Being a car enthusiast means seeing a car with aftermarket accessories and wanting to know every detail of its backstory and why it is set up the way it is. This happened recently when I caught a glimpse of a Chrysler 200, a car less attractive than pouring wet cement down your pants. As a creation of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA, now Stellantis), the 200 does have Alfa Romeo DNA in its chassis, as does its sister car, the more attractive 2012-2016 PF generation Dodge Dart.
But could the Dart’s better appeal be based on its name alone? The Dart’s nameplate contains a fair amount of canon to the legendary Hemi Dart and Dart Swinger of the muscle car era. The modern heir doesn’t have the same rear-wheel-drive V8 power, but for the price it fetch, its eager engine choices and available manual transmission, is it still a decent pickup in 2022?
Bland factory specs?
One of the best quotes from the CEO of a car company comes from Sergio Marchionne, former head of FCA. “I can tell you now that both the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart, great as they were, were the least financially rewarding ventures we’ve conducted within FCA over the past eight years.” Autoblog reported in 2017. “I don’t know of any investment that was as bad as these two.” Oh dear, maybe things aren’t looking good for this one. At least they’re fetching pretty low second-hand prices, at least for 2022, even with low miles.
Anyway, let’s dive into some statistics. The Dart suffered the illogical fate of having many different trim, engine and gearbox combinations, which makes figuring out the best specification a little complicated. It weighed anywhere from 3,186 to 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 producing 160 hp and 148 lb ft of torque, the Fiat-produced 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged inline-four producing 160 hp and 184 lb ft of torque, and finally the 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir 2 inline-four with 184 hp and 171 lb ft of torque. Front-wheel drive was the only option, but power could find its way there via a conventional six-speed automatic transmission, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual transmission.
None of these combinations made for a 0-60 mph run 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 that Edmunds. com in 2013 we can see some cool stuff going on. Its European DNA is evident in the way the front MacPherson suspension has a clamp bolt to hold the front struts in place, preventing easy camber adjustment. OK, that’s not a tick in the positives box, but the rest generally is.
It has multi-link independent rear suspension, chassis-mounted rear sway bar, easy rear camber adjustment via eccentric bolts, rear urethane bump stops (hey, urethane anything piques my simple interest), lots of things made of aluminum, and even wheel studs. Well, the latter isn’t necessarily a positive, but at least for factory equipment they usually mean lower rotational mass than cams with nuts.
This all begs the question: Could a dart handle and perform better with the help of the aftermarket?
Respectable aftermarket potential
Affirmative. Despite going out of production six years ago (although a copy sold as new earlier this year, hilarious), there are still some retailers offering quite a few neat performance tweaks.
My ideal Dart brew would be a Rallye spec with a size of turbo-four and a manual transmission. The Mighty-Mouse-spec MultiAir has some fun boost-adding accessories and tunes to push the power above 200 wheel horsepower, and an aftermarket exhaust could help it beat its MultiAir-equipped cousin, the Fiat 500 Abarth. to imitate. It won’t be an auger, but it should be fun, especially with a limited-slip differential that could help effectively cut that power off.
Not that it needs much there, I think it’s a generally good looking compact saloon that cleans up really nicely with the right wheels and mild suspension. Seriously, the right offset and drop really help. Some people go hard in the paint in the Pep Boys accessory aisle, but many have been nicely spruced up. Call me a blasphemer, but I’d even say it looks better than its European cousin, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which looks like an excited Pixar bug. Obviously looks are subjective, please don’t call me unsavory names in the comments.
As for proving its ultimate fun potential with some motorsport chops, the Dart had its moments. Travis Pastrana campaigned one in Global RallyCross for the 2013 season, though he only managed eighth place for the entire calendar. He also raced in the Pro Stock class of the National Hot Rod Association in 2014.
General impressions and concerns about reliability
As for how the Dodge Dart drives by default, my colleague Kevin Williams had some nice things to say as he discussed the ups and downs in the Slack chat. It’s his trusted take on all things American (and Italian) cars that made me prefer the Rallye trim. Dan Edmunds also noted that a good set of summer tires could really wake it up. Car and driver also had nice things to say about the chassis handling, but did report that it had numb steering and not enough power from the factory MultiAir.
On the other end of the ownership spectrum, the Dart is no stranger to reliability issues and other weird issues. It sounds like his engines are fine if you keep an eye on the oil level and keep track of the service intervals. Like any compact, or car in general, heat is the enemy, and the 1.4-litre MultiAir produces plenty of it. As CarParts.com reports, excessive oil consumption, stalling issues, weak suspension components that can exacerbate drivetrain problems, automatic transmissions that decide to disconnect the engine, and the wrong brakes fitted from the factory are just some of the wallet-stealing features of this compact.
If any of this is attractive, it might hit the bull’s eye
While this isn’t a true European rebadge like the fifth-generation Buick Regal GS, it’s still a neat American compact with cool Alfa Romeo engineering. Sure, the CEO of FCA shook his head in disbelief at the time because it was a massive bust, but to me that just means even cheaper second-hand potential. Mainly for having a good selection of aftermarket tuning and a number of proud owners. Is it the Dart Swinger and Hemi Dart pride? No, unfortunately not at all – it’s not a performance icon like those were. But it’s not terrible either, beating its ugly milquetoast Chrysler 200 brother by a country mile.