels like a small-displacement engine pulling a 3,200-pound car. Perhaps the automatic gives quicker responses.

The manual has good gearing and range in second, third and fourth for around-town energy. The gear changes have smooth engagement but it?s slow getting into second from first. And a hill-holder function gives secure start-offs.

Handling under pressure is good but sometimes the suspension gives clunky, head-tossing heaves when pulling into driveways or hitting rough road. And ambient noise is noticeable at highway speeds.

Interior function and controls are wonderfully simple and easy. The front seats in the Limited were full bodied, almost plump and comfortable. The front passenger seat bottom is hinged to conceal a clever hiding spot. On bright days, there is noticeable glare in the lower portion of the windshield reflecting the top of the dash.

There is a lot of plastic throughout the cabin, which gets nicely disguised with creative graining and patterns. There also is good use of soft-touch materials and well-padded armrests. The higher end models get some leather inserts, ambient lighting and metallic trim pieces that work quite well to create an uplevel environment.

The back seat is raised with has a comfortable seatback angle and a fold-down armrest with storage. The trunk appears more generous in functional space that its 13 cubic-foot dimensions, plus the seatbacks have a 60/40 fold and there is a ski pass-through.

Whether the engineering team spoke English or Italian, it is clear their enthusiasts? soul that gave Dart some driving attitude. The test car felt more like a small sport sedan than an economy car. It?s how all the elements -- suspension, transmission, steering and braking ? work together. And when it?s right, the driver smiles.

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