2009 Dodge Caliber Review

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Trevor Wild Trevor Wild Author
July 8, 2009

The Caliber has a very practical layout and truly innovative features to get excited about, but it's lacking in driving enjoyment or refinement—even compared to its low-priced competition.

Editors at TheCarConnection.com have driven the 2009 Dodge Caliber and offer their expert opinions on how the Caliber compares to other vehicles. TheCarConnection.com has also researched the latest reviews on the Caliber in order to bring you this conclusive report.

The Dodge Caliber debuted in 2007 as Dodge's replacement for the Neon small sedan. The Dodge Caliber is available exclusively as a rather sleek five-door hatchback, though it comes in three different models, each featuring a different engine; 1.8-, 2.0-, and 2.4-liter four-cylinders are available on the 2009 Dodge Caliber lineup. While the Dodge Caliber previously offered an especially fuel-sucking all-wheel-drive R/T trim, that option has been discontinued for 2009. The top-end Dodge Caliber SRT4 packs a 285-horsepower, 2.4-liter turbocharged engine under the hood and includes a bevy of high-performance equipment and styling changes.

Most shoppers will have a positive initial impression of the Dodge Caliber, which is understandable considering it is packed with clever features, such as a beverage cooler, an easy-clean cargo floor, and a setup that includes rear-facing speakers for tailgating. The cabin is also comfortable, featuring supportive seats and a surprisingly large interior that affords plenty of space for both passengers and cargo. Unfortunately, a closer inspection reveals questionable interior materials, including rough plastics and poor finish throughout the interior.

Despite its aggressive appearance, the Dodge Caliber is decidedly docile on the road. An available continuously variable transmission (CVT) for the 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines is underpowered and noisy with either engine, while overall handling performance is disappointing. The SRT-4 isn't as comfortable or as fun to drive as its 285 hp might suggest, due to a hard, unforgiving suspension that's out of place on rough roads. Fuel economy isn't what you might hope for a small car, with the SRT4 getting as little as 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. TheCarConnection.com has seen figures in the low 20s in SXT and R/T models.

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The Dodge Caliber certainly isn't atop the heap when it comes to safety either, as it fails to offer all of the standard features that some competitors do. For example, while anti-lock brakes and side curtain airbags are standard, side impact airbags will cost you extra. NHTSA does rate the Caliber a perfect five stars for both front and side-impact protection, but the IIHS gives the Caliber a second-worst rating of "marginal" in side impact tests.

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2009 Dodge Caliber

Styling

The 2009 Dodge Caliber looks good from the outside, but the interior styling is disappointing.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber, with its bold, upright styling, stands out on the road as a truly American take on the hatchback design. The interior, however, could use a little European refinement or Japanese quality control.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber is the third model year for Dodge's small car, and once again it is available in four trims. Edmunds reports that "SE, SXT, R/T and SRT4" versions of the Dodge Caliber are on dealer lots, and there won't be any mistaking the SE for the SRT4. Car and Driver says "the look, echoed by Dodge's 'anything but cute' advertising tagline, is a purposeful departure from the Caliber's predecessor, the bug-eyed Neon." Road & Track calls the system "a two-box design a la Toyota Matrix," while reviewers from The Los Angeles Times contend that it draws from "the bruised-knuckle machismo of the Durango and Magnum station wagon." The Dodge Caliber SRT4 is even more impressive, as Cars.com remarks that it "has been turned into a serious-looking muscle machine, carrying itself with a swagger that even some of the bigger SRT models, like the 300C SRT8, would be hard-pressed to match." For those looking for even more visual effect, Edmunds asserts "available 18- and 19-inch wheels only add to the Caliber's swagger."

The 2009 Dodge Caliber boasts a strong, look-at-me exterior, but the interior styling isn't quite as catchy. Cars.com says the interior "loses points for its lack of uniform graining on the dash plastic and unremarkable fit-and-finish," while also noting that "one SRT-specific cue is a turbo-boost gauge on the left side of the steering wheel that looks pretty cool, but it isn't optimally positioned." ConsumerGuide reports that "the transmission shifter can partially block access to the climate dials," but some aspects of the layout deserve mention. ConsumerGuide points out that the "large gauges are easy to read," and MyRide.com remarks that "the center console is well laid out and within easy reach."

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2009 Dodge Caliber

Performance

The 2009 Dodge Caliber is just adequate in most respects, while the aggressive SRT4 fails to wow.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 has everything to suggest a fun ride—bold looks, a 285-horsepower turbocharged engine, and sport-tuned suspension—but the reality isn't nearly as exciting as those numbers would suggest. Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com show that the driving experience only becomes less engaging on lower trims.

Dodge offers the 2009 Dodge Caliber with three different engine options, all of which are four cylinders. ConsumerGuide states that the Dodge Caliber "SE and SXT have a 148-hp 1.8-liter engine when equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission," although that grows to "a 158-hp 2.0-liter engine when equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT)." They go on to say that the Dodge Caliber "R/T has a 172-hp 2.4-liter," and the top-of-the-line "SRT4 gets a turbocharged 285-hp [2.4-liter engine]." When it comes to performance, ConsumerGuide contends that "non-SRT4 Calibers are adequate at best," as "a manual-transmission SE did 9.8 seconds 0-60 mph in our test." The Dodge Caliber SRT4 has plenty of power, according to MyRide.com, but "where it struggles is getting that power to the ground. If you've ever heard the term 'torque steer' and wondered what it was, test drive a Caliber SRT4 and you'll get a quick lesson." Car and Driver is similarly unimpressed, noting that the Caliber SRT4 "suffers from the same lack of refinement as its brethren, and there's little joy to be found behind the wheel."

There are three available transmissions to go along with the three engine choices on the 2009 Dodge Caliber. Car and Driver reviewers say that SE and SXT models "come standard with a 1.8-liter mated to a five-speed manual; a 2.0-liter with a continuously variable transmission is optional." A five-speed manual is also standard on the Dodge Caliber R/T, while Cars.com reports that "the only transmission offered [on the SRT4] is a six-speed manual." Reviews of the manuals are inoffensive—MyRide.com comments the "transmission rows through the gears easily and they are nicely matched to the engine" of the SRT4, while Motor Trend claims that "the pedals are well positioned for heel-and-toe footwork." ConsumerGuide warns that the five-speed suffers from "slightly notchy shift action, but overall it works well enough." As for the CVT, ConsumerGuide notes that "throttle response is good around town but lackluster at highway speeds."

Most small hatchbacks and sedans emphasize fuel economy, but the Dodge Caliber is surprisingly thirsty for this segment. The official EPA estimates for the 2009 Dodge Caliber are that five-speed SE and SXT models will get 24 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, while the CVT drops those numbers to 23 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. The 2.4-liter Dodge Caliber R/T gets 23 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway, and the powerful Dodge Caliber SRT4 returns 19 mpg city and 27 mpg on the highway.

Despite its squat appearance and sporty intentions, the 2009 Dodge Caliber fails to earn high marks for its handling prowess. MyRide.com says that their testers had to "fight to respond to what the road" was telling them, as the heavy feeling of the steering required significant muscle power in order to maneuver the Dodge Caliber. Motor Trend adds that "the stiff-legged suspenders sent the SRT4 bounding into the air in places where the WRX and GTI stayed nicely planted, and the ride quality is loud and flinty." ConsumerGuide seconds that, reporting the Dodge Caliber "SE is busy with poor bump absorption," while the SXT "is more compliant overall but still a bit jittery over broken pavement." Braking performance is, however, a strong suit, and MyRide.com reviewers rave that "braking is spot on, bringing all 3,189 lbs. to a halt quickly and sure-footedly."

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2009 Dodge Caliber

Comfort & Quality

Cargo space is impressive for this category, but otherwise the 2009 Dodge Caliber falls well behind the pack.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber is spacious enough to be comfortable, and the seats are adequate, but materials and build quality are on the extremely low end of the spectrum.

Cars.com describes the Dodge Caliber as a "five-seat, four-door hatchback," and while most reviews read by TheCarConnection.com describe it as a compact car, the interior is quite spacious. Edmunds reviewers report that, although the seating capacity is five, "putting three adults in back will likely result in grumbles about lack of comfort for the center passenger." Up front, Car and Driver says "the seating position is high," a notable plus, and ConsumerGuide measures "ample headroom and legroom." Unfortunately, "the cloth seats on non-SRT4 models lack a lumbar adjuster, and thus are short on lower-back support." MyRide.com observes that "the front seats that come standard are comfortable, but far from plush," while the "rear seat is a bench and leg room is somewhat cramped, trailing most competitors."

The Dodge Caliber makes efficient use of its available interior space when it comes to cargo storage, as many reviewers list this as one of the Caliber's stronger attributes. MyRide.com says "cargo capacity is one of the Caliber's big advantages," and notes the rear seats fold down 60/40 to reveal 48.0 cubic feet of cargo room." ConsumerGuide also observes that the "cargo area is larger than that of a typical hatchback" and the Caliber's "removable plastic load floor is easy to clean, but [it] allows objects to slide around." Edmunds simply calls the 2009 Dodge Caliber "pleasantly roomy and functional." Interior storage is aided by "cubbies all over," according to reviewers at The Auto Channel.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber has some redeeming qualities in terms of cabin comfort and overall space, but these are more than mitigated by the poor overall build quality. Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com indicate that the Dodge Caliber has major quality problems, as Edmunds reports the Caliber's interior "lacking in terms of materials and construction." ConsumerGuide is a bit more direct, noting that "low-rent hard plastics cover most parts of the Caliber's cabin," and although the "SRT4 has a slightly dressier cabin with better detail work than other Calibers... it still significantly trails the MazdaSpeed3 and Volkswagen GTI." Car and Driver asserts "the plastic is cheaper than that of most toys," while ConsumerGuide speaks to the build quality by pointing out that "the colors of the plastic panels weren't uniform" on one of their test Dodge Calibers, "further cheapening the interior appearance."

The 2008 version of the Dodge Caliber was known for being quite unrefined and noisy, so to address these complaints Dodge installed several new layers of sound insulation. The results, however, aren't that impressive, as ConsumerGuide still reports "mediocre suppression of road noise." Motor Trend describes the Dodge Caliber as "coarse and crude," and Car and Driver simply notes that "the engine is buzzy."

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2009 Dodge Caliber

Safety

Safety features didn't get much priority on the equipment list of the low-cost 2009 Dodge Caliber.

The 2009 Dodge Caliber looks pretty fierce, but some safety tests show that it's more of a paper tiger.

The Dodge Caliber has been tested by both NHTSA and the IIHS, although the results show some marked differences. In NHTSA tests, the Caliber earned the highest possible safety rating, five stars, in every single crash category. The IIHS also bestowed top honors on the Dodge Caliber for front impact protection, but offered a starkly different assessment of side impact protection. In the side impact category, the IIHS awarded the Dodge Caliber a second-worst Marginal rating, reflecting the poor safety record of the Caliber when not equipped with side-impact airbags. The IIHS cited the fact that "measures taken from the dummy indicate that rib fractures and/or internal organ injuries would be likely" as their justification for the rating.

Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com are wholly negative when it comes to the safety features available on the 2009 Dodge Caliber. The problem is not that certain features aren't available, but rather that they're not standard in a lot of cases. To begin, Car and Driver says that "front, curtain, and driver's-side knee airbags are standard," and Cars.com adds that a "stability system is standard on the SRT4." However, MyRide.com reviewers note that antilock brakes "are optional with the manual transmission on the SE and SXT." Cars.com reports that "an electronic stability system and traction control are optional on most models," but side-impact airbags for the front seats are optional.

One oft-overlooked aspect of overall safety is driver visibility, and the 2009 Dodge Caliber doesn't escape unscathed in this category. ConsumerGuide is the most critical in their coverage of driver visibility, noting that "outward visibility to all directions is restricted by thick roof pillars, especially to the rear corners."

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2009 Dodge Caliber

Features

The 2009 Dodge Caliber is available with a wealth of features, but most of them will cost you quite a bit.

Recently, Dodge made a push to capture the growing market segment that emphasizes in-car features above most other purchasing criteria. To that end, Dodge packed the 2009 Dodge Caliber with an array of exclusive, though not always practical, features.

Reviews read by TheCarConnection.com reveal many desirable features on the Dodge Caliber lineup, though the base Dodge Caliber is understandably lighter in this department. All 2009 Dodge Caliber models come equipped with a "tilt steering wheel...AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, outside-temperature indicator" and "rear defogger," according to ConsumerGuide. Cars.com also notes that "standard illuminated cupholder rings" are included on the Dodge Caliber. Moving up the trim levels, Edmunds states that the Dodge Caliber SXT comes with "17-inch wheels, keyless entry, cruise control," and a "115-volt outlet." ConsumerGuide reports that the Dodge Caliber R/T ups the ante with "heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel w/radio controls, Boston Acoustics AM/FM radio w/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer [and] liftgate speakers," while the SRT4 throws "driver-seat lumbar adjustment" into the mix. Dodge Caliber SXT and higher trims also get a cooled glove box for keeping drinks at the proper temperature, although Car and Driver reviewers say it is "of dubious functionality."

The lengthy options list for the 2009 Dodge Caliber holds some very desirable options, most of which are grouped into packages. For those prone to spilling in their vehicles, MyRide.com says the Dodge Caliber can be equipped with "YES Essentials cloth upholstery that Dodge says is odor, stain and static resistant." ConsumerGuide reports that some of the more noteworthy options packages are the Sun/Sound Group on the SXT, which includes a "Boston Acoustics AM/FM w/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, liftgate speakers," and a "power sunroof," while the Kicker/SRT Livin' Loud Audio System package on the SRT4 brings all that and "satellite radio." Chrysler also offers a MyGIG multimedia system, but Car and Driver advises it "probably isn't worth the money, especially if you already have a digital audio player such as an iPod." On the positive side, the Dodge Caliber does have an available power sunroof and DVD entertainment system as stand-alone options.

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7.0
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Expert Rating
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Styling 6.0
Performance 7.0
Comfort & Quality 6.0
Safety 7.0
Features 9.0
Fuel Economy N/A
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