When the Caliber first rolled onto the scene for the 2007 model year, we didn't quite know what to make of it. Replacing the long-serving Neon, the Caliber sported polarizing styling, available all-wheel drive and a taller-than-average ride height. To some, it looked like an aggressively styled tonic to the frankly outdated and somewhat cutesy Neon, while others remained suspect of the car's quasi-SUV aesthetic and intrinsic goodness.
It didn't take long for the reviewers to pile on, however. Pundits argued that the Dodge delivered a lackluster driving experience thanks to an unsorted chassis co-developed with Mitsubishi, an unlovable Jatco-sourced CVT and a coarse interior that was later freshened but never truly fixed. In the end, the doubters appear to have won out, as the Belvidere, Illinois-built compact garnered little critical or popular praise. While the Caliber opened to reasonably strong sales traffic, yearly totals quickly collapsed despite steep discounting and the introduction of a powerful SRT-4 performance variant.
As part of its arrangement with new parent company Fiat, Chrysler has developed the Alfa-Romeo-based Dart as the Caliber's replacement, and expectations are running high ahead of its Detroit Auto Show debut next month. The Dart will need to be excellent, as it faces a veritable murderers' row of competitors, ranging from strong new models like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra to well-sorted mainstays like the Mazda3 – not to mention perennial sales darlings including the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.