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Not Quite Hitting the Bull’s-Eye

Despite an aggressive style and a reasonable price, the 2013 Dodge Dart has too much competition to stand out from the crowd. Illustrates WHEELS-DART (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Chrysler)

Despite an aggressive style and a reasonable price, the 2013 Dodge Dart has too much competition to stand out from the crowd. Illustrates WHEELS-DART (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Chrysler)

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 anytime 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 $15,995 for the base Dart SE, rising to $17,995 for the popularly equipped SXT and going to $19,995 for the upscale Dart Limited.

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-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (160 horsepower, 148 foot-pounds of torque) and a pre-production edition of the Dart Rallye outfitted with a turbocharged (forced-air) 1.4-liter in-line four (160 horsepower, 184 foot-pounds of torque) mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.

It’s all OK stuff that amounts to “not the best” when the new Dart hits the road. Something appears to have been 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 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway using regular gasoline with the base 2-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. But it feels sluggish in a traditional lineup of quicker Dodge cars, such as the compact 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 considerably 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.