Dodge has killed the once-promising but lately unloved Neon small car and replaced it with something quite different.
The replacement, Caliber, is a four-door hatchback along the lines of Toyota Matrix. It's built at the same Belvidere, Ill., factory that made Neon.
Dodge's parent, DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, spent $419 million revamping Belvidere and installing 780 new assembly robots with flexible-manufacturing capability -- meaning they also can build the Jeep Compass and Patriot, coming later this year.
The Caliber's base model, SE, is pretty barren to keep the starting price around $14,000. It has no air conditioning or power windows, for example.
The Caliber test car was a pre-production R/T model that would be priced in the low-$20,000 range. It had most options, plus a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 172 horsepower, coupled to a CVT, or continuously variable transmission.
It's a belt-drive rig able to vary the diameters of its pulleys to keep the engine speed where it needs to be for best performance and fuel economy. So the theory goes. Dodge also built in six individual ratios to provide a manual-shift mode for enthusiasts.
Fuel economy is one place the CVT scores, in the view of Larry Lyons, Chrysler Group's vice president in charge of front-drive models (and, in this case, front-drivers that also offer all-wheel drive). He says it's up 4 percent to 6 percent vs. a four-speed automatic transmission. "We can completely shut off the fuel" when the car decelerates, he says, not just cut back fuel flow as in cars with conventional transmissions. The belt drive and ever-changing ratio between those pulleys make a smooth coast-down.
But CVTs generally, and Caliber's specifically, have foibles. The drivetrain in the test car sometimes, but not always, jerked if, while slowing, you had to hit the gas, then come back off it suddenly.
And to love a CVT you have to have had a passionate affair in your earlier days with a manual-transmission car that had a worn, slipping clutch that allowed the engine to rev fast without much forward progress.
In a CVT you hit the throttle and the engine blasts up near its redline, staying there until the car's speed "catches up," then the engine speed starts dropping.
The drivetrain is an important part of anything that a Chrysler brand calls R/T. That's supposed to imply that you could use it either on the road or at the track. Nothing really racy feeling about Caliber R/T. The lighter-weight front-drive R/T, coming this summer, will feel quicker, Dodge says.
To appreciate Caliber's attributes, you have to get past the annoyances, which were in the test car:
Unaligned dashboard and center panels: Not misaligned; they fit as designed. Designers didn't think it looked great to have all the horizontal lines match up perfectly. You might disagree.
Unpleasant controls: The air-flow knob was especially bad, refusing to turn smoothly and easily. Fixed in production models, Dodge says. Trust but verify, as a former U.S. president advised.
Coarse engine: We've come to expect sweet, singing four-cylinder powerplants in small cars, courtesy of the Japanese. But R/T's crude mutterings are more agricultural than automotive. Caliber's engines were developed with and shared by Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Dodge says the "world engines" are as smooth and pleasant as any.
And those attributes mentioned earlier? Ah, yes:
Style: Cleverly done, makes a hatchback wagon almost sleek.
Comfort: The uplevel interior in the tester was easy on the tush and the back. Rear seat was small, keeping with the car's size, but for those who fit, it was pleasant.
Cleverness: The test model had a heater/cooler in one portion of the glove box (does anybody put gloves in there?) and a rack to hold beverage bottles. A speaker panel on the tailgate could be swung down when the gate was open, so you could enjoy tunes while puttering around outside the car, or just annoy the neighbors.
A flashlight was piggybacked onto the rear dome light. Tug it off and use it for emergencies. A console compartment snugly held an iPod.
Lighted cup holders, absurd-seeming at first, take the dread out of handling that extra-hot mocha at midnight. And they let you see the cell phone and other things normally put into cup holders. (Does anybody use them for cups?)
Rich materials: Interior plastic and trim look and feel like what you find in pricier cars.
All-wheel drive: Very good, it whipped through a heavy snowfall with little wheelspin or hesitation. It had no traction control. That comes as part of the stability system available later this year. No guarantee that will make the AWD work any better.
The AWD system is a front-driver that starts shuttling power to the rear wheels in two different circumstances: when the road is slick and sensors believe the fronts are slipping or soon will be, and when you're driving vigorously and sensors say the car would be more stable with power at all wheels.
Too bad the drivetrain doesn't make you want to do much of that.
2007 Dodge Caliber
What is it? Replacement for the Neon small car, but nothing at all like Neon, Caliber is a small, four-door hatchback sedan, similar to Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, available with front-wheel (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD).
Dodge calls it a sports tourer. By any name, it's manufactured at Belvidere, Ill.
How soon? Arriving at dealers now.
How much? It starts $410 less than Neon. SE starts at $13,985, including $560 destination charge. SXT starts at $15,985. R/Ts being manufactured now come with AWD standard and start at $19,985.
R/T with FWD will be available this summer, priced less.
Who'll buy? Dodge says they'll be twentysomethings probably buying their first new cars, and fortysomething parents buying for their kids. Median annual household income, $55,000; college grads, 35 percent.
What's the drivetrain? Standard on SE and SXT: 1.8-liter, four-cylinder rated 148 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 125 pounds-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm; five-speed manual transmission
Optional on SE, SXT: 2-liter four-cylinder rated 158 hp at 6,400 rpm, 141 lbs.-ft at 5,600 rpm; continuously variable automatic transmission. Ratios range from 2.349 to 1 to 0.391 to 1
Standard on R/T: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder rated 172 hp at 6,000 rpm, 165 lbs.-ft. at 4,400; CVT, all-wheel drive
What's the safety gear? Front and side-curtain air bags
Anti-lock brakes and seat-mounted side-impact bags for front occupants are optional. Anti-skid control will be optional later this year.
What's the rest? Standard on all models is a AM/FM/CD stereo; power steering, brakes; tilt-adjustable steering column; rear-window wiper, defroster. Other features vary according to model. More at www.dodge.com.
How big? It is 2.5 inches longer, 1 inch narrower and a little smaller inside than Matrix. Caliber's 173.8 inches long, 68.8 inches wide, 60.4 inches tall on a 103.7-inch wheelbase. Passenger space is listed as 95.2 cubic feet. Cargo space is 18.5 cubic feet behind rear seat, 48 cubic feet when rear seat is folded. Weights range from 2,966 to 3,308 pounds depending on model and equipment. Rated to tow up to 2,000 pounds, depending on model.
How thirsty? The 1.8-liter engine is rated 28 miles per gallon in town, 32 on the highway. 2-liter, CVT is rated 26/30. 2.4-liter, CVT, AWD is rated 23/26. Regular-grade (87 octane) gasoline is specified for all.
Trip computer in 2.4-liter, CVT, AWD test vehicle showed 21.1 mpg mainly around town.
Overall: Nice idea; could use a bit more finesse.