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First drive: Dodge Caliber SRT4

Have you driven a Dodge Caliber? Did you buy one? If you answered yes, there's no need to read this post. You'll either go crazy wondering why anyone in their right mind would want 280 hp in such a sweet, useful crossover, or you'll become suicidally jealous of what you could have bought if you'd only waited a few months.

The SRT4 is a monster. We mean that in a rabid Cookie Monster kinda way -- not that cute little potty-mouthed Binky seen in early Caliber commercials. This car is mean. It does away with an inch of suspension travel, with stiffer springs, dampers and stabilizer bars front and rear and gets dropped onto 19-inch, low-profile 225/45 Goodyears for a ride that is anything but cuddly.

We got to play around with an Inferno Red SRT4 for a few miles of twisty, southwest Georgian roads recently and can't think of a better color. Unless it's the Sunburst Orange. Either hellishly-vibrant hue with contrasting black air intakes in the hood and rear wing advertises to anyone with working corneas that this is not a normal car. Special front and rear fascias and a 3-inch exhaust outlet complete the bad-boy look.

Continued after the jump.

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All photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

Inside, those mushy econo-car seats in the wallflower Caliber get traded for deeply-bolstered chairs covered in "performance fabric" with red stitching which is repeated in the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Guages are special to the SRT4 and include a boost-o-meter to the left of the wheel. The wheel felt great to the touch, but right where our thumbs like to hook at 9 and 3 on the wheel is right where someone thought would be a great place for the audio controls. Uh, no. Very bad idea that almost (almost) ruined the whole SRT experience for us. Move the buttons, Dodge. Other than that, all the interior upgrades make the SRT4 feel more German than Fisher-Price.

Ours did not have the optional reconfigurable display that can show g-forces, and 1/4 mile and 0-60 times. Didn't matter. We were too busy mentally navigating the next curve to ponder the gizmos.

And that gets us to the even more exciting upgrade. Driving. Stuff yourself into the tight-fitting driver's seat, insert key, clutch in, wake up all those underhood horses with a rumble, and with hand on the chrome-capped shifter, ease the clutch out and... stall out. Seriously. Totally flat parking lot, fresh car in front of a group of automotive journalists and, I stall it out. Second try I manage to get the car into first and moving, but dang, that "fully-synchronized, cable-operated, four-plane shifted" clutch is ornery. Twitchy might be a good adjective. Spiteful even. It's either engaged, or it isn't. Nothing in between. If you're lifting that left foot, you better be sure the revs are there to meet Getrag transmission's demand.

Second, third, fourth and fifth gears go by very fast, much like the blurred scenery in sixth gear. If you make it that far. Keep it geared lower is what 9 out of 10 Autobloggers recommend for wringing out all the fun. A spooled-up turbo on semi-mountainous rural roads with a super-tight suspension and 19-inch wheels? There are few better ways we can think of to spend 30 minutes on an October morning. Truly awesome Boston Acoustics sound system with Sirius, Dodge's trademarked MusicGate and the obligatory sunroof are just whipped cream on the caffeine-enriched, Dodge double-latte SRT4.

Unfortunately, all this power has corrupted the Caliber's utilitarian demeanor somewhat. More than one driver stepped out of the unnaturally-quick crossover smiling madly, for sure, but also with the wisdom that this cute little hatchback with the manic-Muppet personality would never do for a grown-up's daily driver. That clutch alone should be enough to keep out the old guys, but if not, the tighter suspension should do it. The SRT's ride isn't teeth-rattling but it could play nicer with the potholes like mere "regular" Calibers. Another downer? Warranty. Get the SRT version, give up the lifetime powertrain coverage. Ouch.

But for less than $25,000 we'd sure be willing to see what daily life with the SRT-4 is like.

Hopefully Autoblog will soon have an SRT4 for much more than 30 minutes of fun, so keep an eye out for a full review.

Chrysler provided the vehicle and and SEAMO the location for testing. Autoblog does not accept travel or lodging from automakers when attending media events.

All photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

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