Test drives: 2013 Dodge Dart and Ford Escape

2013 Dodge Dart
Chrysler Group

(MoneyWatch) The weather was beautiful as I headed north from New York City and a chance to test drive two of the most interesting new models just going on sale: The 2013 Dodge Dart and Ford Escape.

The winding mountain roads of Bear Mountain State Park are perfect for putting a car through its paces. And the annual spring test drive event of the International Motor Press Association lets me catch up with new cars I haven't yet had time to drive.

Here are my driving impressions:

Dodge Dart Test-driving the Dart is a tale of two engines. I set out first in a $19,995 limited version of the Dart. Its 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged engine powered the limited uphill on the Bear Mountain roads. And this Dart immediately showed its DNA from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta with precise handling through the curves and electric power steering with plenty of road feel. With the smooth six-speed manual transmission, I was shifting happily. Clearly this is the fun version of the Dart. Estimated MPG with the turbo engine and manual shifter is 27 in city driving, 39 on the highway.

The lower-priced Dart, starting at $15,595, gave a different drive. This base SE comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder also rated at 160 horsepower but with no turbo and a six-speed automatic transmission. This Dart still showed the same crisp handling but had a clear power deficit on hills. This engine is rated for 25 MPG in city driving, 36 on the highway.

Inside the Dart, the feel is very different, too, depending on the model. The base model has traditional speedometer and gauges and a small mid-dash display screen. Like other compacts, the higher-end Darts come with high-tech and comfort options once only available on much higher-priced cars. The limited edition sported a navigation system whose 8.4-inch display screen made maps easy to follow, a backup camera and blind spot detection warning. The well-bolstered leather seats felt not only supportive in the curves but comfortable down the parkway stretch of my test drive.

Made in Belvidere, Ill., the Dart -- especially in the better-equipped versions -- lines up as a worthy competitor to Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and other modern compacts.

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Ford Escape The 2013 Escape features a startling, curvaceous new look compared with its boxy predecessor. And Ford is betting the new version can keep up successful sales in the crossover SUV segment that accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. vehicle volume.

2013 Ford Escape

The new Escape drives like a contender. My test car with a 2.0-liter, 237-horsepower turbocharged engine accelerated smoothly up the Bear Mountain hills. And the Escape handled the curves nicely with none of the sway and roll traditionally encountered with SUVs. This engine, which comes in the top-of-the line Titanium version (list price $30,370) is rated for 22 MPG in city driving, 30 on the highway. This is Ford's replacement for the V-6 engine no longer offered in the Escape.

The Escape SE version (starting at $25,070) features a smaller 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, which Ford calls EcoBoost. For many cost-conscious shoppers, this will combine performance with higher gas mileage, rated at 23 MPG in the city, 33 on the highway. The base model Escape, starting at $22,470 comes with a 2.5-liter, 168-horsepower non-turbo engine. The MPG rating is 22 city, 31 highway.

Inside, the Escape features a more upscale cabin than past versions. The navigation screen, jutting slightly from the sleek dash, made it easy to see even for a driver maneuvering through curves.

Of course I had to check out the Escape's optional tech trick, a back liftgate that opens when you kick your leg under it if you have the key fob in pocket or purse. If I had an armful of groceries, the easy opening would have been a big convenience.

One pull of a lever also quickly folded down the back seats for more cargo space. This is a major improvement over the cumbersome procedure in the old version that involves removing and stowing the rear head rests. A lower height for the cargo floor also will ease lifting heavy or bulky items into the Escape.

The new Escape goes up against a strong field of competitors, including the redesigned-for-2012 Honda CR-V. I took the CR-V out for a comparison drive at Bear Mountain. Both seemed equally comfortable. The CR-V was quieter, but not as quick. The new styling, turbo edge in performance and strong mileage ratings should keep the new Escape in the game.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.