published Saturday, July 28th, 2012

Test Drive: Dodge Dart: Old name, new direction

The new Dodge Dart reprises a memorable nameplate from the 1960s and '70s.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
The new Dodge Dart reprises a memorable nameplate from the 1960s and '70s. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2013 Dodge Dart SXT

Exterior color: Redline Pearl

Interior color: Gray

Engine: 1.4 liter inline four-cylinder (turbocharged)

Horsepower: 160

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Fuel economy: 39 mpg highway, 27 mpg city

Dealer: Moss Motors, South Pitts

One of my college roommates at Middle Tennessee State University drove a 1964 Dodge Dart with a push-button automatic transmission.

By the time we were in school, the late 1970s, the old Dart had seen its best days. Yet, it had an endearing aura of indestructibility about it that demanded respect. You had the feeling that the motor would continue to hum until the sheet metal turned into a mountain of rust dust.

When Dodge decided to resurrect the Dart nameplate for its newest compact car, we over-50 drivers felt a jolt of nostalgia. Throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s, the Dodge Dart was a workhorse in the American fleet.

Shawn Henson, sales manger of Moss Motors in South Pittsburg, Tenn., called recently to say the first new Dart had landed there. We hopped over for a test drive last week, and borrowed the keys to a turbocharged model with flashy Redline Pearl paint and a slick six-speed manual transmission.

Henson noted that while the Dart will appeal to younger, performance-oriented drivers; it also will be a hit with their parents who will appreciate its deployment of 10 airbags.

STYLING AND COMFORT

The 2013 Dart comes in a dizzying array of colors and trim levels. Henson notes there are about 100,000 combinations of options, colors and powertrains to choose from. Our test car was a mid-trim SXT, and included attractive 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, tire-pressure monitor, single-disc CD player and a 8.4-inch touch-screen display.

While assembled in Belvidere, Ill., the Dart's DNA is Italian with many mechanical components provided by Fiat. The profile is fairly generic, but the front facia, which sweeps into cat-eye headlamps, is aggressive and expensive looking. The rear facia also is well-tailored, with no misplaced lines or design cliches.

Inside, the Dart is upscale for an American-made compact. Contrasting white stitching in the gray-fabric seat coverings gives the cockpit a touch of class. There are other thoughtful interior flourishes such as a chrome tipped gear shifter, crafty storage compartments under the front seats and steering-wheel mounted audio controls.

PERFORMANCE

Our Dart was equipped with 1.4-liter turbocharged engine also found in the highly-touted Fiat Abarth. Mated to a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, our test car was cat-quick off the mark. (A six-speed automatic is optional.)

The engine makes 160 horsepower, but with a stout 184-pound-feet of tire-chirping torque.

On a romp on the backroads of Marion County, the Dart was a hoot to drive. It has the reflexes and handling characteristics of an expensive European sports car at compact-car prices. Even our well-equipped SXT model came in at a reasonable $22,470. Expect 39 miles per gallon highway and 27 miles per gallon city.

Fun to drive, cheap to own, what's not to like. In short: This Dart has hit the bullseye.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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