07/31/06 — Aggressive styling and unusual features elevate Dodge Caliber

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Aggressive styling and unusual features elevate Dodge Caliber

Dodge Caliber (2007)

Hatchbacks are remarkably functional.

They turn a small car into a practical car capable of hauling a lot of stuff in addition to two front-seat passengers.

And with gas prices shooting up faster than North Korean missiles, the practicality of hatchbacks is being revisited by manufacturers. That’s be-cause most of the really useful hatch designs are found on compact-sized cars with small appetites.

Dodge Caliber, 2007

We’ve always loved the hatchback. And for years it has been offered in cars that reward the driver with an exciting on-road experience. Some of our favorite hatches were the so-called pocket rockets including the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, the Honda Civic CRX Si, the Nissan NX2000 and the Acura Integra.

But the rear door went out of favor like skinny ties and eight-track tape players.

The hatch became persona non grata, the ugly step-child that while still maintaining a presence in most lineups was put out of sight when important guests arrived.

The hatch has returned with a vengeance for the 2006 and 2007 model years, but manufacturers would rather their new three-and-five-door vehicles be called something else.

Dodge calls its 2007 Caliber, the replacement for the entry-level Neon sedan and coupe, a sports tourer.

But it’s a five-door vehicle in the image of the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe. The Caliber is a bold move by DaimlerChrysler, replacing a sedan selling more than 120,000 copies a year in its heyday with a small wagon-like car.

While more people are re-embracing the design, the obvious question is — are there enough buyers to vault the Caliber into the same sales territory once enjoyed by the Neon?

We’ll sit back and watch.

In the meantime, the Caliber has much to offer those people who decide it will be their next mode of transportation.

High on that list are styling and unusual features not found on competing vehicles.

The Caliber has a rugged look. A sloping roofline, huge headlight enclosures flanking the familiar Dodge grille, bulked-up fender flares and optional 18-inch chrome wheels pushed to the corners give the little Dodge a presence that belies its economy-car status.

The Dodge designers did a marvelous job making you forget that this is, indeed, an economy hatchback.

And with the Caliber’s head-turning good looks, who cares? Functionality with style is a commendable combination.

The Dodge boys are clever, too.

A few of their neat touches include a cooler in the glovebox with a rack that holds up to four beverage cans or bottles, a speaker panel on the tailgate suitable for enjoying music while tailgating or working in the yard, a flashlight mounted into the headliner above the cargo area for use in emergencies, a front passenger seat that folds flat to create a table-like surface, and lighted drink holder rings to help avoid spilling a sugary mess during nighttime journeys.

An available all-wheel drive system may be a more persuasive selling feature in the cold snowy climates than any of the aforementioned curiosities. The system, found on the top R/T trim level, shifts torque from front to back when front wheel slippage is detected and also when the driver is engaged in spirited driving. Sensors determine when the car would be more stable with power to all wheels.

The Caliber comes in three trim levels and currently with three engine choices.

But the most exciting choice is still a few months from showrooms.

Like the Neon before it, the Caliber is getting the Dodge SRT4 performance treatment. With a starting price in the low 20s, this is the way to go for the guy who has been forced into a family vehicle, but wants to keep driving excitement in his life.

The Caliber SRT4 should arrive sometime this spring with a 2.4-liter turbocharged 300-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. Many Dodge performance goodies will be standard equipment. Also standard will be a 0-to-60 time of under six seconds.

For now, engine choices are a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder making 148 horsepower, a 2.0-liter generating 158 horsepower and a 2.4-liter making 172 horsepower. The smallest engine comes standard in the SE ($13,985 base) and SXT ($15,985) models, but we recommend upgrading to the larger 158-horsepower powerplant for $1,100, which also adds a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in place of the 5-speed manual.

With the 158 ponies, the 3,300-pound Caliber’s performance is adequate with a 0-60-time of under 11 seconds.

We drove the top-level R/T, which comes with the 2.4-liter inline 4 as standard equipment. The 172 horses combined with 165 pound-feet of torque give the Caliber more satisfying performance, the kind we expect from a 20 grand automobile.

And as a bonus, for a base price of $19,985, all-wheel drive is standard equipment. A two-wheel drive R/T is reaching dealers this summer at a lesser price.

The rather laid-back Caliber performance is accompanied by decent gas mileage. The 158-horsepower engine mated to a manual transmission is rated at 26 city, 30 highway, and the larger engine with the CVT is rated at 23 city/26 highway.

The interior has a spacious feel, although the extreme curve of the windshield forces front-seat occupants to duck their heads on entrance and exit. Tall people who need maximum head room are advised to leave the space-robbing $750 sunroof off their options sheet.

Passenger room in the second row is adequate and the 60-40 split bench reclines up to 12 degrees for long-haul comfort.

A decent 18.5 cubic feet of luggage capacity is available behind the seats, and with the second row folded there’s 48 cubic feet of storage available. The folding front passenger seatback is handy for carrying long objects such as a step ladder.

The dashboard is neatly styled and comes outfitted in materials befitting a more expensive car.

We enjoyed the optional audio system that includes five Boston Acoustic speakers, two liftgate speakers and a subwoofer. Our enjoyment was enhanced by Sirius satellite radio.

All Calibers come with side-curtain airbags, and our R/T test car came with standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and BrakeAssist. Buyers will have to pay extra for side airbags, stability control and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Our R/T tester, with a handful of options including the extra safety features, carried a bottom line of $23,885.

The Caliber is a job well done, and certainly a step up from the departing Neon.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on July 31, 2006 9:02 AM