The Dodge Caliber is comfortable and practical, but it has one major fault — poor visibility — that I just can't live with.
For 2010, the Caliber dropped its high-performance SRT4 model, as well as its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine option. It also employs a new naming convention this year: the trims were changed to (in ascending order) Express, Heat, Mainstreet, Uptown and Rush. I'm not sure what the point was behind changing the trim names, but, then again, they are original.
The biggest news, is that the Caliber got a completely redesigned interior for 2010, and that work was well-done. Chrysler has had its troubles lately, having to merge with Fiat to stay alive. If the Caliber's interior is an indication of what the company will do in the future, it's a promising sign. I didn't care for the previous Caliber's interior, but I think Dodge is on the right track with this one. (You can compare the 2010 Caliber to the 2009 model here.)
If you're going straight ahead on a flat, farmland road, visibility in the Caliber is OK. However, if you ever have to turn or move in reverse, you're going to be in trouble.
The A-pillars (the ones that flank the windshield) are fairly large and sweep back at a shallow angle. A lot of cars have this styling and, as a result, a lot of cars are hard to see out of when turning. The pillars block your view of pedestrians, cars — anything — and that's a big problem.
On the highway, there's just not a lot of window glass what car guys call the "greenhouse" — and while the view isn't claustrophobic, I never felt like I was seeing enough of the traffic around me to confidently judge my passing possibilities.
The view out the back of the Caliber is the worst, though. The rear window is small, and the rear seats have fixed, molded headrests that don't recede into the backrests, so it's like looking down a tube to see out the rear. Folding the rear seats down helps visibility — marginally. The Caliber is one of only a very few cars I've driven lately where I never felt confident when I was backing up, and there's no optional rearview camera or sonar parking assist.
If the visibility out the car is a huge downside, the interior is now one of the Caliber's strengths. Dodge completely redid the interior for 2010, and that work has paid off.
Our test model was a midrange Uptown model, and it had leather seating surfaces and other upgraded trim pieces. Looking at pictures of the base model, though, it's obvious Dodge has done its homework. The whole interior is cohesive. It looks like someone sat down and thought of the interior as a unit, where everything should look and feel similar. Sometimes when I'm in a car, I feel like things are sort of grafted together whether they really fit or not, but the Caliber didn't suffer from that.
Also, whoever designed the Caliber gave it something nice that's getting to be pretty uncommon these days: covered storage space. There's a sunglass holder on the dash, a bin under the armrest, and a center console bin. It was really convenient to have little out-of-sight places to hide things.
All the materials looked to be of decent quality, too. I mean, you won't think for a minute that you're in a Mercedes-Benz, but you're also not paying Mercedes prices to drive the Caliber, and this is basically an entry-level car in Dodge's lineup. It's a big improvement over the 2009 model. The one fault in this area, though, is that the turn-signal stalk felt very cheap. It didn't feel like it was entirely connected to the steering column — as if it were going to come off in my hand. If something you regularly use feels cheap, the rest of the car will start to feel cheap, too.
The Caliber has been all but unchanged on the outside since it debuted, and it's starting to look a bit familiar. It has a lot of Dodge styling touches, such as the large, crosshair grille. It also has short overhangs — the amount of body between the wheels and the bumpers — and I always think that makes for a better-looking car.
Overall, since I'm a fan of hatchbacks and wagons, I don't have anything against the Caliber. It's by no means the best-looking hatch/wagon on the market, but I think Dodge did a good job making something that has a lot of its styling DNA, but that doesn't look like any other Chrysler product. Still, if the interior were the first thing Dodge needed to refresh on the Caliber, its exterior would be next on the list — it'd give them a chance to improve the visibility issue, too.
Because it's a hatchback, it's natural to expect a decent amount of utility. Here, the Caliber delivers. The cargo area behind the rear seats offers a good amount of room for a trip to the grocery store.
Then, folding the seats down offers a great deal of room. On all but the base model, you get a standard folding front passenger seat, which is handy for very long, thin items. I used the Caliber to go to a triathlon in Wisconsin, and it did a good job of carrying me and all my stuff. One thing I did notice, however, is that both the cargo area and cargo opening are deceptively narrow. I was expecting more room from side to side.
If you're taller and the sort who routinely folds the seats up and down to carry anything, you might become annoyed — as I was — with the second row's fixed headrests. The headrests were always bumping into the front seats, and I'd have to fold the front seat slightly forward, fold down the rear seats, then put the front seat back where I had it. It's no big deal if you rarely need the extra room, but if you're always folding the seats, it will probably bug you. Collapsible or removable second-row headrests would fix this issue pretty easily.
Even though Dodge dropped some engines and trim levels from the Caliber lineup, you still have a choice of engine/transmission setups: a 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission or continuously variable automatic transmission or a 172-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder that runs with either a five-speed manual or the CVT. I tested the 158-hp 2.0-liter engine with the CVT.
Our Caliber wasn't designed to be a sports car, so when I say that it moves away from a stop pretty well, don't go thinking you'll win any drag races. It does get moving pretty well, but it also tends to run out of steam quickly — around 30 mph. It really doesn't seem to have a lot of oomph for passing on the highway, either.
I say "it doesn't seem to have" a lot of power because I think the Caliber is really hampered by its continuously variable automatic transmission. That type of transmission eliminates the bump you feel when a transmission shifts gears, and that's nice, but it also means the engine just kind of groans when you accelerate aggressively. When you floor the gas pedal to pass someone, instead of feeling the transmission downshift and hearing the engine rev louder, you just hear this constant groan. It's almost depressing. It feels like the engine's not doing anything, when it really is.
I kept thinking that if the Caliber had a transmission with normal gears, I'd feel like it was accelerating faster even if it really wasn't.
Setting aside the drivetrain issues, the Caliber offers a nice ride. I drove it in the city, and it was OK over our very rough roads. At highway speeds, it had a nice, solid feel, and it didn't beat me to death, either.
One thing you will have to pay attention to is the amount of road and tire noise, because you'll hear a lot. I think Dodge would be wise to add a bit more soundproofing when it next refreshes (or redesigns) the Caliber, because while that kind of noise doesn't generally bother me when I drive, I thought it was excessive.
Safety, Reliability, Mileage
The Caliber gets the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating, Good, in its frontal crash tests. With standard side curtain airbags, the car is rated only Marginal in side-impact tests. Front-seat-mounted side-impact torso airbags are optional, but IIHS didn't test a Caliber with this feature.
Standard safety equipment includes side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag, in addition to the required front airbags. Antilock brakes are standard, but an electronic stability system is optional on higher trims and not available on the Express (that's the base) Caliber. A full rundown of safety features is available here.
As you'd expect from a car with a variety of engine and transmission options, mileage varies depending on what you choose. Here's a breakdown: Calibers with the 2.0-liter engine and manual five-speed transmission get 23/31 mpg city/highway; the 2.4-liter engine with a five-speed manual gets 23/29 mpg; the 2.0-liter and CVT that I tested get 23/27 mpg and, finally, Calibers with the 2.4-liter engine and CVT get 21/25 mpg. The Caliber is predicted to have average reliability.
Caliber in the Market
The Caliber did pretty much everything I asked of it during my test, but it's not a car that I would recommend. The poor visibility alone is enough to steer me away; but even if the visibility doesn't bug you, the Caliber is competing against a lot of compact crossovers and wagons. Most of its competitors I've driven offer either a more rewarding driving experience or more utility than the Caliber does, or both. Dodge has done good work by updating the Caliber's interior, but I think the rest of the car needs similar updates.
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