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2013 Dodge Dart Rallye and Limited First Drive

The 2013 Dodge Dart marks Chrysler's re-entry into the sedan market and it's gunning for the top spot.

What It Is
The 2013 Dodge Dart blends aggressive styling with a fuel-sipping powertrain in hopes of raising interest in anyone tired of the ever-rising fuel prices.

Best Thing
Just like its big brother, the Charger, the all-new Dart encompasses an interior filled with technology and other safety amenities. Its interior is library-quiet when rolling down the road at any speed and exterior styling is easy on the eyes too.

Worst Thing
The six-speed manual transmission found in the Dart Rallye leaves you wanting a little more "oomph" when climbing through the gears.

Snap Judgment
If a car with attention-grabbing exterior styling cues and an average fuel economy rating of 29 mpg combined are important to you, then the Dart is worth every penny. Still, if that doesn't sound appealing, move along, this isn't the sedan you're looking for.


The 2013 Dodge Dart is car-chase approved.

As we re-entered the city limits of Austin, Texas, after driving a variety of Dodge's new compact models, traffic began to look disturbingly familiar to our Los Angeles-attuned senses. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea. The Dart handled the grueling start-stop that traffic presents with ease, as the automatic gearbox hopped back and forth into the appropriate gears.

Then, as we waited to merge onto the major throughway at a red light, another driver came up behind us and ever-so-gently kissed our rear bumper. But instead of pulling over behind us after the light turned green, the other driver took off onto the Interstate before we could process what was going on. After a 10-minute chase down Interstate 290 -- with enough weaving through traffic to earn straight As from the local community college basket-making class -- we finally caught up to the perpetrator. After clearing up the "misunderstanding," we traded information and we were on our way to really giving the Dart back for the day.

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If first impressions mean anything, then the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart will have little trouble making its predecessor, the Dodge Caliber, quickly forgotten. Usually when an all-new vehicle is introduced into the market, its initial encounter with the media consists of a quaint drive-route that usually starts in a city or town, and takes drivers out into a pretty countryside. The launch of the Dart was no different for the most part, as Dodge hosted the media in Austin, Texas, to test out its latest sedan. Our drive began in downtown Austin and took us out into the rolling country-side that featured more cattle than people per square-mile.

However, were the only ones who got to have a car chase.

By the end of the day, we didn't even need a car chase to tell us that the Dart is for real. The compact sedan market is currently ruled by heavyweights like the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and the up-and-comer Chevrolet Cruze. The 2013 Dodge Dart is the Chrysler Group's first competitive, inexpensive, fuel-sipping, sharply styled compact sedan in quite a few years, and it looks to put all of those in its rear-view mirror quickly.

Walkaround

Thanks to Dodge's signature "racetrack" taillights and its cross-hair front grille, it's easy to see that the Dart welcomes attention. Depending on the model selected, the Dart's front-end is either draped in a blacked-out cross-hair grille, or a bumper that instead dissects the sedan's nose. This aggressive styling helps to separate itself from the competition and draw people in for a closer look. The all-new Dart is also a customizer's dream as Dodge offers 12 exterior colors, six different wheel packages, and a Dart model for virtually any taste. A noteworthy feature found on the Dart's exterior includes Active Grille Shutters found under the front bumper. AGS won't be a part of every Dart model available but its standard on higher trim levels and available as part of the aerodynamic package on others.

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For a starting price of $15,995 -- excluding a $795 destination fee -- the Dart trails only the Civic and Elantra base prices. Even then, while the Elantra has a $655 edge, the Civic is only $45 cheaper. However, neither the base Civic nor Elantra include a reconfigurable gauge cluster display, nor do they offer the wide variety of available customizations like the Dart does. When the 2013 Dodge Dart does come to market, it will be available in four models: SE, SXT, Rallye, and Limited. An R/T trim will be available sometime this fall.

Sitting Down

It takes mere seconds to see that instead of reinventing the wheel, Dodge took its highly-touted interior from the Charger and just shrunk it down to fit into the Dart. The Dart's insides feature a "driver-centric" layout with all of the necessary controls in easy reach of the driver. The star of the interior show is the Dart's 7-inch Thin Film Transistor reconfigurable gauge cluster display. The TFT looks like a blank screen flanked by two instrument cluster needles pointing to nothing when you first hop in, but as soon as the vehicle is started, the screen and analog instruments come to life. The only other vehicle in the Chrysler Group's lineup to have this feature include the all-new SRT Viper. The 8.4-inch media center also found in the Charger makes its way to the Dart, and it's the largest touchscreen in its class. The lower-end SE, SXT and Rallye models offer quality materials inside, but it's the Limited that has the nicest interior. Denim or leather wrapped, the seats are available depending on the model selected are present and the steering wheel also receives the leather treatment in the Limited trim and up. The SE trim gets cloth seats while the SXT, Rallye, and Limited gets denim cloth seats as a standard feature. The Limited model gives the buyer the option of denim as part of a package but nappa leather is also available. The top-tier R/T model has its seats wrapped in nappa leather as a standard feature. If you don't like the standard configuration, don't worry. Dodge's interior customization efforts are extensive, with more than 100,000 ways to design it to your exact specifications. Suffice it to say, no one else will have the exact same car as you.

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In addition to the tech, there are other clever touches. One of our favorites was the hidden storage compartment under the right front passenger seat's bottom cushion. This feature is standard on the Limited and R/T trim and it will be optional on the SXT and Rallye editions. This optional storage space, while neat in theory, doesn't add that much extra space. The front-passenger storage bin checks in with 203 cubic inches of space, good enough to hide an iPad or other tablet from prying eyes.

Driving

In a work-day's worth of driving time, we put the 2013 Dodge Dart through all of the normal paces it would see on a daily commute, and then some. We started off in a Tungsten Metallic silver Rallye model Dart that sported the 160-hp "Tigershark" 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission. Our route started us off by snaking through the busy city streets of Austin, Texas, as we made our way to more open freeway and farm-to-market roads.

It only took the first freeway onramp for the Dart's sharp handling to shine through, as the little sedan's 17-inch Continental tires stuck to the ramp. However, carrying that speed higher onto the freeway proved to be a bit of a white-knuckle experience, as it quickly became obvious that we'd have to downshift if we wanted to get anywhere quickly with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and manual gearbox combination. We blame the Dart's hefty 3,186-pounds of mass; that's about 500 pounds more than the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra. Once we entered the high-revving sweet-spot in third gear though, the Dart got the message that it needed to get up and go. Once up to speed, the Dart proved to be an incredibly quiet and comfortable ride as we cruised over the gravel-and-tar laden Texas roads. It was such a quiet ride in fact that it reminded us of the $77,000 Lexus LS 460 we recently tested, a vehicle that costs nearly four times more than the Dart.

While the Dart with the 2.0-liter engine and six-speed manual wasn't exactly a rocket, fuel economy was almost dead on the mark. Our driving route took us through a variety of highway and city driving scenarios and the Dart's fuel economy only rose the more we drove it, and that was with the air-conditioning going full-tilt most of the time to combat the smoldering Texas heat. Right before we stopped to swap out cars, our Dart Rallye was averaging around 29 mpg, exactly as advertised by the EPA.

Next up was a black Dart Limited, which featured the same 160-hp engine, but this time mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. As we took off, it was immediately evident that the automatic transmission had a better understanding of how to motivate the sedan. We cruised down a back-country road and before long found the world comfortably passing by our windows at 60 mph. Traveling through the town of Johnson City, Texas -- the birthplace of the 36th President of the United States, who also shares his name with the municipality -- the Dart demonstrated its ability to switch back-and-forth between school-zone and open-road speeds without a hitch.

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Summary

It's never easy being out of the game for an extended period of time, and then picking up where you left off. Dodge is aware of that, so instead of trying to reinvent the now-defunct Caliber, the 2013 Dodge Dart carves a new path. With the assistance of corporate partner Fiat, and Alfa Romeo Giulietta upon which the Dart is based, the 2013 Dodge Dart is an animal completely of its own color.

After spending a day with the Dart that mixed daily-driving with your run-of-the-mill car chase, we came away impressed with the all-new sedan, and think it's worth a look if vehicles like the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, or Honda Civic are on your shopping list. Unlike them, the Dart offers options that can be purchased on their own instead of an entire package. The 7-inch TFT and 8.4-inch media screen are also exclusive to the segment, as is the amount of factory-customization that the Dart can handle. We would, however, recommend sticking to the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission combination, regardless of what model you choose.

If on the off chance you don't see a model to your liking, just wait a bit longer. The fuel-sippingest of you can wait for the fall to get the Dodge Dart Aero, which is expected to get "at least" 41 mpg. On the other end of the spectrum, the power-hungry can hold out for the R/T, with a 2.4-liter four cylinder engine that should solve most of our power complaints.

Even without those models, with a starting price of $15,995 and a wide selection of options and features, the Dart should find itself at the front of the heavy-hitter pack that patrols the sedan segment when it comes to market this June.

Basic Specs

1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front wheel drive, 160-hp, 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy, 29 combined- manual transmission (automatic gearbox not rated by the EPA yet)
1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission, front wheel drive, 160-hp, 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy, 29 combined- manual transmission (automatic gearbox not rated by the EPA yet)
2.0-liter Tigershark inline four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmissions, front-wheel drive, 160-hp, $20,870,780 as tested in the Rallye model, 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy, 29 combined- manual transmission (automatic gearbox not rated by the EPA yet)
2.0-liter Tigershark inline four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmissions, front-wheel drive, 160-hp, $22,780 as tested in the Limited model, 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy, 29 combined- manual transmission (automatic gearbox not rated by the EPA yet)

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