A car like the Dodge Caliber SRT4 says a lot about the person driving it. Maybe not as much as the home video your friend posted of you on YouTube, but it's revealing nonetheless. What does it say? It says everyday practicality is on equal footing with performance in your world, and you're OK with that (the SRT4 is a four-door hatchback, after all).
Knowing this, it seems worthwhile to determine how this performance-oriented compact car rates when it comes to everyday livability and utility. After driving the SRT4 for more than a week, my conclusion is a mixed one. The Dodge performed admirably in some respects but suffered serious deductions in others. (Performance junkies can get more background on how the SRT4 holds up in our review of the 2008 model, which carries over mostly unchanged for 2009.)
The SRT4's turbocharged four-cylinder engine only comes with a six-speed manual transmission, but even during heavy stop-and-go commuting it's easier to drive than you might think. One of the main reasons why is that the clutch pedal isn't overly firm. The clutch also engages smoothly, so you won't have to worry about whipping your passengers' heads backward. Overall, the setup is easy to get accustomed to, and the location of the stick shift itself — right below the air conditioning controls on the dash — puts it within easy reach of your right hand.
For performance seats, the front buckets are comfortable. They're big and have quite a bit of side bolstering, but because they're pretty wide you won't feel squeezed when sitting in them. The driver's seat has manual adjustments that let you place it just where you want, and heated leather seats are optional.
If you plan on using the backseat as more than just a place to toss a backpack or briefcase, your passengers — even taller ones — should be comfortable on short trips. Legroom and headroom are acceptable. The seat cushioning is fairly soft, but the backrest has harder padding.
Firm suspensions go hand-in-hand with performance cars, but the SRT4 will shake and rattle you all the way to work in the morning and on the way home at night. While the suspension keeps body motion nicely in check, it doesn't play nicely with pavement that's been roughed up by a harsh winter, as all the bumps and holes are felt in the cabin.
The other thing that starts to wear on you after a few days of driving this car is the turbo four-cylinder's droning exhaust note; it sounds like an angry vacuum cleaner, and at certain engine rpm it feels like it's boring into your skull. I like a louder exhaust note as much as the next performance-car enthusiast — just not this one.
The SRT4 offers 18.5 cubic feet of cargo room, which is more than the Mazdaspeed3 (16.5) but less than the hatchback Subaru Impreza WRX (19). My test car, however, was equipped with an option that significantly reduced its utility: The available Kicker audio system includes a subwoofer right behind the backseat that crowds the cargo area. The previous SRT4 I tested had a Boston Acoustics subwoofer stashed in the side of the cargo area wall, which, from a packaging standpoint, is better than the Kicker subwoofer's location out in the open — that space is just too valuable in a hatchback. Fortunately, the subwoofer can be removed if you need more cargo space.
The SRT4 has the makings of an interesting track car, but most people shopping for a performance hatchback don't have access to a racetrack. Instead, they have to make do with public roads like everyone else. For drivers in this situation, there are better choices available, like Subaru's Impreza WRX, which gains more power for 2009 and does a commendable job balancing sportiness and ride comfort.
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