On Point: Carmaker looks to promote signature name, fuel economy of 2013 Dodge Dart compact sedan

This 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye is parked in front of the Woodlands Inn and Resort in Dorchester County earlier this week. The new compact Dart has arrived at Hoover Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Summerville (Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/7/24/2012).

By JIM PARKER

The Post and Courier

Before long, expect to see as many Darts whipping around domestic roads as flying across British pubs.

Fiat-Chrysler is designing the new Dodge Dart as its chief small-sized sedan with a projected 200,000 a year sold eventually. The first editions are coming out for the 2013 model year, with “pre-spec” cars arriving at local dealerships such as Hoover Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Summerville.

“We’ll have a bunch to sell in 30 days,” said Keith Roberts, general manager.

Dodge revived the “Dart” name while designing an all-new car. Today’s streamlined fuel-sipping sedan looks and feels far different from the squarer original that was considered a compact through much of its run from 1960 to 1976. The early Dart came as a coupe, sedan, convertible and, briefly, wagon and boasted a V-8 engine as an option as late as the 1970s.

What the company is looking to replicate is the sales success of the first Dart, which was one of the more popular smaller American cars 40-50 years ago.

The new model, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, encapsulates a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with turbocharger generating 160 horsepower and boasts fuel economy figures of 27 mpg city, 39 mpg highway for an average 32 mpg.

The base price is below $16,000. Hoover this week had a well-equipped up level Dodge Dart Rallye— which starts at $17,995 — listed for $24,355.

Roberts says the Dart has the most interior space of any vehicle in its class. Compared with top-selling compacts, “it’s got a lot more room,” he said.

Including extras, the four-door boasts a bunch of perks.

The new Dart can be outfitted with a powerful high-end sound system; sunroof; steering wheel-mounted audio controls and light-emitting diode ambient lighting that illuminates door handles, cup holders and map pockets, according to the brand’s brochure.

Climate control manages the heating and air conditioning system, and dual exhaust gives the car a sporty feel. A touch screen GPS navigation-communications system and voice recognition are available high-end features. Also optional on the new Dart are 17-inch aluminum wheels and heated steering wheel.

There are three engine choices, the 1.4-liter turbo, “Tigershark” 2-liter and 2.4-liter boasting 184 hp.

“If they want to sell a couple hundred thousand of these, we’ll see as many as we can get our hands on,” Roberts said, noting that the dealership is looking to sell at least 30 a month.

He sees the car becoming popular “when people start seeing them and talking about them.”The Dart, he said, “is impressive.”

That’s indeed the case, judging from an afternoon drive in city and highway traffic earlier this week.

First off, the red Rallye test model looks attractive with its standout black grille, lightly sloped front and raked back roof with widened trunk. Inside, legroom and headroom are more in line with a midsized model, a point that Dodge advertises.

The test edition came with a 6-speed manual transmission tricked-out with a brushed metal shift knob. Avoiding the sometimes awkward gear throw into reverse, the shifter cleverly sports a ring that slides upward, freeing it to be pushed up and over for reverse Supporting the navigation-communications system is a helpful rear camera.

Touch-screen technology makes the center console user-friendly, whether switching to the map setting or scrolling through radio channels. Audio volume is among the features that can also be controlled from the steering wheel.

Rear seating is decent-sized even with front seats moved back, and cargo room in the trunk is more than adequate.

The Dart handled deftly, whether negotiating tight turns on winding roads or switching lanes on the highway. Brakes, too, were quick and steady. Visibility was reasonably good. And the suspension provided a comfortable ride.

If the all-new edition could use improvement, it would be to channel the old Dart a little more. The engine, while turbocharged, was a tad sluggish notably in building up to and holding onto interstate speeds.

A hindrance was the audio volume and channel changing buttons on the steering wheel. They’re grouped for ease of use but are located on the underside on the wheel where they can get hit accidentally while steering.

Dodge might also want to look at the pricing: the Rallye model had close to $7,000 in extras when it might be more of a buy with additional standard equipment and a price below $20,000.

But the car has a whole lot going for it. Taking into account the frugal gas mileage, ample legroom, driving acumen and fun looks, the Dart should give Dodge that lift it may be lacking since Chrysler spun off Ram trucks as a separate brand.

To see more, visit your local Dodge dealer.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.