Pros: Adult-friendly back seat, some cool interior features.
Cons: Subpar crash-test scores, crude engine, poor fuel economy with the CVT, dollar-store interior.
The 2012 Dodge Caliber is likely the last of its breed-a FIAT-based replacement is in the works-and frankly, we’re not too broken up about it. To be fair, the Caliber was actually an interesting concept when it launched, promising to marry the high seating position and interior versatility of an SUV with the affordability and maneuverability of an economy car. But it quickly became apparent that polish was sorely lacking, and although some interior upgrades were implemented a couple years ago, the Caliber still has one of the least appealing cabins in the business. Sadly, its engines and transmissions are equally subpar.
One factor that might compel us to consider a Caliber would be a really good price. If we could get a loaded Caliber for the price of, say, a basic Corolla, it would be something to think about. The Caliber does, after all, come with a bunch of interesting standard and optional features, and its hatchback body style is inherently handy. We could probably think of worse fates than driving a cut-rate Caliber with all the bells and whistles.
Just don’t expect the Caliber to be a true rival to accomplished compact hatchbacks like the Ford Focus and Mazda 3. It’s a functional but flawed car that’s about to be replaced by something fresh and new. We’d recommend setting your expectations-and negotiating strategy-accordingly.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Dodge Caliber is offered in SE, SXT and SXT Plus trim levels. The base SE comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, power accessories, air-conditioning, a beverage cooler in the glove box and a four-speaker audio system with auxiliary input jack and Bluetooth. For not much more, the SXT brings 17-inch alloy wheels, a "touring suspension" (says Dodge), fog lights, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a fold-flat front passenger seat, map lights and reclining rear seatbacks. The SXT Plus adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, colorful seat inserts and various other sporty styling cues. Notable options include a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment display, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics audio system with flip-down tailgate speakers.
The Caliber’s front seats are squishy and lack long-range support. Remember that the SE driver’s seat doesn’t have a height adjustment, so if you’re looking at an SE, make sure you like the default seat height before pulling the trigger. Also, the steering column only tilts, so it won’t telescope out to accommodate drivers with longer legs. Back-seat comfort is satisfactory thanks to the relatively high bench, which gives tall rear passengers more legroom and thigh support than in a typical compact hatchback.
Regardless of where your passengers are sitting, don’t be surprised if they chuckle at the Caliber’s dashboard design and materials, which are subpar even by rental-car standards. Ergonomics are fine, but there’s nothing in the Caliber’s cabin that will make you feel good about having bought this car-well, unless you count the admittedly neat beverage-cooler in the glove compartment, and maybe the optional flip-down tailgate speakers.
The Caliber’s cargo area holds 18.4 cubic feet, which isn’t much. If you fold down the rear seatbacks, though, you’ll have a healthy 47.4 cubic feet of space at your disposal.
The Caliber comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, and an available iPod/USB port can be added to the SXT and high trims, which is a nice gesture by Dodge at this low price point. It’s also nice that the Caliber offers a touchscreen infotainment system at all, seeing as some economy cars still don’t have one on the options list. We’re not terribly enthused about the Caliber’s 6.5-inch touchscreen, though, which is a generation behind Chrysler’s new 8.4-inch touchscreen. The graphics are pretty basic, and navigation between the menus can be unintuitive. Speaking of navigation, it can be added to the touchscreen interface, but only on the SXT Plus.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive Dodge Caliber used to offer a decent 2.4-liter engine as an option, but it soldiers on for 2012 with just one engine, a 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 158 horsepower and 141 lb-ft of torque. The base Caliber SE comes only with a five-speed manual transmission, while the SXT has a mandatory continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and the SXT Plus offers a choice between the manual and the CVT.
We don’t expect too much from economy-car engines, but the Caliber’s 2.0-liter four still disappoints, earning poor marks for both acceleration and refinement. It’s especially unpleasant with the CVT, which provokes a serious racket from the engine when you’re merging on the highway, and saps power besides. If you don’t mind shifting for yourself, the five-speed manual gets the job done, more or less, and it delivers superior fuel economy of 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway versus 23/27 mpg with the CVT.
The 2012 Dodge Caliber is one of the few vehicles on the market that doesn’t come with standard stability control. The SXT and SXT Plus have it, but the SE doesn’t. At least antilock brakes are standard across the board, although the SE’s rear brakes are drums, which generally provide inferior stopping power. The SXT and SXT Plus get standard four-wheel disc brakes.
On the airbag front, the Caliber has just four (five if you count the "Driver-side inflatable knee bolster"). Specifically, it’s got front airbags and side-curtain airbags, which means it lacks the usual front-seat side airbags.
In government crash-testing, the aging Caliber scored just three stars overall out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts and three stars for side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute of Highway Safety awarded the Caliber its highest score of "Good" for frontal impacts but its second-worst score of "Marginal" for side impacts.
The Caliber comes with different suspension calibrations based on trim level, but the overall experience is forgettable no matter what. The steering is rental-car vague, and even the "sport-tuned" SXT Plus fails to inspire around corners. On the bright side, the ride is reasonably quiet and forgiving, though the SXT Plus’s firmer suspension and 18-inch wheels take a definite bite out of the Caliber’s compliant nature.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Focus hatchback – The recently redesigned Focus is great on gas, fun to drive and packed with technology. The only drawback relative to the Caliber is its tight back seat.
Mazda 3 hatchback – Similar to the Focus in suspension design, the Mazda delivers an even sportier driving experience, and its new "SkyActiv" 2.0-liter engine gets good fuel economy, too.
Honda Fit – We’re not fans of the Fit’s noisy 1.5-liter engine, but it’s amazing how roomy this little Honda is inside. There’s more cargo space here than in the Caliber and plenty of back-seat space, too.
We don’t really recommend the Caliber, but if you’re looking at one, we’d certainly encourage you to set your sights on the SXT or SXT Plus so that you’ll have four-wheel disc brakes and stability control. If you like the features and capability but not the smaller engine, you can sill get the 2.4-liter on the Caliber’s identical twin, the Jeep Compass.