Be honest. Were you angry when Fiat bought Chrysler? Weren’t you a little miffed when the Big Three turned into the Big Two? It’s one of the great American automakers, so shouldn’t it be American owned? If you were upset about Mr. Marchionne’s big buy, he may have just bought your forgiveness for desert. His payment? A small Dodge with a Fiat engine and an Alfa Romeo platform. It bowed this morning at the Detroit Auto Show, and the most American thing about it is the name. They’re calling it the Dart.
Sadly, it will be front-wheel-drive, unlike the classic drag racer we all know and drool over. But that doesn’t mean you should go burn down Sergio Marchionne’s house, because the name is the only thing they seem to have gotten wrong.
Power comes cafeteria-style, with three-count ‘em-three engine choices. The first, perfect for the car buyer who looks first and only for one in his or her favorite color, is Fiat’s 2-liter Tigershark four, which will put out 160 hp when it can be bothered. Moving on, then.
Perhaps the most interesting option is the 1.4 liter MultiAir, sourced from the little Fiat 500. It, too, puts out 160 hp, replacing displacement with a turbocharger (and a turbo’s-best-friend intercooler). Dodge is expecting 40 mpg out of the little mill, which doesn’t sound too optimistic at all.
If, however, you’re pining for the old days and want more horsepower (and don’t want to get your fingernails dirty installing a K&N), you can get a 2.4 liter Tigershark four with MultiAir. This will turn up the heat to 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. If, by the way, you’re wondering about all this “MultiAir” whatsit, it has to do with exhaust gas recirculation and variable valve timing. Think of it as Italy’s VTEC, yo.
All of this is pretty standard fare for small cars. The exciting part comes between the footwells, because there are also three transmissions available. You can get a six-speed automatic with any of the engines. Good to see Chrysler standing up for amputees, yeah. And there’s a dual-clutch automatic available with the 1.4. Yeah, neato. But the standard transmission, the one in the publicity photos, the one you’ll have to choose not to order if you don’t want it, the one that could help save American driving, is a six speed manual. Thank you, Italy, for reminding us that la vita é bella. We’re ready to have fun again.
Speaking of the interior, it rather looks like something from Italy. It’s all swoopy red accents and ergonomic efficiency. There’s an available touch-screen infotainment distraction center, and you can also get a cutting-edge TFT gauge cluster. It does seem a bit undecided, though. The steering wheel is busy and angular, while the center stack is minimalist and curvy. And there may be too many different colors, depending on your tolerance for such things.
Outside it’s trim and neat, redirecting the inevitable safety bloat into an attractive six line. Not enough to get it a modeling career, but something you’ll appreciate after marriage. The Dart borrows its platform from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a hatchback, and that much might be a little too obvious if you glance at the rear. But then you’ll likely be distracted by the daring, Charger-style tail lights.
Back out front, the hood is refreshingly long, so you won’t be able to mark off the distance between the headlight and the windshield with a handspan. The grille is a little confusing. At first glance, you’ll wonder how it passed federal bumper regulations. Then you’ll realize that the center of the bumper has been spraypainted blacked out to match the surrounding
grille. If it’s good enough for Darth Vader, it’s good enough for us.
Aesthetic nitpicking aside, the Dodge Dart gets everything right that the Caliber, in its final throes of death this year, got wrong. The Caliber was more confused than a college freshman after his first semester. It had no direction, no single motivation. It simply didn’t know what it wanted to be, so we didn’t know what to expect.
The Dart paints us a much clearer picture. It’s a picture of a curvaceous mountain road on a cool summer evening, both hands and feet fully engaged, our ears straining after that little turbo note, a friendly whistle, barely audible over a tidy, high-pitched exhaust purr.
Yes, with a little Italian spice, Dodge seems to have gotten it right, and we’re confident that the 2012 Dodge Dart will be worth driving- perhaps even a drivers’ car. And that’s something, for its size and layout, we haven’t seen from Chrysler for a long time.
Images courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC