The Dodge Dart Is a Budget Buy With a Surprisingly Strong Aftermarket
Could one of the worst-selling Dodges ever be a diamond in the rough?
Being a car enthusiast means seeing a car with aftermarket accessories and wanting to know every detail of its backstory and why it’s set up the way it is. This recently happened when I caught a glimpse of a Chrysler 200, a car that is less appealing than pouring wet cement down one's pants. As a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA, now Stellantis) creation, the 200 does have some neat Alfa Romeo DNA bumbling around in its chassis, as does its sister car, the more appealing 2012-2016 PF-generation Dodge Dart.
But could the Dart's better appeal be based on its name alone? The Dart nameplate carries a hefty amount of canon after the legendary Hemi Dart and Dart Swinger of the muscle car era. The modern heir doesn't have the same rear-wheel-drive V8 energy engineered into it, but for the price it fetches, its enthusiastic engine choices, and available manual gearbox, is it still a decent pickup in 2022?
Bland Factory Specs?
One of the greatest quotes uttered by a car company's CEO comes from Sergio Marchionne, former head of FCA. "I can tell you right now that both the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart, as great products as they were, were the least financially rewarding enterprises that we've carried out inside FCA in the last eight years," Autoblog reported in 2017. "I don't know one investment that was as bad as these two were.” Oh dear, maybe things aren't looking good for this one. At least they're fetching fairly low second-hand prices, for 2022 at least, even with low miles.
Regardless, let's dive into some stats. The Dart suffered the illogical fate of having many different trim, engine, and gearbox combinations, which makes figuring out the best spec a bit complicated. It weighed anywhere between 3,186 and 3,348 lbs, and came in SE, SXT, SXT Sport, Rallye, Aero, GT, and GT Sport trims—that's right, seven trims for a four-year run. Engine choices ranged from the 2.0-liter Chrysler Tigershark inline-four that produced 160 horsepower and 148 lb ft of torque, the Fiat-sourced 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir inline-four with 160 horsepower and 184 lb ft of torque, and finally the 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir 2 inline-four with 184 horsepower and 171 lb ft of torque. Front-wheel-drive was the only option, but power could find its way there via a six-speed conventional automatic transmission, six-speed dual-clutch automatic, or six-speed manual.
None of these combinations netted a run from 0-60 mph in less than 8 seconds, but at least you could shift your own gears on the way there. The Dart's chassis, on the other hand, has potential. Thanks to a deep dive by Dan Edmunds for Edmunds.com back in 2013, we can see there’s some cool stuff going on underneath. Its European DNA shines through in the way its front MacPherson suspension has a pinch bolt to hold the front struts in place, which disallows easy camber adjustment. OK, that's not a tick mark in the box of positives, but the rest generally is.
It has a multi-link independent rear suspension, a chassis-mounted rear sway bar, easy rear camber adjustment via eccentric bolts, urethane rear bump stops (hey, urethane anything piques my simple-minded interest), lots of stuff made out of aluminum, and even lug bolts. Well, the latter isn't necessarily a positive, but at least for factory equipment they usually mean lower rotational mass over lugs with nuts.
This all begs the question: Could a Dart handle and perform better with the assistance of the aftermarket?
Respectable Aftermarket Potential
Affirmative. In spite of going out of production six years ago (though one example just sold as new earlier this year, hilariously), there are still some retailers out there offering a good amount of neat performance modifications.
My ideal Dart concoction would be a Rallye spec with a measure of turbo-four and a twist of manual transmission. The Mighty-Mouse-spec MultiAir has some fun boost-adding accessories and tunes to bump power past the 200 wheel-horsepower mark, and an aftermarket exhaust could help it mimic its MultiAir-equipped cousin the Fiat 500 Abarth. It won't be a ground-pounder, but it should be fun, especially with a limited-slip differential that could help put that power down effectively.
For improving driving dynamics, several retailers offer aftermarket coilovers, springs, and dampers, as well as sway bars. A lot of this is Mopar fare, which is the performance arm of Chrysler and Dodge. Better brakes for reigning in all that turbocharged power are available as well, and aftermarket wheels and tires would do wonders for its looks.
Not that it needs a whole lot there, I think it's a generally good-looking compact sedan that really cleans up nicely with the right wheels and a mild suspension drop. Seriously, the right offset and drop really help it out. Some people go hard in the paint in the Pep Boys accessory aisle, but a lot are nicely done up. Call me a blasphemer, but I'd even go as far as saying it looks better in the face than its European cousin the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which looks like an excited Pixar bug. Obviously looks are subjective, please don't call me any unsavory names in the comments.
As far as proving its ultimate fun potential with some motorsports chops, the Dart had its moments. Travis Pastrana campaigned one in Global RallyCross for the 2013 season, though he only reached as high as eighth place for the entire calendar. It also ran in the National Hot Rod Association's Pro Stock class in 2014.
General Impressions and Reliability Concerns
As far as how the Dodge Dart drives as stock, my colleague Kevin Williams had some nice things to say while discussing its ups and downs in the Slack chat. It's his trusted opinion of all things American (and Italian) cars that led to me favoring the Rallye trim. Dan Edmunds also noted that a good set of summer tires could really wake it up. Car and Driver had nice things to say about the chassis handling, too, though did report that it had numb steering and not enough power from the MultiAir from the factory.
On the opposite end of the ownership spectrum, the Dart is no stranger to reliability annoyances and other weird issues. It sounds like its engines are OK if you keep an eye on the oil level and keep up with maintenance intervals. Like any compact, or car in general, heat is the enemy, and the 1.4-liter MultiAir produces a lot of it. As CarParts.com reports, excessive oil consumption, stalling issues, weak suspension components that can compound drivetrain issues, automatic transmissions that decide to disconnect from the engine, and having the wrong brakes fitted from the factory are just a few of the wallet-stealing features of this compact.
If Any of This Is Appealing, It Could Hit the Bullseye
While this isn't a genuine European rebadge like the fifth-gen Buick Regal GS, it's still a neat American compact that features some cool Alfa Romeo engineering. Sure, the CEO of FCA at the time shook his head in disbelief over it being a massive failure, but to me, that just means even cheaper second-hand potential. Especially for having a good selection of aftermarket tuning and some proud owners. Does it do the Dart Swinger and Hemi Dart proud? No, not at all, sadly—it's not a performance-focused icon like those were. But it ain't terrible, either, and it beats its ugly milquetoast Chrysler 200 sibling by a country mile.