Despite the tough past few months that Chrysler - and most other automakers, as well - have endured, there are some bright spots in the lineup of this important member of the U.S. Big Three automakers.
Among them is the Dodge Caliber, a stylish, small, fuel-efficient hatchback model that has sold well since it arrived for 2007, and whose sales also held up well last year as gasoline prices spiked to above the $4 mark.
Besides its impressive EPA ratings - which go as high as 24 miles per gallon city/30 highway with the base 148-horsepower engine -- the Caliber has lots of other great attributes, including its cool styling and versatility.
Even in its third year on the market, the Caliber turns heads wherever it goes.
The Caliber replaced the Neon compact sedan in the Dodge lineup. But it wasn't a direct replacement, because there never was a Neon wagon, and this new car has absolutely nothing in common with the Neon.
Besides the great fuel economy, the Caliber has an affordable starting price -- $16,460 (plus $630 freight) for the base SE model, bringing a vehicle with lots of standard equipment, not a stripped-down version that nobody would want.
Next up the ladder is the SXT model, which begins at $17,850, and comes even better-equipped, although still with the 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.
For this report, though, we tested the sporty R/T model, which has a base price of $20,295 (plus freight) and features a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 172 horsepower.
Even more zip is available for enthusiasts, however - with the Caliber SRT4, which begins at $24,840 and comes with a whopping 285 horsepower from its turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder. It can go from zero to 60 mph in just under six seconds.
While the SE and SXT are the Caliber models most consumers will choose, the R/T offers a much sportier package without jumping the price quite as much as the SRT4 model does. It does give up some of the Caliber's fuel efficiency, but it's more fun to drive.
If you're on a tight budget, though, the SE is a great buy. At the $16,460 price, it comes with a five-speed manual gearbox; the continuously variable automatic is $1,000 extra. Air conditioning is included with the SE, but you'll have to crank your own windows and manually lock the doors for that price.
Beyond its good looks, the Caliber offers a roomy and comfortable interior. The materials and finish are better than usual for a car in this price class.
A Jeep version of this vehicle, the Compass, also is offered, but it comes only with the 172-horsepower engine and begins at $18,465 (plus freight). While all-wheel drive is offered on the Compass, Chrysler has discontinued that option for the Caliber. Also built on the chassis of the Caliber and Compass is the Jeep Patriot. But it looks like a traditional SUV, and is offered in an off-road version.
Our R/T tester came with the optional Auto Stick continuously variable automatic transmission ($1,075), which allows for manual shifting (without a clutch, of course). With the automatic, EPA ratings for the R/T are 21 miles per gallon city/25 highway; with the manual, they're 23 city/29 highway. The SRT4 model comes with a six-speed manual and EPA ratings of 19/27.
The smaller engine on the SE and SXT models is rated at 24 city/30 highway with the manual, and 23/29 with the automatic.
Also available on the SE and SXT models is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 158 horsepower ($150), but it is offered only with the continuously variable automatic transmission. EPA ratings are 23/27.
The five-door Caliber has an abundance of features designed to appeal to young people. With the rear seat in place, it can carry up to five passengers. The rear seat folds flat for easy cargo hauling, and an optional folding front passenger seat can be used as a workspace, such as to hold a laptop computer.
Also available are rear speakers for the audio system that are built into the one-piece rear liftgate, and which can be turned around and aimed to the rear to provide music outside the vehicle for a picnic or tailgate party.
Other cool Caliber features include cup holders with illuminated outer rings, and the Chill Zone, an air-conditioned glove box that can hold up to four 20-ounce drink bottles. It gets cool air from the air-conditioning ducts, and is standard on all models.
But unless you're on a long, cross-country drive, this little semi-fridge doesn't have time to chill the drinks. Our water bottles in the Chill Zone were hot with the car parked in the sun.
There is a special place in the middle of the center console to hold cell phones and MP3 players, and the audio systems have input jacks for connecting an external audio source such as an MP3 player or iPod.
Also, the center console has an armrest that can be moved forward or backward to accommodate the front-seat occupants. There is even a removable, self-recharging flashlight embedded in the dome light, and a 115-volt power outlet is provided for devices such as laptop computers.
For safety, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags are standard for front and rear passengers, but front seat-mounted side air bags are optional. High-strength steel was used throughout the body structure for better impact protection.
The 2.4-liter engine is quite responsive, although the continuously variable transmission, without discernible shift points, seems to labor during uphill acceleration.
Chrysler says the CVT offers up to 8 percent better fuel economy than a conventional automatic.
Mitsubishi did the original design and engineering work on the Caliber, and the resulting vehicle architecture was co-developed with Chrysler before the two companies went their separate ways.
The Caliber's engines are the result of a joint effort among Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, and while the three share the technology of these engines, all three build their own versions of the engines for their own vehicles.
Among standard equipment on the SXT model are power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, power front disc/rear drum brakes, air conditioning, power rack-and-pinion steering, touring suspension, intermittent wipers, halogen headlights, and tilt steering column.
An AM/FM/compact-disc player with four speakers is standard on SE and SXT models, but the R/T has with an upgraded audio system that included eight Boston Acoustics speakers, including a subwoofer.
Other extras offered on the R/T include a leather interior package ($595), a Mopar exterior appearance group ($1,499); a Mopar interior appearance group ($489); a security group ($1,875), which adds an alarm system, the front seat-mounted side air bags, electronic stability control and the U-connect navigation system with Bluetooth phone connection; 18-inch chrome alloy wheels ($700); and an upgraded audio system with hard drive and DVD playback ($650).
The only option on our tester, though, was the automatic transmission. Total price was $22,000, including freight.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@star-telegram. com.
At a Glance:
2009 Dodge Caliber
The package: Compact, five-door, five-passenger, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive hatchback/wagon.
Highlights: Brand two years ago, this is the entry-level model in the Dodge lineup, and has great styling, a roomy interior, and decent fuel economy.
Negatives: Can get pricey with the uplevel trim and options.
Engines: 1.8-liter I-4, 2.0-liter I-4, 2.4-liter I-4, 2.4-liter I-4 (turbocharged).
Transmissions: Five-speed manual; six-speed manual; continuously variable automatic (CVT), CVT with Auto Stick.
Power/torque: 148 HP/125 foot-pounds (1.8-liter); 158 HP./141 foot-pounds (2.0); 172 HP/165 foot-pounds (2.4); 285 HP./265 foot-pounds (2.4, turbo).
Length: 173.8 inches.
Curb weight: 2,966-3,189 pounds.
Cargo volume: 18.5 cubic feet (behind rear seat); 48 cubic feet (rear seat folded).
Trailer towing capacity: 1,000 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum (SE, SXT) antilock standard on SXT; disc/disc, antilock (R/T, SRT4).
Electronic stability control: Optional, except standard on SRT4.
Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, optional; roof-mounted side-curtain, standard, both rows.
Fuel capacity/type: 13.6 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: 19-24 miles per gallon city/25-30 highway, depending on engine and transmission.
Major competitors: Scion xB, Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Forester, Jeep Compass, Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen.
Base price range: $16,460-$24,840 plus $630 freight.
Price as tested: $22,000 including freight and options (R/T with CVT).
On the Road rating: 8.2 (of a possible 10).
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