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Like tax-burdened Europeans, most Canadians don't have a lot of disposable income left over for a new car, which is why many of us make do with compact-class vehicles for our driving needs, compared to our American friends who have more cash and can upgrade to the mid-sized category.
Regardless of the economics at play, the upside to this trend is that we now have more European-designed compact cars in Canada than ever before. Take, for instance, our duo here: the new-for-2013 Dodge Dart and Ford Focus. Both of these front-wheel-drive five-passenger four-doors can trace their lineage to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But which one is the better compact sedan to drive?
First Place: 2013 Ford Focus Sedan SE
Unlike the last version, the current third-generation Focus (introduced for 2011) is essentially the same car Ford sells from Toronto to Taiwan. In Europe, the compact Ford competes against low-end versions of premium compacts, like the Audi A3. So the U.S.-made North American iteration brings a higher level of sophistication not normally associated with this class of car, but pricing remains competitive in Canada.
The base Focus S four-door starts at $14,999, but my mid-range $20,199 Focus SE (with the $2,000 SE Plus package) tester is a better match for its $19,995 Dodge Dart Rallye rival. Both come with leather-wrapped steering wheels and shift knobs, 17-inch wheels and tires and upgraded infotainment packages.
The two compact sedans are equally competitive under their respective hoods. All non-ST Focus models come with a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre gasoline four-cylinder. Its 160 horsepower matches the Dart's rating, but the Ford's 146 pound-feet of torque is 38 shy of the Dodge. As well, the Focus's five-speed manual gearbox (a $1,450 six-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional) has one cog less than the Dart.
However, the apparent lack of torque and gears does not prevent the lighter (1,318 kilograms versus 1,445) Ford from beating the Dodge in the run from zero to 100 kilometres per hour (7.6 seconds compared to 8.1), nor at the pumps. While both are similarly rated by Transport Canada, I saw a real-world 7.4L/100 km in the Focus and 10.8 in the Dodge.
Once underway, the Ford also outshines the Dodge when driven as if you were on a winding Swiss mountain pass. Where the heavier Dart plows ahead, the Focus nips into corners with quick and linear action. The Focus's electronic torque-vectoring front differential helps here. And despite some interior pieces that didn't align perfectly, the Ford felt classier overall than the Dodge inside. Yes. The Focus's cabin is narrower, but its seats are more supportive in the right places than the softer thrones in the Dart.
In the end, the Ford Focus Sedan SE offers a more cohesive driving experience than the less co-ordinated Dart Rallye, with a level of refinement that Dodge simply can't match.
Second Place: 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye
Like the Focus, the new Dart has European roots -- specifically Italian. Dodge's new owners at Fiat used a longer and wider version of the European-market Alfa Romeo Giulietta's front-wheel-drive platform for the North American Dart. While you can get a hatchback Focus, the Dart only comes as a four-door sedan. My tester was the mid-range, just under $20,000 Rallye model. But Dart pricing ranges between the base $15,995 Dart SE to the soon-to-arrive $23,495 R/T.
Even if you aren't obsessed with straight-line speed or decent fuel economy, the Dart Rallye's 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed manual (a $1,300 six-speed auto-box is available) powertrain has some issues. Showing its Italian heritage, the Dart's 1.4L turbo likes to rev, and needs about 3,000 r.p.m. on the tach for the turbo to kick in. If you don't nail the Dodge's throttle, one of those electric scooters may get the jump on you at a stoplight. Anything other than flat roads requires changing down a cog or two in the six-speed gearbox, which in my experience required long throws.
The Dart Rallye's driving dynamics and interior design are a Jekyll-and-Hyde affair as well. The Dart's steering is very linear, and the weight builds gradually the more you turn into corners. Just don't expect anything other than understeer, though, when pressing on. At least its ride quality is more composed than the Ford, making the Dodge feel like a mid-size -- not a compact -- over typically bad Canadian pavement.
There's not a lot of Italian flair inside the American-made Dart. But I found its interior functioned well. Ergonomically, the Dodge's steering wheel tilts and telescopes with a dash layout that is very straightforward. Driver instrumentation is clear, and the climate and audio controls are separated in distinctive pods. Although rear legroom in both of these small sedans is tight, the Dart's wider cabin makes it feel more spacious.
No doubt the new Dodge Dart is a huge improvement over the outgoing Caliber. But compared to the Ford Focus Sedan, the Dodge needs to enrol in one of those Euro finishing schools to smooth out some of its rougher edges.
-- Postmedia News