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Dodge Dart narrowly misses greatness

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Dodge Dart exterior

Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines make it a stand-out looker. Its roomy interior accommodates four adults.

The current Dodge Dart is likely to be remembered as a near-miss.

Broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines give it stand-out looks. Its silhouette reflects the character of a European sport coupe.

Its roomy interior accommodates four adults, its optional Uconnect infotainment interface is one of the industry’s best.

Dart’s platform feels sturdy and planted and its electrically assisted steering system is linear and well weighted. Good on-center feel helps Dart track steadily in its lane, without needing constant driver input.

2016 Dodge Dart interior

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours.

At 70 mph, reports Car and Driver, the Dart’s cabin is as quiet as the Mercedes-Benz C300’s. Dart is the only car in the segment with available park-assist. An optional Alpine audio system pairs with Uconnect to provide outstanding sound and a user-friendly interface.

The platform is wider than the compact standard, yielding generous hip and shoulder room. Rear-seat legroom is excellent and, despite the coupe-like profile, there’s enough headroom for most.

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours. Soft-touch surfaces abound and critical controls are within easy reach. Some interior plastics are dated, though, and the driver-information display has the ambience of a ‘70s-era video game.

These, and a handful of other shortcomings keep the Dart from greatness. It’s heavier than most compacts and none of its three engine options excite. Good as the platform is, the chassis doesn’t provide enough feedback to engage the driver.

The mid-level SXT, which I tested, is powered by a 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that’s paired with a six-speed automatic. It’s one of the segment’s strongest engines but acceleration and efficiency run mid-class.

The base engine is a 2.0-liter four that makes 160 hp. Powering upper trims is a turbocharged 1.4-liter four that makes 160 hp and as much torque — 184 pound-feet — as the thirstier 2.4L.

All three engines can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission (hooray for Dodge!). Alternatively, the normally aspirated engines are mated to automatics, the turbocharged 1.4L to a double-clutch automated manual.

My tester included a Rallye package that added great-looking wheels, a “touring” suspension and a rear stabilizer bar meant to flatten out the corners.The touring tune splits the difference between the softer base suspension and the GT’s “sport” tune, which most reviewers consider too harsh.

My tester’s ride was for the most part firm, pleasant and well-controlled, though broken road surfaces sometimes sent shudders through the cabin.

Dart’s seats are set high in the cabin, the tilt-and telescoping steering column has a limited range of motion and the minuscule dead pedal is minuscule — but most will find the layout agreeable.

Achieving greatness in a better-than-ever segment is not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, Fiat Chrysler plans to sharpen its focus on its Jeep and truck portfolios, so Dart as we know it may not be around for long.

Too bad, because it’s this close.

2016 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye
Vehicle base price: $19,240
Trim level base price: $20,390
Options included 8.4-inch Uconnect screen; backup camera; iPod control; illuminated instrument-panel surround; 17-inch Granite Crystal aluminum wheels; touring suspension; rear stabilizer bar; fog lamps; dual exhaust tips; automatic transmission; sport-appearance hood; GPS navigation; Sirius XM radio, traffic and weather; compact spare tire.
EPA rating: 27 combined/23 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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