It's no secret that practicality and space efficiency are sometimes scant in automobiles. And as cars on the road get smaller and smaller, there is an even greater need for interior room. In the North American market, the hatchback goes widely unsung, and this can usually be heavily attributed to an overall deficiency of visual appeal -- very rarely does a highly attractive hatch appear on the streets.
However, two automakers tossing their hats into the ring with attempts to redefine the genre are Dodge, with its '08 rugged and practical Caliber, and Honda, with its hip and spunky Fit. Dodge elected to reflect the avant-garde styling of its flagships -- a cross between a shrunken SUV and minivan -- with the intent of filling the size gap between Toyota's Matrix and the Mazda5, while Honda opted to extend a more futuristic design with a size and look that falls squarely between the Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa. What both Dodge and Honda have done is create a vehicle that adheres to the public's need for interior space and comfort without the sheer size and gas mileage associated with larger vehicles. Offering both practicality and a look that offers something a bit different from the competition, both the Caliber and the Fit are a perfect match for our head-to-head today. But, which modern hatch will hit the mark this time? Let's find out ...
MSRP (base): $14,560
Engine: 1.8-liter, 16-valve, DOHC, 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 148 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 125 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
MPG: City: 24; Highway: 29
Performance - 14/20
Dodge's most recent edition of the Caliber, in base trim, is bolted onto a unique scaffold from the Chrysler group and exits the Detroit factory solely available in FWD. The front suspension is a composite that falls somewhere between rigid and loose, and experiences a fair share of body roll when pushed. The SE and higher-trim SXT muster what they can from the modest 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. The result is an amassed 148 hp @ 6,500 rpm, and an accompanying 125 lb-ft of torque @ 5,200 rpm. Unfortunately, the dynamics of this hatchback don't make an appearance until late in the powerband -- perhaps a little too late. In fact, the engine output doesn't seem to properly correlate to the Caliber's curb weight. Shy of the SRT-4 package, consumers would do well not to place bets on the drag strip as the acceleration has been cited as quite sluggish. This lazy five-door has a five-speed manual transmission or optional auto-stick, and will creep to the quarter mile in just over 18 seconds.
Exterior design - 16/20
The Dodge Caliber, for all its under-hood deficiencies, boasts one of the most aggressive sketches in its class and lends evidence to the adage that you can't judge a book by its cover. The design is a well-pronounced derivative of Dodge's most popular trucks. The muscular, stout fenders with modern lines, black plastic molding, jewel-like head- and taillight clusters, and overall unusual proportions blend together to form a hybrid shape that falls somewhere between a traditional hatchback and crossover vehicle. And if you can look past the bulbous back-end, the Caliber really does have an appealing, manly look.
Interior design - 5/10
Delving into the Caliber's cabin you will find yourself surrounded by cheap cloth fabrics and an overall, under-constructed design. The overbearing use of abrasively rough plastics that don't sit flush with their backings and the absence of a telescoping steering wheel earn the Caliber low marks in this category. Amidst all of the aesthetic flaws, however, there are a few marvels to behold: The forward-sliding center armrest accommodates pilots of different proportions, an auxiliary power outlet allows for iPod and PDA hook-ups, a removable flashlight in the cargo hold makes for quick finds in the dark, and the actively chilled cup holders located above the glove box mean your drinks stay chilly (but only when you have the air conditioning on). The 60/40-split rear bench has ample legroom for all occupants with a moderate level of lower-back support. There's also 18.5 cubic-feet of cargo area, which balloons to 48 cubic feet when the seats are folded.
Sound system/goodies - 6/10
The multimedia outfittings of the 2008 Dodge Caliber straddle the fence, but ultimately find themselves on the more favorable side of things. From the motherboard, the cues seem standard enough with a basic AM/FM radio setup, with an MP3 jack that can be scrapped for an audiophile system with a higher trim level, or replaced by a six-disc in-dash CD changer at the expense of sacrificing the auxiliary MP3 jack. Working your way toward the back puts the premium sound of nine Boston Acoustic (complete with subwoofer) speakers. Chrysler's unique Music Gate speakers, also available on higher-trimmed models, broadcast the hatch's wattage externally from the flip-down speakers hidden in the hatch door. Much of the Caliber's redemption lies in its entertainment package, however, Dodge has yet to equip the Caliber with a navigation system.
Bang for your buck - 15/20
Disappointingly, and based on its abundance of mediocre reviews, the latest incarnation of the Caliber places 11th out of 12 in the Affordable Compact Wagons bracket according to U.S. News & World Report, being narrowly edged out by the Chevy HHR for last place honors. Granted, the Caliber isn't as fancy or high-tech as some of the vehicles out there, but it still does the job and for a great price. Plus, the exterior design of the Caliber has just the right amount of "different" to make it stand out on the road, in a good way.
Driving experience - 14/20
The Dodge Caliber has been called a "solid daily driver" by some auto reviewers, and if by "solid" they mean providing none-to-little driving excitement, then we really can't disagree. Not only is ABS not a standard feature, but this hatch plows through corners as if riding in a truck, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that it's not a truck. Factor in the unpleasant body-roll and the all-too-tight turning radius of the rack and pinion steering and it practically forces you to look at other options in market. But then again, would you really be pushing your Caliber to such extremes on the road to even feel such shortcomings? For the market at which this Dodge is aimed, we doubt those drivers would ever find the glitches we did, and for that reason we'll agree that, yes, the Caliber really is a solid, practical daily driver -- but nothing more.
Overall score - 70/100
Perhaps the Dodge Caliber should have been given another name, something a little less lofty. While it means well, and definitely tries hard, the Caliber leaves far too many gaps in its engineering and design to be filled by competitors, such as the Honda Fit.