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Update: A Closer Look Inside the 2013 Dodge Dart

While Allpar recently was able to test drive two Dodge Darts, we spent some quality time with two of the car’s designers (for interior and exterior) and with compact-and-midsize-car PR manager Kathy Graham. Our time was well spent, as we were able to get a closer look at two cars which appeared to be newer than the last ones we’d seen, and to get some insights into what’s going on in Auburn Hills.

kathy graham

There have been many changes as the cars have come closer to final production, including changes in the options. We learned for the first time that the active grille shutters (they’re behind the lower grille) and underbody covers are now standard on all but SE, where they’re optional, among other things; and that the cD, or coefficient of drag, is an admirable 0.285 (the slippery Corolla is 0.31; lower is better). The aero gizmos are only part of the reason for the low drag; Joe Dehner showed us numerous points where they worked hard with the wind tunnel people.

According to Graham, 85% of compact cars are sedans, a segment where Dodge has been absent since the Neon was dropped for the Caliber; one goal was to appeal to both younger and older buyers, without alienating either. The different front fascias were one major solution to that problem.

By the end of June, each dealership should have one or more Darts. Kathy later said that they were always planning to make the manual transmissions first, partly as a quality check. She said that the six-speed automatics are similar to those in the Hyundai Sonata, but not exactly the same; current Chrysler six-speeds are too big for the Dart. The dual dry clutch Fiat unit, to be used only with the 1.4, are coming in the third quarter, and customers will have a choice between the Fiat and Hyundai automatics, and the manual.

Joe Dehner with Dodge Dart

Joe Dehner, head of exterior design for all of Dodge, called the styling “aerodramatic,” noting the low coefficient of drag (0.285), a figure that might not have been beaten by any mainstream Dodge since the Charger Daytona.

He said compact cars often have out-of-scale elements due to technology, such as headlight bulges, but that they were able to use technology to scale down design elements. He pointed to the “monographics,” where design elements are put together into one shape, such as the headlights and turn signals; and said the glossy black front end was polarizing, so the monochromatic look was used on Limited.

One goal was to have a large greenhouse, or glass area; the tiny rear window was added for visibility in a move led by the design department. The extra light and visibility benefit the rear passengers as well as the driver; we noticed that the usable area of the window is larger from the back seat than the front.

ryan nagode

In back, Dehner is particularly proud of the “flying buttress,” which provides a bit of Charger feel, without exacting any aerodynamic penalties. He said that the sweeping rear quarter panels would normally cause some aero issues, as the air followed their shape to the back of the car rather than breaking free, but in this case, it tested well from the start, possibly because of the placement of the seams.

The unusual (and unique in this class) tail-light treatment uses 152 LEDs, and helps make the car look wider, bringing it “to scale.” The area is indirectly lit, and the LEDs are actually mounted north/south; lenses refract and redirect the light, giving a “crushed glass” look. The lower diffuser includes fascia-mounted exhaust tips; while exhaust tips are usually mounted to the tailpipe itself, that makes it difficult to center, and the exhaust tends to move over time. With this system, they always line up perfectly.

volkswagen-audi

We asked Dehner about the front styling and whether it resembled current Volkswagens. He said there were some commonalities, which he had indeed pointed out, due partly to similar functional and airflow concerns, including the “mask quality” of the front. The Dart is wider than the Volkswagen/Audi, and “less Teutonic,” more styled and fluid, and has the brand-identifying crosshair grille.

Joe Dehner and 2013 DartOne of the interesting back stories of the Dart is how the grille ended up as it is now. Originally, for aerodynamic reasons, it appeared that they would need to cover the back of the top grille area, making it nonfunctional. Joe Dehner did not seem to like that idea; indeed, the concept of fake surfaces seemed to repel him. The issue is that air tends to tumble around the edges of the openings, causing drag and reducing their effectiveness as intakes. The team was able to work on the design, and eventually was able to keep the top grille open and functional.

By the wipers, Dehner showed us how the hood rises slightly, to give a “wind flick” which sends air over the wipers.

In back, one item that greatly improved aerodynamic efficiency was a second trunk seal, designed just to block air — unlike the primary seal which weatherproofs the trunk. Dehner also pointed to the long, high trunk lid, which rises at the end to give a spoiler effect; he said it showed how Engineering and Design had a good working relationship. At first, it seemed to be impossible to stamp, so the Design people worked on a three piece design (two top pieces, and one below the tail lights.) As they were working, so was Engineering, and in the end they were able to make the part without needing the extra seam that would have been required of the three-piece.

Inside, Joe said that the #1 issue among first generation Charger customers was outward visibility. Steps were taken on both the second-generation Charger and the Dart to help with this, including larger windows and the little window in back, where the company has often put black plastic covers.

According to Joe Dehner, this was one of the most exciting car’s he’s worked on, due to the clear focus and good teamwork, despite aggressive timing. Past projects included the Neon show car, 1999 Charger, some Mitsubish-based cars, the JR midsized cars (2001 Sebring/Stratus), and the first Chrysler 300; he was put onto interiors for a while, then back to exterior. When Fiat came in, designers were re-assigned; they had been associated with platforms before (e.g. LX), but Sergio Marchionne felt that they needed to be arranged by brand, to emphasize the uniqueness of each brand. Now, he says, they each stake out their own designs for each brand, and are more sensitive to cross pollination. Dehner pointed to the tail-lights of the Dart and said, “I’m passionate about that shape,” and said he’d stop Chrysler or Jeep designers from using it; likewise, they will defend their stylistic flourishes. It’s “awesome” that designers can focus more on their own design, honing it and keeping it to the brand.

ryan nagode

Interior design leader Ryan Nagode said they were able to have fun with the interior and work with it as sculpture; it’s “what we went to school for.”  The car is driver oriented, he said, with the large center panel key, and everything else oriented to it. There are not a lot of traditional appliqués, and many areas have soft touch surfaces (including, we discovered, the door pulls). All levels have the same seat frames, with different coverings on the different cars. The ambient interior lighting on cars with the 8.4” touch screen stereo are based on 2 LEDs.

Our impressions: in the Dodge Dart

Both dashboard styled — base and with 7” information panel — were present. The base lights up when the door is opened and then closed, without needing the key to be inserted; it is perhaps overstyled but presumably aimed at the youth market, and comes with the usual gauges, including a tachometer (every Dart trim level and engine, remember, can be purchased with a manual transmission.)

base gauges

The optional touch screen comes with a very different set of physical gauges; of interest is the absence of a speedometer, which is provided in each of the virtual screens instead. In both cases, the tachometer is sensibly set, with the highest number being the “redline rounded up,” rather than including a large amount of wasted space (e.g. having a tachometer marked to 9,000 rpm).

normal dash

Dart 1.4 takes 5W40 synthetic; the 2.0 takes 0W20. Both weights are clearly marked on the oil caps; service points are all clear and easy to see, a trademark of Chrysler since the original Neon.

rallye seats

Both front and rear seats are comfortable, well padded and contoured, in sharp contrast to some legacy Chrysler vehicles costing far more; another contrast to the legacies is the remote gas door opener, allowing more “gas cap” security than, say, our top of the line 2000 Chrysler 300M (or many more recent high-end Chryslers). The sun visors are thin but sit on extenders, and pull out easily. The rear is somewhat tight, but there is space for feet underneath the front seats, and there’s a full pullout console; the rear is done as well as the front.

Controls are clear and seem sensible, generally following the corporate pattern; audio controls in the cars we saw were on the steering wheel, along with cruise control. The CD player on models with the touch screen stereo is stored in the center console and does not appear to be easily removable; when so equipped, Chrysler now keeps both the USB and SD card ports there as well, with a 12V port. Getting a cheap, high-capacity SD card seems more intelligent than connecting up an iPod.

cd tray

Here are two photos of the door panels, on SXT (fabric) and Limited. The lower trim line actually looks pricier than the higher trim line here — the monotone leather does not seem quite as effective on the doors. There are numerous interior color combinations, and while most seem to be “black” or “black with some other color,” there are also light beige (Frost) and white for those who like their interiors bright and airy. There are four dashboard coverings, according to Ryan, depending on the interior color.

door detail

Limited door

The glove box is quite large, larger than it looks in the photo below; the letter fit easily into it, with considerable vertical room to spare, and a couple of inches between the edge of the full-sized envelope and the door. You can easily fit an iPad in there. The full-sized owner’s manual (a welcome reversion) looks lost when it’s in there, as opposed to taking up all the space.

glove box

The trunk is well-sized, and looks highly usable, though the large subwoofer is exposed along with its wiring, which can lead to damage when putting larger items into the trunk; and the hinges are the old-style intrusive versions. The spare’s easy to reach, as is the jack, and there’s a little extra space underneath the trunk floor.

trunk

As a side note, the enthusiasm of the designers was contagious; they seemed genuinely happy with the Dart and their role in making it, and Joe Dehner clearly enjoyed a good relationship with the engineers and aero people during the car’s evolution. Designers and engineers worked hand in hand on this one, and came up with one surprisingly slippery package.

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