A Monument To Mediocrity
We didn't exactly get off on the right foot with the Dodge Caliber. As the spiritual successor to the profitable and successful Dodge Neon, this boxy hatch had big expectations to meet when it touched down way back in 2006. Unfortunately, the Caliber never found itself in the same room as those expectations. But it was crafted during the dark days before Chrysler's fall, and the company has recently made great strides in shoring up its product line.
Nearly every vehicle in the Dodge and Chrysler stable, as well as few pieces from the houses of Ram and Jeep, have gone under the knife and come out all the better, but the lowly Caliber has largely escaped revision. Facing new competition from vehicles like the revised Honda Civic, all-new Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and fresh Ford Focus, the Caliber is awash in a sea of excellent options. We took to the wheel to find out if the compact from Dodge has enough life left to keep its head above water until a replacement arrives.
The Caliber hasn't received many updates in the five years it's been on the market, and so it brings a familiar face to the road. The handsome split-crosshair grille of the Durango and Charger hasn't trickled down to this five-door just yet, so buyers are left with the old single-crosshair design backed by a series of stacked vertical slats. Squared-off headlight housings and a bulky lower fascia cap off the nose, while wide fenders and a raised hood transition into the vehicle's flanks.
The Caliber has always had an odd stance thanks to its CUV ride height and minivan-inspired roof line. Those traits continue on for 2011, as do a set of exaggerated fender arches. Our Heat tester came equipped with some stylish standard 18-inch alloy wheels, which did much for the overall appearance. Unfortunately, an awkward C-pillar and the plastic roof rails that span the entire length of the cabin don't do the exterior any favors. Around back, the Caliber is a study in hard edges with protruding tail lamp housings, a recessed hatch and a squared rear valance. The view is certainly beginning to show its age.
Indoors, the cabin has held up well, mostly because it's newer than the rest of the car. While the dash is all hard plastic, the center stack is trimmed with a bias toward the driver's side and controls for the climate system and stereo are easy to access. On the whole, the package looks nice. Unfortunately, the cubby located just north of the shifter gate isn't as deep or large as we'd like. Storing a phone and a music player or a phone and sunglasses is an exercise in figuring out which accessory gets to ride in the cup holder. The small bin wouldn't confront us so much were it not for the unforgivable center arm rest. While the fact this piece can be adjusted front or back is nice, it's hewn from cheap and flimsy-feeling materials and lacks enough storage capacity to be of any use. With its painfully visible mold seems, we'd prefer the piece to be deleted all together.
The good news is that there's room for four adults inside the cabin. Up front, occupants enjoy up to 41.8 inches of leg room, which is comparable to the 42 inches served up by the 2012 Honda Civic, though falls well short of the 43 inches available in the 2011 Hyundai Elantra. Meanwhile, with 39.8 inches of front headroom, the Caliber beats out the Civic by 0.8 inches and the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze by half an inch. Things get a bit more cramped for rear riders. At 35.7 inches of rear legroom, the Caliber falls to the Civic but eclipses the Elantra by 2.6 inches and the Cruze by .3 inches. Unfortunately, getting out of the Caliber's rear seats requires ducking the roof rails.
Additionally, the functional hatchback design provides 18.4 cubic feet of cargo area with the seats up. While that handily beats the sedan competition, the five-door 2012 Ford Focus provides an impressive 23.4 cubes behind the second row. Drop the seats in both models, and the Dodge redeems itself with 47.4 cubic feet of space compared to the 44.8 cubic feet in the Ford. Unfortunately, owners are forced to lower the back seats by pulling on a tether at the bottom of the cushion instead of near the headrest, forcing you to walk around the vehicle to lower both seatbacks.
Even so, the Caliber remains fairly competitive on its interior numbers, despite serving five long years in the segment. Unfortunately, any competitive edge the vehicle earned indoors evaporates quickly once you take a peek under the hood. The 2011 Dodge Caliber is technically available with two engines and two transmissions: a 2.0- or 2.4-liter four-cylinder and manual or CVT transmission. Our tester came laden with the less powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 158 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 141 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Those power figures turn up fairly high in the rev range given that the engine tops out at 6,750 rpm, and as a result, buyers can expect no more than 23 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, those estimates average out to a paltry 24 mpg combined. The CVT is the culprit here, as your efficiency improves to 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway if you opt for the manual transmission.
In contrast, the 2012 Honda Civic delivers 140 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque while consuming 28 mpg city and 36 mpg highway in its least efficient form. If you're counting, that's a nine mpg advantage over the Caliber. Things look even worse when the Dodge is pitted against its only other hatchback rival, the Ford Focus five-door. That machine is good for 160 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque while sipping along at 26 mpg city and 36 mpg highway.
To make matters worse, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Caliber is bolted to a miserable CVT. There are manufacturers who are capable of engineering an engaging continuously variable transmission. Chrysler is not among them. The gearbox results in uncertain and wavering engine speeds as well as a cabin that sounds more than a little like a Cessna in foul weather.
Still, 158 horsepower is nothing to sneeze at, or at least it shouldn't be. Unfortunately, the Caliber Heat lugs around 3,012 pounds worth of weight – nearly 400 lbs more than the Civic, 300 more than the Elantra and 100 more than the Focus. As a result, acceleration is more feeble than spritely. Check out the Short Cut below to see what we mean.
While achieving highway momentum takes a country mile, once you're at speed, the Caliber is acceptably comfortable. The thick-foam cushions of the front buckets are supportive and adjustable enough, even though the high seating position made us feel like we were riding on a milk crate. Back seat passengers are treated to reclining backs – a nice touch in this segment. Plenty of engine and road noise makes its way indoors, though wind noise is fairly scant. Thanks to a ride height that results in 7.67 inches of ground clearance, there's plenty of body roll should you grow a wild hair and start attacking apexes. For comparison, the Jeep Liberty only offers 7.8 inches of ground clearance at its front axle. This machine is needlessly high off of the ground.
The brakes on the Caliber Heat leave little to be desired, however. With 11.5 inch ventilated discs up front and 10.3-inch solid discs out back mashed by single-piston calipers, the vehicle has no problem shrugging speed, though we would appreciate a slightly firmer pedal feel.
If you're still with us, you may have noticed that with the exception of its drivetrain, the Caliber is a fairly competitive vehicle. In fact, we could even tolerate its Lego-block styling and unacceptable fuel economy if the vehicle carried a low enough price tag. Our tester did not. With a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $21,105 including a $750 destination charge, you would have to be a few strokes short of a four-cycle to park this in your driveway. At that price, any of the Caliber's competitors would be exceedingly superior choices, even in base trim.
If you had your heart set on shelling out over $21,000, you could easily lay claim to a smartly-equipped Hyundai Sonata with a base price of $19,695, a Kia Optima at $19,200 or a Volkswagen Passat at $19,995. All of those vehicles are not only larger, more comfortable to drive and more stylish, but they're also more fuel efficient.
The Caliber may have never been on the top of compact buyers' shopping lists, but the last five years haven't been even less kind to the vehicle. While its engine, transmission and exterior styling have all grown to show their age, the competition has risen to fighting form. With a new driveline, a little attention to the interior, a lower ride height and a more palatable MSRP, the Caliber could easily carve out a niche for itself in the compact food chain. Until a replacement arrives from Fiat, the Mopar hatch is just chum in the water.
New Car Test Drive
Inexpensive and economical.
The Dodge Caliber is classed as a compact car. A five-passenger, five-door vehicle, the Caliber isn't easily categorized, combining elements from hatchback, wagon and minivan designs. Though very popular in Europe, hatchbacks, especially five-door hatchbacks, have not caught on with American buyers. The five-door hatch is a practical design, but most Americans prefer the styling of a traditional sedan with a separate trunk. Maybe that's changing, however. We certainly like hatchbacks.
With availability depending upon the individual Caliber model, there are four different four-cylinder engines, with manual transmissions or a continuously-variable automatic. Relatively affordable, the Caliber is also fairly fuel-efficient, being EPA-rated at 24/30 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form.
At the other end of the scale, the SRT4 version has a turbocharged engine generating 285 horsepower. With a starting price of $24,840, it is a performance bargain.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of head room, and there's a large amount of cargo space. Packaging is functional, with folding rear seats that have an optional reclining adjustment and an optional fold-flat front passenger seat to make room for a ladder or lumber. A couple of innovative options, especially for a car in this price class, are an air conditioned compartment in the glove box to chill water bottles or sodas and a swing-down stereo speaker panel attached to the liftgate that converts the back end to a sound stage for beach parties or tailgating.
For 2009 there are only minimal changes. There are four new colors, a few feature changes -- anti-lock brakes are now standard on the SXT trim level and there have been improvements in reducing interior noise levels -- and the 1.8-liter engine now achieves 30 mpg on the EPA highway cycle. In addition, there are changes to some of the options and packages. Finally, all-wheel drive, which was available on the R/T model, is no longer offered.
The Dodge Caliber is available in four models, all with four-cylinder engines. A 148-horsepower 1.8-liter with a five-speed manual is standard in SE and SXT, a 158-hp 2.0-liter with a continuously variable automatic (CVT) is optional for the SE and SXT, a 172-hp 2.4-liter with either the five-speed or the CVT is standard in R/T, and the SRT4 has a 285-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter engine with a six-speed manual. The 2.0-liter engine is available only with the CVT.
The SE ($16,460) has cloth seats; tilt steering column; an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers and an auxiliary input jack; a 60/40-split folding rear seat; removable and washable vinyl cargo mat; and P205/70R15 tires on steel wheels. Air conditioning is not standard, nor are power windows. The SE comes with manual roll-up windows and manual outside mirrors. Options for the SE are as extensive as the standard equipment is basic. The air conditioning system ($1250) includes an interior air filter and a Chill Zone inside the glove box that holds four half-liter water bottles. An uplevel stereo adds MP3 capability and a six-disc CD changer.
The SXT ($17,850) comes standard with air conditioning with the interior air filter and Chill Zone; Sirius satellite radio; anti-lock brakes; power windows, mirrors and door locks; floor mats; cruise control; stain-resistant seat fabric; remote keyless entry; 115-volt AC power outlet; a flashlight-like removable lamp that stows and charges in a receptacle in the rear headliner; height-adjustable driver's seat; fold-flat front passenger seat; a reclining 60/40-split rear seat; and all-season P215/60R17 touring tires on aluminum wheels.
SXT options include a sunroof ($795); the Driver Convenience Group ($795) with Dodge's uconnect hands-free cell-phone link, HomeLink universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, vehicle information center and a tire pressure monitor; and the Premium Sound Group ($495) with Boston Acoustics sound system with nine speakers, including two articulating liftgate speakers called MusicGate Power.
The R/T ($20,295) comes with the SXT items, plus a variety of other features, including a sport suspension with performance steering, and P215/55R18 all-season performance tires on aluminum wheels. Options exclusive to R/T are the Leather Interior Group ($595) with leather seating surfaces and a manual lumbar adjustment for the driver's seat, and chromed 18-inch wheels ($700).
The SRT4 ($24,840) has a turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter engine pumping out 285 horsepower through a Getrag six-speed manual transmission. Suspension, brakes and steering are beefed up to handle the increased performance, and aluminum wheels wear W-rated, P225/45R19 all-season tires. The SRT4 has unique body aero add-ons, including a large rear spoiler.
The SRT4 gets sport bucket seats, a carbon fiber and leather-wrapped steering wheel, a reconfigurable display, a boost gauge, a six-disc CD changer, and aluminum pedals. The only options are a Kicker audio system ($675), a sunroof ($795), polished aluminum wheels ($400), and summer performance tires.
There are actually many more options than there is space to list here, so any potential buyers are advised to consult with their local Dodge dealers to determine those features which are most important for their needs.
Safety features that come standard on all Calibers include multi-stage front airbags and full-coverage side-curtain airbags. Optional on SXT and R/T area a couple of Security Groups ($695 for the SXT, $1,875 for the more comprehensive package on the R/T), which include a variety of safety and security items.
Picture a Dodge Magnum as it might appear in a theme park's House of Mirrors, and you'll have a good idea of what the Dodge Caliber looks like. Yes, it's shorter and narrower and taller (the latter by two inches), but it's still a station wagon with four doors, five counting the rear liftgate, and it wears all the styling cues of the Magnum.
The trademark crosshair grille dominates the front end; depending on model, this is either body color or trimmed in chrome. Massive headlights are notched into the leading corners of the front fenders. A pouting lower lip-like bumper separates the grille and headlights from a slimmer, lower air intake and (uplevel) fog lamps.
The side view shows strongly blistered fenders front and rear beneath a wedge-shaped beltline. Tires mostly fill the wheel wells, but we expect aftermarket hardware will be popular amongst younger buyers. The lower portions of the doors wear longitudinal moldings, again, body color or chrome highlighted, that look like a bi-level rocker panel but aren't, but that nevertheless minimize the Caliber's height. Full-round door handles, either chrome-trimmed or body color, bridge scooped-out grip spaces.
The roofline arcs cleanly from its junction with the hood just aft of the front wheel wells over the side door windows to pinch off at the tail end of the rear quarter glass. Topping this arc but stopping at the top of the backlight (rear windscreen) is an unbroken, thick strip of black molding the Caliber's designers say is supposed to work with the arc and the truncated back end to impart a coupe look. We're not sure why that was important or that it necessarily succeeds, but it does buff up the Caliber's side aspect.
The back end pulls from the Magnum, too, with a steeply raked backlight beneath a roof-mounted spoiler and above a mostly upright lower liftgate, employing a hatchback style arguing against any comparisons with a traditional station wagon. A relatively short rear overhang and oversize taillight housings add credence to the argument.
The SRT4 can be distinguished by several exterior features aimed at both form and function. The ride height is lowered. The front end features a functional hood scoop, dual hood vents, a unique front fascia with brake cooling ducts next to the fog lights, and a lower air dam. Aero moldings run along the side and at the rear are a large high-mounted rear spoiler, a four-inch exhaust tip, and a rear fascia with lower strakes to direct underbody airflow.
Step inside the Caliber and the Dodge legacy is loud and clear. If function tops your list of must-haves, this is good. If glitz is your thing, this is less good.
The instrument cluster and center stack are the picture of efficiency. Gauges are large, round and legible with black markings on white backgrounds. In the SRT4, the central gauge is the tachometer instead of the speedometer, a change Dodge says it made because the SRT4 is a driver's car. To the left of the steering wheel in the SRT4 is a turbo boost gauge; this area serves as a small cubby in other models.
The SRT4 also has a reconfigurable display with what dodge calls Performance Pages. This feature can provide readouts of lateral and longitudinal g forges, 1/8 and 1/4-mile time and speed, 0-60-mph time, and braking distance. It's quite a little toy for performance enthusiasts, somewhat similar to a system Porsche offers.
The center stack presents the stereo face and climate control panel in stark relief with functional knobs, buttons and switches and trimmed in matte metallic plastic or not-very-convincing wood grain. All of these controls are easy to reach, but the materials are cheaply rendered and lacking in quality. You get the feeling the Caliber is built to a price when you first close the door and hear a metallic clang worthy of an empty beer can.
The shift lever extends from the base of the stack; the notched gate on the CVT makes ratio selections intuitive. In cars equipped with a manual transmission, the shifter falls easily to hand. The power point serves neither the cell phone holder nor a radar detector well; located at the extreme base of the center stack, it leaves cords either draped over the center console's cup holders or dangling down the dash between the instrument cluster and the center stack.
An MP3 player/cell phone holder flips up out of the front of the center console armrest and, while properly sized for an iPod or similarly shaped MP3 device, adapts best to candy bar-style cell phones. Also, the sliding armrest covers a range of three inches, which is helpful for drivers of shorter stature, but, when all the way forward, it blocks the rear-most of the two cup holders.
As the Caliber is relatively tall, the seats are closer to chairs than cushions bolted to the floor. This eases climbing in and out.
The front seats that come standard are comfortable, but far from plush, with decently bolstered back cushions. Bottom cushions are more flat than sculpted and a bit short on thigh support. The SRT4's seats are thickly bolstered and have grippy cloth inserts to hold occupants in place in fast turns.
Front-seat headroom is impressive in all Calibers, topping the five-door Mazda3 hatchback, but falling short of the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix. Leg room up front is adequate, roughly equal to the Mazda3, Vibe and Matrix. A cautionary note about the driver's seat-height adjustment, however: It pivots at the front, which means trading leg room for height.
The rear seat is a bench and leg room is somewhat cramped, trailing most competitors. Rear-seat head room tops the Mazda3, but loses to the Vibe and the Matrix.
Cargo capacity is one of the Caliber's big advantages. The rear seats fold down 60/40 to provide quite generous cargo space. The available folding front passenger seat expands room further and allows for loading of long objects. The Caliber bests the Mazda3 in cargo room, but falls short of the Matrix and Vibe. The Caliber's rear load floor is plastic and removable, which means your stuff will slide around if not secured, but dirty cargo won't make a mess. The rear hatch is an easy-opening liftgate and the floor height is low enough to allow for easy loading and unloading.
Cubby storage scores mixed ratings. The bi-level glove box, with a compartment on the top of the dash in addition to one in the traditional location, earns high marks, especially the innovative Chill Zone. But front door map pockets will hold maybe a paperback and a map, there are no map pockets in the rear doors, and the front seatbacks are bare of any magazine pouches. Illuminating the cup holders (there are only two, and they're in the front console) helps at night.
Visibility out front is good. Like many other modern designs, the hood drops away so quickly it disappears from sight; you may want to learn where the fenders are before you have to navigate a parking garage. The large backlight frames a good picture of what's behind, but the sloping rear-most windows create a blind spot over the driver's right shoulder.
The stereos generate quality sounds, with the top-level Boston Acoustic setup and the SRT4's Kicker outfit rivaling home systems of only a few years ago. Called MusicGate, the Boston Acoustics system features nine speakers, including 3.5-inch tweeters, a subwoofer and a pair of speakers in a boom box attached to the inside of the rear liftgate. When the liftgate is open, this assembly swings down so you can listen to tunes while tailgating. It's capable of entertaining the neighborhood.
Dodge seemingly wants people to consider the Caliber as a downsized Magnum, and to believe this makes it essentially a sporty mini-minivan-cum-compact station wagon. Nice idea, but the package doesn't quite do this. Everything it does, it does well, but aside from the SRT4 model, it doesn't quite achieve the sporty part.
The 2.4-liter engine's 172 horsepower arguably does a better job of motivating this one-and-one-half ton hatchback, but the CVT was neither as comfortable nor as precise in its selection of gear ratios as we hoped, or as Dodge promises. Left in Drive, it sounds and feels like an automatic that needs to have its bands tightened, or like a manual gearbox with a slipping clutch. Even in AutoStick mode, which involves imposing an electronically managed shift pattern on a transmission designed not to shift gears, engine speed wandered noticeably within the selected ratio. The 2.4-liter with five-speed manual is EPA-rated at 23 mpg City and 29 Highway, compared to 21/25 with the CVT.
The 1.8-liter base engine is EPA-rated at 24 mpg City and 30 Highway, while the 2.0 comes in at 23/27. But with less torque, the 1.8 is also the least responsive to the gas pedal when you need it the most.
All three base engines deliver their power smoothly, with no disruptive surges or flat spots. Pedal layout is decent, while not quite ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts, and there's a dead pedal where a driver can rest the left foot on long trips.
The SRT4's engine is a different beast altogether. With 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, it can motivate the SRT4 from 0 to 60 mph in about six seconds. The SRT4's engine exhibits some turbo lag, but it's mercifully short and the car is more than willing to get up and go from a stop. Passing power is prodigious, provided the transmission is in the correct gear. If you let the rpm run too high, the engine will run out of breath; too low and you'll have to wait for the turbo to spool up. Deft shifting can avoid these problems. Speaking of shifting, the manual gearbox has fairly short throws and positive engagement, making it fun to operate.
Driving and handling dynamics for SE, SXT and R/T models are mostly consistent, about on a par with the Vibe and the Matrix but not quite in the same league as the more tautly sprung Mazda3. There's not as much body lean in corners as we expected in a car this tall. Under hard acceleration there is some torque steer, with tugs at the steering wheel, a shortcoming shared with every front-wheel-drive car we can remember in this class. This problem is compounded by the SRT4's greater power.
The SRT4 leans less in turns than the other models and its steering is sharper and more direct. Instead of a limited-slip front differential, the SRT4 utilizes the traction control system to detect wheelspin and apply brake pressure to the affected wheel, thus transferring power to the side that isn't slipping. It prevents laying down long strips of rubber, but isn't as effective as a mechanical limited-slip system. In short, a limited-slip is a performance-enhancing technology, while traction control is a performance-limiting technology.
The disc/drum brakes standard on the SE and in the SXT are competent, and the SXT has standard anti-lock brakes. The R/T gets standard anti-lock discs at all four corners.
All Calibers have little wind whistle at everyday highway speeds. Road noise increases with the size of the tire's footprint, meaning it is more persistent in the R/T and SRT4. The added grip from the larger footprint more than compensates for this intrusion, however. In all but the SRT4, conversation can be carried on at normal tones even at extra-legal rates of travel. Be aware, however, that the SRT4 has a boy racer exhaust note, which means the engine emits a constant background drone and screams under heavy throttle.
The 2009 Dodge Caliber is at the same time innovative and retro, a hatchback that's more like a station wagon but with hints of the utility of a minivan. The Caliber makes a good case when it comes to packaging, but falls short on materials quality. Though all Calibers show signs of cost-cutting, the SE, SXT and R/T offer good, basic transportation, and the SRT4 is a performance bargain.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported on the Caliber from Scottsdale, Arizona, with Kirk Bell reporting on the SRT4 from Indianapolis.
Dodge Caliber SE ($16,460); SXT ($17,850); R/T AWD ($20,295); SRT4 ($24,840).
Options As Tested
158-hp 2.0-liter engine ($150); CVT ($1000); Premium Sound Group ($595) Boston Acoustics sound system with nine speakers, including two articulating liftgate speakers; AM/FM/MP3 stereo with six-CD in-dash changer with auxiliary input jack ($350); Driver Convenience Group ($795) with Dodge's uconnect hands-free cell phone link, HomeLink universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, vehicle information center and tire pressure monitor; power sunroof ($795).
Dodge Caliber SXT ($17,850).
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