Dodge Caliber test drive / car reviews
The Dodge Caliber is a feature-laden vehicle from its optional all wheel drive to the "refrigerated" glove compartment. However, some basics are lacking in comparison to similarly priced cars — even if they exceed similarly priced SUVs. The Caliber platform seems to have been designed first and foremost to support the Patriot, a credible Jeep Cherokee replacement, rather than as a Neon replacement.
The Caliber has several powertrain options; it starts with a 1.8 liter engine pushing 148 horsepower, coupled to a manual transmission that helps drivers to make the most of the peaky World Engine. The next engine up is a 158 hp 2.0 liter version, which is coupled to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The R/T model brings the top of the line 2.4 liter engine, with 172 hp - the only engine available on the two Jeep versions - and requires the CVT, which is a shame since many enthusiasts would prefer to have a stick with the biggest engine (the SRT-4 version, of course, will have a stick-shift with its 300 hp version of this engine). The R/T also comes with all wheel drive, though a front-drive version, which should be a little faster and a little more economical, is due, complete with manual transmission (or so we're told); that little number probably should have come first to avoid all those reviews that said “nice car but feels slow.” The Jeep versions only come with the 2.4 and AWD.
Inside, our test Caliber, an R/T, had a two-tone beige scheme which helped to warm up the interior - a good thing, too, given the large expanses of plastic relieved only in the center stack by chrome (an R/T feature). The instrument panel is actually more attractive than most parts of the interior, with three large, easy to read gauges, uniformly backlit by a lightish-blue electroluminescent light (along with rings around the cupholders). The speedometer includes a series of black circles that contain various warning lights, while the gear indicator is under the tachometer and the trip computer, if equipped (called EVIC), is under the gas and temp gauges. The trip computer is operated by the most inaccessible button we've experienced on a car so far, requiring the driver to reach through the steering wheel or snake their hand around the wheel and the headlight stalk. Once there, information ranges from compass/thermometer to distance-to-empty to average gas mileage; all items that should be reset at whim, can be reset at whim.
Also part of the trip computer is a menu to easily change auto features to match driver preference - items like the automatic door locking/unlocking, opening all doors on the first click of the remote or just the driver's door, and other handy options are all easily set via the trip computer and its button, once you can reach it. If you don't get the EVIC with your Compass, you can follow complex instructions in the owner's manual to set these features yourself, which is in itself a nice feature since it means not having to plead with a dealer (or pay them) to change the settings. (We're not sure why, but the trip computer - under the gas and temp gauges - didn't quite come out in our photo.)
Though Chrysler has traditionally placed its cruise control on the steering wheel, the Toyota-like cruise control is easy to operate and includes a cancel button. When the system is active the word CRUISE appears above the odometer, but there is no indication of when a speed is locked in. Other controls are generally sensible and predictable, with window functions on the door next to mirror controls, lights (including dimmer and fog light) on one stalk, and wiper/washer (both front and rear) on the other stalk. The only complaint we have with the controls is with the AutoStick feature; while the gated automatic transmission, mounted in the center stack, is easy enough to get used to, the AutoStick is activated and de-activated by pushing the handle to the right and leaving it there for a few seconds, which is fairly awkward. Also awkward is the method of changing gears - a right-and-left system instead of the usual forward-and-back.
The transmission itself is rather interesting. First, the AutoStick converts the CVT to a manumatic. The advantage is that the driver controls the gear ratios, and it provides a less surreal experience than just using the CVT. The disadvantage is that this particular implementation is not especially responsive, and it loses most of the gas-mileage improvement of the CVT itself. The CVT works by keeping the engine at a constant speed and changing the gear ratios to meet the car's road speed; the AutoStick sets up six gear ratios and lets the driver choose between them. Even with AutoStick the CVT is probably more efficient than a standard automatic because it has no fluid losses, but the weight of the car overpowers the lack of parasitic fluid losses, making the Caliber fairly slow with anything but the manual transmission or the 2.4 engine - which is fairly thirsty.
The CVT does take a while to get used to, and is probably responsible for most of the complaints about the Caliber's "sluggishness," because really it isn't that much slower (if at all) than most small cars with automatic transmissions. When people drive an automatic, they get used to the idea of the transmission downshifting when their foot is about a third of the way down; the CVT ignores that and sets the engine at a particular rpm (engine speed), then alters gear ratios to accelerate. Thus, to really get the engine going - remembering that this is not an engine with its torque spread out across the spectrum, but with a concentrated peak - you have to floor the gas, which shifts the CVT to redline and keeps it there. In theory, this should make the Caliber, with its powerful engine, very quick, because it can start out with peak horsepower and stay there! In reality, for whatever reason - weight, gearing, you name it - the Caliber does move quickly after a brief downshifting delay, but doesn't really feel as fast as it is, and isn't quite as fast as the old manual-transmission Neons. On the other hand, it does compete well against other mini-utes with automatics, and against the outgoing automatic Neon.
The lack of discrete gears on the CVT also means that shifts are by nature relatively smooth, even if they occur very quickly; which also takes away from the feel of speed. A Lexus GS430 feels considerably slower than it is because of the smooth automatic; so goes the Caliber, smooth but feeling slower than it is.
The engine itself is rather buzzy and noisy, which also contributes to the "not responsive" feelings about the Caliber. You hit the gas and the engine makes a constant noise while the transmission alters gear ratios; so you gain speed, but you cannot hear the gain in speed, though you can see the speedometer rise and feel the acceleration; and, indeed, your ears, which have been trained over the years to correlate a rising engine noise with rising acceleration, are trying to tell you that you aren't going any faster!
The most succinct description of the CVT Caliber's acceleration is that it is more than sufficient, but does not feel sporty. Since most buyers don't actually value the feel of acceleration nearly as much as the average car reviewer, that may not be so bad - if the mediocre reviews don't turn off potential buyers.
As for the manual transmission, it is said to be nice and smooth; and it is said to feel about as quick as the 2.4-equipped CVT. Europeans are lucky enough to get a Volkswagen diesel engine with a six-speed manual gearbox, which appears to go faster than any of the “petrol” engines, though it costs more.
If we put aside acceleration for the moment, we find gas mileage which is fairly shameful for a car of this size, but decent enough for a small SUV, and quite good for a vehicle with the "tough ute" looks of the Caliber. Indeed, those looks are the most clever part of the car: you get the general Durango look, but without the baggage of making a truck that can actually tow and haul things around. The result is a vehicle with far better mileage than any other tough-lookin' SUV.
Now, for the clever features. First, of course, is the refrigerated glove box, which is merely an air conditioner vent routed through the box (you can close it easily enough) coupled with a rubber bottle rack capable of holding four water bottles - a nice idea and not expensive to produce, we expect. Above the water bottle holder is a second glove compartment; beneath it is room for the various books and papers all cars need now.
Then we have the fold-flat front passenger seat, an idea whose time has come; and the cargo area light that can be removed and used as a flashlight. It has a decent battery life, we suspect, since it uses LEDs; but the light is really for emergencies only. Just try to keep the kids away from it.
Cornering is good enough, better than most SUVs and not as good as many cars, but more than good enough for most drivers, even those who like faster turns than normal. The ride is comfortable, a little firm on the R/T but still on the comfort side. Sound insulation is good, without much wind noise (despite what appears to be less than optimal aerodynamics) or much noise from going over bumps. The 2.4 engine is fairly noisy under acceleration, but moderately quiet when cruising. The a/c vents are unusually quiet, but the air conditioning itself was surprisingly weak.
Visibility was surprisingly good given the size of the window glass, with a smaller than usual rear quarter blind spot; headlights are decent enough, interior illumination is pleasant, and the sun visors slide back and forth to block out the sun most effectively. Our only real complaint was standard for cars with an automated day/night mirror, which is that the automated mirrors don't work nearly as well as the manual type.
The Plymouth - Chrysler - Dodge Neon (it sold under all three names) was extremely popular when it first came out: larger inside than most competitors, yet faster and better handling, it was endearing with its slick five-speed stick-shift. Unfortunately, Chrysler cut many corners: the automatic transmission was ill matched to the engine, the head and exhaust gaskets were not sufficiently rigorous, and the frameless windows weren't up to average handling. The Neon ended up with a mostly undeserved reputation as a failure, despite an incredible string of stock car racing successes in the SCCA series, and high profit margins even after warranty claims.
Chrysler set out to make the Caliber completely different from the Neon, complete with an ad campaign some say is a slam on the "Hi!" ads of the Neon - "it's anything but cute." The Caliber is about as far from the Neon as it gets. Smaller inside, slower even with its biggest engine, heavier, and less fuel efficient than the manual-transmission Neon, the Caliber adds clever features and all wheel drive.
To review the Caliber fairly is to ignore the car it is replacing, the Neon. EPA ratings on the Neon five-speed were 29 city, 38 highway through the entire first generation and the later years of the second generation. The Caliber doesn't even equal that with its base engine and stick-shift, and as far as speed, no Caliber even comes close to the manual-transmission Neon; to be fair, most Neons sold were automatics, and they didn't match the gas mileage of the Caliber CVT, nor did any have all wheel drive. (The final automatic Neon got 25 city, 32 highway EPA, compared with the 2.0 Caliber at 28 city, 32 highway.)
To the people who came up with the slogan “it's anything but cute” — two people, on seeing the Caliber for the first time, both remarked, “oh, how cute!”
The stereo is the standard post-Mercedes corporate unit, not quite as nice as the older ones but normally with high sound quality. Our test car, though, featured the $400 optional MusicGate Sound System, which includes a subwoofer; it is geared to the crowd that sets up in the park with the intention of making their own loud concert, rather than to those who prefer high quality music rendition within the car. The thumping bass makes the sound unduly muddy unless the bass is turned low, and then there isn't enough bass. However, you can turn down the bass low enough for talk radio to work well.
One touted feature is the iPod connectivity, which turns out to be a simple 1/8" jack in the stereo with a cord to go to the iPod, and a swing-out iPod holder in the center console. It's not especially sophisticated, though it is a convenient place to put the famous white MP3/AAC player; you can't use the car's controls to navigate your music, for example. The only really clever part of this feature is the iPod holder itself, which swings out so you can see and use the device, and then flips and folds back in to hide the device. The clever next step would be to route the jack into the center console itself so the iPod could remain connected instead of having to be plugged and unplugged. The other bright side of iPod connections is, oddly, getting the subwoofer under control; for whatever reason, it seems to be triggered more by radio than by iPod.
The climate control is a novel layout, but fairly conventional and easy to figure out in basic design, and a vast improvement over the Neon's / PT's oddball "twist the fan right for fan, left for air conditioning" layout. There is a spot in the center stack for EZ-Passes or other cigarette-box-size items.
The seats are comfortable enough on the R/T, with a manual height adjuster; the steering wheel tilts through a wide range of positions without detents, but doesn't telescope. Rear seats have good head room, but leg room is a bit tight. The rear seats actually recline on the SXT and R/T models. Getting in and out seemed easy enough.
The cargo area was large enough in length and width, but not especially deep, resulting in cargo space equivalent to the Neon but without a cargo net or other way to lodge items in; it is not carpeted, but has a plastic cover to the large temporary spare, so things tend to slide around (but it's easy to clean). The rear seats only fold down if the front seat is pulled forward a bit (reasonably - most drivers won't find it to be a problem). There are also map pockets and a small center bin up front.
Standard, the R/T comes with a host of options, including side curtain front and rear airbags, four wheel antilock disc brakes, power windows, rear defroster, keyless remote, power mirrors, rear window wiper/washer, automatic power locks, cruise, air, CD with wheel-mounted controls, tilt-wheel, fog lamps, and 18" aluminum wheels (no, they really don't have to be that big, but people like the look of big wheels.) That, with all wheel drive, comes to $19,985 including destination - or about the same price as the first Neon SRT-4. Our test car had the $910 leather package with heated front seats and lumbar adjustment, the $400 convenience group with tire pressure monitor (showing each tire separately), compass and thermometer, auto-dimming rear view mirror, and garage door opener; the $400 MusicGate; $750 sunroof; and $700 for the chrome finish on the wheels. The total was $23,145, or about $1,000 less than the Hyundai Azera we tested last week, the one that accelerated like a bat out of, well, you know, and felt like a Lexus, with lots of room for everyone and not much of a gas mileage punishment compared with the Caliber R/T AWD. Admittedly, the Azera didn't look like an SUV, and it didn't have all wheel drive.
The Caliber is not cheap, but it is in line price-wise with less desirable cars like the Ford Focus; and with popular cars like the Mazda3, which is smaller but sportier. It is considerably less, if you don't go for the loaded R/T, than the Toyota Matrix, with its undersized engine, flimsy feel, and rough ride. On the other hand, the Caliber amusingly can be pitted against the PT Cruiser, which, depending on how you outfit each, can be cheaper or pricier, faster or slower, and more or less economical on fuel; and which can hold considerably more cargo.
The Caliber doesn't hold much appeal for Neon owners, but it will probably be quite welcome for those looking to move out of overweight clunkers like the Ford Explorer. With the Dodge Caliber, you get that SUV styling without the same penalty as a real SUV. It will be interesting, though, to see how the Caliber fares when the similar Patriot, which wears a Jeep Cherokee style body and can be driven off-road, starts production.