DaimlerChrysler sure did a 180 when they filled the happy-go-lucky little Neon’s slot in the corporate roster with the all-new 2007 Caliber. In case the commercials haven’t hammered the point home, the Dodge Boys’ new compact couldn’t be more differentiated from the “hi!”-mobile if they’d made it into a motorcycle. What used to be a jelly-bean-looking sedan/coupe with not much more to its credit than the rare, hotted-up R/T club-racing version became a hunkered-down crossover/hatchback with near-midsize airs.
We weren’t especially enamored with the Neon to begin with, and the dudes at DCX have hit quite a few right out of the park lately, so we’d already figured it was going to be an improvement–if for no other reason than at least now we won’t feel emasculated just being behind the wheel. So when the opportunity to flog the 2007 Dodge Caliber around southern California for a week came up, we jumped at the chance. (In an entirely un-perky, masculine way, of course.)
First off, setting aside all discussions of the subjectivity of styling, we gotta say this new sheetmetal is a success. It’s not sleek, but it’s surely sexy–and for a small car/SUV/something, it’s certainly substantial. Dodge DNA is readily discernable; as if a dash of Magnum, a drop of Durango, and indeed a smidge of Ram design elements were distilled down into compact proportions. The end result works well in the brand portfolio, and stands on its own quite nicely too, thank you. The black-plastic roof-rail things seem redundant, and the half-hatch shape is honestly odd, but we’re entirely in favor of the overall effect.
Better still is the interior. For a low-end ride, there’s an awful lot of content–and more than a few features, like the auxiliary (iPod) audio input, that we’ve found missing in far more fashionable offerings. The layout is simple and straightforward, with clear-cut controls and uncomplicated instruments making operating the Caliber a cinch. Everything seems solidly screwed-together, and short of the headliner, the cockpit is comprised of materials and components that are either culled from the parts bins of higher-end cars or could be. Cohabitating with the Caliber for a couple of days also uncovers copious little conveniences that showcase just how clever unencumbered engineers can be–the flip-out LED flashlight in the rear dome light, the cell-phone/iPod dock concealed in the armrest, the cooled “Chill Zone” beverage caddy in the glove compartment, and the cool cupholders ringed in aqua illumination at night. Our example was of the semi-stripped SXT sort, so we were shorted on the slammin’ Boston Acoustics “Musicgate Power” stereo with the swiveling speakers in back that spew sound outwards for al fresco shindigs. Still, they didn’t skimp on the 110-volt AC outlet in the center console, supplying sufficient current to charge the ol’ laptop (and strip us of any excuse to skip work while on the road). SXTs also sport the front passenger seat that flips forward for a flat, table-like surface; the stain-retardant YES Essentials fabric upholstery; and the adjustable center armrest with 3″ of fore/aft play (which proved far too loose in our admittedly abused example).
It’s big in there, too–plenty of real estate to fit five friends or family members and a full complement of their stuff. 95′ is the official passenger-room rating, with 18.5 cubic feet in the “trunk” area. (A retractable cover comes with more costly Calibers, but it cuts into your cargo capacity anyway.) Naturally, the nether regions can be converted to payload mode; stow the 60/40-split second row of seats with a couple quick lever-pulls and there’s a full 48′ of space at the stern.
This Dodge’s driving dynamics, though, were a bit of an anticlimax. Not a disappointment, exactly, but not up to the lofty standards set by every other aspect of this auto. At the heart of our Caliber SXT was a 2.0-liter “world” four-banger, harnessed to a “second-generation” CVT slushbox, that looked like it was hiding under that huge hood. At 158 horsepower, output is adequate, but not abundant–and the rubber-band gearbox added little to the adventure. Variable valve timing and intake flow is fitted to all four Caliber powerplants–apparently to little effect in at least the tested type. We clocked a 0-to-60 mph run in a tick under 9 seconds–not embarrassing considering the segment, but nowhere near exhilarating.
The super-stingy SE models get a similar propulsion unit, with 10 percent less displacement and 10 fewer horsepower. Also a “world engine,” this 1.8-liter is harnessed to a 5-speed manual tranny–we’d actually have opted for that combo, betting the 148 horses would haul the 3,039 pounds at least as well with the stick-shift. Slotting above those selections is a 2.4-liter iteration in the R/T, with a stated 172hp; this is the only one offered with all-wheel-drive. Were we to wrangle one of these whips off the lot for ourselves, however, we’d wait for the brawnier SRT4 model, with its 300-horse wonder-turbo–the same 2.4-liter that transforms the pokey “PT” into a real “cruiser.”
Underwhelming, too, is the chassis setup under the Caliber’s sporty skin. Competent as it is, the strut/multi-link suspension system showed more body lean and understeer than we’d opt for. Grip from the 215/60 rubber on 17-inch stamped-steel rims, too, is decent but distinctly mediocre–under duress the Firestone doughnuts seem desperate to just let go. Again, this malady is sure to be addressed with the hot-rodded R/T.
Truth be told, the above critique notwithstanding, we did thrash the little Dodge through some tough treks. Not known for our restraint on the road, we weren’t willing to let a little thing like an unwilling automobile deter us from driving fast. And all in all, the Caliber did keep up with our demands pretty well. Extralegal velocities were the norm in essentially every instance, and only in such situations did we deem the Dodge’s reflexes dull. The majority of motorists will be entirely comfortable with this Mopar, and will no doubt embrace the cushy ride and forgiving manners.
Further kudos to the Dodge Boys for packing the Caliber with so much standard safety equipment. Standard airbags in front and up around the curtain areas cushion blows from all sides, and optional ESP helps avoid the impacts in the first place. And even if it wasn’t equipped with all that good stuff, we’d feel a lot safer in this baby than we ever did in that tin-can Neon.
The one observation we returned to often involved the incredible value offered here. Spacious and practical, this is a car that can do a lot without sacrificing much at all. Even the fuel economy is a highlight–we averaged 24 mpg, not too far off the EPA’s 26/30 city/highway ratings. Time and time again, the Caliber rose to the occasion and met our needs. At $13,985 to start ($410 less than the old Neon; our SXT ran in the $17,000 range), the utter value of such a versatile vehicle is unmatched. And for all that, it’s respectable ride to roll in.
Pound for pound, there’s not a compact car on the road that can compete with the Caliber in terms of content, cost-effectiveness, comfort or sheer *cool.*