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Expert Reviews 1 of 13
By Joe Wiesenfelder
March 9, 2006
The Dodge Caliber five-seat four-door hatchback replaces the Dodge Neon compact sedan. Having established that, I'll make no comparisons, because the Neon was the last of a previous generation of American compacts that stayed around too long while the foreign cars improved and improved. (How's that for diplomatic?)
The Caliber shows every sign of becoming a hit when it arrives at dealerships this month. It's stylish, versatile and refined, plus it offers a range of drivetrains, with more to come. The only caveat involves price: The SE is stripped down; once you add features or jump to the SXT trim level, the price climbs significantly.
The Caliber fits in a class among the Ford Focus ZX5, Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Impreza wagon and Toyota Matrix. It's an ambitious project — a "world car" intended for sale in nearly 100 countries in both left- and right-hand drive. In North America it comes in SE, SXT, R/T and SRT4 trim levels. I tested a manual SXT and an automatic R/T.
The Caliber is the debut model for a new platform developed with Mitsubishi. It's built alongside the upcoming Jeep Compass in the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant that formerly built the Neon. The Chrysler Group says a third model will be produced there. A Caliber sedan? A sister Chrysler hatchback or sedan? The company isn't talking. Exterior The Caliber is clearly a Dodge, thanks to the crosshair grille. It resembles the Magnum, though the latter is a wagon with a longer nose and cargo area. The Magnum's controversial greenhouse — short relative to the bodyside — appears again here. Higher Caliber trim levels have very large wheels for a car of this size and class: Fifteen-inch steel wheels with wheel covers are standard on the SE, but the SXT jumps to 17-inch aluminum wheels, and the R/T's are 18 inches. A black rail that runs from the base of the A-pillars and along the roofline to the taillights tricks the eye into seeing a lower, sleeker shape — a design element used previously on the Chrysler Pacifica. The rear end, and especially the taillights, seem borrowed from the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, but the overall effect here is good and modern.
The model line starts with manual side mirrors, black door handles and a body-colored grille. The SXT steps up to power side mirrors and a chrome grille. The R/T has chrome on the door handles and the tailpipe. Ride & Handling The Caliber might be considered a sport utility vehicle by some, simply because it's bigger than a compact car, has a liftgate and looks like some other models that are considered SUVs — not the least of which is its sister vehicle, the Jeep Compass. Its ride and handling characteristics are closer to those of a car — specifically a front-wheel-drive car.
Its stability is undeniable when compared to a truck, but one feels the car's height when flinging it around corners, especially in the SXT trim level, which has more compliant, touring suspension tuning and a bit more body roll. (The SE, which I didn't test, has the same tuning.) The R/T's suspension and ride are firmer. The expected understeer is present but not overwhelming, and the independent rear multilink suspension keeps the rear end connected to the road. Going & Stopping The Chrysler Group developed a new four-cylinder engine family with Hyundai and Mitsubishi, two companies in which DaimlerChrysler formerly owned a significant stake. Manufacturers increasingly are partnering up to share know-how and manufacturing capacity — and to achieve economies of scale. This is particularly important in affordable vehicles, which sometimes are sold at little or no profit. This seems like a, uh, moronic business practice, but the products serve a purpose: to present a full model line and to offset the poor fuel economy of larger vehicles, which can incur fines from Uncle Sam. The engines used in the Caliber are built in Dundee, Mich.
Currently cut in 1.8-, 2.0- and 2.4-liter displacements, the powerplants produce 148, 158 and 172 horsepower, respectively. They are modern: all aluminum with continuously variable valve timing and airflow-control valves — little butterfly valves in the intake ports that ensure more complete combustion by varying the way the air/fuel mixture swirls into the combustion chamber. What does all this mean? It all contributes to power, efficiency and emissions that are best measured at the bottom line:
148 @ 6,500 rpm
158 @ 6,400 rpm
172 @ 6,000 rpm
125 @ 5,200 rpm
141 @ 5,000 rpm
165 @ 4,400 rpm
Dodge-Estimated Base Fuel Economy (city/highway, mpg)
Required Gasoline (octane)
In addition to increasing with engine size, the torque output also characteristically comes at lower engine speeds for better accelerator response. The EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy for each is 28/32 mpg, 26/30 mpg and 23/26 mpg, respectively.
Currently the SE and SXT trim levels come with the 1.8-liter and five-speed-manual transmission. The 2.0-liter and continuously variable automatic transmission are optional. Front-wheel drive is the only choice at these levels. The R/T comes only with the 2.4-liter, CVT and all-wheel drive. An R/T with a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive is promised for September 2006.
The 1.8-liter's power specs might not look too impressive, but I found it did a decent job of accelerating the Caliber SXT with the manual transmission. The torque is well distributed across the engine-speed range for such small displacement.
The R/T's 2.4-liter made for more satisfying sprints, despite being tied to all-wheel drive and its additional weight. It's interesting that the only automatic transmission is a CVT. I've never had a problem with CVTs, but driving this one made me realize what's wrong with some of the others. This unit reacts very quickly where others take a while to switch ratios and get the car moving.
The reaction time was most noticeable when I used the AutoStick clutchless-manual mode that comes standard in the R/T but isn't available in the automatic versions of lower trim grades. Sure, one benefit of a CVT is seamless operation with no stepped shift feel, but Dodge has chosen six set ratios into which the trans can be locked. These switches occur not simply quickly, but faster than the gear changes in some conventional automatics. What I appreciate is that it truly holds whatever gear you choose, unlike some automatics (including some of Dodge's) that allow kickdown regardless of the setting. (The Caliber's AutoStick only downshifts automatically when in Drive.)
Disc/drum brakes are standard on the SE and SXT, where ABS is optional. Four-wheel discs with ABS are standard on the R/T and optional on the SXT, in an option package. Interior The interior has decent-quality materials, a sophisticated design and two-tone color schemes, even in the base trim level. Visibility is pretty good all around, partly because the Caliber actually sits a bit higher than a common affordable car. Anyone who's concerned about visibility or overall fit might want to consider the SXT trim level or higher, because the SE doesn't have a driver's seat height adjustment. The standard steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope — an unfortunate omission in a brand-new model. Shorter drivers will appreciate the center armrest, which slides forward. It also includes a swing-up holster for an MP3 player or cell phone.
Be the transmission manual or automatic, the shifter juts out from the dashboard's center control panel. Many people complain about this placement, but it's not likely to go away, especially in a world car. Overseas buyers reportedly prefer this location, and it also frees up some cabin space by eliminating a floor console.
Though it's not lockable, the glove compartment has a few tricks: There are separate upper and lower sections, each with its own door. The bottom section has both a storage bin and a shelf that — in all but the SE trim level — can serve as the optional Chill Zone beverage cooler. Connected to the air conditioning, it chills up to three cans or bottles that rest on a contoured mat. We've seen heated/cooled compartments before, but this one cools even when the cabin heat is on. It does so by running the air-conditioning compressor, so it's not the most fuel-efficient action if you're not already cooling the cabin.
The SE and SXT have basic cloth upholstery. The SXT offers premium cloth, which is standard on the R/T. Either of these trim levels can substitute leather in an option package. For the truly filthy, stain-resistant fabric will come later in the year.
I found the Caliber's interior comfortable and workable. The driver sits relatively high, but there's no high-chair feeling as in the Vibe and Matrix, in which the clutch pedal is pressed down as much as forward.
"Compact" used to mean cramped interiors. Boy, how things have changed. Now compacts and significantly smaller subcompact cars are remarkably roomy. The Caliber's backseat will suffice for adults, though probably not for long trips. The backrests recline in the SXT and R/T. Safety In addition to the required airbags, the Caliber has standard side curtain-type airbags and a driver's knee airbag designed to keep the driver positioned properly for the primary restraints. Tire-pressure monitoring comes in an option package on the SXT and R/T. Front seat-mounted side-impact airbags will become an option in September 2006, along with an electronic stability system, traction control and brake assist. Cargo & Towing The cargo floor is plastic, similar to that of the Matrix and Vibe, to ease cleaning. The panel itself can be removed. The backseat is split, 60/40, and folds to extend the cargo area forward. The front passenger seat also folds forward in all but the SE trim level. Note that the seatbacks aren't plastic-covered, so the stain resistance ends at the front of the cargo panel.
The Caliber's cargo area and towing capacity are on par with its competitors:
Cargo & Towing Comparison
Cargo Volume (minimum, cu.ft.)
Cargo Volume (maximum, cu.ft.)
Towing Capacity (lbs.)
2007 Dodge Caliber
2006 Ford Focus ZX5
2006 Pontiac Vibe
Features Nifty features include illuminated cupholder rings and the MP3-player/cell phone holster in the armrest. A 115-volt household power outlet is optional, as is a ceiling-mounted flashlight. This rechargeable unit serves as the cargo-area light when attached, and can be removed easily from behind the car or from the backseat.
MusicGate Power is Dodge's name for a Boston Acoustics premium audio system with two special speakers in the liftgate itself. They face forward normally, but when the liftgate is raised, they can be swung down to aim rearward and play for tailgate partiers or other such loiterers. The feature is shared with the Jeep Compass. Caliber in the Market I'm so focused on a vehicle as a machine and an interior environment that I sometimes foresee market success that doesn't come. The reason is aesthetics, which might be the single most important criterion in a vehicle — to the consternation of pragmatic types like me. Styling can make a sub-mediocre car sell well, and it can hamstring an otherwise excellent machine. I'm confident that the Caliber delivers on both fronts. Its success would help maintain the Chrysler Group's winning streak. The weakest product in Dodge's lineup is gone, and soon all the "old-Chrysler" vehicles will have been replaced. Of Detroit's Big Three, Chrysler's immediate future looks rosier than the others'. Long term . . . one never knows.