The 2.0L is the standard engine and is likely to power the vast majority of Darts produced. Mated to the six-speed manual transmission it has an EnerGuide fuel economy rating of 8.1 L/100 km city and 5.4 L/100 km highway, which is competitive with other compacts. However, with 160 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, it is stronger than the standard engine in most others competitors, of which none would be described as powerful.

First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
First Drive: 2013 Dodge Dart reviews first drives dodge
2013 Dodge Dart. Click image to enlarge

And neither is the Dart really, although the 2.0L Tigershark four-cylinder has more than sufficient power for daily driving duties. The six-speed automatic transmission provides almost imperceptible shifting, but it is tuned to shift to top gear as early as possible and to stay there until ordered into a lower gear by an impatient right foot or gravity.

While not particularly noteworthy, the way it goes about its business is impressive. It is quite possibly the quietest engine-transmission combination in a compact that I have ever driven. Even under flat-out acceleration, when other engines are challenging the audio system for dominance, this Tigershark never intrudes except in a very distant, muffled manner.

The premium engine for most of the Dart lineup is a 1.4L turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder. Unlike other compacts, the premium offering is not a power option, it is a fuel economy option (although Dodge will have the power option too when the 2.4L engine arrives later this year in the R/T). Coupled with the six-speed manual transmission, the 160-hp 1.4L has an Energuide fuel economy rating of 7.4 L/100 km city and 4.9 L/100 km highway. An even more fuel-efficient model — The Dodge Dart “AERO” – is expected to achieve a 4.7 L/100 km highway fuel economy rating when it arrives later this year.

Combined with a six-speed manual transmission, acceleration is sprightly and the additional torque (184 lb-ft vs. 148 lb-ft for the 2.0) is noticeable. The engine revs willingly to its rev limiter — thanks in part to the incredible tranquility of the cabin — and loves to run above 4,000 rpm where maximum torque is reached. Boost pressure is dynamically managed to provide a broad torque curve with a peak pressure of 22 psi at 4,000 rpm.

The only downside to the combination is the manual transmission that has surprisingly long throws between gears and a mushy, imprecise feel.

Basing the Dart on the Alfa Giulietta enabled Dodge to use a modular platform with proven underpinnings. The suspension, MacPherson struts up front, specifically tuned to minimize camber loss, and a bi-link independent rear, provides a smooth ride and good handling. The car feels solid on the road, confident through the curves, comfortable over rougher pavement and almost devoid of road noise in the cabin. The electric power steering is nicely weighted with a solid on-centre feel.

The Dodge Dart goes up against some proven performers like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Mazda3, and Volkswagen Jetta. Its stiffest competitor is the Hyundai Elantra, a car that is arguably the best value in the compact class today. With the Dart, Dodge is serving notice that it plans to displace the current king of the hill.

Based on price and standard equipment, the Dart is perhaps the equal of the Elantra, but add in consumer choice — three engines, three transmissions, multiple exterior and interior choices and segment-first technology like the customizable FFT gauge screen — and the advantage shifts to Dodge.

Fiat, Chrysler Group and the Dodge division have done an excellent job developing a competitive compact car. Don’t be surprised if this one gets the nod in the North American and Canadian Car of the Year run off.