The 2015 Dodge Dart has user-friendly technology and impressive quality, particularly among top trim levels, but several drawbacks will send compact-car shoppers elsewhere in this highly competitive field.
How competitive? Try a dozen compact-car nameplates, though two — the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic — combine for nearly a third of all sales. The Dart is in the bottom half of the group in terms of sales, but Dodge could stir up some more appeal with a few significant changes.
Available in SE, SXT, eco-minded Aero, GT and Limited trims, the Dart is entering its third model year for 2015. Changes for this version are light, involving mostly equipment reshuffles. Click here to compare the 2015 Dart with the 2014, or here to stack up the trim levels.
Exterior & Styling
The Dart's aggressive nose has aged well, but the tail still seems too rounded — a theme now emulated in the Charger full-size sedan. How sharp the car looks depends on what trim you get. All but a stripped-down SE have body-colored mirrors and door handles, but each trim gets its own variation. Some of them darken the crosshair grille's finish, while others add darkened headlights and a darkened center bumper.
Wheels range from 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers on the SE to 16-, 17- or 18-inch alloys on the other trims. An optional Blacktop appearance package on the SXT adds dual exposed tailpipes, which tuck nicely into the bumper. The Dart GT gets the same pipes; others have a single, hidden tailpipe.
How It Drives
The most widely available engine on the Dart, our test car's 2.4-liter four-cylinder is punchier at all speeds than the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It's also more linear than the Dart's optional 1.4-liter turbo-four's peaky, hold-your-breath-and-wait power band. Output from both the 2.0-liter and the turbo 1.4-liter is 160 horsepower, though torque is 184 pounds-feet with the turbo versus just 148 pounds-feet with the base engine. Power jumps up to 184 hp with 171 pounds-feet in the 2.4-liter four-cylinder.
Competitors like the 2.5-liter Mazda3 feel more energetic as the revs build, but the 2.4-liter Dart is peppy enough among larger four-cylinders in this class — a choice many competing models don't offer.
You pay the piper in gas mileage. EPA combined mileage for most versions of the Dart range from 26 to 27 mpg; only the Aero's 31 to 32 mpg is competitive among today's compacts — but it recommends premium gas for maximum power. By contrast, most versions of the Civic, Corolla and Mazda3 get EPA combined mileage in the low to mid-30s on the cheap stuff. Dodge has some catching up to do.
Our test car had the optional six-speed automatic transmission; a six-speed manual is standard. The automatic rarely hunts gears, downshifting one or two gears when you need more power. But it wants to upshift as soon as you let off the gas to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, en route toward more fuel-efficient engine speeds. That, in turn, requires frequent kickdowns when you call for more speed later on, which gives the transmission a busy, overactive character. The upshifts and downshifts themselves can be abrupt sometimes, and a noticeable case of accelerator lag at low speeds results in a binary, lurching sensation in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This 2.4-liter Dart is strong, but seldom smooth.
At lower speeds, our Dart rode on the firm side of this class, following pavement dips and rises that some suspensions in this class might isolate, but it does so in a crisp, reverb-free manner. On the highway the car fared better, dispatching joints and ruts with minimal cabin disruption. That said, our Dart SXT had a $395 Rallye Appearance Group that added a rear stabilizer bar and Touring suspension tuning that's somewhere between the base setup and the Dart GT's harsh-riding sport suspension (read our impressions on the GT here). The Dart Limited has the same setup as the Rallye.
The Rallye's suspension tuning checks body roll well, but our tester's Kumho Solus KH25 tires (P255/45R17 all-seasons) gave up grip freely and frequently, particularly on wet pavement; Continental and Yokohama tires are available on other trims. The Dart steers well enough, tucking the nose into corners with decent turn-in precision, but understeer inevitably follows; the tail simply refuses to slide. GT models have a quicker steering ratio, along with unique transmission tuning.
Except for a bit of wind noise off the A-pillars, noise levels are low.
A deal-breaker for some will be visibility, as the Dart suffers an all-too-familiar trend these days — a dramatically raked windshield that squashes your sight lines and obstructs them with a bulky center mirror right at your 1 o'clock. Cabin materials depend on trim level, with top versions offering unparalleled materials for the class: piano-black trim and stitched vinyl accents, a rich woven headliner that also covers the sun visors, and low-gloss, consistent padding along the upper pieces of the dash and all doors (not just the front ones). Step down to a middle trim, and the doors get harder textures — a cost-saving measure that Dodge should have relegated to the dash, instead, given it's not a place your arms or elbows land.
The backseat has modest headroom and legroom; adult passengers might ask those up front to move their chairs forward. In a league where competitors from the Civic to the Volkswagen Jetta have adult-sized backseats, the Dart feels a bit cramped. Still, the seats sit higher off the floor than most, so thigh support — which often gets the short shrift in sedans of all sizes — is decent.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Standard features on the value-priced Dart SE include a USB/iPod-compatible stereo but no Bluetooth or steering-wheel audio controls, which are part of a $775 convenience package. An optional 8.4-inch touch-screen is an impressive display in any class, let alone a compact car. It boasts large onscreen buttons, a simple layout and physical controls underneath for essential functions. Get the heated seats or heated steering wheel, and Dodge pushes those controls to a display that pops up right away when you start the car so you can get the warmers going right away on a cold day.
I'll take this Uconnect versus the systems in the Civic and Ford Focus. One caveat: Our long-term Jeep Cherokee has the Uconnect 8.4-inch touch-screen (Dodge and Jeep are sibling brands), and it has its share of bugs. If you buy a Dart with the screen, shoot us a note at email@example.com to tell us about your experience.
Uplevel models pair the 8.4-inch screen with a configurable 7-inch instrument panel display that can simulate digital or analog speedometers, display navigation directions and more. Dual-zone automatic climate control comes on the GT and Limited, but if you get the 8.4-inch display without the automatic temperature feature, the digital controls make changing the temperature an annoying, multistep process. The base stereo has simpler knobs, which Dodge should have retained for the middle trims.
Cargo & Storage
Cabin storage impresses, with a decent-size center console, a cubby ahead of the gearshift, deep recesses in the glove compartment and door pockets, plus a hidden compartment in the passenger seat. The trunk has a competitive 13.1 cubic feet of cargo room, but cars without the Dart's keyless access system lack a release on the trunk itself; you have to use the remote fob or an interior release. SE and Aero models have a single-piece folding rear seat; other trims have a 60/40-split folding backseat with a center pass-through.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Dart earned good scores (out of good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in all tests except IIHS' small-overlap frontal test, where the car earned an acceptable score. Click here to read more about the test, which IIHS introduced in 2012, and click here to see a full list of standard safety features on the Dart. Among them are 10 airbags and all-disc antilock brakes. A blind spot warning system and a backup camera with cross-path warning are optional, but a forward collision warning system — increasingly available among compact cars — remains unavailable on the Dart.
Parents, click here to see our evaluation of car-seat provisions in a 2013 Dart.
Value in Its Class
With just two years on the market, the Dart's track record for reliability is too short for a verdict. A loaded Dart Limited tops out north of $26,000, including destination, but about $19,500 gets you a fairly complete car if you opt for the automatic 2.0-liter Dart SE with the Convenience Group. That's cheaper than similar convenience features cost in the Civic, Focus and Chevrolet Cruze sedans. Still, the $19,300 Corolla LE edges out the group for convenience value; it also has a backup camera, which the Dart restricts to the SXT and above.
The Dart has a decent value proposition until you consider fuel efficiency. Its quality and technology should still lure some shoppers, but this is a competitive field, and the Dart is a few miles per gallon — plus some drivetrain grooming and visibility improvements — away from distinguishing itself in the field.
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