A five-passenger, five-door hatchback-cum-small station wagon, the Caliber offers a choice of four-cylinder engines. There's also a choice of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the latter making the Caliber a capable winter vehicle. The Caliber is relatively affordable. Its starting price is below last year's Neon, and fuel economy is respectable, achieving 28/32 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form, according to federal government estimates. At the other end of the scale, an SRT4 version is expected in spring 2007 with a turbocharged engine generating 300 horsepower.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of headroom, and there's a large amount of cargo space here. Packaging is functional, with folding rear seats that have an optional reclining adjustment and an optional fold-flat front passenger seat to make room for a ladder or more likely, a surfboard. A couple of innovative options, especially for a car in this price class, are an air conditioned compartment in the glove box to chill water bottles or sodas and a swing-down stereo speaker panel attached to the liftgate that converts the back end to a sound stage for beach parties or tailgating.
The Caliber is no sports car, but we most enjoyed the mid-level SXT model with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission.
Dodge is gambling a huge chunk of change on the hope new car shoppers looking for value and function can be persuaded hatchbacks are acceptable again, that five-door, small wagons have a place in American garages. The Caliber makes a good case.
Dodge Caliber SE ($13,425); SXT ($15,425); R/T AWD ($19,425)
The trademark crosshair grille dominates the front end; depending on model, this is either body color or trimmed in chrome. Massive headlights are notched into the leading corners of the front fenders. A pouting lower lip-like bumper separates the grille and headlights from a slimmer, lower air intake and (uplevel) fog lamps.
The side view shows strongly blistered fenders front and rear beneath a wedge-shaped beltline. Tires mostly fill the wheel wells, but we expect aftermarket hardware will be popular amongst younger buyers. The lower portions of the doors wear longitudinal moldings, again, body color or chrome highlighted, that look like a bi-level rocker panel but aren't, but that nevertheless minimize the Caliber's height. Full-round door handles, either chrome-trimmed or body color, bridge scooped-out grip spaces.
The roofline arcs cleanly from its junction with the hood just aft of the front wheel well over the side door windows to pinch off at the tail end of the rear quarter glass. Topping this arc but stopping at the top of the backlight (rear windscreen) is an unbroken, thick strip of black molding the Caliber's designers say is supposed to work with the arc and the truncated back end to impart a coupe look. We're not sure why that was important or that it necessarily succeeds, but it does buff up the Caliber's side aspect.
The back end pulls from the Magnum, too, with a steeply raked backlight beneath a roof-mounted spoiler and above a mostly upright lower liftgate, employing a hatchback style arguing against any comparisons with a traditional station wagon. A relatively short rear overhang and oversize taillight housings add credence to the argument.
The instrument cluster and center stack are the picture of efficiency. Gauges are large, round and gleefully legible. The center stack presents the stereo face and climate control panel in stark relief with functional knobs, buttons and switches and trimmed in matte metallic plastic or not-very-convincing wood grain.
The shift lever extends from the base of the stack; the notched gate on the CVT makes ratio selections intuitive, the manual gearbox less so, but not bad for a front-wheel-drive. The power point serves neither the cell phone holder nor a radar detector well; located at the extreme base of the center stack, it leaves cords either draped over the center console's cup holders or dangling down the dash between the instrument cluster and the center stack.
The MP3 player/cell phone holder flips up out of the front of the center console armrest and, while properly sized for an iPod or similarly shaped MP3 device, adapts best to candy bar-style cell phones. Also, the sliding armrest covers a range of three inches, which is helpful for drivers of shorter stature, but when all the way forward, it blocks the rearmost of the two cup holders.
As the Caliber is relatively tall, standing more than four inches above the Neon, the seats are closer to chairs than cushions bolted to the floor. This eases climbing in and out.
The front seats are comfortable, but far from plush, with decently bolstered back cushions. Bottom cushions, or squabs in designer lingo, are more flat than sculpted and a bit short on thigh support. Front-seat headroom is impressive, topping the five-door Mazda3 hatchback by almost two inches, the five-door Ford Focus ZX5 hatchback by almost an inch. It falls short of the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix by about a half inch. Legroom up front is adequate, equal to the Mazda3, bettering the Focus by a full inch and matching the Vibe and the Matrix. A cautionary note about the driver's seat-height adjustment, however: It pivots at the front, which means trading legroom for height.
The rear seat is a bench and legroom is somewhat cramped, trailing all four competitors. Rear-seat headroom, however, tops both the Focus and the Mazda3, by about a half-inch, but loses to the Vibe and the Matrix by almost an inch. The Caliber bests the Focus and Mazda3 in cargo room (by more than 8 and 16 cubic feet, respectively), but falls short of the Matrix and the Vibe (by more than 5 cubic feet.) Compared with the old Neon, the Caliber is roomier and offers more than three times the Neon's cargo space.
Miscellaneous storage scores mixed ratings. The bi-level glove box, with a compartment on the top of the dash in addition to one in the traditional location, earns high marks, especially the innovative Chill Zone. But front door map pockets will hold maybe a paperback and a map, there are no map pockets in the rear doors, and the front seatbacks are bare of any magazine pouches. Illuminating the cup holders (there are only two, and they're in the front console) helps at night, though sliding the center armrest all the way forward pretty much blocks the rear holder.
Visibility out the front is good. Like many other modern designs, the hood drops away so quickly it disappears from sight; you may want to learn where the fenders are before you have to navigate a dark parking garage. The large backlight frames a good picture of what's behind, and the tall greenhouse and rear quarter windows show what's in the side mirrors' blind spots.
The stereos generate quality sounds, with the top level, Boston Acoustic setup rivaling home systems of only a few years ago. Called MusicGate, the Boston Acoustics system features nine speakers, including 3.5-inch tweeters, a subwoofer and a pair of speakers in a boom box attached to the insi
Of the three trim packages and powertrains, we believe the SXT with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual delivers the best all around performance.
The 2.4-liter's 172 horsepower arguably does a better job of motivating the one-and-one-half ton hatchback, but the CVT was neither as comfortable nor as precise in its selection of gear ratios as we hoped, and as Dodge promises. Left in Drive, it constantly sounds and feels like an automatic in serious need of having its bands tightened, or like a manual gearbox with a slipping clutch. Even in AutoStick mode, which involves imposing an electronically managed shift pattern on a transmission designed not to shift gears, engine speed wandered noticeably within the selected ratio. And while Dodge says its testing shows the CVT improves fuel economy by between 6 and 8 percent over a four-speed automatic like that in the Neon, the 2.0-liter with five-speed manual outdoes the CVT by 3 or 4 mpg, according to the EPA's ratings. Also, the Mazda3's 2.3-liter engine with five-speed automatic returns an estimated 25/31 city/highway mpg, easily topping the Caliber CVT's 23/26 mpg.
The 1.8-liter base engine betters the 2.0-liter's fuel economy by 2 mpg in both city and highway driving, but with fully 10 percent less torque and peaking at 5200 rpm, it's also the least responsive to the gas pedal when you need it the most.
All three engines delivered their power smoothly, with no disruptive surges or flat spots. Pedal layout is decent, while not quite ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts, and there's a dead pedal where drivers can rest their left foot on long trips.
Driving and handling dynamics are mostly consistent across the line, about on a par with the Vibe and the Matrix but not quite in the same league as the more tautly sprung Mazda3 and much lighter Focus. There's not as much body lean in corners as we expected in a car this tall. Under hard acceleration, the Caliber SE and SXT show some torque steer, where the front-wheel drive tugs at the steering wheel, a shortcoming shared with every front-wheel-drive car we can remember in this class.
Likewise, the Caliber's weight is biased to the front, so understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning) is the default mode when corners are entered a bit too fast. The all-wheel-drive R/T is much better mannered in both these regards, especially in tight corners, when the system distributes the power as appropriate between the front and rear wheels to put the power where it can be used best, as much as 60 percent to the rear wheels if necessary. One downside to the AWD is the added unsprung weight with which it burdens the suspension, mass that's felt over parking lot speed bumps and rough pavement.
The disc/drum brakes standard on the SE and in the SXT are competent. The R/T gets the best package, with discs at all four corners and ABS. We're sure there's a good marketing reason behind making ABS an option on the SE and SXT and Brake Assist optional only on the SXT and R/T, but we're disappointed these safety features aren't standard as they increasingly are on off-shore brands in the Caliber's price range. We feel the same way about the electronic stability program, which can help drivers avoid crashing.
There's little wind whistle at everyday highway speeds, and even at extra-legal rates of travel, we carried on conversations in normal tones. Road noise increased with the size of the tire's footprint, meaning it was most persistent in the R/T. The added grip from the larger footprint mor
The 2007 Dodge Caliber is at the same time innovative and retro, a hatchback that's more like a station wagon but with hints of the utility of a minivan. The SE offers good, basic transportation, the SXT is more fun to drive, and the R/T delivers affordable advanced technology with the assurance of all-wheel drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona.