2007 Dodge Caliber Review

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Martin Padgett Martin Padgett Editorial Director
February 12, 2006
1999 Ford Escort ZX2

1999 Ford Escort ZX2


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The Caliber five-door hatchback succeeds the four-door and two-door Neons in the Dodge lineup. But just so we’re clear on this upfront, it’s no Neon replacement. With its tougher, vaguely militaristic connotations right up front in the title, the Caliber drops the perky Neon overtones for a classier, more substantial, and far more upscale feel.


The problem is, it’s also more expensive than the Neon, in an age where sub-Neon cars are winning converts. Sans Neon rebates, you pay the price for the cargo-loving body style, for the standard curtain airbags and superior back-seat room. Dodge crows the $13,985 Caliber is only $410 more than the last base-model Neon, but the Caliber you wouldn’t rent starts out well over $16,000 — and in top R/T form hits the $20,000 price barrier than sends cheapskates scurrying for smaller Korean cars with less pretension and less price.


The questions are multiple: are Americans raised on cheap four-doors and three-door ziplets like the Ford Focus okay with the five-door hatchback? Yes, there are five-doors aplenty on the market, including the Focus, Mazda3, Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix, and Hyundai Elantra. But none of those vehicles come only as a five-door — and none of them has the 150,000-a-year sales volumes to live up to, either.


Who will buy the Caliber when it shows up at dealers before the end of spring? Young couples, Dodge thinks, as well as parents putting their teens in a first car. The PT Cruiser sort of does the same thing, we think, but for an older crowd.

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Finally, what’s it like to drive? Pretty good, if you pick your options judiciously. While you spell-check that word, we’ll explain what we mean.


Triple whammy


The Caliber comes in but one five-door body style, but offers an array of three engines, two transmissions and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. Hey, we’re all about choice — but why three engines? Having three engines in an economy car is like having three china patterns at a frat house. It seems that one good option would suffice and would save development money, too (which leads us to believe the engine/tranny combos are being certified here for future use in other models).


That said, each of the three engines are admirably smooth and make competitive power. The base SE is fitted with the smallest-displacement 1.8-liter four and makes 148 hp; it’s coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox. The SXT comes with the same engine standard. Optional on both of those models is a 2.0-liter version of the same engine, making 158 hp and coupled to the same five-speed manual gearbox. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) with the 2.0-liter four is optional on both the SE and SXT. Lastly, there’s a 2.4-liter four from the same family on the R/T models. Mated to the CVT and outfitted with all-wheel drive (though a front-driver is on the way), it makes 172 hp. The three-engine lineup was co-developed with Hyundai and Mitsubishi and will be used by those companies in their compacts as well.


In nearly all modes of operation, the engines are up to the task of carrying around roughly 3000 pounds of car in a brisk enough manner. Their smoothness is the biggest and best surprise: the loudly buzzy Neon could have been used to judge game-show contestants but this four speaks with its inside voice, hushed and nearly vibration-free, especially when teamed with the CVT. The 2.4-liter, the biggest, of course has the most assertive engine note — but still sounds tame at the top end. None of these will drop a Caliber to 60 mph in less than 7 or 8 seconds, we estimate, but none will take more than 10 seconds either.

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As for the transmissions, it’s a choice of two units that are good but not great. The notchy manual would get the nod, even with its stuck-in-the-dash placement, if its notches were more precise and its clutch uptake a little more sateen. The CVT, which sports an AutoStick feature that allows for manual control with the simulation of six stepped gears, gets the nod for smoothness but not for sharp responses. It just takes a while for pulleys and belts to simulate an assertive, right-now gear change. You think you knew dulled and unresponsive from the Bob Dole presidential campaign? Think again.


It’s curtains for you


2000 Ford Escort ZX2

2000 Ford Escort ZX2

You know by now that the Caliber is five-door only — no four-door sedan, no SCCA-destined two-door, with all the good and smart things that come with the shape including rear-seat head room, a luggage-loving cargo area, and in the Caliber’s case, a great profile that’s not as upright as the Vibe and Mazda3 thanks to the use of blackout graphics along its roofline.  Because it’s tapered from the side but wears a squared-off nose and rugged-looking fenders like shoulderpads, it looks the largest of all of its kind.


The mechanical systems woven beneath the skin give the Caliber good road manners, too. Ride motions are usually well controlled by the strut-type front suspension, while the rear suspension packages tightly enough to enable a flat load floor. We did notice some busy side-to-side patter on a few stretches of Arizona freeway — are they trying to ape L.A.’s groovy streets or what? — especially in the R/T with 18-inch wheels. Those 18s tend to rob the Caliber of steering feel that’s pretty good on smaller-tired versions, to which you can credit the lack of electric power steering, surely one of the unforeseen signs of the apocalypse. We liked the brakes on the sole stretch of twisty roads we found outside east Phoenix, particularly the four-wheel discs on the R/T models.

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Anti-lock brakes, though, aren’t the order of the day. In fact the Caliber’s safety gear standards look a little lean compared to the smaller Hyundai Accent. In the Caliber, side curtain airbags are standard, but side airbags are an option. ABS is only available on the SE when you order the 158-hp 2.0-liter with the CVT; it’s an option on the SXT model and standard on the R/T. stability control is optional on ABS-equipped SXT and R/T models. Along with simplifying the engine choices, we think it’d be prudent to make a single safety statement. Airbags and ABS for all! Or something suitably admirable and revolutionary.


Stacked in its favor


2000 Ford Excursion

2000 Ford Excursion

Inside, the Caliber takes on even more big-car tones with a wide, wide center stack holding the shifter, audio systems, and climate controls. From the upright, nicely contoured driver’s seat the center stack can be a bit of a pain in the knee — there’s a sharp angle into your leg where a smooth curve ought to be.


Otherwise it’s all grins and gears from the front seats. The back seats, while a little more of a challenge to enter, are comfortable and roomy enough for medium-distance trips. Getting in means wedging your feet through a very narrow space between the B-pillar and the rear wheel well — but once you’re in the Caliber’s split-fold rear bench has great foot space and enough shoulder and leg room for two, three if they’re supermodels. The beltline rides at shoulder height back there, so best lend the passengers your iPod video before claustrophobia sets in.

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In both tan or greige interiors, metallic trim on the center stack ties the Caliber in with the Magnum neatly and gives it a rich feeling that the plasticky Neon never had, even in the much improved second edition. Even better is the optional sport package, which jazzes up the cabin with red, yellow, orange, or blue seat inserts and console trim, shaving some years off the cabin in the process.


Above all, the Caliber’s interior is thoughtful. If you can grab that iPod back from the back-seaters, it can be mounted inside the flip-out armrest on the center console and plugged into the up-charged nine-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo, which honestly sounds a little boomy no matter how you fiddle with the subwoofer settings. Get the MusicGate option and you get two more speakers on the hatchback; lift the hatch and drop the speakers from the panel and you have instant tunage on the tennis court (we recommend The Breakthrough, by Mary J. Blige, specifically tracks 1, 4, 7, and 10). There’s a “chill zone” in the double glovebox that gets cold air pumped in from the A/C. We think it’ll come in handy for both types of buyers since it holds many Red Bulls and a near equal amount of Mylanta liquid.


The Caliber also will sport one unique option that may change the world, or at least the smell of it. The new YES Essentials seat covering, Dodge says, is anti-microbial and odor-resistant. Are we as a society on the edge of a brave new world, thanks to fart-proof fabric? We can butt pray.


Of a high Caliber?


Wrapped up in its post-Neon wrapper, the Caliber has convincing packaging, finishing and some finesse to its credit. On the road, those favorables hold up, mostly in the midline $15,985 SXT with the 158-hp four and CVT. It does the most convincing imitation of a smaller car at the pumps and at the loan desk while doing the best mimicry of a larger car inside.

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All-wheel drive may be a good selling point in the upper tier, but in front-drive economy cars it’s mostly a good way to add weight and complexity. The R/T just isn’t as entertaining as the initials imply. It moves with decent urgency and clean responses, but there’s not much scintillation at hand beyond what the SXT can offer. And since we’re clearly out of the $10,000 cheapo category, isn’t it worth spending the extra dollars to get out of the SE? It’s no punishment for past sins, but if you’re not convinced by our words, the lack of ABS on plain-Jane versions and the less ambitious tires will do the trick.


But we’re back to the most important of our early questions: price. The SXT that we like bases at nearly $16,000; and with the CVT, anti-lock brakes, and stability control (and if it’s a Beano-type necessity, that YES fabric), it will touch on a touchy $18,000 price point. For sure, Civics and Corollas blew by that checkpoint long ago. But at that point, is it a better idea to buy a deeply discounted Sebring? Rhetorically speaking, at what point does an economy car stop being economical?


Chrysler’s exorcised all the Neon’s demons, for sure. At a price.



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Base price: $13,985 (SE); $15,985 (SXT); $19,985 (R/T)
Engines: 1.8-liter in-line four, 148 hp (SE, SXT); 2.0-liter in-line four, 158 hp (optional, SE and SXT); 2.4-liter in-line four, 172 hp/165 lb-ft (R/T)

Transmission: Five-speed manual or continuously variable transaxle; front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 173.8 x 68.8 x 60.4 inches
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Curb weight: 2966 lb (est., front-wheel-drive SE); 3308 lb (est., all-wheel drive R/T)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 28/32 mpg (1.8-liter w/five-speed); 26/30 mpg (2.0-liter w/five-speed); 23/26 mpg (R/T w/CVT)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: SE: 15-inch wheels, MP3 jack, manual windows/locks; SXT: SE features plus fold-flat passenger seat, air conditioning, Chill Zone, power windows/locks/mirrors, remote keyless entry, 115-volt outlet, 17-inch wheels; R/T: SXT features plus all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, 18-inch wheels, sport suspension, steering wheel audio controls, tonneau cover

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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