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A brighter glow

January 14, 2007


The boldly styled Dodge Caliber from DaimlerChrysler is built for an international market, but it is much at home on U.S. roads. The Caliber is a four-door hatchback about the size of its predecessor, the Dodge Neon, but is 4.4 inches taller. The Caliber is a sharp departure from the conventionally designed Neon, which also was made at DaimlerChrysler's Belvidere plant.

The new Dodge has a highly functional European-style design because many Europeans can't afford two cars and thus want one that can be used as a regular auto and also as a cargo hauler. I first saw the Caliber at its unveiling -- not in America, but at the 2005 Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.

As with the Neon, the Caliber has standard front-wheel drive, which is the easiest way to increase interior room with a small car. But the new Dodge also is offered with all-wheel drive, an increasingly popular feature for different types of cars in America.

The four-cylinder Caliber is essentially a compact car. But one might say it fits in the increasingly popular crossover vehicle market because it has upright, chairlike seating, impressive cargo space with the rear seatbacks folded flat -- and all-wheel drive.

The Caliber was an early 2007 model. I tested the top-line 172-horsepower R/T version for last year's March 27 AutoTimes and recently drove the mid-range SXT model with its optional continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Buying a compact car once was simple because only one engine with a manual or automatic transmission was offered. And there were few trim levels or options. But the Caliber comes in three trim levels with front- or all-wheel drive, three engines (with another coming), two transmissions and a variety of options.

The base Caliber SE and the SXT have only front-drive. They're powered by a 1.8-liter, 148-horsepower engine with a standard five-speed manual gearbox or a 2-liter, 158-horsepower engine, which costs an extra $100 and requires the CVT transmission.

The efficient CVT is priced at $1,000 for the SE and SXT and $1,150 for the R/T, which also has a standard manual gearbox. The CVT doesn't cost extra for the R/T with all-wheel drive and adds a manual shift feature.
The R/T engine provides lively in-town performance and decent highway acceleration. The 1.8- and 2-liter engines offer good city performance, but average acceleration on the highway. The engines are noisy during hard acceleration, but otherwise are quiet.

Estimated fuel economy is 28 mpg in the city and 32 on highways with the 148-horsepower engine and manual transmission. It's 26 and 30 with the 2-liter engine and CVT automatic. The 172-horsepower engine delivers 26 and 30 with the manual and 24 and 27 with the automatic and front-drive -- and 23 and 26 with all-wheel drive. Only regular-grade fuel is needed.
The SE costs $13,575, while the SXT is $15,425. The R/T is sold with front-drive for $17,475 and $19,475 with all-wheel drive. Coming is a tire-smoking, turbocharged 300-horsepower SRT4 model. It hasn't been priced yet but probably will top $20,000.

Even many Caliber SE buyers probably will want the CVT automatic and optional ($1,000) air conditioning, which includes a cooled glovebox for beverages. They'll thus end up spending $16,135 (including a $560 shipping charge) for that base model, although that's on a list price basis before dealer/factory discounts.
All Calibers have side curtain air bags and a driver knee air bag. Optional are front side air bags and traction/anti-skid control. Anti-lock brakes are optional, except on the R/T.

Standard SE equipment includes an AM/FM/CD sound system, tilt wheel, variable intermittent wipers, 15-inch wheels, split/fold rear seat and rear defogger and wiper/washer.

The SXT adds air conditioning, driver-seat height adjustment, fold-flat front passenger seat, tachometer, cooled glovebox, 17-inch wheels and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.
The R/T adds a sport suspension, all-disc brakes, leather-wrapped wheel with radio controls, cruise control, fog lamps, special trim and 18-inch wheels with wider tires. Options include a power sunroof, navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, upgraded sound system, leather upholstery and even heated front seats.

My test Caliber SXT had quick power rack-and-pinion steering and a supple ride. Handling was good, but high seating and moderate body lean didn't encourage quick driving on curvy roads. (The R/T has sharper handling with its sport suspension and wider tires.) Braking was OK, with good pedal feel.
The interior has a fair amount of road noise but provides four tall adults with lots of room. The high roof allows unusually high seating, but rear door openings should be wider for easier entry/exit. Gauges can be quickly read, and heating and sound system controls are large. But interior door handles look rather cheap. Thick windshield posts and the inside rearview mirror occasionally block driver visibility, although it's generally good. Conveniently located front cupholders are illuminated to take the dread out of handling hot beverages at night. There are many small-item storage areas, including a two-tier glovebox, door pockets and a console storage bin.
The large cargo area has a wide opening and can be made more spacious by flipping forward the rear seatbacks, which then sit flat. The hatch lid has two indented areas for easier closing and is available with clever fold-down speakers for picnics or tailgate parties.

The heavy hood is held open by a prop rod, instead of more convenient struts, and the dipstick should be easier to insert after checking the engine oil level.

The Caliber was among Dodge's top-selling cars last year. It shows again that domestic nameplates can attract buyers with an above-average auto.


PRICE: $13,575-$19,475
LIKES: Roomy. High seating. Very functional. Available all-wheel drive.

DISLIKES: Wide windshield posts. Noisy during fast acceleration. Narrow rear door openings.

Chicago Sun Times LINK:,CAR-News-Car14.article
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