The Dodge Dart delivers some pleasant surprises: it’s handsome, well equipped and a lot more fun to drive than most models in its segment

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Nearly bankrupt just three short years ago, Chrysler has staged an unexpectedly strong resurgence, outpacing the overall US market’s turnaround month after month.

But there’s a big gap it needs to fill if it hopes to keep that momentum going, and the Dart proved to be a much-needed entry in US dealer showrooms.

The reborn Dodge Dart saloon brings back to life a once-popular brand name, but the new offering is anything but retro.

It is, in fact, the first Chrysler product to share its foundation with the American firm's Italian partner, Fiat – the Dart using a modified version of the Alfa Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, here widened by two inches to make room for corn-fed American posteriors.

Compared with the model it replaces, this generation saloon’s handsome exterior styling is much more in tune with the market, with Dodge’s newly updated double-crosshair grille, a curvaceous, almost coupé-like roofline and the sort of broad hips and high rear shoulders that fit the muscular image the brand likes to portray.

The sumptuous interior – at least for its segment – is light years beyond the tacky, hard plastic cabins for which Chrysler has long been known and roundly criticised. If there’s a downside, it’s that the rear seats are a little too compact to accommodate three adults in comfort.

Unlike key competitors who generally offer a minimal mix of options, the Dodge features an extensive list including three different engines: a base 2.0-litre making 160bhp and 148lb ft, a turbocharged 1.4-litre 'Tigershark' using Fiat’s MultiAir technology to produce 160bhp and 184lb ft, and a 2.4-litre version of the Tigershark making 184bhp and 171lb ft. The 1.4-litre package is peppy, although you need to work the optional dual-clutch gearbox aggressively to keep it in its torque band.

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On the equipment front there are five trims to choose from - SE paired with the entry-level 2.0-litre engine, while the mid-range Aero model comes with the 1.4-litre petrol and the other three trims fitted with the 2.4-litre Tigershark motor. Entry-level SE models come with manually adjustable driver's seat, a CD player with auxiliary input and hill start assist as standard. Upgrading to SXT adds split-folding rear seats, rear arm rest, a trip computer, air conditioning and a six-speaker audio system, while Aero models get an 8.4in infotainment system complete with iPod and USB connectivity and a reversing camera. 

GT models get the bonus of heated front seats, an electrically adjustable driver's seat, a heated leather steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and electrically adjustable and heated wing mirrors. The range-topping Limited Darts get the addition of Garmin-powered sat nav included in the package

A real surprise-and-delight feature is the electric power steering system, one of the few to actually feel like a well-tuned hydraulically assisted rack and pinion steering box. It encourages aggressive driving through the corners, a feeling underscored by the Dart’s MacPherson strut-style front suspension and trailing-arm independent rear axle.

It's a moot point if you live in the UK; the Dart won't be sold here. But as far as the US is concerned, while the new Dodge won’t send the Japanese packing, it serves notice that Chrysler is no longer intent on sitting at the back of the compact pack.

Paul Eisenstein