June 14, 2012 at 9:35 am EDT | by Joe Phillips
Stepping up their game

What do Clark Kent and the Toyota Camry have in common? Both seem mild-mannered on the outside yet underneath, each packs a wild punch.

Same goes for Nissan’s edgy Altima redo and the all-new Dodge Dart — the much-ballyhooed compact car built on a chic Alfa chassis.

These rides may not be as powerful as a Porsche or Ferrari, but just like Captain America or other “Avenger” recruits, each sedan here has its own special strengths. Plus, all are affordable, fuel-friendly and full of so much tech gadgetry they would make any superhero proud.

Mpg: 25 city/36 highway
0-to-60 mph: 8.3 seconds

Dodge Dart

The last old-school Dart rolled off production lines in 1976. So Dodge took a page from the Patti LaBelle playbook to give this next-gen Dart a new attitude. From its headlights to its styling cues, the Dart shows how far Dodge has come from laggard to leader in automotive design. The car is based on the popular and agile Alfa Guilietta hatchback, though the Dart is wider and longer for, well, heftier Americans. Despite its average trunk space, the Dart has a high-quality cabin that’s spacious. Neither of the two available engines is very fast, but the turbo (despite some annoying lag) is better. For more speed, a zippy 184-hp RT model arrives this fall.

To lure younger buyers who like to customize their rides, the Dart comes with choice of 14 interior colors (fiery red will likely be a fave), five trim levels, two gauge clusters, manual or automatic transmission and either the standard radio or a tech-lover’s 8.4-inch touchscreen for navigation, satellite radio, rearview camera and USB/SD/iPod interface. Mimicking something you’d see in a James Bond flick, automatic shutters on the grille close for a clean, aerodynamic look but open when air is needed to cool the engine. Lift up the front passenger seat cushion and voila! there’s a secret compartment to stow smartphones or other items. All that’s missing are an ejection seat and some missile launchers.

Mpg: 27 city/38 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.4 seconds

Nissan Altima

Nissan prides itself on being trendy. But (blame it on the economy) the Altima’s styling and features were getting stale. Luckily, the mojo is back with this latest redesign. It’s not as bold as, say, Austin Power’s Jag with all that Union Jack striping. But the Altima’s crouching profile and edgy cut-outs for headlights/taillights are — ahem — “groovy, baby.”

Ditto the contoured front seats, designed to reduce spinal injuries and improve blood flow. A nifty “messaging assistant” system reads text messages aloud, though it doesn’t work with the iPhone, a real bummer. Still, the cabin is quiet, with top-notch materials. Yet there is a miscue with the nav screen and climate controls, which are placed too low on the center dash.

In back, there’s lots of legroom, though headroom is tight. Ride and handling are precise, which makes this a fun sedan for work or play. Lane-departure and blind-sport warning systems — usually offered only on luxo cars — are on the SL model. And while the four-cylinder engine is adequate at best, the V6 has plenty of oomph. Overall, Nissan has upped Altima’s game in styling, performance and mpg.

Mpg: 25 city/35 highway
0-to-60 mph: 8.1 seconds

Toyota Camry

Maybe it’s the flared grille. Or the aggressive foglights. Or the sharply angled rear. Whatever, this latest Camry is full of moxie — think Xena more than Princess Leia. This includes improved engines (the four cylinder is one of the best in this class), sportier seats and firmer suspension. Ditto for the whisper-like interior.

Gone is much of the hard plastic, replaced with refined textures and an easy-to-use dash. A new Entune system works especially well, combining audio and nav functions, including Pandora radio, real-time traffic, sports/stock info and Bing search-engine functionality. You can even order movie tickets or restaurant reservations. There are other plusses, including heated seats/mirrors, stellar crash-test scores and knee airbags for both driver and passenger. Such features, along with those styling nips and tucks, will likely make the Camry more popular than ever.

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