AUSTIN, TX – Chrysler has reason to celebrate the launch of the all-new Dodge Dart compact car, which recently began rolling off the assembly line in Belvidere, IL: Media reviews have been upbeat, awards are starting to roll in and Fiat’s small-car expertise shines through.

But before the champagne corks are popped, a review of Chrysler’s performance – or lack thereof – in this segment provides sobering context.

Since 1980, a Chrysler entry has cracked the list of top 10 annual sellers in WardsAuto’s Upper Small car segment only 17 times. Chrysler’s last popular small car was the Dodge Neon, which made the top 10 each year it was available, from 1995 to 2005, according to WardsAuto data. In its best year, 1996, Dodge delivered 139,831 Neons, but the car was outsold by the Ford Escort more than 2-to-1.

The Dodge Caliber replaced the Neon in 2006 but proved abysmal, falling out of the top 10 list for good two years later. Chrysler delivered only 35,049 Calibers in 2011, while the Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic each sold more than 220,000 units.

On sale in June, the Dodge Dart promises to reverse Chrysler’s long absence among compact cars with sporty good looks, a bold back end that resembles the more expensive Charger, an award-winning interior, three all-new engines, an attractive price and a long list of standard and optional features.

The front-wheel-drive Dart has something for everybody, with five trim levels, 12 exterior colors, 14 interior color and trim options and three transmission choices.

Thanks to majority owner Fiat, Chrysler started with the architecture of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, an Italian hatchback that took second place in the 2011 European Car of the Year competition. The Giulietta legacy dates to 1954.

The car’s European heritage was important to Chrysler, whose executives were looking for road-holding agility and driving dynamics unseen in this entry-level segment. The Giulietta platform was lengthened and widened to adapt it for the Dart.

That additional girth makes the Dart 10 ins. (25 cm) longer than the Caliber it replaces. Its wheelbase tops the Corolla by 4 ins. (10 cm) and the Focus by 2 ins. (5 cm). The Dart is more than 6 ins. (15 cm) longer overall than the all-new Civic.

It’s also significantly heavier than every competitor. The lightest Dart tips the scales at 3,186 lbs. (1,445 kg), which is 391 lbs. (177 kg) heavier than the slimmest Honda Civic.

With these outsize specs, the Dart likely will be the largest car in WardsAuto’s Upper Small segment. The most portly Dart, weighing 3,348 lbs. (1,519 kg) with the new 2.4L engine and automatic transmission, actually is 21 lbs. (10 kg) heavier than the all-new ’13 Ford Fusion with manual transmission, which resides in WardsAuto’s Lower Middle car segment.

Being the biggest small car isn’t necessarily a bad thing for American buyers who are struggling with their own forms of weight gain. But the Dart’s extra mass puts it in the middle of the pack with regard to fuel consumption.

No.1 in the segment in fuel economy is the Hyundai Elantra, which comes with only one engine, a 1.8L 4-cyl. Every version of the Elantra has a federal rating of 29/40 mpg (8.1-5.8 L/100 km) city/highway.

Meanwhile, the Dart’s best rating is 27/39 mpg (8.7-6 L/100 km) with a manual transmission and the 1.4L turbocharged MultiAir 4-cyl. The lightest Dart is 525 lbs. (238 kg) heavier than the slimmest Elantra.

The Dart starts out with two solid engines, and a third comes in fall. All three are assembled in Dundee, MI, at a plant that previously produced engines jointly developed by Chrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. The so-called “World Engine” has undergone a significant overhaul in preparing for the Dart application.

Chrysler executives expect about half of Dart buyers to pick the 2.0L Tigershark DOHC naturally aspirated I-4, and a third to choose the 1.4L SOHC MultiAir turbocharged 4-cyl. Both engines produce 160 hp, but the 1.4L MultiAir clobbers the bigger engine on torque, producing 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) from 2,500-4,000 rpm.

The advanced MultiAir system, pioneered by Fiat, allows infinitely variable control of the intake valves to facilitate combustion and allow the engine to breathe easier, which boosts low-rpm torque and fuel efficiency.

The 1.4L MultiAir turbo is riotous under the hood of the Fiat 500 Abarth. But with an extra 700 lbs. (318 kg) of mass to move, the Dart is not nearly as entertaining. The Honeywell turbocharger can’t spool up much real power until north of 3,000 rpm, which is a long time to wait.

The 2.0L Tigershark generally produces enough power but, like the 1.4L, lacks low-end torque, as do many other engines in this segment. The benchmark among naturally aspirated small 4-cyl. engines is the Mazda3’s 2.0L Skyactiv, a 2012 Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner.

The Mazda engine also easily trumps both in real-world fuel economy. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency ratings, the Dart’s 1.4L, mated to a capable Fiat-sourced 6-speed manual transmission, barely achieves 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) during a mostly sedate drive through rural central Texas.

In a similar route, the 2.0L I-4 paired with a competent 6-speed Hyundai Powertech automatic transmission, handily beats the 1.4L MultiAir, managing 27.5 mpg (8.5 L/100 km) and confirming once again that turbocharged engines rarely deliver the anticipated fuel savings.

The third powertrain combination, a 184-hp 2.4L SOHC Tigershark with next-generation MultiAir 2 valve control and a choice of the automatic or manual transmissions, will be available in the third quarter and standard in the sporty R/T trim package. The 2.4L Tigershark was not available for media drives here.

A Fiat-sourced 6-speed dry dual-clutch transmission also will be offered with the 1.4L turbo in the third quarter. Dodge promises one version with the DCT, to be marketed as the “Aero” Dart, will achieve at least 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) on the highway.

Despite demerits for real-world fuel economy and curb weight, the Dart feels relatively nimble with its independent MacPherson struts up front, multi-link independent suspension at the rear and coil springs and gas-charged shocks at all four corners. Electric power steering is ideally tuned for the right amount of feedback and assist.

WardsAuto has touted the Dart interior in recent coverage of its Ward’s 10 Best Interiors win, and the build quality of near-production models here is good. Earlier versions suffered from “orange peel” shading on several interior plastic surfaces, but the problem appears to have been fixed.

The content-rich interior reinforces the Dart’s sporty, upscale exterior styling cues with aggressively bolstered front seats and two available high-resolution graphical interfaces.

The crystal-clear 8.4-in. (21-cm) touch screen atop the center console is user-friendly and responds quickly to commands for audio, vehicle information, navigation and climate controls, as well as the optional heated steering wheel. The screen, which appears in the Chrysler 300 and other more expensive vehicles, is standard with Limited and R/T packages.

The Dart also is the first Chrysler Group vehicle to receive a new 7-in. (18-cm) TFT screen positioned above the steering wheel and easily reconfigured as an instrument cluster that displays vehicle speed, tire pressure and loads of other vehicle information. The TFT screen, standard with Limited and R/T trim, bursts with color and appears as if it is floating.

One of the few interior dislikes was the navigation system, which failed to recognize many roads within an hour of Austin and repeatedly informed us, “GPS is off.” Plus, an iPod hookup is standard on only two of five trim levels.

Dart pricing is competitive with the segment, starting at $15,995 for bare-bones SE trim. But most transaction prices likely will be more than $19,000, especially if the two display screens prove popular.  Our two test models driven here stickered at $22,565 and $24,270. A fully loaded Limited prices above $26,000.

Overall the Dart is solid and stylish, but so are fresh competitors such as the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus. And don’t count out the stalwart Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which are less exciting but remain popular, ranking No.1 and No.3, respectively, in first-quarter sales among Upper Small cars, according to WardsAuto data.

Yes, the Dart is big, perhaps intentionally to prevent swiping sales from the Fiat 500.

Or maybe Chrysler is thinking people who buy small cars don’t really want small cars.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

’13 Dodge Dart Rallye
Vehicle type Four-door, FWD , 5-passenger sedan
Engine 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged SOHC 4-cyl.; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 160 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) @ 2,500-4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 72 x 84
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
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 3,191 lbs. (1,447 kg)
Price as tested $22,565
Fuel economy 27/39 mpg (8.7-6 L/100 km)
Competition Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta
Pros Cons
Compelling new engines Extra weight hurts mpg
Ward’s 10 Best Interiors winner Segment flush with nice interiors
Display screens top-notch Navigation system needs work