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Test Drive Impressions

Test Drives with Colin Hefferon

Reviewed by Colin Hefferon

The Dodge Caliber
The Dodge Caliber.  The cure!

A cure for what ills you. It wasn't sick that Americans bought SUVs like crazy, but it certainly hasn't been a healthy move. SUVs roll over easier, use far more fuel and, a problem for manufacturers, they don't sell well overseas. But now sales are an issue and Dodge needed a vehicle that appeals not only to the United States but to Europe, too - each of which likes different types of cars. I think everyone will like this one, though. It's stylish, roomy, cheap and practical. MSRP: $13,985; Basic warranty: 3/36,000.

First Glance:  If a Dodge RAM pickup and a Honda CR-V hooked up and had a baby...

The Caliber's 2-box, 5-door design will be familiar to Americans. It has many of the more desirable features of a compact SUV like the Ford Escape or Honda CR-V, but none of the dreaded cuteness.

It most closely resembles the European MPV (multi purpose vehicle). MPV is actually a category of vehicle in Europe: Typically a stylish 2-box,5-door vehicle about the same size as a small wagon. But not only does it sit quite a bit higher off the road than the 5-door hatch, it is considerably taller as well. In Europe, an MPV would be the vehicle of choice of the younger family.

In this country, however, Dodge believes the Caliber will appeal most to the 20-something with an active lifestyle and lots of stuff to schlepp around, but I think its appeal is far broader than that.

The massive signature Dodge cross-hair grill with Ram horns crest dominates the front fascia. Many Americans are not accustomed to seeing these Ram images (which are associated with Dodge's rugged light trucks on a car) but on this one they fit.

The Caliber's big wheels - you have a choice of 16", 17" and 18" - and fat P215 tires are pushed out to the far corners of the chassis giving the vehicle a sturdy yet athletic, well balanced look.

In the Driver's Seat:  Ridin' high

When questioned as to their reasoning in buying an SUV, most people - women particularly, but a lot of men too - say it was because of the visibility. So designing the Caliber, Dodge was striving for the SUV-type seating position.

Higher seating included Dodge achieved height by raising the seats 4" higher than the seats in a typical compact sedan and mounting the body so there is a full 7" of ground clearance.

Like the European MPV, the Caliber is compact on the outside but seriously roomy inside. In fact, it feels as roomy as all but a few mid-size SUVs. Headroom and shoulder room are extraordinarily generous. Rear seat legroom and headroom are limo-like. This cabin is huge!

The Caliber also offers a spacious, theatre-style rear seating area, along with rear seatbacks that fold flat and a hatch-type tailgate. Like a minivan, it can easily carry a lot of people and/or a lot of stuff.

The optional 9-speaker Boston Acoustics MP3 sound system merits special mention. It puts out enough power to light a small city and, with the articulating liftgate-mounted speakers, enough range to entertain a large tailgate party or enrage an entire neighborhood.

On the Road:  Loud stereo, not-so-loud engine

The Caliber is available with your choice of 148hp, 158hp or 172hp 4-cylinder so-called "world engines" jointly developed with DCX, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. All have variable valve timing and other interesting engineering devices designed to maximize both performance and fuel economy. Good as they are, you can bet they won't sell many of these in Europe, however. The outstanding Volkswagen-designed and built 2.0L turbo direct injection diesel is sure to be the powerplant of choice over there.

Two transmissions are offered - a 5-speed manual transaxle and a Japanese (JATCO) designed and built, second generation CVT (continuous variable transaxle). Dodge claims the CVT provides 7% better fuel economy than a conventional automatic.

The engineering team has achieved excellent levels of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) control. At 80 - 85 mph on the wide-open Arizona freeway, the 3,100 lb Caliber with FWD provided a smooth and stable ride with remarkably little wind and road noise. Even on gravel roads, the quality of the ride was exceptional for a vehicle in this price range.

Four disc brakes are standard while electronic stability control and traction control are optional.

Journey's End:  Just what the doctor ordered

The Dodge Boys really have to be commended for building the Caliber. Rather than go for something it knew for certain would appeal in the short haul to the traditional American car buyer - something big, heavy and powerful - it decided to aim for where it believes the US market is heading. In other words, something more akin to what the European car buyer is currently driving.

Small holds a lot The compact Caliber is certainly the most important car– possibly the most important vehicle of any kind - from Dodge in decades. With its still very profitable pick up and SUV markets under heavy attack not only from the Japanese car companies but also from rising oil prices and increasingly anti-SUV lawmakers, Dodge desperately needed a high sales volume car. It especially needed one able to go toe-to-toe with the hugely successful Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe sports compact.

The consensus of the auto journalists present at the media introduction in Scottsdale in February was that the best all round choice for most buyers among the three models available (SE, SXT and R/T) would be the ($15,985) SXT model with the optional 2.0L engine, CVT and Sport Appearance Package. It's got everything you'll need.

The Caliber should be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Top photo © Dodge.  Additional photos © Colin Hefferon

Vancouver-based Colin Hefferon regularly tests and reviews new vehicles. Though an automotive enthusiast by nature, Colin takes the perspective of the average car owner. Which, after all, is most of us! Colin Hefferon is the road test editor for About Cars where more of his car reviews may be found.

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