The 2014 Dodge Dart serves notice that Chrysler's compact cars are back in a big way -- with a little help from new corporate parent FIAT, of course. Although Chrysler is no stranger to the compact segment (from the workaday K-cars of the '80s to the perky Neon of the '90s), the company fell behind with the advent of the Dodge Caliber, a low-quality hatchback best known for populating rental lots at airports. Happily, FIAT has decades of experience building small cars in Europe, so it offered up the mechanical bits from its widely praised Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback for the Caliber's replacement. Dodge's stylists and engineers made a nip here and a tuck there, and voila, the highly satisfying Dodge Dart was born.

To be clear, the Dart is very much its own car. Modifications for the American market include a unique sedan-only body style, a new interior with the option of Chrysler's excellent 8.4-inch touchscreen and a chassis that's longer and wider than the Giulietta's. But one thing that's been preserved in translation is that palpable Italian zest for the open road. Unlike most compact cars, the Dodge Dart feels like it was built by people who love to drive, demonstrating ride and handling characteristics that are more befitting of a sport sedan. There's also a real sense of occasion in its tidy sheet metal and sculpted, high-quality interior.

Dart downsides include an equipment roster that's biased heavily toward higher trim levels, as the entry-level SE ($15,995) lacks connectivity features and doesn't even come standard with air conditioning. But car shoppers are increasingly willing to spend $20,000 or more for a small car. If you're one of them, you definitely owe yourself a test drive in the Italian-American Dodge Dart. 

What's New for 2014?

For 2014, the Dart's 2.4-liter engine -- offered last year only in the GT model -- is now standard on the Dart SXT and Dart Limited. The Dart Limited also adds more standard features, accompanied by a $3,000 price jump. 

What We Like 

Distinctive styling, great fuel economy and power with turbo engine, cool available technology features, lots of customization possibilities, fun to drive 

What We Don't 

Sparse standard features on lower trims, high miles-per-gallon Aero package only comes with a stick shift

How Much? 

$16,500-$23,500

Fuel Economy

Within its five trim levels, the Dart offers three engines. The base-level Dart SE uses a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, available with 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Manual versions return 25 mpg city/36 mpg hwy, while figures drop to 24 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the automatic. 

The economy-minded Dart Aero uses a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that also makes 160 hp. With that engine, gas mileage reaches 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy with the 6-speed manual, or 27 mpg city/37 mpg hwy with the optional 6-speed automatic. 

All other Dart models use the new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which makes 184 hp -- muscular for a compact sedan. With that engine, the standard 6-speed manual returns 23 mpg city/33 mpg hwy, while the optional 6-speed automatic is rated at 21 mpg city/30 mpg hwy.

Standard Features & Options

The Dart is offered in five trim levels: base-level SE, fuel-efficient Aero, mid-level SXT, sporty GT and upscale Limited.

Shoppers who choose the base-level SE ($16,500) shouldn't expect much. The sedan features only the basics, such as 16-in steel wheels with hubcaps, a CD player and power windows. Air conditioning is optional as part of the $995 Value Group, which also includes keyless entry and power locks.

Step up to the SXT ($18,500) and you're rewarded with several new items. Most importantly, the mid-level SXT offers the new 2.4-liter engine, while the fuel-efficient 1.4-liter is optional. But the SXT also adds standard air conditioning, keyless entry, power locks and 17-in wheels. There's also a split-folding rear seat with a trunk pass-through. 

Pick the Dart Aero ($20,000) and you'll find a similar list of equipment to the SXT, but you'll also get the 1.4-liter engine standard. The reason is that the Dart Aero's goal is gas mileage, and the model uses features such as active grille shutters to return around 40 mpg. 

Above the Aero is the sporty GT ($21,000), which boasts a sunroof, dual-zone air conditioning, heated front seats and a park assist system. The GT also offers sport steering and sport suspension, both tuned to improve handling, along with a dual exhaust and dark headlight surrounds. 

Topping the Dart range is the Limited ($24,000), which adds several features for the new year. An automatic transmission is newly standard, as is a push-button starter and Chrysler's Uconnect navigation system. Like the 2013 Limited, leather upholstery is also standard for 2014. 

The Dart offers many options, ranging from a sunroof to its Uconnect navigation system with a large 8.4-in center-mounted touchscreen. SXT and Limited models offer the 1.4-liter engine for efficiency-minded drivers, while rain-sensing wipers and proximity keyless entry are also available. 

Safety

The 2014 Dodge Dart comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and 10 airbags (front, front-side, front-knee, rear-side and full-length side curtain). In government crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Dart earned a 5-star overall rating consisting of a 5-star frontal rating, a 5-star side-impact rating and a 4-star rollover rating.

Behind the Wheel

Although the Dart's Giulietta-sourced suspension tuning was softened for American roads and tastes, there's still the soul of a driver's car in even the humblest Dart SE. The ride is never harsh, but it tends toward Euro-firm, and the Dart tackles corners with verve, reminding us of the nimble Mazda3. Dodge knows, however, that this car will spend most of its time commuting and such, so the Dart is still plenty comfortable when you're sitting in traffic or navigating well-worn urban streets. 

Like other SE models in the Dodge family, the Dart SE doesn't bring much to the table in technology. There's a standard 3.5-mm audio input jack, but iPod/USB connectivity isn't available, nor is the 8.4-in touchscreen. Properly equipped, however, the Dart is a technological powerhouse, and it all starts with that huge touchscreen, which is one of the most fun and intuitive you'll find in any car. Compared to the complicated MyFord Touch system in the rival Ford Focus, the Dart's Uconnect touchscreen is an ergonomic knockout, providing almost iPad-like clarity and ease of use. Another Ford-like feature is the versatile 7-in TFT display in the gauge cluster, which looks great and can be customized to show the information you value most. We'd just like to see expected niceties such as iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration made standard across the lineup. 

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Cruze -- Like the Dart, the Cruze offers a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine that's also available in a high-mpg Eco model. The Cruze's handling is comparably capable, too, although the Dart has a sportier and higher-tech vibe inside. 

Ford Focus -- The Focus is one of the only cars at this price that can keep up with the Dart's technology, and it boasts perhaps the best ride/handling compromise of any small car, Dart included. See how you feel about the tight back seat, though. 

Mazda3 -- The all-new Mazda3 offers tough competition thanks to two new engines -- a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder tuned for gas mileage and a 2.5-liter aimed at shoppers who want performance. Handsome looks, a high-quality interior and loads of technology round out the Mazda3's impressive package. 

AutoTrader's Advice 

Although we appreciate the 1.4-liter turbo for both its high-revving ability and its exceptional fuel economy, we find it hard to turn down the muscular new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. We strongly suggest you test out both engines to decide which is right for you. The Limited is a great choice for shoppers interested in luxury, while the GT offers an option for sport-minded drivers -- leaving the SXT as the best compromise for shoppers who want a good compact sedan with a long list of available features.

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