The 2013 Dodge Dart SXT is close to being an excellent compact car. If it were a football team, the cliché about being “one player away” from championship contention would apply. In the case of the Dart, that missing piece is the transmission. We enjoyed many elements of the car during its twelve-month stay with us, but we just couldn’t get past the Dart’s hesitant and clunky, dual-dry-clutch six-speed automatic gearbox.
“I really like the rest of the Dart, but the transmission just seems to get worse each time I’m behind the wheel,” one editor remarked.
That neatly sums up our time with the Dart. Even though we had the gearbox reflashed eight months into our test—Chrysler issued a recall to address complaints—it didn’t make things any smoother or quieter.
Dodge isn’t alone in dealing with a dual-clutch controversy. Ford faced similar issues with the dual-dry-clutch unit in the Focus, as buyers found the shifts unpredictable. Good dual-clutch automatics like those from Volkswagen and Porsche are virtually indistinguishable from conventional automatics from behind the wheel, but less expensive and more efficient dual-dry-clutch setups tend to be far less pleasant.
The Dart’s 1.4-liter SOHC turbocharged four-cylinder engine didn’t help. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio called it “coarse, hoarse, and gravelly,” while others were annoyed with the turbo lag and throttle mapping. Oh, and another thing: Dodge recommends using premium fuel.
Powertrain problems aside, our Dart rolled up 24,766 miles and spent a lot of time on the open road, where it shines. “It’s a much better freeway car than it is an urban car,” DeMatio said. “On the freeway, all the transmission issues fade into the background.”
DeMatio was the first to stretch the Dart’s legs, taking it on a 300-mile round-trip to northern Michigan shortly after it arrived in December 2012. That was soon followed by winter jaunts around the Midwest before executive editor Todd Lassa drove the Dart to New York for the auto show in late March. Graphic designer John Kalmar took the Dart to the Kentucky Derby in the spring and then to the Big Ten football championship game in Indianapolis late in the fall. In between, nearly everyone had a summer beach adventure, cider-mill outing, or, in the case of associate web editor Evan McCausland, a random run to Canada to pick up a set of Japanese-market grab handles for a first-generation Honda CR-V. Don’t ask.
These long expeditions, during which we had a lot of time to settle in and play around with things, showed off cool interior features such as the full-color Uconnect infotainment system with an 8.4-inch touchscreen. It’s simple yet clever, and Dodge wisely kept redundant knobs and buttons for the radio and climate functions.
“I can’t think of any other car where it’s as easy to cycle between the navigation map and the audio controls,” Lassa said. “Once I grew tired of what was on NPR, Real Jazz, and Chill, I got my iPod to work seamlessly with Uconnect.”
The Uconnect system was the centerpiece of a quiet cabin. Lassa called the sound level “impressive for what is now considered an economy-car price,” a thought echoed by other drivers.
The interior is handsome, and an illuminated red accent surrounding the instrument panel impressed our passengers during nighttime outings. The design flair offset some of the hard plastics that one expects to find in cars at this price point. The seats were commended by most of our staff for their comfort, support, and positioning. Plus, there were a lot of places to stow your phone, coffee mug, iPad, or purse, including an ingenious hidden compartment under the front-passenger-seat cushion.
The only real annoyances were the hard-to-read analog speedometer, which forced many to resort to using the digital readout in the gauge cluster, and the blocky A-pillars, which hampered visibility in urban areas. According to the EPA, the Dart is technically a mid-size car, and it’s longer than competitors like the Chevrolet Cruze, the Ford Focus, and the Honda Civic. Even as the segment creeps up in size, price, and packaging, the Dart is still on the large side. Lassa called it a “mid-size compact,” while road test editor Chris Nelson simply said, “It’s damn big.”
Its size had benefits, as copy editor Rusty Blackwell learned when he stuffed 254 empty bottles and cans into the trunk to return to the store, and videographer Sandon Voelker once jammed three bicycles into the Dart with the seats folded. Dodge is correct in assuming that Americans want as much cargo space as possible, regardless of the segment. Even though the Dart doesn’t handle like a traditional compact car, we concluded that its size was a good thing. With 97.2 cubic feet of interior volume, the sedan has one of the roomiest cabins in the segment, with almost as much interior volume as the more traditionally mid-size Dodge Avenger’s 100.2 cubic feet. By comparison, the Ford Focus sedan has only 90.7 cubic feet of interior volume.
Dodge also hit the sweet spot with its equipment and trim levels. The base 2013 Dart SXT was nicely decked out for $18,790, but our long list of options, including a rearview camera, automatic headlights, remote start, and satellite radio, boosted the price to a still-reasonable $23,195. The “racetrack” LED taillights (a $225 option) are borrowed from the Charger, and they gave the Dart some design attitude.
There’s a lot to like about the Dart. We just kept coming back to the weaknesses of the powertrain, which kept us from truly falling for it. We weren’t the only ones. Initial sales were disappointing, and reviews were critical. Dodge realized that the Dart was struggling and smartly limited the dual-clutch unit and 1.4-liter engine to the fuel-conscious Aero model for 2014. Dodge also plans to give the Dart a nine-speed automatic, although it hasn’t happened yet. Regardless, this is a solid car. A different transmission alone won’t vault it to the top of the segment—football teams are never really just one player away—but it will make the Dart much better to drive. For now, if you’re in the market for a Dart, your best bet is to take one with a conventional six-speed manual or automatic. You’ll be much happier than we were.
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