Taking the lead is difficult in a field of top-notch competitors. You have to be better than the best.
The 2013 Dodge Dart is admirable. It is an aggressively styled, well-equipped, reasonably priced compact front-wheel-drive sedan. But it won't take the lead in that retail automobile segment any time soon.
Those are the facts, despite the enormous promotional hype surrounding the rebirth of the Dodge Dart - born in Detroit as a full-size automobile in 1960, reduced to a compact car in the early 1970s and last sold under the all-American-owned Dodge banner in 1976.
The Dart is now back as an Italian American compact, based largely on Italy's Alfa Romeo Giulietta - an offspring of Italy's Fiat, the new corporate parent of all things Chrysler, Dodge and Alfa Romeo. The new Dart is a good car, not quite good enough - not yet, anyway - to take the lead in a field also occupied by the Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Jetta.
The good stuff includes the new Dart's design - an aggressive exterior marked by Dodge's famed crosshair grille, a refined interior almost worthy of those in the Jetta and Altima, and all the electronic infotainment access most of us want or need. The car offers a lot for the money, with a price tag at NZ$19,273 for the base Dart SE, rising to NZ$21,682 for the popularly equipped SXT and going to NZ$24,093 for the upscale Dart Limited. (These super-low prices are explained by the amortisation of costs in a market the size of the US and the fact that the car is built in low-cost Mexico - Motoring Ed).
Also available are the Dart Rallye and R/T, specifically aimed at buyers who want more performance, or the illusion thereof, in their economy car. I drove two versions - the Dart SXT equipped with its standard 2-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol engine (120kW and 201 Newton-metres of torque) and a pre-production edition of the Dart Rallye outfitted with a turbocharged 1.4-litre in-line four (also 120kW but with 250Nm of torque) mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.
It's all OK, but "not the best" when the new Dart hits the road. Something is lost in translation from the wide-bodied Alfa Romeo Giulietta to the new Dart. The Giulietta, like many European compacts, is designed to do yeoman work in hauling people and stuff without driving a family into bankruptcy at the fuel pump.
The new Dart benefits from that heritage. It gets a respectable 9.4 litres/100km in the city and 6.5 litres/100km on the highway using regular petrol in the base 2-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. But it feels sluggish in a traditional lineup of quicker Dodge cars, such as the Avenger.
There is also the matter of the dual-clutch transmission used in the Giulietta and now transferred to the Dart. To put it simply, perhaps even sophomorically, that technology does not seem to work as well here as it does in Europe.
In manual mode, in my hands, the transmission appeared to slip. I shifted to fourth. It automatically reset to third gear. I shifted to third and it started searching for fourth - not at all like the much more precise and more enjoyable manual shifter found in the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT.
In the Dart, I preferred the smoother and more precise shifting of the optional six-speed automatic used in the tested Dart Rallye.
My complaints amount to a quibble, but enough of a quibble to lead me to choose the 2013 Hyundai Elantra, the Ford Focus, the Chevrolet Cruze or the Nissan Altima over the much-touted 2013 Dodge Dart.
❏ Footnote: Chrysler/Fiat's policy for its Dodge brand in terms of export is not finalised, but cars like the Dart and others in the pipeline sharing Fiat and Chrysler Corporation values are being considered in right-hand drive form.
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