It was one of those weekends where nothing went quite right. The first rental car I got was pretty banged-up on all corners, and the interior reeked of menthol cigarettes. Worst of all, it wasn’t even a Mopar, and since I was on the way to Thunderhill so I could race a Neon with famous Mopar engineer, Hellcat inventor, and Viper-related head-shaver Erich Heuschele, I decided to Gold Choice my way into a Dart. Both Erich and I are still awfully passionate about Neons despite the fact there hasn’t been a Neon for sale for quite some time now, and I thought that the Dart, as the Neon’s authentic successor, would be a good choice.
The first thing I noticed about the Dart was that it had nearly 35,000 miles on it. The second thing was that someone had swapped the front tires out for astoundingly noisy, unbalanced cheapo replacements. The third thing I noticed was that it did not have cruise control, and by then it was too late to turn back.
The question for me was: Could I still review the Dart fairly despite the hideous howling coming from the front end? I decided I’d try to edit it out, the same way some of my contemporaries edit out the interior of the Cadillac ATS when they’re busy vomiting praise for that vehicle onto the printed or virtual page. So let us go then, you and I, when the Sacramento evening is spread out against the sky.
The oddball spec of our rental car appeared to be basic SE with some extra-cost aluminum wheels. It’s not a bad-looking car, you know. Compared to most of its competition it’s very attractively proportioned, with none of the tippy-toe tall-and-narrow aesthetic that characterizes the Elantra and Corolla. It doesn’t look like anything in particular, and the Alfa Romeo underneath is spectacularly well-disguised, but at least it’s not ungainly.
While the Dart is, nominally speaking, a compact car, it’s even larger than the Chevrolet Cruze, which itself is larger than the rest of the class. The not-so-small-Dodge comes within an inch or two of the 2002 Honda Accord in most dimensions, if that helps put it in perspective. No surprise, then, that I had plenty of room behind the wheel and that all of my luggage, including my 49.5-pound Samsonite race-gear hardshell monster, fit in the trunk.
The interior feels deliberately cheap, but there are a few metal accents to relieve the cave-like aesthetic. The USB port in the center console will charge most devices and will play music from a recent iPhone. If you want Bluetooth, however, you’re out of luck. The same is true for cruise control, which is not standard on the Dart SE or even on the SXT in some configurations over the past few years. It’s a forty-two dollar install after the fact, which just points out how weirdly cheap FCA can be sometimes. All the cruise-control programming is there, you just don’t get the switch.
The combination of two-liter, 160-horsepower engine and six-speed automatic is not rapid by any stretch of the imagination, and there’s a surprising reluctance to rev. It’s been twenty years since the two-liter, three-speed automatic Neon, and if this new car isn’t actually slower against the clock, it sure feels like it is. Power is only ever adequate and calling for a late pass results in a mildly alarming case of distraction from the transmission. which clearly dislikes the idea of grabbing a lower gear and will punish you for suggesting it.
The chassis, on the other hand, is clearly better than what you get in an Elantra, Corolla, or Civic. It has the responsiveness and roll control of the Focus, which is kinda the class leader here, but it doesn’t ride nearly as harshly. As a highway proposition, it’s remarkably livable, assuming there isn’t some sort of terrible howl coming from the front tires. Those front tires also drove a stake through the heart of anything like lateral grip, but the Dart is certainly well-behaved while it’s communicating the lack of cornering traction. Like the Cruze, the Dart has a mid-sized presence on the road. Never did I hear a random squeak or rattle despite the high mileage of our rental example.
HVAC performance was strong and relatively silent. Observed fuel economy hovered in the 32mpg range, but I should point out that the Dart spent a few hours idling in the chilly NorCal mornings to warm up the pit crew and power a few cellphone chargers. There just isn’t too much to complain about with this car, but neither does it possess much in the way of singular virtue. Most cheap European cars are just like this, you know. They handle okay and they work okay but they are neither Bimmers nor Yugos.
As a six-speed manual-transmission car with decent tires and the cruise control installed, this would make a better than decent car for anybody with under twenty grand to spend. I preferred it to the Cruze, mostly on the basis of looks and dynamic cornering behavior. The problem is that the Dart just isn’t that far away from the Camry and Accord in pricing. With automatic transmission, this is nearly nineteen grand. A Camry LE is $22,970 and nowadays Toyota piles the incentives on just as thick as Chrysler does.
After a race weekend that got progressively worse as time went on, I was happy to steer the Dart back towards the Sacramento airport. With cruise control, it would really be almost the perfect rental car. Nothing wobbled or fell off and I never felt cramped. The question is: why buy it over a Civic? Well, it’s bigger and roomier and different, but those qualities don’t mean much to the typical Civic buyer. Still, if you’re willing to look past the Civic to cars like the Elantra or Forte, you should give a look to this one as well. I wonder, however, if people will be as passionate about the Dart twenty years from as some of us still are about driving, and racing, Neons.
Scratch that. I don’t wonder about it.