Dodge introduced the Caliber, a five-seat four-door hatchback, last year in a class that included the Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Impreza wagon and Toyota Matrix. For 2008, Dodge added an SRT4 high-performance model to a lineup that already included the SE, SXT and R/T.
The Caliber SRT4 includes a 280-horsepower engine and performance-oriented features such as a rear spoiler, a larger grille opening, a separate turbocharger boost gauge, an optional reconfigurable display, 19-inch wheels and a one-inch lower suspension.
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. The Caliber has very large wheels for a car of its 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. Despite the look, the Caliber actually sits a bit higher than most compact cars.
The rear end — especially the taillights — seems borrowed from the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, but the overall effect here is good and modern.
For 2008, a Surf Blue exterior color replaces Marine Blue.
The SRT4 model features a larger grille opening, a unique rear spoiler and 19-inch wheels.
Designed to compete with some of the nicer compact models on the market, the interior has decent-quality materials, a sophisticated design and two-tone color schemes, even in the base trim level. For 2008, the Caliber was spruced up with chrome accents on the door handles, the cluster rings and the heating, air-conditioning and radio knobs. Whether the transmission is 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 prefer this location, and it also frees up some space by eliminating a floor console.
The cargo floor is plastic, similar to that of the Matrix and Vibe, to ease cleaning. The panel itself can be removed. For the truly filthy, stain-resistant seat upholstery is available.
There are many slick features in the Caliber, including illuminated cupholder rings, an MP3-player holster and a center armrest that slides forward 3 inches for improved comfort. The SXT and R/T trim levels add a 60/40-split folding backseat and a folding front passenger seat to extend the cargo area. A 115-volt household power outlet is optional, as is a ceiling-mounted flashlight. The rechargeable unit can be reached from behind the car or from the backseat.
The glove compartment has upper and lower sections, the bottom of which 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 by running the air-conditioning compressor.
MusicGate Power is Dodge's name for a Boston Acoustics premium audio system with two special speakers in the liftgate. They face forward normally, but when the liftgate is raised, they can be swung down to aim rearward and play for tailgate partiers. The feature is shared with the Jeep Compass.
The SXT has YES Essentials stain-, odor- and static-resistant seat fabric; speed control; and an air-filtration system. The 2008 R/T adds standard heated front seats and satellite radio.
The SRT4 has a separate turbo boost gauge, sport seats with deeper bolstering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a short-throw gearshift lever. The Caliber SRT4 is available only with a manual transmission.
Under the Hood
The 1.8-, 2.0- and 2.4-liter versions of the four-cylinder engine produce 148, 158 and 172 hp, respectively. In addition to increasing with engine size, the torque output also characteristically comes at lower engine speeds. The ratings are 125 pounds-feet at 5,200 rpm, 141 pounds-feet at 5,000 rpm and 165 pounds-feet at 4,400 rpm for the small, medium and large engines, respectively. The EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy for each is 28/32 mpg, 26/30 mpg and 23/26 mpg.
The engines are all aluminum with variable valve timing and flow-control valves in the air intake that help ensure complete, clean combustion at all engine speeds.
Currently, the SE and SXT trim levels come with the 1.8-liter and five-speed manual. The 2.0-liter engine and a 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.
In addition to the manual transmission, the new SRT4 model packs a 280-hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 260 pounds-feet of torque.
Disc/drum brakes are standard; four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist are optional in some versions. The SRT4 comes with standard four-wheel-disc brakes.
In addition to the required airbags, the Caliber has standard side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag designed to keep the driver positioned properly for the primary restraints. An electronic stability system and traction control are optional on most models, but the stability system is standard on the SRT4.
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