The Dodge Caliber is classed as a compact car, though it's larger than the Neon it replaced. A five-passenger, five-door, the Caliber isn't easily categorized, combining elements from hatchback, wagon and minivan designs. Though very popular in Europe, hatchbacks, especially five-door hatchbacks, have not caught on in American garages. The five-door hatch is a practical design, but most Americans prefer the styling of a traditional sedan with a separate trunk. Maybe that's changing, however. We certainly like hatchbacks.
A choice of four-cylinder engines is available, along with a choice of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. All-wheel drive makes the Caliber a capable winter vehicle.
Relatively affordable, Caliber starts below $14,000 retail, and fuel economy is respectable, achieving 24/29 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form, according to EPA estimates.
At the other end of the scale, the new SRT4 version has a turbocharged engine generating 285 horsepower. With a starting price of $22,435, it is a performance bargain.
The mid-level Caliber SXT model with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission is among the more enjoyable of the standard models, but the Caliber is no sports car. For driving excitement, the SRT4 is the choice.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of head room, 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.
Dodge Caliber SE ($13,425); SXT ($15,425); R/T AWD ($19,425); SRT4 ($22,435)
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 wells 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 SRT4 can be distinguished by several exterior features aimed at both form and function. The ride height is lowered 28 mm in front and 22 mm in the rear. The front end features a functional hood scoop, dual hood vents, a unique front fascia with brake cooling ducts next to the fog lights, and a lower air dam. Aero side moldings run along the side and at the rear are a large high-mounted rear spoiler, a four-inch exhaust tip, and a rear fascia with lower strakes to direct underbody airflow. For 2008, the SRT4 is available in only Brilliant Black, Sunburst Orange, Bright Silver and Inferno Red.
The instrument cluster and center stack are the picture of efficiency. Gauges are large, round and gleefully legible with black markings on white backgrounds. In the SRT4, the central gauge is the tachometer instead of the speedometer, a change Dodge says it made because the SRT4 is a driver's car. To the left of the steering wheel in the SRT4 is a turbo boost gauge; this area serves as a small cubby in other models.
The SRT4 also has a reconfigurable display with what Dodge calls performance pages. This feature can provide readouts of lateral and longitudinal G forces, 1/8- and 1/4-mile time and speed, 0-60 mph time, and braking distance. It's quite a little toy for performance enthusiasts, somewhat similar to a system Porsche offers.
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. All of these controls are easy to reach, but the materials are cheaply rendered and lacking in quality. You get the feeling the Caliber is built to a price when you first close the door and hear a metallic clang worthy of an empty beer can.
Back to the functionality. The shift lever extends from the base of the stack; the notched gate on the CVT makes ratio selections intuitive. In cars equipped with a manual transmission, the shifter falls easily to hand. 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.
An 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 it replaced, the seats are closer to chairs than cushions bolted to the floor. This eases climbing in and out.
The front seats that come standard 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. The SRT4's seats are thickly bolstered and have grippy cloth inserts to hold occupants in place in fast turns.
Front-seat headroom is impressive in all Calibers, topping the five-door Mazda3 hatchback by almost two inches. It falls short of the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix by about a half inch. Leg room up front is adequate, equal to the Mazda3, Vibe and Matrix. A cautionary note about the driver's seat-height adjustment, however: It pivots at the front, which means trading leg room for height.
The rear seat is a bench and leg room is somewhat cramped, trailing most competitors. Rear-seat head room tops the Mazda3 by about a half-inch, but loses to the Vibe and the Matrix by almost an inch.
Cargo capacity is one of the Caliber's big advantages. The rear seats fold down 60/40 to reveal 48.0 cubic feet of cargo room, which is as much as most compact hatchbacks and almost as much as some compact wagons. The available folding front passenger seat expands room further and allows for loading of long objects. The Caliber bests the Mazda3 in cargo room by more than 16 cubic feet, but falls short of the Matrix and Vibe by more than five cubic feet. The Caliber's rear load floor is plastic and removable, which means your stuff will slide around if not secured, but dirty cargo won't
Of the base 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 engine's 172 horsepower arguably does a better job of motivating this 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, or as Dodge promises. Left in Drive, it sounds and feels like an automatic that needs to have 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. While Dodge says it adjusted the CVT to make it quieter and more drivable for 2008, we didn't notice a difference. And while Dodge says its testing shows the CVT improves fuel economy by between six to eight percent over a four-speed automatic, the 2.4-liter with five-speed manual is rated at 23 mpg City and 29 Highway, compared to 21/25 with the CVT, according to EPA estimates.
The 1.8-liter base engine is EPA rated at 24 mpg City and 29 Highway, while the 2.0 comes in at 23/27. But with fully 10 percent less torque, the 1.8 is also the least responsive to the gas pedal when you need it the most.
All three base engines deliver 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.
The SRT4's engine is a different beast altogether. With 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, it can motivate the SRT4 from 0 to 60 mph in about six seconds flat. That's slightly slower than the 2006 SRT4, which was based on the Neon. While the Caliber SRT4 has 55 more horsepower than the 2006 SRT4, the Caliber is larger and heavier, so the extra power doesn't quite make up for the difference.
The Caliber SRT4's 2.4-liter engine exhibits some turbo lag, but it's mercifully short and the car is more than willing to get up and go from a stop. Passing power is prodigious provided you are in the right gear. If you let the rpms run too high, the engine will run out of breath, too low and you'll have to wait for the turbo to spool up. Deft shifting can avoid these problems. Speaking of shifting, the manual gearbox has fairly short throws and positive engagement, making it fun to operate.
Driving and handling dynamics for SE, SXT and R/T models are mostly consistent, about on a par with the Vibe and the Matrix but not quite in the same league as the more tautly sprung Mazda3. There's not as much body lean in corners as we expected in a car this tall. Under hard acceleration, front-drive models 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. This problem is compounded by the SRT4's greater power.
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 pa
The 2008 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 Caliber makes a good case when it comes to packaging, but falls short on materials quality. Though all Calibers show signs of cost-cutting, the SE, SXT and R/T offer good, basic transportation, the R/T has the advantage of optional all-wheel drive, and the SRT4 is a performance bargain.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported on the Caliber from Scottsdale, Arizona, with Kirk Bell reporting on the SRT4 from Indianapolis.