Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart GT

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

I’ve heard my dad say that old adage dozens of times since I was a kid and now more than ever I really get what he means by it – and surely the folks at Dodge will too.

Automotive journalists and enthusiasts all over North America are crying daily about the impending doom for manual transmissions.  Woe is us, there won’t soon be any cars left in which we can row our own.  How can we possibly have a joyous and engaging motoring experience without three pedals?  We might as well all fold our arms, pout and sit there waiting for the autonomous cars to arrive.

I’ve been among the most vocal, proudly wearing my “Save the Stick” t-shirt as often as laundry day will allow it.

So how is it I’m sitting here straight-faced now and telling you, “Buy the Dart GT with an automatic”?

Quite simply, it’s because the shifter and clutch setup in the Dart GT is just not worth the effort of trying to sequence the movements of left leg and right arm.  It is a joyless and awkward setup that stymied not just me and my near quarter century of manual transmission driving experience, but also a few of my esteemed colleagues too.

During a recent multi-car comparison test I witnessed both Senior Editor Yarkony and Editor Black stall the red Dodge.  Each has shown at least a modicum of proficiency operating three pedals and a stick shift before, so it must be that confounded set up in the Dart that is posing problems.  A long clutch travel, rubbery shifter and engine accelerator pedal that seems to have difficulty rousing the Dart’s horsepower contribute to make for a lot of herky-jerky starts no matter how carefully one tries.  The cheap-feeling aluminum-coloured plastic ball that is the shift knob doesn’t win any favour either.

It’s a shame too, because otherwise the Dart is a pretty nice machine.

Outside, even in basic trim, Dodge’s compact car offering is handsomely styled.  But dressed up as a GT (which is even more limited than the Limited!) the Dart looks both clean and sporty from its aggressive blacked-out grille all the way back to the “Racetrack” LED tail lights and dual exhaust on our test car.  In true contemporary form, not a lick of chrome can be seen anywhere on the Dart.  And the five-spoke 18-inch wheels really help finish off the sporty persona.

The interior is where Dodge really starts bragging about the Dart.  Proudly showing off their mettle in winning one of Ward’s 10 Best Interior designs, it’s easy to see why.  The heated and perforated Nappa leather feels smooth and soft, and of course the passenger seat features Chrysler’s clever under-your-butt smuggler’s bin.  That said, I found a strange ridge at the back edge of the seat base that pushed uncomfortably into my delicate derriere.  [Tell us all about it, princess. –Ed.]

The rest of the interior is slick and modern and that “Racetrack” LED light theme from the taillights is carried over to a gimmicky (though admittedly well executed) red ring circling the main controls of the upper dash.  Plus with primary gauges replaced by a 7-inch reconfigurable graphic display accompanied by the 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen on the centre dash, a driver surely remains well informed.

Graphic-intensive screens aren’t the only technology that makes the Dart GT feel luxurious.  It’s also got features like a heated steering wheel, a 500+ watt stereo and automatically adaptive high-beam headlights that are usually found only on high-end luxury cars.

The rear seat is a little tighter than some of its more spacious competitors, but not so much that you’d call it cramped.  The trunk, too, is about par for the course in the compact class.

The GT is the only Dart to receive the 2.4L “Tigershark” engine.  This largest available Dart power plant delivers 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque.  Neither figure will earn the Dart membership into the sport sedan class, but once revved up, the GT will scoot along reasonably well, though the noise made by the Tigershark suggests it’s not overly thrilled to be exercised too hard.

A smaller, turbocharged engine (perhaps a boosted two-litre version of the mid-level 1.4L“MultiAir” mill Dodge fits in lower trim level Darts) would really elevate the performance to match the GT’s aggressive looks.  Doing so would undoubtedly boost cost and fuel efficiency.  As it is, the test car delivered an overall fuel consumption average of 8.4 L/100 km of a pretty even split between urban and highway driving.  This is better than the 8.9 figure Dodge lists for city driving, but well past the 5.9 listed for the Tigershark 2.4’s highway figure.

This sportiest of Darts features a stiffer suspension in the interest of improved handling.  And mostly it succeeds.  Whereas the last Dart I had driven (a Limited trim) seemed to wallow around a lot, this GT is definitely more planted, and grips better thanks to the large, performance-oriented tires and the tauter underpinnings.

In truth, once you’ve successfully managed to execute the designated cog change, horsing the Dart around can be quite a bit of fun.  Steering is nicely weighted, reasonably quick after a bit of initial lag and transmits a fair bit of detail on what the front tires are doing on the pavement. This small Dodge is further proof that front-wheel-drive cars can be made to perform handling duties with considerable acumen.  Even though it does ultimately understeer when pressed too far, the Dart GT’s limits are lofty enough to still create some excitement for its driver.

Of course the penance one pays for improved handling is usually a more punishing ride and that’s true here.  A new Mazda3 or Volkswagen Jetta does a better job of managing both decent handling and a more forgiving ride with their better-sorted chassis.

The brakes on this newer GT model are not as spongy as those on the earlier Limited car, providing decent stopping power with a firm pedal.

Should you not be quite quick enough with those brakes however, the Dart is stuffed with ten airbags – a class leader by a fair margin.  Rear cross-path detection, blind spot monitoring and parking sensors all help keep the Dart, its passengers and those around it safe.  Safe enough to earn the car an IIHS Top Safety Pick award too.

It should be noted too that our bright red press car had a very impressive paint finish for such an affordably priced car.  Indeed inside and out the Dart feels pretty well fastened together.

It’s a shame then that such an attractive, well equipped and otherwise enjoyable car would be sullied by a poor clutch and shifter set up.  Unlike most automotive flaws though, this one is easily solved.  Just check the box on the sales agreement for the optional six-speed automatic, and enjoy some spirited driving in that award-winning interior.

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Model Tested 2013 Dodge Dart GT
Base Price $23,295
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $29,360
Optional Equipment
GT group package, including Leather Seats, Uconnect 8.4 touchscreen, Sport Suspension ($1,250); Power Sunroof ($1,295); Bi-Xenon HID headlamps ($775), GPS Navigation ($450); Premium Speaker System ($500); 18” Hyper Black Aluminum Wheels ($300)