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2013 Dodge Dart First Drive Preview by Carey Russ +VIDEO

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2013 Dodge Dart

The new Dart will only add to the name's positive historic reputation.

SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyers Guide; 1997-Current Models

By Carey Russ
The Auto Channel

The 2013 Dodge Dart is coming, the Dodge Dart is coming!

The first product of the merger between Chrysler Group and Fiat, the Dart puts Chrysler back in the compact sedan business. In a big way, as evidenced by an all-too-short recent look I had at the car.

Compact sedans are one of the more popular types of car in the US, accounting for over 15 percent of new car sales. And sales are increasing, thanks in part to high fuel prices and the uncertain state of the economy.

Not long ago -- like even a month -ago - this would have been bad news for Chrysler, since it hadn't had a compact sedan since the demise of the Neon in 2005. The Caliber that replaced the Neon was intended to be, as a sign of the times, more of a micro-crossover. Seemed like a good idea at the time… but times change, and sometimes quickly in the auto industry.

The new Dodge Dart will start to arrive in showrooms by the end of June, with more availability in July and later. The Dart may be the most important vehicle to Chrysler since the LH cars that revitalized it twenty years ago. With stalwarts like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and tough competitors like the Volkswagen Jetta, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Mazda3 for competition, the Dart will need to be very good indeed in order to make an impression.

Watch TACH's exclusive Dodge Dart Limited promo video

After a short drive in the car, followed by a detailed technical presentation by Dodge/Chrysler staff, I think Dodge has a serious competitor. The Dart has style and a level of refinement that put it in the upper part of the class, unfamiliar territory for the Caliber and Neon. Fiat is serious about supporting Chrysler, and vice-versa, a most welcome change from the actions of Chrysler Group's two previous owners.

You may have heard that the Dart is based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. (The current one, obviously, not the venerable coupe and roadster of the early 1960s.) It is, in that the two cars share basic chassis architecture. But, for the demands of the American market, the Dodge version has a longer wheelbase and wider track and overall width. At 183.9 inches in length on a 106.4-inch wheelbase, with a 72-inch width and 57.7-inch height, it's larger than either the Neon or Caliber. The Dart shares no sheetmetal with its Italian cousin, but its styling is plenty praiseworthy. It won't be ignored on the road, especially at night with the optional "racetrack" LED taillights.

Like most cars today, the front wheels are driven. The introduction engines, both four-cylinder, are the 2.0-liter version of Chrysler's "Tigershark" engine family (think "World Engine" version 2.0, but 88 percent new) with 160 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque and the 1.4-liter turbocharged "MultiAir" also used in the Fiat 500 Abarth, boasting the same 160 horsepower but more torque, at 184 lb-ft. A 2.4-liter version of the Tigershark, with 184 hp and 171 lb-ft, will debut in the R/T model later in the year.

Transmissions are six-speed manual, standard with all engines, a six-speed torque-converter automatic optional with the Tigersharks, or a six-speed dual dry clutch with the MultiAir.

Suspension is fully-independent, with MacPherson struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear. Unusually for the Dart's class, brakes are disc all around. Engines are made in Dundee, MI, and final assembly is in Belvidere, IL.

"Monospec" might work for some manufacturers, but not for Dodge. Dart trim levels at introduction, in order of price and equipment level, are SE, SXT, Rallye, and Limited. As mentioned, the R/T will be a later introduction. There are 12 exterior colors, 14 interior trim and color combinations, six wheel options, and all of those trim levels. And if there's something a buyer might want that's not part of a package or a standalone option, consult the MoparŪ accessory catalog for over 150 options and themed packages there.

Visually, the new Dart has lithe, sleek proportions and an assertive stance. Even though it was styled in the US, it looks more European than American, with a coupe-like roofline and clean, gimmick-free lines. The interior is stylish and functional -- and roomy, with, according to Chrysler, more space than some midsize sedans. An interesting feature is a small storage space under the front passenger seat cushion -- let no potential storage area go wasted! The glove box is big enough to hold an iPad. The trunk is huge for the Dart's size.

Two cars were available for short drives, a Rallye with the Multi Air and stick and a Limited with the 2.0 Tigershark and automatic. Because of the late afternoon time -- a.k.a. evening commute -- and location, off of a busy surface street that feeds traffic to the main freeway, long drives on uncrowded back roads weren't going to happen. Welcome to the real world… And the Rallye seemed to always be out, so I got into the Limited when I could.

No disappointment there, and that drivetrain will be the most popular. Power was adequate if not spectacular, and so comparable to other compacts with automatics. The Multi Air/stick combo was, unsurprisingly, reported to be quicker and more fun by those who managed to drive both, but even I would take the automatic in a commuter car. The level of refinement was far above that of any previous small Chrysler Group car, with minimal interior noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) and a very good ride quality thanks to careful suspension tuning. Good brakes, and better than average electrically-assisted power steering further add to the Dart's appeal on the road. Add that to its style and availability of electronic features once considered upscale -- like pushbutton start/stop, parking sensors, blind spot and rear cross-traffic detection, the Uconnect Touch Media Center, and all of the audio connectivity expected today -- and the 2013 Dodge Dart bodes well for the future of the Chrysler Group and Fiat.

Watch TACH's exclusive Dodge Dart Rallye promo video

Prices start at $16,790 for the SE, $18,790 for the SXT, $19,790 for the Rallye, and $20,790 for the Limited. Expect the R/T at $23,290. All prices include a $795 destination charge.

What's in a name? If you're under 35, you likely won't recognize the Dart name. If you're over 50, you likely will. From 1960 through 1976, the Dart was the compact Dodge. Over 3.6 million were sold, many with the innovative Slant Six engine, an inline six canted to the side for a lower hood line and center of gravity. On the power side, a 413 cubic inch, 410-horsepower Ram Air V8 was aimed squarely at production class drag racing, although the 273 and later 318, 340, 360, and 383 CID V8s were far more common.

Dart wasn't the first choice for the new car's name. But after being unhappy with other suggestions, someone inside Chrysler suggested "Dart". It went through the usual marketing clinic process, where younger people thought the name sounded good for a sleek, aerodynamic vehicle while those old enough to remember did, fondly. The new Dart will only add to the name's reputation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I drove the new 2013 Dart at the MAMA Road America outing, and I was pleasantly surprised with its looks, feel, comfort and performance, making me believe that it will become a competitive force in its category...definitely worth a meaningful Test Drive