CHELSEA, MI – Sporty compacts are becoming ubiquitous as auto makers chase younger buyers who aspire to the muscle-car big leagues but for the most part place a higher value on frugality.

The market is varied, from the Ford Focus ST to the Hyundai Veloster. Combinations include optional high-output powertrains, stylish trim levels, aggressive exterior styling and racetrack-style handling so customers can get more from their daily commutes.

Enter the Dodge Dart GT, which has been described by Chrysler executives as a placeholder for a potential (but unconfirmed) SRT-tuned version of the auto maker’s newest C-segment entry.

Since the Dart’s 2012 launch, Mopar fans have been wondering if a juiced-up variant would follow in the footsteps of the Neon SRT or Caliber SRT. No word yet on an SRT Dart, but perhaps the GT is a toe in the water.

The Dart GT is the first in the U.S. auto maker’s lineup to use Chrysler-Fiat’s 2.4L 4-cyl. Tigershark with MultiAir II engine, which churns out 184 hp and 171 lb.-ft. (232 Nm) of torque. The naturally aspirated I-4 also debuts in the new Jeep Cherokee later this year.

The Cherokee aside, much of the ethos of the Dart GT also revolves around the engine. It is larger and more powerful than the 1.4L MultiAir Turbo and the 2.0L Tigershark available in lower-cost models.

But does a bigger engine mean it’s ready to play alongside other SRT-tuned models? In this case, not really.

The bright side lies in vast improvements that will make the Dart GT stand out in the compact crowd. It handily outperforms its lower-trim counterparts with a revised standard 6-speed manual or optional automatic transmission.

Whereas throttle response with both the 1.4L and 2.0L powertrains was slow and gummy, the potent 2.4L propels the Dart GT much more smoothly.

Journalists at Chrysler’s proving grounds here test drive the GT, only available with an automatic transmission, on a short track with tight curves, lengthy straightaways and varied grades and pavements.

On a track with no speed limits, it’s easy to push the needle without guilt or hesitation. The 6-speed automatic shifts crisply and gives a subtle burst each time it ratchets higher.

At idle, the engine stutters and chugs a bit, but hitting the gas makes it sing. Engineers say the exhaust was tuned not to intimidate but to remind the driver this is no average compact. In this case, it works, although the car never feels very fast.

Engineers have added a sport-tuned MacPherson strut suspension in the front and bi-link independent suspension in the rear that also separates the GT from other models, and that, too, is a noticeable upgrade.

Despite its portly curb weight of 3,348 lbs. (1,519 kg), the Dart GT takes corners cleanly with little body roll. Brakes on other Dart models are a bit too sensitive, but engineers tuned the GT’s stoppers to do the job without being so grabby.

The GT absorbs bumps and grooves as well as any compact, and road noise is minimal.

Inside, the passenger compartment improves upon last year’s debut Dart, which earned a 2012 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors trophy.

Perforated black leather seats up front are trimmed with red stitching and feature race styling. They have a firmness that’s unusual for this price class; the GT stickers at $20,995.

A wrapped gearshift and steering wheel complement the soft-touch instrument panel and center console. The passenger side offers under-seat storage, same as on the standard Dart. Other upscale features include an available moonroof and customizable thin-film transistor display.

Rear headroom remains cramped, but legroom is adequate.

Sporting new 17-in. wheels and blacked-out grille, the Dart GT appears to have big aspirations.

The Dart GT is a decent package, but Chrysler officials referring to it as a “next-best” alternative to an SRT model is disappointing.

It’s easy to think of last year’s Dart ad campaign, which included the catchphrase, “never too much power.”  But in the end, the GT could use a little more.

afoley@wardsauto.com

'13 Dodge Dart GT
Vehicle type 5-passenger, 4-door compact sedan
Engine 2.4L naturally aspirated SOHC 4-cyl.; aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 184 hp @ 6,250 rpm
Torque 171 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 88 x 97
Compression ratio 10:1
Transmission 6-speed Powertech automatic
Wheelbase 106.4 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 183.9 ins. (467 cm)
Overall width 72 ins. (183 cm)
Overall height 57.7 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,348 lbs. (1,519 kg)
Base price $20,995
Fuel economy 21/30 mpg (city/highway)
Competition Hyundai Elantra GT, Ford Focus Titanium, Chevrolet Cruze LTZ
Pros Cons
Right price Is it a grand tourer?
Improvement over first Dart Way short of SRT potential
All the right ingredients Undercooked results