The Good: Plenty of features for the money, stands out of a crowd.
The Bad: Doesn’t like to dance, fit and finish needs work, stands out of a crowd.
The Verdict: 2008 outside, 1998 inside.
Dodge, like most American carmakers, hasn’t been one to jump on the alphanumeric jumble name-train for its cars. While this certainly tends to give their cars more character (I don’t care how cool the cars themselves may be, “Explorer” is much more badass than “F430”), it can lead to the cars themselves receiveing names with little connection to each other. Within Dodge’s own stable, at least, there seems to be some categorizing: there’s the animal section (Ram and Viper), the anger-management division (Avenger and Challenger), and the 80’s hair-rock group (Journey).
Joining the Dodge Magnum in the NRA section is the Dodge Caliber, the company’s smallest car. Introduced in 2006 to replace the perennially emasculating Neon, the Caliber’s hatchback design seems to make it destined to replace the Neon-based Chrysler PT Cruiser in the near future as well.
I tested a mid-level SXT model, with a base price of $16,840; mine went for $17,785, after delivery charge and the eloquently named “Customer Preferred Package 23E,” which included swaths of blue on the seats and center console, steering wheel audio controls and the equally well-titled “Popular Equipment Group.” On top of that, the Caliber throws in a bevy of standard features that range from the obvious (cruise control, keyless entry) to the convenient (115-volt power outlet) all the way to the curious (interior lamp that doubles as a flashlight?). The glovebox even includes an air-conditioned pocket for drinks. Expect to hear from MADD on that one.
On the technical side, the Charger comes standard with a 1.8 liter, 148-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine, connected to either a five-speed manual (as in my tester) or a continuously-variable automatic. The higher-level R/T model comes with a larger, 172-horsepower engine, while the top-level SRT-4 comes fully loaded (sorry) with a 268-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder. The SXT gets 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.
From the outside, the Caliber doesn’t really bring to mind any sort of firearm cues; in fact, it sort of looks like a Jeep Liberty and a PT Cruiser were put in the same cage and made to watch car porn until they copulated. (However, “Liberiser” just sounds kind of dirty, which might be why they went with “Caliber.”) The car looks biggest at the front, dominated by its enormous headlights and maw-like crosshair grille; but by the time your eyes reach the back end of the car, the sheetmetal looks awfully pinched together. And in this case, the looks are quite honest; the cargo compartment of the car seems very small, which seems to negate the advantage of a hatchback.
Inside, the Caliber seems open and airy; it fits tall drivers well. However, the center console takes a strange angle down by the driver’s knee – not much of a problem at first, but it could get hairy after a few hours. The windshield seems a little low, as well; the top of it lined up with my eyes. Strangely, there appeared to be some strange distortion along the top of the windshield that made me feel cross-eyed; tall folks with good posture should try before they buy.
Like the Malibu, though, the interior seemed busy with hard plastic pieces jutting every which way. Unfortunately, the lower-quality materials seem to extend throughout the cabin, lending a rental-car feel to it no different from the Dodge vehicles of ten years ago – disappointing, in light of the advances made in interiors by many other manufacturers in that time.
Thankfully, all the interior controls are fairly intuitive and easy to find. The climate control is managed with three giant knobs – but oddly, the defroster and air conditioning are controlled by rubbery buttons the size of a pinkie toenail inside the center dial. It wouldn’t seem strange, except for the fact that there’s five inches of hard plastic that seems set aside for buttons only a few inches lower. Why not move them down and make them manageable?
The only other major ergonomic pain in the ass are the steering-wheel mounted radio controls, which for some reason are mounted on the back of the wheel. As such, it’s impossible to use them intuitively; I kept switching to AM radio when I was trying to turn up the volume.
On the road, the Caliber performs adequately for a car in its size class. Acceleration is moderate – if you need to roast the tires, save up for the SRT-4. MSN Autos (the only mainstream site I could find with acceleration figures for the SXT) states the automatic SXT runs from 0 to 60 in 9.8 seconds and does the quarter mile in 17.7 seconds at 82.1 mph. However, squealing the tires is pretty easy – the Caliber seems to do this every time you turn at more than 30 miles an hour. The handling seems secure enough despite this (though I didn’t have the chance to perform any handling tests), but it seems a little scary at first to hear the tires squeal in protest in a normal turn.
Of course, you might not notice the squealing tires if you tend to drive sedately; but you’re likely to notice the seats no matter how fast or slow you go. Unfortunately, they’re another area where the Caliber could use some improvement. Down low, they’re fine – but in the upper back area, it feels like there’s a fireplace log jammed into the cushion, which does nothing for comfort, let alone posture.
In the end, the Caliber comes off as a rather cheap car. While it will certainly draw attention with its mutated hatch looks, inside, it doesn’t come off as anything special. It’s not a bad car – it’ll do everything asked of it without complaint (except the tires), but it’s nothing worth getting excited about. If you’re looking for basic transportation with a new look, the Caliber will do you well; otherwise, there are plenty of other cars that offer more fun, better looks and higher quality worth considering.
Thanks to Kyle Adams and Goss Dodge for their help with this report.