Five years from now, no one will even remember the joyless Dodge Caliber, a comatose crossover born to snooze on rental car lots.
Most of us already forgot the Plymouth/Dodge Neon, a mean jellybean of a compact that — like writers and Washington politicians — suffered frequent bouts of self-destruction.
But the infamous Caliber and Neon still pose two large lumps that the 2013 Dodge Dart will need to clamber over if it’s going to attain compact-car credibility.
All it needs is a little push.
Fiat ultimately became the controlling owner of Chrysler Group in Chrysler’s bankruptcy, bailout and restructuring in 2009, giving the Detroiters an intriguing Italian accent.
And with the new Dodge Dart, we get a sedan based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta in Europe, which should be pretty decent DNA. So I had high hopes for the metallic blue-gray Dart Limited that arrived recently for my review.
It seemed to possess some of the same one-world charm as the new Ford Focus — a sedan that could tackle curvy European backroads with grace and still be comfortable at an American backyard barbecue.
Its long hood abutted a curved grille and large, aggressive headlamps. A blacked-out grille with Dodge’s quasi-menacing crosshair center gave the sedan some sporting flair.
Meanwhile, a conventional character line that ran through the car’s chrome door handles connected the front neatly with a similar wraparound rear.
The car’s large doors looked efficient, promising more space in back than the Dart could actually deliver, and highly polished 10-spoke wheels carried substantial 225/45-17 tires.
But the exterior, while crisp and well-proportioned, was overshadowed by the gray-and-white interior — whose bold color scheme looked like something you might find in a 1959 Olds 88.
A gray dashboard had a stitched hood over the instrument panel and a prominent center stack trimmed in piano black.
Gray leather covered the steering wheel, and the seats were wrapped in luxurious-looking pleated white leather in gray shells.
I’m not sure how wine- or grape-jelly resistant they would be — depending on your country of origin. But they looked great in a $25,000 economy sedan.
Although the swoopy door panels were mostly gray plastic, white centers with padded gray armrests added some pizzazz.
I was less impressed with the legroom in back, which was reasonable but not as generous as I had expected.
In fact, that close-but-no-cigar theme prevailed beneath the hood as well.
My Dart Limited was equipped with the standard 2-liter “Tigershark” four kicking out 160 horsepower.
That power is identical to the Ford Focus SE. But here’s the deal: The Focus is nearly 400 pounds lighter than the Dart — 2,907, according to Edmunds.com, compared with 3,295 for the Dart, says Motor Trend.
Even a fairly good six-speed automatic can’t do much to move that bulk, which is close to the weight of some midsize sedans.
Though the engine is smooth and refined with a rich exhaust note, it needs a mediocre 9.9 seconds to propel the husky Dart to 60, according to Motor Trend.
The Focus, incidentally, is nearly two seconds quicker to 60, the magazine calculated.
I suggest you choose the optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, which also has 160 horsepower but generates 40 more pound-feet of torque and is considerably quicker in tests.
Fortunately, the Dart rides on a solid platform that felt more sporting than the engine. The steering, for example, was lively and quick — an unusual combination in a front-wheel-drive compact like the Dart.
It turned into corners crisply at moderately fast speeds, with minimal body motions. Though the car wasn’t overtly sporting, it felt quietly confident in a sort-of flingable, European way.
So did its ride. While the Dart moved with a Euro-tautness most of the time, it maintained a long-legged composure over big bumps that belied its econo-car roots.
Dodge got really close with the new Dart. If performance is less important to you than utility, style and fuel economy, then your sedan has probably arrived.
If not, I would opt for the turbo version of the Dart or hold out for an SRT version.
Either way, the Dart still outshines the low-voltage Neon and bargain-bin Caliber.
2013 Dodge Dart Limited
Base price: $15,995
As tested: $24,965
Type: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door sedan
Engine: Two-liter four-cylinder with 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque
Six speed automatic transmission
Mileage: 24 mpg city, 34 mpg highway