"Admit it," Doug DeMuro headlined his ode to one of my least favorite hot hatchbacks, "the Dodge Caliber SRT4 was kind of cool."
Um, no. With apologies to Doug and Caliber SRT4 owners — all of whom, with the possible exception of Doug, are going to hate me by the end of this article — the Caliber SRT4 was merely a shadow of its predecessor, the Neon SRT4. See the Dodge Neon models for sale near you
Let me say from the get-go that I am a Neon fan, having owned — leased, actually — an early-build ’95 Highline back in the spring of 1994. At the time, the Neon was quicker and roomier than any other compact on the market. (I hesitate to add fun to drive, only because the VTEC-equipped Civic EX was pretty darn good, although I wouldn’t admit it back then.) Two liters and 133 lb-ft of torque was heady stuff in those days, and no one beat me and Dr. Brill (that was my Neon’s name) away from the tollbooths.
Admittedly, the second-generation Neon of Y2K fell behind the pack, being a mildly refined rehash of the first-generation car. It was, if memory recalls, one of the last small cars to come with a 3-speed automatic transmission.
And then the Neon SRT4 came out, and … holy, holy hell. Doug mentioned the specifics of the 2.4-liter engine, turbocharged to 215 horsepower (later 230), and while that may not be impressive by today’s standards, the numbers were: 0 to 60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds (if you could control the wheelspin), 13.9 seconds in the quarter-mile and a top speed over 150 mph according to Car and Driver. The suspension and brakes were massaged in kind, and the SRT4’s handling was sharp and grippy despite a bit of understeer, with powerful brakes and a ride that wouldn’t grind your spine to dust.
But the coolest thing about the Neon SRT4 was that it had no muffler. The turbo provided just enough hush to keep the SRT4 legal, and the exhaust popped, crackled and farted with delightful abandon. Wind it out and hold it against the limiter just long enough, and you’d be rewarded with a barrage of backfires. It was, and remains, one of the best-sounding, most fun-to-drive cars I have ever had the pleasure of testing.
When its replacement, the Dodge Caliber SRT4, showed up at my house for testing, the first thing I did was look underneath.
It had a muffler. And that should tell you everything you need to know.
In the Caliber SRT4’s defense, it looked way better than the Neon SRT4, which wore its scooped hood and rainbow-shaped trunk spoiler with something less than total comfort. But that, to my mind, was the Caliber’s only advantage. Dodge cunningly ran their press event — which I did not attend — at a glass-smooth racetrack, and reports came back of greatly improved handling. But when I test drove the thing on the twisty roads northwest of Los Angeles, I was appalled by the lack of suspension control. The body dipped and dived like Ali, even bottoming out on moderately sized bumps, and the traction control did a poor job substituting for a proper limited-slip differential. I asked a Chrysler engineer how things could have gone so wrong, and he blamed the Caliber platform: "Garbage in, garbage out."
So, Doug, I have to disagree with you. In my opinion, the Caliber SRT4 is a stain on the company that gave us some of the greatest cheap thrills we’ve ever seen, including the Plymouth Road Runner, the Dodge Omni GLH, the Shelby CSX, the FIAT 500 Abarth and even — dare I say it? — the Plymouth Sundance Duster, into the tiny P-body of which they dropped a 3.0-liter V6.
So no, I don’t find the Caliber SRT4 especially nifty. The Dodge Neon SRT4, on the other hand — now that is a cool car. Find a Dodge Neon for sale