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Review: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT (fourth place)

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This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Dart is ranked in fourth place of eleven.

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It's been a while since Chrysler had a competitive small car. There was the Dodge/Plymouth Neon in the 1990s and the Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon in the early 2000s, but both were allowed to wither on the vine. Until the Dart appeared as a 2013 model, the automaker hadn't even sold a small sedan in the U.S. in eight years.

The Dart didn't quite make the same splash as those models at its launch, with sales staying fairly low for a mainstream brand even after Dodge gave it a series of upgrades for 2014. And while the issue isn't that the Dart is a weak product, it ended up as something of a niche car for buyers who value premium qualities over everyday economy-car versatility and value.

Although the Dart's purchase price is competitive, gas mileage from its powerful engine trails every competitor and many midsize sedans. And unlike the Volkswagen Jetta, interior volume isn't outstanding for a compact sedan.

Perhaps for Chrysler, it would have made more sense to stretch the Dart into a slightly longer vehicle and market it as a midsize car, where it would offer a more compelling value than the competition along with a solid feel and agile handling. But as it is, if you want a relatively fun and sophisticated small sedan and don't mind paying more at the pump for it, the Dart is a strong choice.

Feels premium

To be clear, the Dart is not a luxury car. But the driving dynamics and dashboard would be suitable for a larger and more expensive vehicle – still a nice mainstream car, but certainly one that's priced well above the $19,000 that you can expect to pay for a nicely equipped Dart.

The Dart has a nicely constructed interior with attractive and solidly fitting trim. Much of the dashboard is ordinary hard plastic, but the styling and tasteful amounts of varied materials keep it from looking dull or cheap.

Many Darts also come with an especially large 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which brightens up the instrument panel and is one of the industry's most user-friendly systems. Simple buttons and knobs are lower on the dash for quick adjustments, leaving the screen for more advanced settings and attractive displays.

The front seats are well-shaped and comfortable, and offer plenty of room. The rear is tighter – the cushion is comfortable, but there isn't a surplus of knee or head space. The trunk is class-competitive but unexceptional at 13.1 cubic feet. This is despite the Dart being the longest and widest car in this class.

Driving dynamics, though, will seal the deal for many Dart buyers. Based on the same platform as the award-winning Alfa Romeo Giulietta, it has impressively composed ride and handling for a small, affordable car. It feels confident without sacrificing comfort and refinement. Driving enthusiasts might still favor the livelier steering of a Mazda3, though.

Power is a strong point, though, coming from a big 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 184 horsepower, the best specs in this comparison. Dodge also offers two smaller, more fuel-efficient engines, but only on select models – a 2.0-liter on the base SE with much less power and only slightly better gas mileage, and a 1.4-liter turbo on the eco-focused Aero that lacks the everyday smoothness of the tested 2.4 or competing modern small sedans.

You pay, though, both for the Dart's big engine and for the car's weight. Fuel economy trails the competition with an EPA estimate of just 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving, with the typical small sedan doing more than 10 percent and the class's mileage leaders beating it by a whopping 7 mpg or 26 percent. These costs add up.

The Dart is at least a decent buy to purchase. Expect to spend $18,818 out the door for an SXT comparably equipped to the competition – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen, as well as a rearview camera. That's a solidly competitive price for such a feature-laden compact car, especially in comparison to the Mazda3, its closest competitor for the driving enthusiast's dollar.

Overall

The Dart curiously avoids the mainstream qualities of space and fuel-efficiency that have crowned many a compact king. But for more power and sophistication than most competitors, it's a worthy contender for the right buyer.

Overall grade: B+

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE (3rd place)
- Previous review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE (5th place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Dodge Dart SXT:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $16,495
Version tested: SXT
Version base price (MSRP): $18,495
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $22,385
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $21,435
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $18,818
Test vehicle provided by: Ourisman Dodge; Clarksville, Md.

Key specifications:
Length: 183.9 inches
Width: 72.0 inches
Height: 57.7 inches
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Weight: 3,242 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.1 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.5 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.4-liter I4 with 184 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 23 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 35 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 27 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Illinois
For more information: Dodge website

See also:
Review: 2013 Dodge Avenger SXT
Review: 2014 Dodge Charger SXT Plus
Review: 2011 Dodge Journey Lux

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.

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