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2014 Dodge Dart Test Drive Review
What the 2014 Dodge Dart really needs is an engine along the lines of a turbocharged Volkswagen 2.0-liter with about 200 hp, lots of torque and the ability to get 25 mpg without even trying.
There’s much to like about the 2014 Dodge Dart, a more sophisticated small car than its namesake could possibly convey. Safety is excellent, both in terms of crash-test performance and available technologies, the Dart is built with quality materials, and fans of infotainment systems will love the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen in this car. But the Dart is flawed, from its excessive weight and unimpressive fuel economy to its cramped back seat and average cost-effectiveness ratings. Dodge needs to do better.
Look and Feel
In January, FIAT S.p.A. completed its piecemeal purchase of Chrysler, forming a new company called FIAT Chrysler Automobiles that is based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and Turin, Italy. The subject of this review, the 2014 Dodge Dart, was the first product of joint FIAT Chrysler development when it debuted last year, a small sedan based on an Alfa Romeo platform and equipped with a classic American nameplate from the 1960s and '70s, making it the first competitive small car Dodge had to sell in, like, forever. But there was a problem, and that problem was a finicky automated manual transmission that had plenty of potential buyers saying: “Me no likey.”
For 2014, in all trims except the fuel-economy champ, the Dart Aero, Dodge has ditched that transmission and the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine to which it was bolted. In its place is a more agreeable but also a thirstier 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a traditional 6-speed automatic. Because this change is utterly fundamental to the Dart’s driving dynamics, I figured it best to get behind the wheel for another go-round.
The 2014 Dodge Dart lineup starts at $16,990 (including the $995 destination charge). That base Dart SE model, though, lacks lots of equipment. To get a sense of what’s missing, check out the upgrades that come with the Dart SXT ($19,490). In addition to the more powerful 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, which replaces the Dart SE’s 160-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, the Dart SXT includes air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, stereo controls on the steering wheel, more speakers, premium cloth seat fabric, power door locks with remote keyless entry, cruise control, floor mats and aluminum wheels.
But wait—that’s not all! The Dart SXT also has a sliding center-console armrest, a rear-seat armrest with cupholders, and a 60/40-split rear seat with a ski pass-through, along with an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, a trip computer, a vehicle information center with a tire pressure monitor, an overhead console with a sunglasses holder and illuminated vanity mirrors. Automatic headlights and LED “race track” taillights are standard for the Dart SXT, which can be told apart from the SE by its body-color trim and unique grille design.
The Dart Aero ($20,990) is the most fuel-efficient version of the car, adding to a Dart SE a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, air conditioning, power door locks with remote keyless entry, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a trip computer, a vehicle information center and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. The Dart Aero gets its own unique grille design with active shutters as well as aerodynamic underbody panels that smooth air flow and increase gas mileage, plus upgraded instrumentation with an illuminated surround, an 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system display, a reversing camera, satellite radio and a USB connection.
The sporty Dart GT ($21,990) is based on the Dart SXT and adds a sport suspension, a unique grille, darkened headlights, fog lights, dual exhaust outlets and 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in 225/40 tires. Inside, the Dart GT is equipped with premium Nappa leather seats with perforated inserts, heated seats, a 6-way power driver’s seat with 4-way power lumbar support, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and upgraded door panels. The driver faces a premium instrument panel with an illuminated surround and soft-touch surfaces, and the cabin is bathed in ambient lighting at night. Additional upgrades include heated side mirrors with turn-signal indicators on the outside mirror housings, exterior courtesy lighting, Keyless Enter ‘N Go passive entry with push-button start, one-touch operation for the front windows, temperature and compass displays, a universal garage door opener and a reversing camera.
In the interests of expediency, suffice it to say that the Dart Limited ($23,990) is equipped like the Dart GT but without the sporty stuff. It has a standard automatic transmission, a touring-tuned suspension, smaller 17-inch aluminum wheels with 225/45 tires and brighter exterior trim. Dual-zone automatic climate control is also standard for this model, along with a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob, a navigation system, real-time traffic and Travel Link services, remote engine start and a power sunroof.
My test vehicle was a Dart Limited in Granite Crystal Metallic paint, equipped with the optional Technology Group ($995: automatic high-beam headlights, a Blind-Spot Monitor, Rear Cross-Path Detection, HID headlights, rear parking assist sensors, rain-sensing wipers), a set of Alpine premium speakers ($495) and polished aluminum wheels ($395) for a total of $25,875.
Honestly, I much prefer the look of the Dart GT, which adds some attitude to what is an amorphously attractive small car. Plus, the Dart GT’s sexy dual exhaust outlets punctuate a large rear valence panel that helps the Dart’s round rump look less like it belongs in a Sir Mix-A-Lot video. (Google it, kids.) Alternatively, buyers seeking what Dodge refers to as a more “sinister” look can also upgrade a Dart SXT with a Rallye Package or a Blacktop Package in order to sport-up the car’s design. Count me a fan of the Dart’s racetrack-style LED taillights, which instantly identify the car at night.
Evidently the Dart’s interior designers are unfamiliar with straight edges. Everything is rounded off, like the cabin of a 1996 Ford Taurus, and the seams are puffy like clumps of rising pizza dough that have joined forces in a restaurant cooler. The materials are of good quality, but the overall look is dated. The Dart’s configurable gauge cluster and Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system are ultra-modern, though.
The biggest change to the 2014 Dodge Dart is that the 2.4-liter “Tigershark” 4-cylinder engine that was offered solely in the limited-production 2013 Dart GT trim is now standard equipment for the Dart SXT and the Dart Limited. This engine replaces a FIAT-sourced, turbocharged, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that was agreeable enough but was also, unfortunately, optionally paired with a Dual Dry Clutch Transmission (DDCT), an automated manual gearbox that people didn’t like very much. Dodge continues to offer the turbocharged engine in the Dart Aero model, because it is significantly more fuel-efficient than the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder.
The new 2.4-liter makes 184 hp at 6,250 rpm and 171 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm, amounting to 24 extra ponies but 13 fewer lb-ft of twist generated at higher rpm. The result is that the 2014 Dart doesn’t feel quite as zingy as last year, but the new 6-speed automatic transmission certainly eliminates the hesitation demonstrated by the previous DDCT. The EPA says I should have gotten 27 mpg in combined driving, but I managed only 25.3 mpg despite lots of highway travel. Several of the Dart’s competitors will mop the floor with it in terms of fuel economy.
Worse, despite the fact that the Dart’s 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is among the more powerful in the class, it feels lackluster and dull-witted most of the time. For drivers with low expectations, this won’t be an issue. The Dart’s not a rolling traffic cone, after all, and while the automatic transmission occasionally exhibits befuddlement, the majority of the time the driver doesn’t even notice it. Drivers more attuned to how a car responds and performs, however, are likely to be disappointed. That’s because the Alfa-based chassis clearly has plenty to give in terms of ride and handling, even if the Dart Limited is tuned to deliver more of the former than the latter.
Yes, there is a manual shift mode with the automatic, and it does make the Dart feel more energetic, but it employs a counter-intuitive shift pattern. It's almost as though somebody at Chrysler said, “BMW does it this way, and enthusiasts love BMWs, so we should do it this way.”
Here’s the thing: This pattern is based on Formula 1-style racing shifters. The F1 shifters are designed this way because they are easiest to use when g-forces are attempting to tear the driver apart during deceleration and acceleration. In an F1 car, when braking, the driver is thrown forward against the harnesses. Naturally, then, pushing the shifter forward, or up as the case may be, in order to downshift is easier. Similarly, when an F1 car is accelerating, the driver is thrown back into the seat, so pulling back on the shifter, or down as the case may be, in order to upshift is easier.
Now, when was the last time you experienced F1-style g-forces on a public road? What’s that? Never? Exactly. Manual shift gates should require a driver to push forward, or up, to upshift, and to pull backward, or down, to downshift. That’s the intuitive shift pattern unless you’re on a racing circuit. Enough said.
In any case, most people will prefer the Dart’s new powertrain combination to the previous turbocharged engine with the DDCT. The new 6-speed automatic doesn’t suffer the same tendency to hesitate or shift abruptly, power delivery is more linear, and the 2.4-liter engine doesn’t require premium fuel. Then again, this new powertrain isn’t nearly as fuel-efficient as the one it replaces, so that last point is moot.
What the Dart really needs is something along the lines of a turbocharged Volkswagen 2.0-liter with about 200 horsepower, lots of torque, and the ability to get 25 mpg without even trying. The reason it needs this is because a Dart with the 2.4-liter engine and 6-speed automatic weighs a minimum of 3,348 pounds with a full tank of gas. Frighteningly, that’s just 113 pounds lighter than a Toyota Avalon. While we’re on the subject, wouldn’t a Dart Diesel be cool?
Switching gears, the Dart’s steering feels heavy, especially at speed, and likely because of all the weight sitting over the front wheels. The turning circle is wide, too, so be careful when making U-turns or whipping into parking spaces. Additionally, the brake pedal could use some fine-tuning, as it offers little in the way of modulation, making it hard for the driver to bleed pressure in a smooth fashion.
The Limited trim’s all-season tires lack grip, a detriment if you’ve taken the Dart into the mountains for a rousing session on a favorite road. I found that my test car’s tires allowed too much scrub too early in the proceedings, negatively affecting my line and putting me too wide in several hairpin curves on a road that I’ve driven, literally, hundreds of times. Again, I think the Dart’s excessive weight is at play here.
Suspension tuning is on the softer side with this model, but the Dart still feels connected to the road, displaying its European heritage. Structurally, this is a stiff car, robust engineering reflected in both its hefty poundage and its unwavering stability. The Dart is quiet, too. Textured blacktop generates road noise, and the engine is evident at higher revs, but most of the time the Dart’s interior is remarkably free of noise in comparison to other small cars.
Form and Function
While I’m not a fan of the Dart’s interior design, the materials used and the rock-solid construction deserve praise. Soft-touch surfaces, a premium headliner and zero center-console wiggle demonstrate Dodge’s dedication to quality. My top-of-the-line test car also had premium Nappa leather that looked and felt great, especially at this price point, and additional attention to detail is evident in the rubber liners that Dodge supplies for most of the Dart’s storage areas, including the little shelf located in the rear of the center console for your buds in the back seat.
The Dart’s interior controls are pilfered from the Chrysler parts bin, but that’s no longer a bad thing. I am a huge, huge fan of the available 8.4-inch color touchscreen Uconnect infotainment system, in part because in addition to large, easy-to-use touch-sensitive virtual buttons it also has old-school volume/power and tuning knobs. Climate controls are laid out symmetrically with large buttons and clear markings, and the trip computer and vehicle information systems are easy to figure out.
The Dart’s front seats are comfortable, though I have difficulty using the power seat controls. Raising the seat cushion is easy. Lowering it while preserving the degree of thigh support I’ve dialed in is hard because of how closely the controls are mounted to one another. Once the seat is set up properly, though, there are no problems with comfort.
Rear seat occupants will be glad that they sit high off the floor and enjoy decent thigh support, but leg and foot space are tight. It’s a good thing, then, that the soft front seatbacks are kind to knees and shins, because taller people are in constant contact with them.
The Dodge Dart’s trunk measures 13.1 cubic feet, but it looks bigger than that. Most models include a 60/40-split folding rear seat that also has a ski pass-through, helping to expand the car’s utility. There’s no grab handle inside the trunk, though, so if you live someplace where rain and snow are common occurrences, prepare to dirty your hands while shutting the trunk lid.
There’s no shortage of available technology for the 2014 Dart, starting with the available 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system. This is my favorite system of its kind, offering crisp graphics, large touch-sensitive buttons and, most important, intuitive operation. Plus, Dodge kindly and thoughtfully supplies a power and volume knob and a tuning knob to make it really easy to make the most frequently required adjustments. Pairing a smartphone and making or receiving calls is no trouble at all, and I streamed music from iTunes and Pandora without incident.
A navigation system is available for Uconnect 8.4, featuring real-time traffic and weather reporting as well as Travel Link service that includes access to local gas prices and directions to the station. If you’d like, the Dodge dealership can transform a Dart into a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot that works anywhere within 150 feet of the vehicle. A 506-watt audio system with 9 Alpine speakers is also available for the 2014 Dart.
In addition to the available Uconnect 8.4 system, which is offered for every trim except the base Dart SE, this compact car can be equipped with Keyless Enter ‘N Go passive entry with push-button start and remote engine start. To help improve fuel economy, the Dart Aero is exclusively equipped with active grille shutters.
If you think the Dart’s a sophisticated car based on the technology it offers, check out the safety features. It comes with 10 airbags, as well as Ready Alert Braking with Rain Brake Support. A reversing camera is offered for most models, and a Technology Group adds rain-sensing wipers, rear parking-assist sensors, automatic high-beam headlights and a Blind-Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Path Detection to the Dart GT and Dart Limited for just $995. Not only are these the safety features that tend to be the most useful to a driver, they’re available at a surprisingly affordable price. Dodge should, however, make them available for the Dart SXT and Aero models, too.
In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the 2014 Dart receives an overall rating of 5 stars, the highest rating possible. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Dart a Top Safety Pick rating for 2014. The car is ineligible for a Top Safety Pick+ rating only because it doesn’t offer an available forward-collision warning system.
In its first year on the market, the Dart’s reliability was a mixed bag. Versions equipped with the 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine got the highest possible rating from Consumer Reports, while versions equipped with the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine did not. Plus, the Dart did not perform well in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. With the change in engine strategy, it remains to be seen how the majority of 2014 Dart models will fare.
As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t impressed by the Dart’s fuel economy, and many other compact cars do a better job in this regard. Yet Consumer Reports thinks the Dart’s cost of ownership will prove to be better than average. Cars.com isn’t as bullish on the Dart, giving it an average rating in this regard. ALG also gives the Dart an average 3-star rating for its ability to hold its value over time.
To entice shoppers, Dodge offers low-rate financing and rebates to help make the Dart more financially appealing. For example, as this review is written, Dodge is offering 0% financing for 60 months or up to $1,500 off in the form of a rebate, and TrueCar says it is easy to buy a Dart for at least $1,000 under invoice. The car’s inability to hold its value over time, though, translates into lousy lease deals.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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2014 Dodge Dart Top Comparisons
Users ranked 2014 Dodge Dart against other cars which they drove/owned. Each ranking was based on 9 categories. Here is the summary of top rankings.
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