Dodge Caliber makes it easy to forget Neon

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

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 having become a major concern, the practicality of hatchbacks is being revisited by manufacturers. That’s because most of the really useful hatch designs are found on compact-sized cars with small appetites for fuel.

We’ve always loved the hatchback. But the rear door went out of favor like skinny ties and eight-track tape players, at least here in the U.S. 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?

While we’ll sit back and watch as it seems to have already garnered lots of favor so Dodge could well have a hit on its hands.

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 great styling and unusual features not found on competing vehicles.

The Caliber has a rugged look. A sloping roofline, huge headlight enclosures flanking the familiar crosshair 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 econo- 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 – boombox style – 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 creating a sugary mess during nighttime journeys.

An available all-wheel drive system may be a more persuasive selling feature in the cold snowy or wet 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, and in our estimation is worth waiting for.

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 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 less than 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) 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.

But even then, the somewhat weighty 3,300-pound Caliber’s performance is barely adequate with a 0-60-time of about 11 seconds. It seems like a long time to get out of its own way for a small car.

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 the performance we expect from a $20,000 automobile. And as a bonus, for a base price of $19,985, all-wheel drive is standard equipment. As we understand, a two-wheel drive R/T is reaching dealers about now at a lesser price.

Unfortunately, the rather laid-back Caliber performance is not accompanied by stellar gas mileage. The base 158-horsepower engine mated to a manual transmission is rated at 26 city and 30 highway which is barely satisfactory for its segment, and the larger engine with the CVT is rated at 23 city/26 highway. Okay but…

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. Those with long torsos who need maximum head room are advised to leave the space-robbing $750 sunroof off their options sheet and be prepared for an occasional headache when they forget to duck when climbing into the Caliber. 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 a 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 generally a job well done, and certainly a step up from the departing Neon. But truthfully – we can’t wait for the hot SRT4.


Base price: $13,985; as driven, $23,885
Engine: 2.4-liter, 4 cylinder
Horsepower: 172 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 165 pound-feet @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: All wheels
Transmission: Continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Luggage capacity: 18.5 cubic feet
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Length: 173.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,308 pounds
Fuel capacity: 13.5 gallons
EPA mileage: 26 highway, 23 city (regular)
0-60: 10.3 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Ford Focus wagon

The Good:
• Bold, rugged styling.
• All wheel drive available for around 20 grand.

The Bad:
• Anemic performance combined with somewhat below average gas mileage.
• Noisy 4-cylinder engine.

The Ugly:
• Customers must wait until next spring to get real performance with the SRT4.