The tall roof and four-door hatchback design of the rugged-looking Caliber hint at SUV themes, and the optional all-wheel-drive package on the top-of-the-line Caliber R/T drives the point home even further.
We tested a well-equipped 2007 Caliber R/T AWD with a bottom line of $23,885.
HE: I can sum up the Caliber R/T AWD in just a few words. Great concept, sexy design, lousy execution. And, in the case of our test vehicle, grossly overpriced at nearly $24,000.
SHE: I hate cars that keep me awake at night. The Jeep Compass was one of them. The Caliber R/T AWD, which is a sister vehicle to the Compass, is another. These are cars that you really want to like because they're homegrown products from Detroit and, at least on paper, they sound really cool. But when you get your hands on one, it's a different story. The Caliber R/T AWD, as we quickly found out, is no substitute for an SUV -- on any level. Even the fuel economy wasn't that impressive; the EPA highway number is identical to the Chevy Corvette Z06, which has a 500-horsepower 7.0-liter V-8. Go figure.
HE: That's only one of many anomalies on the Caliber R/T AWD. We should point out that earlier this year, we gave the base Caliber much higher marks -- partly because it was about $6,000 cheaper, so our expectations were considerably lower. But after having driven a new Volkswagen Rabbit with a sticker price of less than $21,000, the Caliber R/T AWD was an even bigger disappointment, in terms of ride comfort, handling and powertrain performance.
SHE: But you've got to admit the Caliber is still a riveting design with a lot of presence.
HE: No question. But you don't have to dig very far beneath the sheet metal to start uncovering flaws. The Caliber's big four-cylinder engine didn't feel nearly as peppy as the Rabbit's five-cylinder engine, even though the displacements are nearly identical and the Caliber actually has 22 more horsepower than the Rabbit. But the VW has more torque and, more importantly, was equipped with the company's optional six-speed automatic, which is light years ahead of the lousy continuously variable unit in the Dodge. Yuck. I'd can this slush box at the earliest opportunity, if I were Chrysler, and find a conventional automatic to replace it. The CVT is thatunpleasant.
SHE: There are things I like about the Caliber. Our test vehicle had standard antilock brakes, side curtain air bags for all outboard passengers and some really solid amenities, including a standard leather-wrapped steering wheel, illuminated cup holders and a "chill zone" cooler in the instrument panel. Our test car also came with such options as Sirius satellite radio and a UConnect hands-free phone system.
HE: I still can't get past some of the basic flaws in the package, some of which are directly related to the all-wheel drive. The ride is harsh -- much more so than on the base Caliber. This car doesn't feel nearly as agile as the Rabbit either. The AWD system is bulky and clunky, and makes the Caliber more difficult to park and maneuver in tight spaces.
SHE: I have some issues with visibility -- those thick rear pillars are a big problem, especially when backing up or changing lanes. And the Caliber R/T AWD is noisy, particularly at highway speeds. Plus, I didn't like the feeling of being bounced around on rough pavement.
HE: Thank goodness the top-of-the-line Caliber carries over some of the same neat features as the base model, including that handy iPod jack in the dash and a roomy cargo bay with a washable floor mat. But that's not enough to justify a $24,000 sticker. So do yourself a favor. Save four grand and buy the Rabbit.
SHE: Or if you really need the AWD, buy a real SUV for the same money -- say, a Ford Escape or a Jeep Liberty -- and save yourself some sleepless nights.
He drove, she drove Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, a Detroit-based automotive information services company.
2007 Dodge Caliber R/T AWD
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
Price: Base, $19,985 (inc. $560 shipping charge); as tested, $23,885
Engine: 2.4-liter I-4; 172-hp; 165 lb-ft torque
EPA fuel economy: 23 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Where built: Belvidere, Ill.
Estimated 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,705
Likes: Riveting design. Good safety features, including standard ABS and side curtains. Cool options, including MusicGate speakers and chrome wheels. Attractive white-face gauges.
Dislikes: Harsh, bouncy ride. Thick rear pillars restrict visibility. Noisy at highway speeds. So-so fuel economy -- same highway rating as Corvette Z06.
Likes: Rugged, distinctive exterior styling. Handy iPod jack. On-demand all-wheel drive. Roomy cargo bay.
Dislikes: Grossly overpriced at $24,000. 2.4L engine feels anemic. CVT makes a lousy performance transmission. R/T badging is misleading -- there's nothing remotely sporty about this car. Interior looks cheap and spartan. Not much room in the rear seat. AWD makes it more difficult to park and maneuver in tight spaces.
1. Unacceptable, 2. Subpar, 3. Acceptable, 4. Above average, 5. World class