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Date Posted: July 3, 2013
By Zack Spencer

Dodge returns to the compact segment with the all-new Dart.

What has Italian roots and purely American style? No, not the cast of the Jersey Shore, it's the Dodge Dart.

Dodge and Italy might not seam like logical pairing at first blush, but dig a little farther and it all starts to make sense. Think back to 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brother investment house, the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Recession. The three domestic automakers were hit with huge losses and in the case of GM and Chrysler, enormous government bailouts. Chrysler's bailout was contingent on getting a partner to come in and shore up their business. Fiat took that risk and it has paid off. Now, Chrysler is the fastest growing car company in Canada and the US and a big part of that success is due to the skills and techniques Chrysler was able to borrow from Fiat.

Case in point is the Dodge Dart. When it was introduced last year as a 2013 model it was the very first full collaboration between the two companies. The platform used to build this compact car is from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta sports hatchback. Chrysler took that very capable foundation and widened it and elongated it to make it friendlier for a 4-door application. What Dodge was able to integrate into this new model, thanks to Fiat, is a level or road handling, noise and vibration dampening that is usually not found in inexpensive compact cars.

So what did the Americans bring to the table? Attitude! There is no question that the Dart looks like it is ''imported from Detroit''. The sharp nose and cross-hair grille along with full-width rear reflector tail lamp are reminders of the bigger Dodge Charger. Unlike many of the compact cars in this class, Dodge has provided a massive array of trim levels, colours, engines and even transmissions.

The interior of the Dart is a showcase in what Detroit is doing right. There is a clean, uncluttered approach that is refreshing, but look a little closer and thee is a lot to take note of. First is the available 8.4-inch ''Uconnect'' screen in the centre console. Changing between the radio, car controls and navigation is very quick and the screen is so big that the navigation map and the radio readout can coexist with plenty of space. The dash, arm rests and other touch points are covered in soft touch materials. Speaking of materials, the Dart can be fitted with a multitude of colour choices from mild to wild, depending on the trim chosen and the mood of the buyer. It should be pointed out that the seats are very supportive and comfortable on long trips. In addition, there is a hidden storage compartment under the passenger seat cushion to hide prized items.

Prices start at $15,995, which is competitive with many of the most popular vehicles in this class, like the Honda Civic, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. What this car has going for it is size. Bigger than the cars listed and only slightly smaller than the VW Jetta, which is the largest car in this class. The reality is that most Canadians buy in the $18,000- $22,000 range and for that kind of money the Dart can be configured as a $19,495 Rallye (pictured here) or $23,245 Limited model.

Unlike the base model, which is equipped with a 160hp 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, the higher trim levels (Rallye and above) can be fitted with the advanced 1.4L turbocharged engine that also puts out 160 but has more torque and is livelier to drive. This is the unit I have driven on three occasions and logged over two weeks behind the wheel. Combined with the independent suspension, lack or road noise and vibration, the turbocharged engine is a very capable highway car. It is also capable of good fuel numbers. On a 2-day 1000km drive I was able to get 5.8L/100km at highway speed. In the city though, this turbo unit is not the perfect match. In order to launch from a stoplight, the engine needs to be strained for quick acceleration, which eats into the fuel consumption numbers. The better choice might be the third engine choice; the 2.4L ''Tigershark'' engine that puts out 184hp. Unfortunately this engine is only available in the top GT trim.

Dodge does have a few tricks to get the most out of their smaller 2.0L and 1.4L engines, mostly by pairing them with different transmissions. A 6-speed manual is still offered and in the Rallye Turbo, it is a lot of fun. There is also a 6-speed conventional automatic and a duel-clutch automatic. For those that have not heard of a duel clutch transmission, it is basically a manual trannny, automatically controlled. It makes the power delivery more dynamic and can save money on fuel. This would be the transmission I would pair with the 1.4L turbo. Good fun and thrifty.

There is a rumor floating about that the 2.4L engine found in the top model might be available to more trim levels. This would make the Dart a true competitor for anyone's money. As it stands right now, the Dart is a very capable highway car that is refined, quiet and has top-notch handling, thanks to independent suspension.

This whole American-Italian thing might just have legs, unlike the Jersey Shore. Is that show still on?

Power: 2.0L, 1.4L Turbo and 2.4L 4-cylinder

Economy: 9.9L/6.3L/100km (city/highway with turbo model)

Sticker price: $15,995-$23,295

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