The Dodge Caliber is classed as a compact car. A five-passenger, five-door vehicle, 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 with American buyers. 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.
With availability depending upon the individual Caliber model, there are four different four-cylinder engines, with manual transmissions or a continuously-variable automatic. Relatively affordable, the Caliber is also fairly fuel-efficient, being EPA-rated at 24/30 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form.
At the other end of the scale, the SRT4 version has a turbocharged engine generating 285 horsepower. With a starting price of $24,840, it is a performance bargain.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of head room, and there's a large amount of cargo space. 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 lumber. 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.
For 2009 there are only minimal changes. There are four new colors, a few feature changes — anti-lock brakes are now standard on the SXT trim level and there have been improvements in reducing interior noise levels — and the 1.8-liter engine now achieves 30 mpg on the EPA highway cycle. In addition, there are changes to some of the options and packages. Finally, all-wheel drive, which was available on the R/T model, is no longer offered.
Picture a Dodge Magnum as it might appear in a theme park's House of Mirrors, and you'll have a good idea of what the Dodge Caliber looks like. Yes, it's shorter and narrower and taller (the latter by two inches), but it's still a station wagon with four doors, five counting the rear liftgate, and it wears all the styling cues of the Magnum.
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. 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 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.
Step inside the Caliber and the Dodge legacy is loud and clear. If function tops your list of must-haves, this is good. If glitz is your thing, this is less good.
The instrument cluster and center stack are the picture of efficiency. Gauges are large, round and 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 forges, 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.
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 rear-most of the two cup holders.
As the Caliber is relatively tall, 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 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, but falling short of the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix. Leg room up front is adequate, roughly 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, but loses to the Vibe and the Matrix.
Cargo capacity is one of the Caliber's big advantages. The rear seats fold down 60/40 to provide quite generous cargo space. The available folding front passenger seat expands room further and allows for loading of long objects. The Caliber bests the Mazda3 in cargo room, but falls short of the Matrix and Vibe. 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 make a mess. The rear hatch is an easy-opening liftgate and the floor height is low enough to allow for easy loading and unloading.
Cubby 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.
Visibility out 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 parking garage. The large backlight frames a good picture of what's behind, but the sloping rear-most windows create a blind spot over the driver's right shoulder.
The stereos generate quality sounds, with the top-level Boston Acoustic setup and the SRT4's Kicker outfit 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 inside of the rear liftgate. When the liftgate is open, this assembly swings down so you can listen to tunes while tailgating. It's capable of entertaining the neighborhood.
Dodge seemingly wants people to consider the Caliber as a downsized Magnum, and to believe this makes it essentially a sporty mini-minivan-cum-compact station wagon. Nice idea, but the package doesn't quite do this. Everything it does, it does well, but aside from the SRT4 model, it doesn't quite achieve the sporty part.
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. The 2.4-liter with five-speed manual is EPA-rated at 23 mpg City and 29 Highway, compared to 21/25 with the CVT.
The 1.8-liter base engine is EPA-rated at 24 mpg City and 30 Highway, while the 2.0 comes in at 23/27. But with 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 a driver can rest the 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. The SRT4's 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 the transmission is in the correct gear. If you let the rpm 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 there is some torque steer, with 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 SRT4 leans less in turns than the other models and its steering is sharper and more direct. Instead of a limited-slip front differential, the SRT4 utilizes the traction control system to detect wheelspin and apply brake pressure to the affected wheel, thus transferring power to the side that isn't slipping. It prevents laying down long strips of rubber, but isn't as effective as a mechanical limited-slip system. In short, a limited-slip is a performance-enhancing technology, while traction control is a performance-limiting technology.
The disc/drum brakes standard on the SE and in the SXT are competent, and the SXT has standard anti-lock brakes. The R/T gets standard anti-lock discs at all four corners.
All Calibers have little wind whistle at everyday highway speeds. Road noise increases with the size of the tire's footprint, meaning it is more persistent in the R/T and SRT4. The added grip from the larger footprint more than compensates for this intrusion, however. In all but the SRT4, conversation can be carried on at normal tones even at extra-legal rates of travel. Be aware, however, that the SRT4 has a boy racer exhaust note, which means the engine emits a constant background drone and screams under heavy throttle.
The 2009 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, 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.