The 2013 Dodge Dart is one of the most eagerly anticipated models of the new model year—not just because it’s the first model to be developed under pooled Fiat and Chrysler engineering resources, but because it represents a return to form for Dodge compact cars.

That said, the Dart is no one-size-fits all compact sedan. With three different engines and three different transmissions offered—split over five different trims (SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited, and R/T)—it’s aimed to fit the needs of everyone from frugal small-car shoppers to those wanting an upscale compact or on-a-budget enthusiasts.

The sporty Dodge Dart R/T won’t be available until the fall. Likewise, Dart models with what will probably be the most fuel-efficient powertrain—the 1.4-liter MultiAir Intercooled Turbo engine and six-speed DDCT dual-clutch gearbox—probably won’t reach dealerships until September (Aero models, with their ratings of at least 41 mpg highway, are also delayed until then).

While the 2.0-liter models may be the volume seller of the line, it’s the DDCT that’s supposed to make an upscale impression and prove its mettle with the smooth, economical, and surprisingly strong 1.4T. And today we were among the first to drive a demonstration DDCT-equipped Dart.

Our first impression? This dual-clutch Dart doesn’t sound, react, or behave much if any differently than a standard automatic transmission.

Smoothness is the focus

To Roy Nassar, chief engineer for DDCT, that’s mission accomplished, as most American shoppers will want the unit to behave just like the automatics they’re used to, not the more attuned, enthusiast-honed device that dual-clutch gearboxes have the potential to be.

And really it’s no surprise that with the backlash that Ford experienced a year or two after introducing its Powershift dual-clutch transmission in the Fiesta and then the Focus (and with other small-car automakers, like Mazda, openly shunning dual-clutch setups), Chrysler engineers were wary, and wanted to get it right—with a more conservative tack on their unit.

Complaints regarding the Fiesta’s DCT in particular revolved around jerky, overly throttle-sensitive behavior at low speeds, although Ford seems to have fixed those issues through revised calibration. Early reviews also expressed frustration over how Ford didn’t allow full manual control over shifts when wanted by the driver.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye

To compare to other dual-clutch transmissions on the market, Chrysler’s DDCT shifts faster than the DCT dual-clutch gearbox in our Six Month Road Test Hyundai Veloster, yet it feels softer and more like an automatic transmission compared to the snappy DSG in Volkswagen and Audi products. On the other hand, in pointing to the VW unit, Nassar is quick to point out that the Chrysler unit won’t need a clutch replacement (or any major service) during a lifetime of 200,000 to 250,000 miles. Clutch-pad replacement is expected only for aggressive or heavy-cycle conditions, and a special heat-warning system in the DDCT safeguards it by smoothing and slowing shifts when the unit overheats—much like your iPhone allowing only emergency calls during a heat warning.

Mopar possibilities?

Nassar admits that enthusiasts might want more of a performance feel for DDCT, and he suggests that such a ‘chipped’ version might at some point be offered through Mopar performance channels.

“With all the struggles in DCT acceptance across the industry, the focus with DDCT was to make it as smooth as possible, make it like an automatic,” said Nassar. “And then maybe down the road if we wanted to please the enthusiasts we could investigate a package that has a unique calibration that gives it a little more bite.”

One note for enthusiasts: DDCT does not force a downshift at full throttle, which we appreciate.

The DDCT was originally designed by Fiat, and is a proprietary combination of transmission units from suppliers, and then designed for the Giuliette and Mito models before Dart development even started. Chrysler engineers developed our U.S. calibration, however, and the unit behaves quite differently here. “We’re incorporating a lot about U.S. driving habits in the unit,” said Mike Merlo, Dart chief engineer, who added that Europe is in turn getting some of our refinements.

And if Americans like it, we could be seeing more of this potentially fuel-saving gearbox—possibly replacing maligned CVTs in a couple of years. While the transmission is only offered with the 1.4T engine because Fiat originally engineered them as a powertrain combination; DCCT isn’t limited to lower torque outputs like the Hyundai gearbox and it could potentially in the future be mated to either of the other engines.

For complete driving impressions on the 2013 Dodge Dart, see our First Drive or browse through the pages of our full review.