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Dodge Dart misses Consumer Reports' Recommended bull’s-eye

Compact’s ride and handling earn praise, but powertrains have problems

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:01 am

The Dodge Dart, the first all-new model to emerge from the Fiat-Chrysler alliance, earned praise from Consumer Reports for its solid feel, handling and ride, and upscale options. But ultimately it didn't score high enough in recent tests to be Recommended in a very competitive small sedan class.

The Dart has been highly anticipated. It replaces the subpar Caliber, and many industry watchers have wondered whether it has what it takes to put Chrysler back in the small-car race. After testing two versions, Consumer Reports' take is that the Dart is the first decent compact from Dodge in decades and has some positives. But overall it can't measure up to the best in class. For a car that needed to be an all-star, the Dart is a position player at best.

Consumer Reports' testers found that the Dodge Dart has a relatively quiet cabin, its handling is fairly nimble and the ride is taut yet compliant. The steering is well weighted, and there's minimal body lean in turns. You can also get a wide variety of optional features, including some, such as a blind-spot warning system, automatic high/low beams and a heated steering wheel, that aren't offered in many competitors.

However, where the Dart stalls out is its powertrains. The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder feels underpowered, while the optional 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is raspy and has drivability issues when mated with the optional dual-clutch automated manual transmission. Tested were the 2.0-liter SXT ($17,995) and 1.4-liter Rallye ($22,190) trims – neither of which scored high enough to be Recommended.

Consumer Reports also tested two big, opulent American luxury sedans in its January issue: the Cadillac XTS and the Lincoln MKS. While the XTS (starting at $44,075) scored much higher overall than the MKS ($42,810) in the head-to-head matchup, both cars underwhelmed in a class dominated by German, Japanese and Korean models. Consumer Reports' engineers found the Cadillac to be wonderfully luxurious, with a very spacious and well-appointed cabin. But it's hampered by its Cue infotainment system, which testers found to be convoluted and frustrating.

The Lincoln MKS offers plenty of features and has a quiet cabin with excellent fit and finish. But the car is hampered by its cramped driving position, ungainly handling, uncomposed ride and limited visibility. With an overall road-test score of 60, the MKS is the lowest-rated luxury sedan in class, lagging far behind previously tested standouts like the Audi A6 and Infiniti M37.

The Chevrolet Spark was also tested. The four-door subcompact gets excellent fuel economy of 34 mpg overall and 42 on the highway. Testers found that it has a surprisingly usable rear seat, a comprehensive assortment of features and is affordably priced at $12,245. However, its sluggish acceleration, stiff and jittery ride, and noisy cabin dropped its overall score to a meager 34. This is one of the lowest-scoring cars tested by Consumer Reports in recent years, and it is too low to Recommend.

Rounding out the latest test group was the Lexus ES. Testers gave it high marks for its comfy, quiet interior, impressive hybrid and V-6 drivetrains, and excellent fuel economy, especially in hybrid form. However, this redesign took a step back in ride and interior refinement from the previous ES. Although its handling didn't impress and its controls were newly complicated, both tested trims – the ES350 ($36,100) and the hybrid ES330h ($38,850) – scored high enough overall to be Recommended and rank among Consumer Reports' higher-rated upscale sedans.