Car-loving kids used to draw sleek sports cars when bored in classrooms decades ago. Some probably still do that, but others are likely these days to draw something resembling the new, aggressive-looking Dodge Caliber crossover vehicle, which combines car and SUV attributes.
The early 2007 Caliber is built at DaimlerChrysler's refurbished Belvidere, Ill., plant, where its predecessor—the 1994-05 Dodge Neon—was built. The compact, front-wheel-drive Neon had become dated, compared to newer Japanese and South Korean competitors. The 4-door Caliber looks and feels quite contemporary.
I first saw the Caliber at the 2005 Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland, where it was displayed to show Dodge's commitment to sell it in Europe—and in other markets outside North America. That's why it has a versatile hatchback design and comes with economical 4-cylinder engines.
Calibers sold here will have gasoline engines, but those offered in other countries will have right- and left-hand drive and be available with a 2.0-liter 134-horsepower turbocharged diesel 4-cylinder because nearly half the cars sold in Europe have diesels.
DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group, which produces Dodges, Chryslers and Jeeps, says one Caliber market in America is occupied by "40-something parents who are buying a car for their children." But the Caliber will be the only vehicle for one-car families in less affluent countries, and consequently must be versatile, rugged and economical to operate.
The new Jeep Compass, which also will be built at the Belvidere facility, is based on the Caliber, and Jeeps are expected to be rugged.
However, early Caliber buyers should watch for quality control problems. For example, the rear hatch on my test Caliber repeatedly popped open no less than five times in a row after being slammed shut each time—thus causing a dashboard warning light to continually go on and interior lights to stay lit.
The Caliber starts as the $13,425 SE, and also is sold as the $15,425 SXT and $19,425 R/T. The SE and SXT trim levels have front-wheel drive, while the R/T comes only with all-wheel drive.
Caliber engines fit the car's international nature, being jointly developed by the Chrysler group, Hyundai and Mitsubishi.
The front-wheel-drive SE's 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine develops 148 horsepower, with an optional 2.0-liter 158-horsepower 4-cylinder offered. The 1.8 comes only with a 5-speed manual gearbox, while the 2.0-liter works with a CVT continuously variable automatic transmission, which is efficient but has a notchy shifter.
The front-wheel-drive SXT is offered with the 1.8-liter with the manual as standard and the 2.0-liter with the CVT automatic as optional.
The R/T comes only with all-wheel drive and is powered by a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with 172 horsepower. The R/T is available only with the CVT, which adds a manual shift feature. (A regular manual gearbox will be offered later this year.) Sharper handling is provided by 18-inch (up from 17-inch) wheels.
Estimated fuel economy is decent: 23-27 mpg in the city and 26-32 on highways, depending on the engine, transmission and drive system.
Hot Upcoming Version
Performance car lovers are waiting for the front-wheel-drive Caliber SRT4. It arrives later this year with a 300-horsepower turbocharged version of the R/T engine, backed by a 6-speed manual transmission. It's said to do 0-60 mph in less than 6 seconds and have racier styling, a sportier interior and larger tires on fat 19-inch alloy wheels. Its estimated price is approximately $25,000.
I tested the Caliber R/T, which felt like a larger, heavier vehicle. However it provided decent, if not head-jerking acceleration with the most potent Caliber engine. The extra weight of its all-wheel-drive system probably caused the engine to sound as if working a little hard during brisk acceleration, but no Caliber engine is known to be especially quiet.
Overly Fast Steering
The R/T's "performance" steering was a little too fast for average driving. That caused the car to occasionally drift into an adjoining freeway lane when I let my attention wander on my way home after a hard day's work.
Handling was good, and the ride was supple over rough roads despite the R/T's firmer sport suspension. The brake pedal had a nice linear action for consistently smooth stops.
The Caliber is a fraction shorter than the Neon, although it's slightly wider and 4.4 inches higher, which results in impressive head room. It's easy to park and maneuver in traffic, and its height allows upright, chair-like seating and comfortable room for four 6-footers.
The interior is generally quiet, with supportive front seats, and occupants sit higher than they would in most compact cars. One gets the feel of an SUV—or of a "crossover," if you will.
The height allows tall doors, which makes it a breeze to slide in or out. However, thick windshield posts partially block visibility when you're turning a corner, although overall visibility is pretty good.
Roomy Cargo Area
The roomy cargo area has a wide, fairly low opening. Reclining rear seatbacks on SXT and R/T trim levels flip forward and sit flat to significantly enlarge that area. Front seatbacks also can be flipped forward for even more cargo space.
Reflections in covers of the deeply set gauges can make them difficult to read under certain light conditions, but climate controls are large—as are most sound system controls. A deep console bin with a cover and large glove box provide room to temporarily stash smaller objects to discourage the smash-and-grab crowd.
The ignition switch on the steering column is hard to find, and front cupholders are set too low at the front of the console. Rear cupholders are behind the front console, but at floor level. It's always been a problem with smaller vehicles to find room to conveniently locate desired features.
The Caliber has a good amount of standard safety and convenience equipment. Reasonably priced extras include a power sunroof, upscale sound system and Sirius satellite radio. A clever option is a "Chill Zone," which is a cooled beverage storage bin available with air conditioning. It can hold up to four 20-ounce bottles or cans.
The aggressively priced Caliber is better in some respects than many American nameplate compacts. It should be very competitive with Asian models.