Test Drive: 2015 Dodge Dart GT

For the longest time, the compact car segment has been the biggest in Canada. It’s the most competitive, and as the entry point for many first-time new car buyers, an important segment for a brand hoping to “get ‘em young”.

For many people a compact car is an appliance.

Which is why Dodge has put so much effort into the Dart.

The Dart is very much the underdog in the market too. Honda’s Civic sold more than 65,000 units last year, Hyundai Elantra some 50,000 and Corolla just a shade shy of that. Dodge moved just under 8,000 Darts: which is a shame, frankly.

For many people a compact car is an appliance. It needs to achieve a fairly broad set of goals. It needs to look half good, because that makes them feel better, it needs to get them from A to B reliably, and it needs to achieve a minimum level of comfort and luxury to provide value for money. The top three all execute these functions brilliantly. All other comers need to differentiate themselves somehow.

Dodge differentiates itself with premium materials, a luxury finish and the single best HMI and entertainment system in the segment. The interior is well put together and beautifully designed, but that’s not what impressed me the most.

In this class, I’d choose the Dart for Uconnect alone.

The massive information screen in the dash, plus the massive touchscreen in the centre stack are rich with glorious graphics, an unparalleled depth of information and easy to use controls. There are hard buttons when you need them and, due to the scale of the touchscreen, icons are large and well-spaced, so you always hit them. The system responds faster than almost any other too.

The best feature? The back-of-steering wheel controls for tuning/song selection, audio source and volume.

But there’s more. I always neglect to mention the other thing that sets Dodge products apart from regular audio systems equipped with Bluetooth - you can rewind it. So if you’re driving home from work and BackSpin is playing the Fu-Gee-La, and you want to hear it again, you can! This also meant I was able to keep listening to the ‘Gees as I descended deep into the underground carpark. Usually my ride down into darkness is done in silence.

So, yeah, I love Uconnect. And if you’re buying a car to get from A to B, how you listen to music/keep yourself amused on the journey becomes an important part of your purchasing decision.

I like the interior too. As a driver, it’s a nice place to be. The dashboard and door trims are nicely contoured and have nice materials, I appreciated the red accenting. The leather on the seats might not be the highest grade, but it is leather. The black is a little too plain and simple which gives it a “cheap limo” vibe. The lighter shades are far more pleasant and welcoming but sadly aren’t available on the GT.

But it’s the instrument cluster that will likely turn Dart drivers into fanatics. Not only are the graphics awesome, but the entire display is customizable and all via steering wheel controls. This is the “See? Look what my car can do?!” style of stuff that I think will resonate with young buyers in particular. And while the old guard might not understand the impact of interior features on new, driving-ambivalent buyers, it’s tech like this that will draw the new folk in and be a key part of their driving experience.

The other differentiator? Size. At 1,436 kg, 1,829 mm wide and 4,671 mm long the Dart is some 100 kg heavier than the Elantra, plus over 20 mm longer and 50 mm wider than the Civic – the closest in size of the top three sellers.

The Civic bests the Dart with passenger volume with 2,761 L to Dodge’s 2,752. And the Elantra sedan has more cargo volume with 420 L to the Dart’s 371 L. Like so many domestics, the Dart’s exterior size goes missing somehow once you pass through the doors.

To go with the extra heft, Dodge fitted this GT trim tester out with one of the most powerful motors in the class too, a 184 hp/174 lb-ft 2.4L ‘MultiAir’ engine. Though the engine is designed to take boosting or blowing, MultiAir is not a turbo engine. Rather, MultiAir refers to the valve timing and closing mechanism, it’s variable via oil flow to the openers and on MultiAir 2 engines like this one, the closers too. The variable valve timing helps the Dart to a new five-cycle test rating of 10.2/7.0 L/100 km city/highway – I averaged 8.5 L/100 km over the course of testing.

This engine feels willing and strong, I enjoyed the off-the-line speed and even highway passing. It’s a loud engine from outside the car at idle, and seems to idle a little roughly – but this might be because it’s a press car and has seen a few hands before mine. For driving enthusiasts, Dodge had fitted this GT trim not only with the willing engine, but a six-speed manual transmission too.

But while we at autoTRADER believe strongly in the #SaveTheManuals cause, contributor Jeff Wilson has previously said he would recommend the automatic instead. I’m not quite there – especially given the auto is a $1,495 option – but I do see his point. This manual is cable-actuated and you can feel a lot of the slack as you move through the gates. The lever feels weighty but the shift feel is coarse and imprecise – again because of that slack. Is a manual still worthwhile if the experience is lukewarm?

The clutch is hydraulic but also vague, with a bite point that seems to move depending on the day, the humidity, and what colour your underwear is. A more definitive bite point and consistent feel would improve this clutch, as it is it just exacerbates the problems with the shift mechanism. There is a MOPAR badge on the shift knob, so that’s something I guess.

Remember that thing I said about many people buying a small car as an appliance? Ride comfort is among the things they don’t want to give up. I applaud Dodge for offering up a suspension that is firm and sporty but it's too firm for real roads so ride comfort suffers. I’d like to take one to the track or an autocross, just to see how much this suspension tune has in it – but more for curiosity sake than anything else. While the Dart corners flat and doesn’t pitch excessively under braking, my guess is that the suspension is simply stiff, rather than having proper sports tuning.

Not that the Dodge Dart is all pretense when it comes to the GT tag. It really isn’t. As I mentioned, the engine is among the most potent in the class (Mazda's 2.5L is a little more powerful and the Jetta’s 1.8T just a shade less), and steering is direct and well-weighted. It’s almost like the Dart would be a great tuner car in the vain of the old SRT4s….

There is more to the Dart then pure driving dynamics. We touched on Uconnect, but the overall usability of the cabin is above and beyond. There’s even a place to put your … um… stuff… under the passenger seat bottom, pull it up and you have a great little hidden storage area. It would be helpful on a long road trip too. For storing things I mean.

The standard feature list on the $21,995 GT includes the back-up camera, hill-start assist, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless proximity entry and push-button start, cruise control, and an 8.4-inch Uconnect system. Not to mention ambient LED lighting in the interior, power driver and passenger seats, heated steering wheel and heated front seats, and automatic lights. That’s a lot of goodies for the money.

There’s almost no need to add in the $1,495 Technology Group with HID headlights, rain-sensitive wipers, automatic headlight control, rear park-assist, and blind-spot and cross-path detection. I would opt for the $1,295 Sun/Sound group, because I like the sunroof and the nine-speaker Alpine audio system.

I also think the tough-looking MOPAR Dual Exhaust package with the front chin spoiler, dual exhaust tips and rear diffuser is reasonable value at $735, but I’d personally forgo the MOPAR interior Manual Transmission Package with the cargo net, MOPAR shift handle and rubber MOPAR floor mats.

Navigation is a $525 add on and I would add it because the Garmin system is excellent. The graphics that illustrate exits are clear and some of the easier to read going around. They’re idiot-proof – you can’t miss an exit with instructions this clear.

Did you know they still sell CDs?! You can even still buy a CD player for this car, but it’s remote, single-disc and costs $225. So don’t.

The Uconnect system, a suite of clever interior storage tricks and great design help set the Dart apart from the competitors and do more for its cause than the sporty upgrades offered in GT trims. For the best Dart build up, I’d take the $19,495 Dart SXT, add $795 for the full 8.4-inch touchscreen and digital dash and forsake the sport-tuned suspension and stabilizer bar.

For that money you would get driving dynamics essentially on par with the competition in an aesthetically appealing car with a fantastic driver interface, a class-leading infotainment system with great sound quality, and a grunty engine. You’d get an appliance, only better.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Cruze
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Mazda3
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

2014 Dodge Dart GT
2014 Dodge Dart GT
Base Price $21,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $29,110
Optional Equipment Technology Group - $1,495, Sun/Sound Group - $1,295, MOPAR Dual Exhaust Exterior Package - $735, MOPAR Interior Manual Trans Package - $750, Uconnect Nav - $525, Single disc remote CD player - $225, Compact Spare Tire - $295
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.6
5 Comfort
6 Exterior Styling
7 Performance
8 Interior
7 Fuel Economy