Until now, the most fun you could have with a Dodge Caliber is talk about how roomy it is, the refrigerated glove compartment and how you didn't pay all that much for it, because as far as the driving experience goes, it's pretty much point-A-to-point-B transportation, even with the slightly sporty R/T model.
That changes -- boy, does it! -- with the 2008 Caliber SRT4, just now reaching dealers. SRT stands for Street and Racing Technology, and it's essentially Chrysler's little in-house hot rod shop, which has a mandate to take regular models and make them more powerful, more fun to drive. And, of course, more expensive, but you already knew that.
Considering the fact that the base-model Caliber starts at about $14,000, you can do a lot of work to one and still be able to sell it for a reasonable price. In this case, $23,990, after you add a turbocharged, 285-horsepower four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual transmission, big 19-inch tires and aluminum wheels, a stiffer suspension and various interior and exterior cues that let people know this isn't your grandma's Caliber. In fact, I was surprised at how much attention the Caliber SRT4 drew -- just as those people were surprised to see someone older than 20 at the wheel.
The Caliber SRT4's engine would never be confused with a Honda, but it's reasonably smooth and plenty powerful, even before the turbocharger kicks in. And when it does, hang on: Like many powerful front-wheel-drive cars, the Caliber SRT4 has a fair amount of torque steer under hard acceleration -- that's when the engine's torque actually steers the car just slightly left or right. Not a problem, but if you aren't expecting it, torque steer can be a little disconcerting. There is an all-wheel-drive model Caliber, but the AWD system isn't beefy enough to handle the SRT4's power. Yet, anyway -- an AWD SRT4 would be a blast.
Inside, the SRT4 is significantly upgraded, especially the bucket seats, but there remains lots of plastic evidence that this is, after all, an economy car. The ride is better than I expected, and handling is excellent -- steering feel is spot-on, brakes are responsive and linear.
Like the car it's based on, the Caliber SRT4 is a little rough around the edges, but for the money -- the $23,990 included an optional sunroof and a couple of other add-ons -- this is an entertaining little beast.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at email@example.com.