By Derek Price
CNHI News Service
— Dodge has built its modern-day reputation on big, powerful, boat-like sedans and coupes that hearken back to the musclecar era.
Cars like the Challenger and Charger do a great job of that, especially when fitted with Dodge's insane HEMI V8 engine. They make you want to stomp the accelerator, smoke the tires and burst people's eardrums.
The 2013 Dart represents a total change of pace for the Dodge brand, though, despite carrying the name of a historic Dodge land barge.
It's small, for starters.
Unlike the 1960s Dart and the modern-day Challenger, which has a hood long enough for the U.S. Navy to launch aircraft from, the new Dart has a much more practical, logical size. It's priced like a compact car, but it comes with a fit and feel more like a mid-size sedan.
It's also designed for crisp handling, which its longer, heavier Dodge stablemates simply are not.
The Dart's chassis started life as an Italian FIAT before being lengthened and given an American-style body makeover.
You can feel that from the driver's seat. It has a suspension that firms up nicely in corners, European style, and a steering setup that communicates lots of little details from the pavement, making it surprisingly fun to toss around on winding roads.
For an affordable, front-wheel-drive sedan, it's one of the more enjoyable cars you can buy today.
As part of an increasingly prevalent trend, its engine is set up more for impressive gas mileage than mind-bending horsepower.
The base 2.0-liter engine makes 160 horses, starting around $16,000 in the Dart SE. A more efficient 1.4-liter turbocharged engine is available in the Dart Aero ($19,295), which is rated for up to 41 mpg on the highway.
People who want the best performance should opt for the Dart GT ($20,995), which comes with a 2.4-liter, 184-horsepower engine but has the drawback of a 30-mpg highway fuel economy rating with an automatic transmission.
While this car's handling is spectacular — as you would expect from an Italian-based design — its cabin is more of a mixed bag.
It gets a few things wrong, like a hard plastic texture on the center stack that is vaguely reminiscent of the old Dodge Neon, and seats that feel a bit too high for such an otherwise sporty car.
But it gets several things very right, too, starting with the dimensions. It's a compact car that doesn't seem all that compact, with an impressively spacious back seat and ample shoulder and head room.
Its digital displays in the higher-end models are among the best of any car, at any price. The Dart Aero and Dart Limited both get Dodge's reconfigurable cluster display that gives a high-tech, customizable look for the gauges directly behind the steering wheel. It's a gorgeous, practical, advanced-looking setup that I suspect more cars will be copying in the years to come.
If Dodge is aiming to be Chrysler's fun-to-drive brand, this car will do the job. It just does so in a low-horsepower, lightweight, Italian-style way rather than the high-horsepower, heavyweight, American-style way.
It's a very different, fresh version of the old Dodge formula.
Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at email@example.com.