Picture the following scene if you will. It's early 2004. A meeting comes to order somewhere deep within the halls of a tower adorned with a five-pointed star just off I-75 in Auburn Hills, MI. A group of engineers and product planners gather to shoot around some ideas for what kind of car they want to create that will top off the upcoming Dodge Caliber line-up. The leader of the team opens the meeting by placing a cup in the middle of the table and declaring that anyone who utters the words 'subtle' or 'subdued' during the discussions must pay a dollar into the cup toward the beer fund. And thus, the Caliber SRT-4 was born.
We have absolutely no idea if it actually went down that way, but there's no doubt that the latest addition to the Chrysler SRT family is in no way subtle or subdued. If you are looking for a Q-ship, move right along because you will not find one here. In many ways the Caliber SRT-4 is the spiritual successor to the original Omni GLH, a rowdy rip-snortin' hot hatch, with too much power for a front-wheel-drive car. Read on after the jump to find out what it's like to live with the latest SRT-4.
All photos ©2007 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
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The Omni was a car already way too far along in its life-cycle when the turbocharged GLH (stands for Goes Like Hell) was debuted. The Caliber, however, is still relatively new to the world, and even the base version shares many of its Dodge brothers' aggressive design cues. Unfortunately, it's never been entirely clear what the Caliber was supposed to be: a crossover, economy hatch, wagon-lette or what? The SRT-4 doesn't really do much to answer this question, and actually just confounds it more. The Caliber's closest direct competitors would probably be the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, although neither of those models can be ordered with anything near the power of the SRT-4.
Whatever this vehicle is supposed to be, it does stand out in a crowd, especially wearing the Inferno Red color of the test unit. Like other Dodge-branded SRT models, it gets the obligatory hood scoop, along with a pair of rear facing vents in the hood. The front clip bristles with openings, allowing plenty of airflow through the mesh grille-work to the inter-cooler and radiator. Unlike some sporty vehicles, all the openings in the SRT-4 are fully functional. Evidently the power-train in this little beast generates some major heat that has to be dissipated. Continuing the theme of aggression are the sharp looking 19-inch five-spoke wheels and 225/45R19 tires that fill out the wheel wells nicely. Thanks to their thin spokes, the bright red painted brake calipers front and rear are clearly visible at all times.
Overall the changes to the SRT complement the butch styling of the Caliber quite nicely. The whole issue of the quality of the interior materials on current Chrysler products has been beaten to death here and elsewhere. Since laying waste to a horse that has already decayed just isn't much fun, we'll just say that the color combination of the darker metallic plastic trim on the console does look better than the brighter trim we've seen on other Calibers.
The interior works fine from a functional standpoint with controls readily accessible and a radio where it belongs at the top of the center stack. At first glance there appear to be no redundant controls for the radio on the steering wheel, an impression that turns out to be incorrect. After driving a couple of blocks, I shifted my hands on the wheel and realized that there were two rockers on the back-side of the "nine" and "three" spokes, one for the volume and the other for the tuner. Although they aren't visible, these buttons are as accessible as a pair of paddle shifters.
Compared to the similarly sized Scion xB, the Caliber has narrower pillars and better overall visibility in spite of its low profile greenhouse. Like other modern compact hatchbacks, the seating position is upright with your butt well off the floor. The SRT seats have lateral bolsters aggressive enough to match both the car's styling and powertrain. Given the amount of rubber this car has on the road, these seats will keep you securely planted in front of the steering wheel so you don't have to search for anything against which to brace yourself. The only other significant interior change to the SRT-4 is a boost gauge mounted at the far left end of the dash. Otherwise, the SRT-4 keeps all the standard features of the Caliber, including the chill-zone above the glove box that can keep up to four bottles or cans cool on a hot day.
The real key to any of Chrysler's SRT models is the powertrain, and the Caliber SRT-4 is no exception. The 2.4L engine produced by the engine partnership between Chrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi has been heavily massaged increasing its power output by almost two-thirds from 172 HP to 285. All that power gets routed to the front wheels only via a six-speed Getrag trans-axle. The problem is the "front wheel" part. While the R/T model has all-wheel-drive available, the SRT just drags its rears like a wounded puppy. We'll be publishing an interview with SRT development supervisor Erich Heuschele soon that contains an explanation of the reasoning behind this. In essence, it comes down to engineering to a price point. The SRT engineers had a limited budget and a target price and they made the best sporting compact they could within those constraints.
Given those limitations, Chrysler actually came up with a decent little car that elicits a smile while traversing twisty roads. There are certainly places, however, where the SRT-4 doesn't shine. Launching the car smoothly can be problematic if you don't want a jack rabbit start every time. The limited low end, off-boost torque combined with the sticky tires on dry pavement means the engine wants to bog if you don't give it enough gas. Applying the right pedal with enough enthusiasm to avoid bogging can land you in the lane to your left thanks to torque steer. Given the less-than-subtle appearance of this car, a quiet getaway from a red light when there's a cop sitting next to you can be tough. The other performance problem traceable to front-wheel drive becomes apparent when you try to accelerate out of a tight corner, especially if the road is wet. The SRT-4 will be scrambling desperately for traction until you back off.
Where the SRT-4 shines is running down a winding rural road on a Sunday morning. Keeping the boost gauge up in the positive region provides strong acceleration out of corners (as long as they're not too tight) and the brakes offer great velocity retardation when needed. Using the brake calipers from the Charger police package was important for stopping power, but the larger master cylinder really seals the deal for pedal feel. While the stock Caliber's brake pedal feels spongy, the stiff calipers on the SRT-4 absorb the increased volume of brake fluid from the master and put it straight to work with no wasted effort. The SRT-4 pedal feel is among the best on a mainstream Chrysler product. The shift lever also doesn't like to be rushed, but once you find the rhythm it works nicely. The lowered suspension including the heftier anti-roll bars keeps the body perpendicular to the ground and the rubber planted even on rougher pavement.
One final area where the bottom line engineering of the Caliber becomes apparent is when you close the doors. Unlike the proverbial German bank vault, these sound resoundingly hollow. Once closed however, the structure of the Caliber feels stiff, and in spite of the firm suspension it never exhibited any squeaks or rattles. The only annoying sound was the exhaust note, which lacked the rumble of a big V8 or the high-revving scream of an S2000. It just sounded loud.
The SRT-4 is rated by the EPA at 19/27 mpg, and a week of relatively aggressive driving yielded 20 mpg. Being a top-end model, it's pretty well equipped out of the box with a base MSRP of $22,435 and includes stability control, an alarm system and full complement of air bags. This test car was finished in the aforementioned Inferno Read Crystal Pearl paint for an extra $150 and the MusicGate sound system, which includes a pair of speakers that flip down from the open tailgate.
The bottom line is that for $24,410 you get a decent corner carver that makes its presence felt visually. If you're not looking to blend in and can live with some hard plastic, the 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4 is probably worth checking out.
All photos ©2007 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.