by David Zatz
The Dodge Caliber has been criticized by many reviewers for its lack of power; the SRT-4 changes the equation with a turbocharger that boosts the 2.4 liter engine to a full 285 horsepower, enough to make the Caliber quite fast - 0-60 comes up in around 6 seconds, or in 5.8 seconds if we believe the magazines - if not instantly responsive. The SRT-4 also has a tuned suspension and higher capacity brakes, along with better tires than the ordinary Caliber; the result is a vehicle which can achieve excellent test ratings all around.
Inside, our Caliber SRT-4 had a black interior with touches of dull silver, save for bright silver on the steering wheel ornament, stick-shift, door openers, lock buttons, and trim rings around the gauges. The instrument panel had bold black on white gauges, a huge tachometer, and an optional trip computer that included performance metrics. The tachometer and speedometer traded places from the normal Caliber, so that the tachometer took center stage and had the largest dial; the 180 mph speedometer had a smaller dial, and though lower speeds were helpfully spread out, the range from 40 to 80 mph was cramped (for the sake of style, it was much easier to read the normally unused 160-180 mph range). Off to the left side was the boost/vacuum gauge, reading from 30 pounds of vacuum to 20 pounds of boost (actual boost is limited to about 15 pounds, as far as we could tell, but the higher capacity gauge leaves room for tuners). The gauges were uniformly backlit by a lightish-blue electroluminescent light; the radio got green backlighting, and the cupholders got green rings at night. The speedometer included a ring of black circles for various warning lights. The trip computer / performance monitor was operated by a moderately inaccessible button, requiring the driver to reach through the steering wheel or snake their hand around the wheel and the headlight stalk; a corresponding button on the right side operated the trip computer.
The optional trip computer also includes a menu to easily change auto features to match driver preference - 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 (you can see us paging through it, in the video). If you don't get the EVIC with your Caliber, 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.
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.
Dodge Caliber information and specs
The six-speed manual transmission has a heavy clutch and is moderately difficult to engage smoothly each time, but the stick is smooth and easy to use, with Reverse off to the left of first gear and accessible only by lifting a lockout ring.
The SRT-4 engine has been tuned to sound like a typical SRT engine at idle, with a loud rumble that remains as you cruise along on the highway, and rattles shelves in your house as you idle in the driveway. Hitting the gas at cruising speed brings no immediate effect, but if you floor it, you can watch the boost gauge slowly swing up to around 12 pound of pressure, with a commensurate buildup of power, accompanied by the kind of loud, crotchety racket one gets in the normal Calibers. Dropping down two gears brings instant power if not the kind of thrill you get from the Hemi Charger. Sometimes sprint times don't describe daily driving. On the lighter side, from seeing performance figures from people with longer, private tracks, we can see that the SRT-4 does quite well in 0-100 times, 0-120 times, and quarter-mile times. (The top speed in the quarter mile, over 100 mph, explains why a 1/8 mile is also provided - that, and the fact that there are a lot of eighth-mile tracks.)
The SRT-4 really gets going (and noisy) at higher revs. Highway acceleration is thrilling with a downshift, but not without one, unless you can wait a while and are willing to go far above legal limits. At very low speeds, when parking or in stop and go traffic, the engine can stall or lurch unless given more gas than a typical engine needs - and when given more gas, it gets noisy, quickly. Compared with the old 2.4 turbo, it takes longer to get to speed, hesitates when launched from idle, is noisy if revved before the clutch is released, and doesn't have quite the same go at highway speeds unless it's downshifted into its narrower power band with the accompanying racket. The competition has not been still, and this SRT-4 is a tad slower than the last one; it no longer crushes all competition within a good margin of its price, and we'd have been inclined to make this the R/T model and save SRT for places where they have clear superiority.
Under full throttle and full boost, torque steer makes itself known, with the steering becoming very light and the car wanting to travel a little off to the side, but it is definitely manageable and, we believe, not particularly dangerous. Torque steer is not normally a problem, even under heavy acceleration, but when all the stars are aligned and the engine is at full power in a low gear, hang onto that steering wheel - and leave some room on the side, because you may need it.
Now, for the clever features. First is an option - the performance pages, as Chrysler calls them. This is a new feature we suspect will start showing up in all the SRT models and hopefully normal cars; it probably doesn't cost much to add, once the basic programming has been done, and we've been wondering for years why cars don't have them. To use them, press a button to change the trip computer (EVIC) display, through the usual compass/temperature, tire pressure, and gas mileage displays, into quarter-mile, eighth-mile, zero-to-sixty, braking-time-and-distance, and G-force displays. You have to be in a mode to get readings, which is a little unfortunate - it would be nicer to have a combined "make a run" setting to simultaneously collect whatever can be collected - but it's good to be able to get any of them. The G-force figures are either changing all the time, or a running best-number for the past three seconds. Other “personal best ratings” (G-force is always a maximum three seconds) can be obtained by pressing the trip odometer button. The systems seemed to work as one would expect; you come to a complete stop, the display blinks, and then you run, and (for example) it counts the deci-seconds until you reach either ten seconds or sixty miles per hour. Or, in the braking display, you maintain a regular speed, and then slam on the brakes, and it tells you from what speed you stopped, and how many feet it took.
Cornering is quite good, as one would expect; the SRT-4 version of the Caliber is surprisingly nimble, with Eagle F1 tires that grip the road like glue and stay nice and quiet around hard turns and under hard acceleration. Tire squeal is kept under control; using the G-force meter, we determined that limited tire squeal appears at roughly 0.7 g, but your mileage may vary. The ride is firm, but not punishing; that said, you do feel each road imperfection, but with some cushioning. You can see some tire squeal in our video if you really want to; but we were revving a bit before launching to get better times. (In case you were wondering, launching from idle gave us a best time of 6.6 seconds, which is quite respectable but not as good as even we could get from revving first, and nowhere near the “just over 6 seconds” professional Dodge drivers can get.) Gas mileage, even with frantic acceleration from time to time, stayed over 18 mpg city, and is roughly even with the various other cars in this performance class - Mazdaspeed3, WRX, C30 Turbo, etc.
Now, for the clever features that are also on ordinary Calibers. First is the refrigerated glove box, an air conditioner vent routed through the box coupled with a rubber bottle rack capable of holding four water bottles. Above the water bottle holder is a second glove compartment; beneath it is room for owner manuals and such.
Sound insulation is good, without much wind noise. The a/c vents are quiet. Visibility is good given the size of the window glass, with a smaller than usual rear quarter blind spot; headlights are bright, interior illumination is pleasant, and the sun visors slide back and forth to block out the sun most effectively. Passengers tended to be surprised by the interior and general workmanship, and several people said that they felt safer than they expected in such a small car. Our only real complaint, outside of styling, 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 stereo had the standard Dodge controls, but our test car included the $915 MusicGate Sound System, which is geared to making outdoor nightclubs, and the thumping bass could make the sound muddy. You can turn down the bass low enough for talk radio to work well, and stereo imaging was good with music that doesn't emphasize the subwoofer. The satellite radio sounded muddier than the FM or CD player, with the latter coming out best. In our SRT-4, unlike our Caliber R/T, there was no iPod connector, despite the swing-out iPod/cellphone holder in the center console.
The climate control is a novel layout, but 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 if not up to the standard of the new chrome-ringed three-knob system in the Avenger/Sebring and other new Chrysler vehicles. There is a spot in the center stack for EZ-Passes or other cigarette-box-size items.
The seats were a cross between those of the Neon SRT-4 and standard cars; they had huge bolsters (and, incidentally, thick red stitching on the black leather), but were more forgiving than the older ones, allowing larger passengers to sit comfortably, while still holding the driver (perhaps not quite as firmly) in place. The downside of these seats is their greater thickness, taking away from rear-seat room. That said, there was plenty of room for two in the front - even two very large people - and even very very large people can feel comfortable in the front or back seats (just not in both front and back at once.) We also bumped our knee once or twice on the intruding dashboard, getting into the car. Seats had manual adjustments for height, fore/aft, and recline.
The cargo area was long and wide enough, but not deep; a carpeted plastic square covered where the spare tire would normally be, and on the SRT-4, where the tire inflator was. There were also map pockets and a small center bin up front.
Standard, the SRT-4 comes with a host of features, including the air conditioned glove compartment with removable can/bottle rack; air conditioning; traction control, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control; side curtain airbags, front and rear; brake assist; solar glass; rear window defroster; day/night mirror; theft deterrent; rear wiper/washer; tilt wheel; CD stereo with auxiliary jack and four speakers; height-adjusting driver's seat; and boost gauge, all for an admirable $23,000. Our “sunburst orange peel” (burnt orange by any other name) Caliber SRT-4 had numerous options pushing the price up to a less reasonable $26,490; these included the sunroof ($800), lower-profile performance tires ($50), 19 inch aluminum wheels ($400), the MusicGate™ sound system with liftgate speakers, Bose speakers, subwoofer, six-disc CD changer, and Sirius satellite radio (a stunning $915), the orange paint ($150), and an SRT Option Group ($1,185) which included a security group, soft tonneau cover (the sliding thing that covers the hatch area), driver convenience group (we give up), tire pressure monitor display (showing all four tire pressures), automatic rearview mirror (we'd pay extra not to have that), universal garage door opener, UConnect hands-free cellphone gizmo, and the vehicle information center complete with performance pages, almost a must in a car like this. The warranty is not lifetime, but three years or 36,000 miles, with towing assistance throughout that period. Most of the car comes from the United States or Canada; it's assembled in Belvidere, Illinois, with a Michigan engine and German (Getrag) transmission.
Though the fleet people were enthusiastic about the SRT-4, we found it harder to drive than the old Neon version, without quite as much reward. That said, the Caliber SRT-4 seems to have been bolted together more securely, and seems less likely to rattle when it gets older; safety should be far above that of the Neon; the internal company standards for longevity doubled since the Neon SRT-4 was engineered; and there are many more features and doo-dads including those cool performance metrics. The Caliber SRT-4 performed admirably on wet and dry roads, pulling .9 g around turns without any hint of traction issues other than protests from the tires (at over .7 g). It is still a great deal, considering the performance and price together with the safety and other features. If you really like the Caliber's look but dislike its engine, or if you're in the market for a moderately priced, fire-breathing front-driver that you can take to work, it's worth a look. Oh, and if you're a tuner — we hear there's some easy horsepower in that engine still waiting to be tapped, for those with the guts or the insanity to see what the chassis will handle.
Dodge Caliber information and specs | Caliber SRT-4 information and specs
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