A #VOTY12 Victory Lap

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2013 Dodge Dart

On February 7th, Chrysler Group LLC was formally presented with the Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year award – its first in the six-year history of this accolade. A few days later, the recipient of that framed certificate arrived at my doorstep.

What makes this moment more interesting was the fact that this is the first #VOTY winner to have never driven on V&R's home turf.

It is true. #VOTYs usually hit the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul with intent to run. They have to tackle post-winter potholes, traffic jams on Hennepin Avenue through Uptown, jaywalkers in downtown Minneapolis and possibly, a few friends along for the ride. The measure of a #VOTY winner is where it manages a week's worth of Minnesota Nice.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited 2

The first on-road encounter in the 2013 Dodge Dart occurred in Austin, Texas as part of a pre-sale drive through Blanco County in the Hill Country, It took a couple of Darts to make the day even more special deep in the heart of Texas. Several months later, another Dart was taken along the roads near Hoffman Estates and Barrington, Illinois – northwest of Chicago.

As a result of those drives, and the flood of supportive votes by you, dear readers, I handed off the #VOTY award to Dodge and Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland during media days at the Chicago Auto Show. It was a celebration of the accomplishment this marriage of Chrysler and Fiat by continuing the story for both entities. It would seem appropriate to have one in the Twin Cities to make its victory lap.

A couple of days after I walked into the door of my home from my adventure in Chicago, a Dart Limited in a lovely Tungsten hue showed up. It had a bit of snow wash on it. Not that it is a bad thing, but it did cross my mind that the #VOTY12 would get a cold weather workout during its stay in Minnesota.

The Dart was prepared for it. The remote starter worked, giving the neighborhood the sound of the throaty 1.4-liter Multiair turbocharged engine through its dual exhaust ports. Both the steering wheel and driver’s seat were heated – features you normally would find on larger, more expensive cars. A few changes in the TFT screen between the tachometer and fuel/temp gauges to show an analog speedometer and fuel consumption readouts – and the Dart became a faithful companion for the week.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited 12

Everything about this particular Dart pretty much supported the prior drives. You cannot deny its looks. In its class, it stands out a bit more than others. In a parking lot, those Charger-esque taillights are undeniable. At any given Target or mall, if the Dart is hidden behind a behemoth minivan or full-sized SUV, just keep looking for the taillights.

Inside is swath full of black leather that no longer looks stark. Some contrast stitching on the seats and a red trim around the dashboard helps break up a potentially bleak cabin. Once you start up the Dart, both the instrument binnacle with the changeable TFT screen for the speedometer and the 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen further livens up the room.

The driver's seat is very supportive with more than enough bolstering to lock you in. There is an adjustable lumbar to assist with back support that is also height adjustable. Otherwise, it all comes together when you find the right seating position behind the wheel. That is the beauty of the Dart – ensuring that driver is in tune with the car.

Having been spoiled with turbo engines that had no lag at first throttle, the Multiair turbo was a wee bit of a letdown. On several occasions, if you leave the dual clutch transmission in Drive, you will notice that the turbo will not kick in until it gets to another gear. It makes for a long first-to-second gear transition on a few of those occasions. Some might say that it is unacceptable. I call it a challenge.

One solution is to use the manual part of the gearbox to induce the gear change and kick the turbo in. It is not exactly fool proof. You see, when I work the manual selector on an autobox, I tend to short shift. Short shifting is when you make a gear change short of the rev line to induce a quick run through the gears. Most transmissions hate when you do that. The DDCT in the Dart knows exactly what you are doing and responds with "nice try, amateur." When in doubt, leather into the throttle to induce the revs. That is what I prefer doing.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited 17

Despite this, I love the Multiair turbo/DDCT combination. Though there are now three different performance setups available between the Fiat 500 Turbo and the Abarth, the Dart's setup is more designed for lower fuel consumption than high performance. You still get 160 horsepower, plus the highest torque rating amongst the three Multiair turbo setups. Between the beautiful noise coming from the back and its relaxed performance on the highway, the Multiair turbo/DDCT combination works to satisfy the right foot even when the revs drop around 2000RPM at 60MPH.

Driving dynamics is what makes the Dart a fun car to drive. With its weighted steering action and precise handling, the Dart will find a curve and own it. The ride is very good, with minimal feedback from indifferent road conditions. One part of the vehicle I found a vast improvement in from these past nine months – the brakes. Stopping power is much better with good response in both normal and panic situations. For finding grip in sloppy conditions, the traction control comes on with ease and corrects the car quickly.

Now, you did not want to read just a review of the reigning Vehicle of the Year. You wanted to know how it got on during its "victory lap" in V&R Country – the Twin Cities. You wanted to know how the Dart fared with snow, slush, sleet, subzero wind chills, ice and all the good things Minnesota is known for.

When a vehicle is reviewed and written about for this site, it is subjected to everyday driving. This includes a short commute to my day job, a few weekday errands after work and a little excursion beyond the Interstate 494/694 loop. My weekday commute had its share of different driving conditions – from cold and icy to sloppy with wet snow to everything else within the constraints of winter. For the most part, the Dart fared exceptionally well in the daily grind.

Once away from the surface street commute, the Dart showed its swagger by loving the freeways. There is a feeling from the Dart of a child who is really excited to go out and play. All it needs is a little throttle and the Dart simply comes alive with excitement and joy. How many compacts can you think of that actually feel that way?

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The point of having the Dart here in the Twin Cities is to prove its VOTY-ness in my care. It had no choice but to find parking spaces with enough ice to challenge any traction control system. It battled traffic and indifferent drivers across the region. Yet, the Dart was poised and ready at every turn.

Many of the Dart Limited’s features came into play during its time with me. The 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen may be the star of the cabin; however my favorite piece is the switchable speedometer and trip information screen in the middle of the instrument binnacle. I was amazed on how well speed and fuel consumption information is recorded in real time via the TFT screen. It is as I had an actual electromechanical speedo in play.

In winter, it always helps to have heated seats, heated steering wheel and remote start to work the way it should. These items are essential for life in the Northern Climes. The Dart was a warm cocoon when the temps and the precipitation looked less than favorable.

One aspect of the Dart that had me a bit concerned was the extraordinary rise of gas prices in our region and across the country. When it came time to give the Dart some Premium juice – as recommended for the Multiair turbo – I was prepared for the worse. Though regular ran in the $3.75-3.79 per gallon range, Premium sat just above $4.00 a gallon. Luckily, the Dart turned in an average of 28.0 MPG – pretty decent for a turbocharged, Premium fuel-drinking compact.

In the midst of driving the Dart, I stumbled upon a metaphor. There was a debate on the motivation of the average North American consumer whether they shop for value or do they look for a bargain. One of my excursions took me to the Albertville Outlet Mall, northwest of Minneapolis. This place is an example of how some of our consumerism work. Though there were plenty of vehicles with out-of-state and Canadian plates, they knew that part of their bargain would be the current absence of sales tax on clothing here in Minnesota.

However, we shop for many different reasons. Some of us want good value for the money. Others want the highest quality at any price. There are those of us who want an honest bargain – a low price for a high quality item that will keep for a while.

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One of the complaints about the Dart has been the issue over pricing. While the lineup starts at $16,000, pile on the options and the sticker price goes up significantly. It is the same no matter which trim you choose from. There are so many combinations available for the Dart, the consumer gets confused and wants something pre-packaged at a competitive or an even lower price than a similarly equipped rival. Part of it is because a good chunk of equipment that are standard on most of its rivals are either optional or tied up in packages that one must tick off to get the full effect of the Dart experience.

It brings up the question of whether the Dart an honest bargain. The fully laden Limited I drove had a sticker of $26,265 – a price that is a bit much for a mainstream compact sedan. But, is this particular Dart a good value? Depends on which vehicle you compare it to. Some fully-equipped compacts are just a few hundred dollars less, but can they give you the same feeling as the Dart? That is where the notion of value comes into play.

However, I do have a solution for a good chunk of us. The Limited is very nice, but my choice for the Dart is the Rallye – an upgrade from the SXT. If you do not mind losing the TFT screen for the speedometer and a few luxuries from the Limited, the Rallye is a focused model designed for sports driving. You can still get the 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen, the 1.4litre Multiair turbo and the DDCT transmission in Tungsten for thousands less. If you want more of a value, there is now a lease special on the SXT starting at $149 a month.

The key to enjoying the Dart is to find the right one that meets your personality, your driving style and budget. Hence why you have a plethora of choices to begin with. However, the reality of the pre-packaged, high-value vehicle is one where the Dart is running resistance from the consumer. You would think that by having a choice would help the Dart's fortunes by grabbing sales from the class leaders – namely the aging Toyota Corolla, the revamped Honda Civic, the Chevrolet Cruze and the Ford Focus.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited 6

So, why did the Dart win the #VOTY? It is because the Dart delivered a better driving experience than its rivals selling 15,000-20,000 units each month in the compact class. Only two cars in this class can be truly called driver's cars – the Mazda3S 2.5 is the other one.

A test of the worthiness of the Dart's accolades (Chrysler counted 27 of them through the Chicago Auto Show – would #VOTY12 be considered number 28?) is how it feels after the award has been handed off. Rarely do I get a vehicle after it won the #VOTY. In its sixth year, no #VOTY winner has ever fully confirmed or exceeded the satisfaction of its victory. The Dart is the first exception to that rule. That speaks volumes about the effort Chrysler and Fiat went into the CUS-Wide platform and its first offering from it.

The victory lap is now complete.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Chrysler Group LLC.

All photos by Randy Stern

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