Dodge Broadens its Scope
by Steve Siler
Dodge’s signature identifying mark has always been its “gunsight grille.” This is significant here because as of Spring 2006, the sexy, affordable and versatile little Dodge Caliber has replaced the Neon in the Dodge lineup. This so-called crossover SUV/wagon/hatch thingy is completely different than the little Neon sedan—whose light had, shall we say, been buzzing and flickering for the last few years—and thus represents that Dodge’s “sights” have indeed shifted away from traditional sedans and are now targeting buyers of small SUVs.
More specifically, the Caliber’s tall hatchback packaging is a break from the engine-cabin-trunk formula that characterizes the Corolla, Jetta and Civic sedans that so many people looking for economical transportation end up with. Another departure from the cheap-sedan norm is—what’s this?—style. From the chunky schnoz down the sculpted flanks with articulated fenders and a punchy butt, the Caliber is like nothing else on the road. Particularly clever is the way Dodge masked the long roof by dropping the black trim piece downward toward the rear of the car, making it look like a slant-back when it’s actually more like a wagon. Character is embedded all over this car: perfect for those of us in search of something unique but don’t want to spend more than $15—$20K for it.
The interior is full of cool things, starting with a terrific seating position, which is a touch higher than other compact cars but lower than compact SUVs. The rear seat has lots of legroom, and the rear seatback reclines a few inches for rear seat road trip slumbering. We love the body-color dash panel on the “R/T” trim level, as well as the iPod holder integrated into the armrest.
Even cooler—literally—is the three-tiered glove box, the center section of which is designed to cool water bottles with ventilation from the climate control system. Those same water bottles will be illuminated in blue at night once you open them and place them in the front center cupholders. Glow-2-O is cool to be sure, but my favorite feature is MusicGate, which is part of the optional, thumpin’ Boston Acoustics sound system and consists of a set of speakers that flip-down and face outward when the liftgate is open—perfect for picnics in Balboa Park or on the beach.
The engine lineup includes 1.8-liter, 2.0-liter and 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines, producing 148, 158 and 172 horsepower, respectively. In spite of the five mile per gallon difference in fuel economy between the 1.8-liter and 2.4-liter engines, the 2.4 is the only one I would recommend for spirited drivers (such as myself); if you think there’s not much difference between 148 and 172 horsepower, just get in and drive them all back to back. Part of the character difference also comes in the form of the different types of continuously variable transmissions paired to the individual engines, each of which work like an automatic but offering a manual shift feature only when paired with the 2.4-liter engine (manuals are available, too). That engine can also be connected to a foul-weather-friendly all-wheel drive system (d’ya hear that, ski bunnies?). A V-6 is not available on any Calibers, nor is one likely. However, an obnoxiously overpowered version of the Caliber called SRT-4 features 300 turbocharged horsepower and will be available in 2007. It oughta be a handful with all that power going only to the front wheels, but we’ll see if we can tame that beast once we get our hands on it.
Naturally, the nice 2.4-liter motor is only available at the $20K price level, in “R/T” trim. But that’s okay, since it also comes with 18-inch chrome-clad wheels, sport suspension and uniquely tuned steering that livens up the driving experience as much as the manual shift feature on the aforementioned fuel-saving continuously variable transmission. It’s worth the upgrade.
So it seems that by changing its focus from, well, the Focus sedan to more uplevel, feature-laden vehicles such as Subaru’s Impreza wagon, Mazda’s sassy 3 hatchback and Toyota’s versatile Matrix, Dodge has re-caliber-ated (sorry, couldn’t resist) our expectations of compact American cars. Good for us.
2007 Dodge Caliber
- Base Price Range (incl. destination): $13,985 (SE 1.8)—$19,985 (R/T 2.4)
- Fuel economy range, EPA city/hwy (est.):
- 1.8-liter: 28/32
- 2.0-liter: 26/30
- 2.4-liter: 23/26
Dodge is a gay-friendly company.
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