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New York Auto Show – Thoughts and Judgements (Oh So Much Judgement)

The grueling two days making up the New York Auto Show press preview have finally come to a close (so many free cappuccinos…), so it’s time to reflect on just what happened. Overall, it was a pretty average show, but my gut seems to indicate the overall event was actually one of the more exciting, involving shows of late. Maybe it’s because of the infinitesimal indications that the economy is starting to climb out of the pit so large, Gerard Butler uses it for overly dramatic drop-kickings. Or maybe it was just the free beer.

Let’s talk press conferences. There were a few notable stunts and oddities this year. Mercedes-Benz chose the American 2010 Olympic gold medalist bobsled team to drive out their new, mildly updated R-class. Sadly, this was the first I’d heard of the U.S. victory. I just assumed the Jamaicans always won.

"If they make one Cool Runnings joke, we're getting back in and driving away."

Infiniti put on a brief Cirque du Soleil show before yanking the sheet off their new truck-based QX56 sport-ute. At first, I thought it was just some CDS-style dancers, but, nope, turns out Infiniti actually pulled some real performers from the famed Canadian dance-circus. All they had to do was pay a shitton of money and become the official vehicle of Cirque du Soleil, as both the dancers and the car company represent “inspired performance.” (I couldn’t make that up.) I don’t know about anyone else, but the whole thing gave me a wicked acid flashback.

Scion unveiled their new iQ and tC coupes in what can best be described as a rave setting, if most raves featured a thirty-foot tall mesh projection screen with a car behind it and house music imploring the listener to “jam it in your hole” over and over again. (Then again, maybe raves do these days. I haven’t been in a while.)

Roger Sterling takes a minute from banging his secretary to introduce the new Scions.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s seen one of their “cheeky” ads, Mini took full advantage of the date of their press conference to play an April Fools Day prank on the audience; touting their square, cloaked concept as a concept called the “Mini Excel,” the sheet was ripped off to reveal a large SUV-shaped plywood box with “April Fools” written on the sides. Then several roadies (Minies?) converged on the stage, each grabbing a piece of the box and removing it to reveal the Mini Countryman underneath. Incidentally, Mini’s spokesperson was the only one of the days not wearing a collared shirt; beneath his suit coat was a black T-shirt with MINI written in white print. However, his closed jacket concealed about half the word, so I spent most of the show thinking he was just a big Nine Inch Nails fan.

Of course, at any event involving a large group of competitors, there will be winners and losers. In many cases, determining which is which is pretty easy; in the event of an auto show, it’s entirely subjective. Which means it’s perfect for this site. Presenting the 2010 New York Auto Show Winners and Losers!

Winner: Hyundai. Five years ago, the idea of a Hyundai competing against Mercedes-Benz would have been much, much funnier than anything Dane Cook had ever performed. But unlike Cook, Hyundai has spent the last few years improving themselves. The Genesis sedan introduced the world to the concept of a luxury Hyundai – and the new Equus sedan sets that idea in stone.

Offering quality nearly even with Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the Equus sets out to fight the luxury brands’ top-level sedans at a much lower price point. Fun-to-drive isn’t really the game here – leave that to the Panamera – but for those looking for a relaxed, brisk full-sized luxury sedan with oodles of comfort (and yes, an oodle is the basic unit of comfort), this Hyundai will probably be a perfect fit. It’ll probably poach Lexus LS sales like an ivory hunter with a Holland & Holland .600. Starting between $50,ooo and $60,000, and with features its competitors either charge heavily for (reclining rear right-side seat, rear fridge) or don’t offer at all (nose-mounted camera for seeing around corners, standard iPad in lie of a paper owner’s manual), the Equus will almost certainly clean up the lower end of this market.

You know how Hyundai is serious about this car? Their traditional “H” doesn’t appear on it. Instead, buyers get an abstract Y-shaped logo that looks like a weird-but-I’ve-seen-weirder sex toy.

Recline function, yes. Legroom to use it, no.

Loser: Dodge/Chrysler. Unable to muster up the energy for a press conference, the closest thing the company managed to excitement were a pair of tiny Fiat 500s from their new parent company, along with a duo of identical twins to show them off.

Otherwise, the whole display was pretty flaccid. (Yes, folks, that’s a dick joke.) Chrysler’s business plan these days seems to consist of trying to sell two-tone special editions of the 300, while Dodge is relegated to selling musclecars to the Provincetown set.

Come on, Chrysler! You used to make such great concept cars. Even had a good stretch of production models there, with the PT Cruiser and the 300. This is just sad. If Hyundai can throw two separate press conferences, you can summon up five minutes to show off something. Subaru threw a new wing on the STI and called it a day – can’t you do that to the Viper?

The model budget doesn't seem to have taken much of a hit.

Winner: BMW. Pulling the sheets off five models at the show is a pretty good way to get on this list. (Not four, Kia. Five.) Consistently building some of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road helps, too. Granted, three of the reveals were just tweaks, but if loading a 3-series with 20 extra horses and a seven-speed DSG is what ladies call “freshening up,” I understand why they do it so often and it takes so long. Same goes for the mods to the Z4 and X5. Improvements on the 7-series – like the road-going ICE train called the B7 Alpina, now brilliantly available with xDrive AWD, and the ActiveHybrid 7 capable of going 0-60 in 4.7 seconds while still allowing you to be incredibly smug – are more than appreciated as well.

Who wants to race to Alaska?

But the new 5-series could be my new “realistic” dream car. Especially in 550i form, equipped with the company’s magical 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 cranking out 400 horses – an engine capable of moving the 5200-lb X6 from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat – and the available six-speed manual! (Though living in the city, I might just test-drive that eight-speed automatic. Though I’d feel like a poseur every day if I bought one.) The new 5 is handsome (much more so in person than in pictures), exceedingly comfortable, and quite big inside – big enough I could fit quite comfortably in the back seat, even with my 36″ inseam. (And I’ll just say it – comfier back seat than the new Bentley Mulsanne. No one else will say it, ’cause they don’t want to get booted off the Bentley gravy train, but I speak the truth!) Hell, the trunk is huge, too. I’ll take mine in Deep Sea Blue, please.

Winner: Cadillac. They surprised all of us with a CTS-V Sport Wagon, going on sale this fall by order only. I just need a nice juicy raise by Christmas.

Loser: Toyota/Lexus. Apparently shamed by the whole “AAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!” problem (also known as JESUSFUCKINGCHRISTTHECARWON’TSTOP-gate), Toyota and its luxury brand were silent for the whole show. No apologies, no on-stage seppuku, no carefully choreographed bawling. Which was unfortunate, because at the very least, Lexus had a couple models worth mentioning. The LFA supercar made its New York debut in a matte-black shade that suggests Lexus is courting Bruce Wayne and the rest of the billionaire vigilante market. The CT 200h hybrid compact showed up for the first time too, complete with an ad for an interactive BMWFilm-like promo featuring a “Driver” played by the Boondock Saint Who Isn’t Young Indiana Jones. But no one told us anything about it.

Winner: The Lotus Elise. Because I discovered, while it takes about 30 seconds of gymnastics, I can actually fit inside it. Even with the hard top on.

Loser: The Subaru WRX STI. First, Subaru bumped up the power of the regular, cheaper WRX so it actually became quicker than the big-ticket STI. Now, the company has outfitted the WRX with a new, tough-guy look rendering it all but identical to the STI. Granted, four-door STIs (a new model, by the way) receive an Airbus-grade wing on the rear spoiler, but how long ’til some dude in an Ed Hardy T-shirt sticks one on his WRX?

While fun to drive, the WRX STI can result in other people correctly assuming you're a douchebag.

Winner: The backseat of the Rolls-Royce Ghost. It’s like sitting on a cloud made of dead cattle. (Wait, that came out wrong.)

"Would you like to see my Rolls-Royce?" is ranked #6 on the list of Top 10 Pick-Up Lines.

Loser: the asshole cameraman who spent a good five solid minutes filming the back seat of the Hyundai Equus through its open door, preventing the rest of us from sitting in it. Then, when I asked him if he was going to be much longer, simply snarked, “Yes.” By far, biggest loser of the show.

We’ll have more photos – and probably some snarky remarks of our own to go with them – coming soon! So stay tuned.

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Spy Shots and Curiosities

It’s been a while since we featured any spy shots here on CCO, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to throw a couple interesting ones your way.

First up, the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. Now, that name is still just a rumor at this point, but that will probably be what it’s called when it rolls into showrooms this fall. (At least it’s better than BMW’s name for their similar 5-series-based car, the Gran Turismo. Sorry, BMW – we love ya, but calling a wagon a gran turismo doesn’t make it a gran turismo. I can call myself Tom Brady all I want, but that won’t get me Gisele Bundchen.)

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Between this car, BMW’s Gran Turismo, and a few other examples, it seems as though the Next Big Thing in car design is to blend the hatchback/wagon bodystyles – much in the way the blending of coupe and sedan has proven popular since the Mercedes-Benz CLS appeared a few years ago.

Rumors have bounced around regarding the…miniwagon‘s platform and powertrain, but figure it’ll be pretty much based on the Accord beneath the skin – after all, the Accord’s platform serves as the basis for the Pilot SUV, so it’s proven quite flexible. As on the Pilot, all-wheel-drive will probably be an option. In terms of engines, we’d expect Honda’s corporate 3.5-liter V6, making somewhere around 275 horsepower; there have been rumors of a 200-hp turbo four as well, but seeing as how Honda already makes a 201-hp naturally aspirated I4 for the TSX, it seems more likely they’ll throw that under the hood.

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Next up, we have the BMW X1, part of the German automaker’s plan to craft a vehicle for every single niche, no matter how razor-thin. The aforementioned 5-series GT is another example of this phenomenon; when it is released next year, the 5-series line will include a sedan, a wagon, a miniwagon/hatchback, a coupe, a convertible, a sport-utility vehicle, and a sport utility coupe. Overkill: not just for nuclear weapons anymore!

Anyway, the X1 will be BMW’s smallest SUV, slotting alongside the 1-series coupes and convertibles at the cheap end of the lineup. Frankly, we’re not sure what the X1 is supposed to compete against, given the X3 already competes against the smallest SUVs offered by other luxury manufacturers; perhaps BMW is hoping they can steal away Subaru Forester owners. And given that Mini will soon be introducing their own tiny SUV, it’s hard to see how the X1 is worth the trouble.

P90047877

Still, it should be a hoot to drive, especially since it’ll be coming Stateside with a 272-hp 3.0L inline-six. (BMW offers a 204-hp diesel model in Europe that supposedly gets around 37 mpg; however, as usual, it hasn’t been confirmed for the States yet.) Expect to see it in BMW showrooms next year; a correspondingly larger X3 will probably be along less than a year later.

(By the way, those psychedelic swirls you see on these spy shots are all the rage in the car disguising business these days. They’re supposed to make it harder for the human eye to pick out distinguishing characteristics – though it seems just as likely to cause acid flashbacks in passing drivers.)P90047890

Our third and final spy shot of the day is of the long-rumored BMW M7. Now, for nearly the last decade or so, Mercedes-Benz has cornered the market on souped-up full-size luxury sedans with the AMG versions of the S-class. (They currently offer two – the V8-powered, 518-hp S63 and the turbocharged V12-powered, 604-hp S65.) Surprisingly, BMW hasn’t seen fit to challenge these cars directly through their M performance division as they do in the compact and mid-size luxury markets; rather, they’ve let their semi-affiliated tuner Alpina fight back with their B7 sedan.

However, with the M division (and BMW in general) moving towards turbocharged engines, it appears they’ve decided to pull up their lederhosen and man up by sticking the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 from the X5 M and X6 M into a 7-series. Expect 550 horsepower, a 0-60 time of under 4.5 seconds and some heated competition between it and the Porsche Panamera Turbo around the Nurburgring.

bmw-m7-version

Finally, we want to wrap things up with a couple of unusual vehicles. Galpin Auto Sports, or GAS (a.k.a the guys from Pimp My Ride) have just unveiled a pair of cars the Air Force commissioned them to make (for recruitment purposes, not warfare), and…holy shit. These things may be the coolest cars we’ve ever seen…and we’ve seen pretty much everything.

First up is the GAS X-1. As is pretty obvious, it’s based on a Ford Mustang – but it has about as much in common with those cars in the Hertz Fun Collection as Pierce Brosnan’s Vanquish in Die Another Day had with a stock Aston Martin. How badass is this car? Well, let me put it this way: in place of the twin buckets in most Mustangs, this one has a single ejection seat.

Yes. That’s right. An ejection seat.

USAF Theme Cars

There’s also a GPS transponder, night and thermal vision cameras with in-cockpit touch-screen displays, and an actual flight stick in place of the steering wheel. Oh, yeah, and the 4.6-liter V8’s been played with to make 500 horsepower, but that’s a footnote at this point. Nobody’s gonna listen past “ejection seat.”

USAF Theme Cars

The second car, based on the Doge Challenger, is called the Vapor – apparently because the Air Force wanted everyone to think they were building a lame, unsubstantial vehicle when they were actually putting together a car that could kick Optimus Prime’s ass.

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Take the matte-black paint job. Looks like the same stuff on every “murdered out” car on the road, right? Well, it’s too bad you can’t see radio waves – because then you’d realize this sucker’s paint job absorbs radar. It also packs a roof-mounted 360-degree-rotating camera with night and thermal visions, which can be displayed on the twin instrument panel screens.

Of course, there’s also the full-windshield head-up display, the proximity sensors, the dual yoke controls (yes, the passenger can steer the car too), a stealth exhaust that allows the car to drive around in complete silence, and an advanced computer system that allows the car to be driven remotely from anywhere on Earth using the Internet.

usaf_20090407_1082small.jpg

We don’t know about the rest of you, but to us at CCO, this black bastard screams one thing: Batmobile. All it needs is some bulletproofing and a Hennessey HPE800 engine upgrade (800 horsepower should offset that added weight nicely), and you’re ready to clean the scum off the streets of Gotham City. \

usaf_20090407_632.1small.jpg

But what do you think? Let us know below!

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2009 New York Auto Show Review

This year’s New York Auto Show was, for the most part, notable for its lack of notability.

While the NYIAS usually ranks as America’s most heavily attended auto show, with around a million visitors a year, the automotive industry has never treated it quite with the gravitas they do for other shows – the Detroit Auto Show, for example. This is pretty sensible – Detroit is Motor City, while in New York, the people ride in a hole in the ground.

But even considering its location in one of maybe two places in the U.S. where having a car is treated less like a modern convenience and more like an annoying rash (“I have to treat it twice a week?”), this year’s NYIAS was rather listless. Or, as the kids might put it, meh. There were no spectacular new models revealed. The press conferences were quite reserved – no Jeeps erupted out of volcanic calderas constructed in the parking lot. (That happened in 2007. Seriously.) There wasn’t even any apocalyptic undercurrent to the affair – no Hail Mary concepts (“it’ll run on urine!”) or manic attempts to convince everyone that things were great. There was just a slight sense of melancholy draining the energy out of the place.

But that’s not to say the show was a loss. There were still quite a few manufacturers who availed themselves of the opportunity, in true New York tradition, to whip open their trenchcoats and flash the goodies for the world to behold.

The new Acura ZDX concept, for one, has the potential to prove reasonably successful – at least, by the standards of the “Four-door Utility Crossover Koupe” class. (If Kia can spell coupe with a K to be “cool,” I can do it for a cheap joke.) Sadly, boss company Honda’s decision to freeze development on its V-8 means the ZDX will be handicapped from day one against the competing Infiniti FX and BMW X6,  both of which offer six- and eight-cylinder models. Still, the Acura MDX crossover upon which the ZDX is based has done all right with just a V-6 – it offers top-of-the-class driving dynamics and quality. If the ZDX manages to improve on its brother while coming in around the same price as the six-cylinder Bimmer and Finnie, it should do well for itself.

acura-zdx-prototypejpg

And while we’re on the subject of FUCKs, I’d like to point out that, mocking acronym aside, I don’t find them nearly as insensible as some others in the automotive industry do. While the idea of them as anything close to a proper coupe is hilarious (and not lame Jimmy Fallon hilarious, but seriously Tina Fey hilarious), they offer what people like about SUVs – high seating, ground clearance, all-wheel-drive, roomy interior – with a more attractive design and sportier performance. That sounds like a win-win.

Another example: the BMW X6 M, also unveiled at NYIAS. 555 horsepower, 500 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. All the straight-line performance of a BMW M5, and probably 95 percent of its handling capabilities – plus you can drive the bastard through a blizzard, carrying twice as much in the trunk. It’s the logical extension of convenient performance: the sport sedan gave us sports-car performance with room for four; the sports-FUCK gives us equal performance with room for four and all-road capability. In fact – and I may be going out on a limb here – I’d take an X6 M over a current generation M5, given the sedan’s unsatisfying choice between the harsh, grabby sequential gearbox and the performance-crippling manual.

2010_bmw_x6_m

Volkswagen took the wraps off the American versions of the new Golf, complete with hot-to-trot GTI edition. The biggest news here is the new styling, which depending on the angle, can either make the car look tough or raccoon-eyed. Still, the sleeker lines are a definite improvement over the current, bland-looking car. VW’s betting heavy on their 50-state-clean diesel technology in this car – they guesstimate 30 percent of sales will be oil burners in the first model. Diesel Jettas, for their part, have been scooping up 30 percent of Jetta sedan sales and half of the Jetta wagon market, so this might be realistic. Still, will people want “sportier” gasoline engines in the cooler Golf?

2010_volkswagen_golf_gti

The other big news, of course, has nothing to do with the mechanics of the car; VW changed the car’s name from “Rabbit” to “Golf.” This marks the second time VW has executed this exact name change in America for the car, having done so decades ago. They switched it back to “Rabbit” for the new 2006 model – I can only assume to capitalize on some perceived nostalgia for 70s-era compacts. Judging by the reversal, I’d wager they didn’t find any.

Mercedes-Benz used the auto show to unwrap a somewhat surprising ML450 Hybrid – surprising because M-B seemed to be putting its eggs into the efficient diesel market, especially on its SUVs. Nevertheless, Benz fused a 3.5 liter V-6 to a pair of electric motors to make a combined 335 horsepower and 385 lb/ft, while eking out an estimated 21/24 mpg, city/highway. In contrast, their ML320 BlueTEC diesel pumps out 210 horsepower, 398 lb/ft and makes 18/24, city/highway.  Assuming they both cost about the same, the hybrid has a definite edge around town – factor in the cheaper price of gasoline than diesel and the cache of the “Hybrid” badge, and the new model will probably outsell the oil burner by a decent margin. But it’s good to see Mercedes taking the green thing seriously.

mercedesbenz_ml450_hybrid

Jeep, sadly, doesn’t seem to be following the same track, at least if the 2011 Grand Cherokee is any indication. It still limits your choices to gasoline six- and eight-cylinder engines –  a 3.0 liter diesel is only available outside of the States. (Strange, given that Jeep’s website lists the current model rocking the diesel six. Expect to see that remedied within the next three years.) The V-6 is all new, a 280-horsepower, 260 lb/ft 3.6 liter that’s supposed to deliver a whopping 11 percent improvement in fuel economy. Given the current 4WD model gets 15/19 with its V6, that should at least bump it over the 20 mpg mark – but being unveiled just after Mercedes’s 24-mpg hybrid M-class, and just before GMC declared the 2WD GMC Terrain will get 30 mpg, the Jeep’s figures hardly look like the sort of leap forward Chrysler needs right now.

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But thankfully, the Grand Cherokee’s physical figure comes damn close to making up for it. This is one good-looking truck. Previous GCs have bounced between ruggedly square and generically curvy, but this is the first one that could genuinely be called hot – er, in an automotive sense. In fact, pretty much the only reason this baby’s on this list instead of the Terrain is because of how it looks. The GMC gets 30 mpg on the highway, has a quality interior, is big enough for four of me (if you’re above 6’2″, you know how hard it is to find cars in which you can sit behind yourself), and will probably cost at least eight grand less when it comes out this summer – a full year before the Jeep. But the Terrain is a 5. The Grand Cherokee is a 9.

While the Honda Element continues on with its admittedly…homely styling, the new “Dog Friendly” package transforms the car from a utilitarian box to a utilitarian box every one of the 43 million Americans with canine companions will look at and say, “Aww…” In all honesty, I’m shocked that no one’s thought of this before. Car companies have made specialized models for all sorts of esoteric markets – wealthy ranchers,  yuppie outdoorsmen, extraordinarily rich socialites, and most notably, Frank Sinatra fans – but so far as I know, no one’s ever arranged such a simple, yet logical, package for such a wide market. (Well, Dodge did build a model called the LaFemme just for ladies, but it failed, in no small part because the idea was utterly moronic.)

Dog Friendly Honda Element Concept

Let’s face it – despite the fact that most of us love our dogs more than we love our second cousins (fine, first cousins), the vast majority of us simply let them hop into the back seat and drive off without a second thought. We don’t belt them in, transforming them into living cannonballs in an accident. We don’t buy them Powerades at the 7-11, and rarely consider the climate back there. The average American’s consideration for his or her dog’s well-being in the car probably extends to cracking the rear windows.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

But when dog owners hear about this package, I’m willing to bet they’ll at least be intrigued enough to come in and take a look. And, sure, you could probably build your own version of the kit at Petsmart for far less than it’ll retail for, but remember, we’re lazy! Anyone motivated enough to do all that work must be some kind of weirdo. But buying a pre-made package…that shows love. I’ll bet you Honda won’t have a problem selling any of these – and I’ll bet every manufacturer you hear snidely deriding the option is working on copying it.

Speaking of plagiarizing Honda, a round of applause for Kia, ladies and gentlemen! If you slapped a Civic badge on the new Forte Coupe, not only could you pass yourself off as someone with classier taste in cars, you’d probably be able to score service at a fair number of Honda dealerships across the nation. I mean, you couldn’t have your catalytic converter replaced without being noticed, but you could probably snag an oil change.

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Though in all honesty, you’ll probably be getting a fair number of complements from Honda owners, because this new coupe is…alluring? Wait a second – has Kia actually made a cool car? Remarkable, but true. Kia quality has been steadily increasing since the brand’s arrival (not like it had anywhere to go but up); that, combined with their T.J. Maxx pricing, has been their ace in the hole these last couple years. Throw in eye-catching styling and halfway decent performance, and we may have ourselves the automotive equivalent of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays – an upstart franchise without any big names that surprises the hell out of everyone.

Now, astute readers (or Kia fans – do they even exist?) will point out that I have the two-door Forte’s name wrong, and that it’s actually called the “Forte Koup.” My misspelling is entirely intentional.  Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a professional writer) about when it’s acceptable to change the spelling of a word for artistic reasons. He pointed out that while it often looks better, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to spell it right. Kia ought to know better – and I’m not going to disgrace all the hard work of the engineers and designers by referring to it by a bastardized moniker.

That, and I simply can’t stand typing “koup.”

Finally on our list of noteworthy NYIAS debuts comes a pair of cash cattle from Subaru – the brand-new Legacy sedan and Outback wagon. If you’ve ever ventured into one of the New England states, you’ll understand what this means. Up there, the arrival of new Subarus is celebrated in much the way a bountiful harvest or the birth of a new child is. Farmers and their families congregate in the village green, often traveling ten or twenty miles along muddy, washed-out excuses-for-roads in their old Subies to reach the festivities. The local minister leads everyone in a prayer, glorious odes are sung, then everyone sits down for an enormous potluck supper. Afterwards, the assembly examines every inch of the new models; questions are asked and answered, brochures poured over, Subaru salesmen toasted with cider and beer. Eventually, the masses place their orders for the vehicles that will carry them through the worst God and nature can throw at them through the next four to eight years of their Rockwellian existence.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

So, yes, this is a big deal.

But aside from the joyful noise arising from parts north, it was a pretty low-key auto show. It seems like most people in the automotive industry are just trying to ride things out as best they can. Perhaps one of the most surprising turn of events was the number of new SUVs – even with gas prices reduced from last year’s highs, “green” remains the color of choice these days, so it seems a little odd that out of this list of notable, five of the nine vehicles are sport-utes (not including the Outback, whose impression of one has gone from Frank Caliendo quality to Sasha Baron Cohen caliber). Here’s hoping next year’s show finds the industry on more stable ground – so we can drool over something better than a new Jeep.

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Review – 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport

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.

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