Times, they are a-changing. As gas prices lurch upward, small SUVs and crossovers are popping up everywhere. Five-door compact wagons, traditionally huge sellers in Europe but dust-gatherers in U.S. showrooms, now have their big chance.
In other words, Dodge's timing with the 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T AWD could not be better. This boldly styled compact wagon crossover has a ton of impressive features on its spec sheet, and it's priced to move. Our well-optioned tester came in at a respectable $21,450, which puts it head-to-head with an all-wheel drive Toyota Matrix or Pontiac Vibe.
Power locked and loaded
To assure SUV-addicted customers that the Caliber is not just a cuddly, warmed-over Neon replacement, Dodge has adopted an "anything but cute" styling and marketing strategy. To that end, Caliber has been given the corporate face from a Durango, with perhaps a dash of Magnum thrown in to keep the whole firearm macho persona plausible. Although we're not entirely convinced that the theme scales down well to this size, the standard P215/55R18 tires on alloy wheels are a visual home run.
Inside, our Caliber R/T came standard with all of the most popular convenience features and power this and that. The controls for these items are well laid out and intuitive. We didn't have to consult the manual to figure out any of it.
But Dodge has taken things a step further, adding a few uncommon tricks. A Chill Zone beverage-cooling compartment within the glovebox works OK — but only if you crank the A/C. "Disco lights" (our term) illuminate the otherwise basic front cupholders. Both drew their share of dismissive sneers, but added value. A snap-out LED flashlight that latches into a charger built into the rear hatch interior lamp housing was universally praised.
Testers appreciated the numerous audio features. Our Caliber's steering wheel had very complete audio controls. We promise. Once we found them hiding on the back of the spokes they were easy to master.
Cooler still was the well-designed iPod/MP3/cell phone pocket that flips forward from the center armrest. It provides a full view of an iPod screen and thumb wheel, and is located directly over a 115-volt, two-prong power outlet.
Our R/T's 60/40 rear seats folded flat, opening storage space from a modest 18.5 to a respectable 48 cubic feet. If you're alone and need to carry something long, the front-passenger seatback can be folded flat as well. Dual finger pockets for closing the somewhat narrow rear hatch serve left- and right-handers equally well.
Our no-sunroof R/T had plenty of headroom for our tallest staffers, but elbow space at the door was tight. Some complained that forward visibility was a little slotlike owing to a lowish windshield header. The view out the back felt "pinched" by overarching D-pillars and large, fixed rear headrests.
We thought the $320 in-dash six-disc CD/MP3 option would be a no-brainer. Instead it was a huge dud. When we grabbed our iPod and went looking for the much touted auxiliary iPod/MP3 input jack, we couldn't find it. Many calls to Dodge later, we learned that this jack is deleted when you "upgrade" to the six-disc changer. What a rip! Our advice to iPod people is to stick with the standard single-disc CD player, which has the auxiliary input jack.
Other options fared better. The $400 premium sound group included a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics system with subwoofer and a pair of Musicgate speakers that swung down from the open hatch to amplify tailgating. Sneer-inducing for some, but they worked. Another $400 gave us the Driver Convenience Group, a grab bag of gadgets. Niftiest among them was the real-time tire-pressure readout on the dash.
For $150, our car sported Sunburst Orange Pearl exterior paint. But checking that box brings the color inside onto the center stack and seat inserts. More sneers, but that's why there are color choices, right? If our tester had been black or silver we think the treatment would have been a hit instead of a miss.
Another miss was our test car's iffy fit and finish. Yes, it was a pilot production car, but even with that caveat, we found many items of concern, from oversized and inconsistent body panel gaps to an ill-fitting airbag cover and a reluctant seatbelt retractor.
Faster than a speeding
It's hard to tell if the Caliber R/T's larger four-cylinder engine hit the target or not. It looks decent on paper, especially when compared to a Toyota Matrix or Mazda 3: 2.4 liters, 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 165 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, DOHC, dual variable valve timing. But during testing, acceleration was more sluggish than the specs suggest.
The Caliber's 10.1-second 0-60-mph time was unimpressive. The last AWD Toyota Matrix we tested returned 11 seconds with a much wimpier 1.8-liter, 123-hp engine. At the end of the quarter-mile, the gap shrunk to only 0.4 second, but 49 horsepower should produce a bigger advantage. Heck, a Toyota Prius gets to 60 in 10.4 seconds.
We doubt it's due to the bulk of the Caliber R/T's all-wheel-drive system, which features an electronically controlled coupling (ECC) and variable torque split. Experience shows that superior AWD launch traction offsets the extra mass — especially on a front driver.
So what's the deal? True, the 3,308-pound curb weight of our Caliber R/T AWD is some 300 pounds greater than an all-wheel-drive Matrix. But the Dodge still has a 26 percent better power-to-weight ratio — 5.2 hp per 100 pounds versus 4.1.
The culprit seems to be the mandatory continuously variable transmission (CVT), which, more than any other we've driven, had the effect of severing the visceral connection between driver and power plant.
Depressing the gas pedal did not change the drone of the engine or move the tach much, as acceleration was instead accomplished by a computer altering the CVT ratio. We felt about as involved as a taxi passenger asking the cabbie to step on it.
Autostick manual mode is provided, but on this CVT the simulated shifts felt especially, well, simulated. It was a tad faster this way, so we used it for our acceleration tests.
This sort of behavior is fine for fuel-sipping hybrids like the Toyota Prius, but the Caliber R/T is the allegedly sporty model with 18-inch tires, "sport suspension" and "performance steering."
But it isn't much of a fuel sipper. Caliber R/T AWD estimated ratings are 23 city/26 highway, while the Matrix AWD returns 25/30. During our week with the car, we saw an average of 21.5 mpg.
If all-wheel drive doesn't interest you, front-wheel-drive R/T models are scheduled for July. There are two-wheel-drive units with manual transmission available now, but only with the 1.8-liter engine.
As a daily driver, the Caliber R/T is balanced and competent enough. The steering is reasonably linear. Ride comfort was just a little firm over L.A. freeways, but in the ballpark. But nothing made us want to go charging around on back roads on our time off. Commute to home, park it, wait for tomorrow, drive to work, repeat.
Handling and steering didn't exactly live up to "sport" and "performance" expectations. We only managed 0.75 lateral g on the skid pad, with those 18-inch tires complaining loudly all the way. Understeer was strong, especially accelerating out of a corner. Our 64.2-mph slalom run was OK for the class, but we experienced mucho body roll.
Braking performance is also a mixed bag. Our Caliber R/T's four-wheel disc brakes hauled it to a stop from 60 mph in just 120 feet, but pedal effort is high and the brakes feel wooden.
If Dodge's aim for the Caliber was to terminate the Neon from our collective minds and replace it with something more purposeful and less cute, it has certainly hit its target. But in the end, our initial enthusiasm for the 2006 Dodge Caliber R/T and its inviting array of features was softened by its underwhelming performance, fun-robbing CVT and the quality shortcomings of our preproduction tester.
Hopefully that enthusiasm will be relit when we test the turbocharged SRT version sometime this summer.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T came with a few options that significantly upgraded the audio system. There's the optional six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability, which adds $320 to the price, as well as the Musicgate Power Sound System that costs another $400. The Musicgate option also gets you a 458-watt, nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system and includes a subwoofer and a set of speakers that swing down from the rear liftgate. Steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are standard on the Dodge Caliber R/T. The standard Caliber audio system comes with an auxiliary jack for plugging in portable MP3 players and there's even a flip-up compartment to hold that MP3 player. However, if you order the six-disc CD changer you lose the auxiliary jack.
Performance: We've been pleased with Boston Acoustics sound systems before and the same is true for the optional system in the Caliber R/T. It doesn't sound as good as a similar stereo in the Chrysler 300C but sound quality overall is still better than average.
Where this optional stereo really shines is in the reproduction of high and midrange vocals and instruments. The sound is clear and very pleasant. The bass is also very good, thanks to the subwoofer that comes with the Musicgate system. The lows hit with authority and most of the time the bass is sharp and well-defined but occasionally it turns muddy, especially on tracks that have a lot of electric bass guitar. Also, if you boost the bass some body panels can vibrate, causing an irritating buzz.
This Boston Acoustics sound system sounds great for loud, in-your-face rock, rap and even R&B and country; but more delicate types of music, like bluegrass or some folk, don't sparkle the way they would on other upgraded audio systems. With more complex recordings and overdubbing, there is little separation, which can be a little taxing to listen to after awhile. Still, given the Caliber's "It's anything but cute" ad campaign, Dodge would probably say, "Who cares about delicate!" Fair enough.
So even if you never flip down the Musicgate that pops out of the rear liftgate, you'll still get a decent system. But we really like the flip-down speaker feature — it's both novel and useful. Even if you step a few yards from the car, the music still sounds good and has more than enough volume to liven up any tailgate party or beach BBQ. Maybe keep a set of jumper cables handy though, you know, just in case.
Best Feature: Flip-down Musicgate.
Worst Feature: Lack of separation even with the Boston Acoustics speakers.
Conclusion: The Musicgate option plus a six-CD changer adds up to about $800 worth of audio system options. But if the right stereo matters and you don't want to bother with aftermarket installation headaches, it's money well spent. — Brian Moody
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I never thought I'd miss the Dodge Neon. It wasn't a particularly stylish car, and it didn't have the most inspired interior (either in terms of design or material). And I liked the idea of Dodge going in a different direction with the Neon's replacement. It took its own path with the 300/Charger/Magnum, and that worked out great. Applying that thinking to the economy-car segment seems like a can't-miss move.
I think it missed.
The Caliber has a more interesting exterior than the outgoing Neon, and my wife was very impressed with its overall look. When I told her our test car cost around $22,000, she was even more intrigued, but that was after a quick glance at the car's exterior and interior — she never drove it or even rode in it.
If that's as carefully as most consumers scrutinize the Caliber, then Dodge may still have a winner on its hands. But for me the car was too slow and too chintzy to justify an "R/T" badge and a sticker over $20,000. The engine in the Caliber seems OK, but the CVT (along with the vehicle's weight) essentially nukes any hint of having fun behind the wheel. The interior is swathed in the type of hard plastic that seems out of place for a vehicle in this price bracket. That price does include all-wheel drive, but for my money I'd take a Mazda 3 five-door. It doesn't have AWD and it's a little smaller inside, but it's also quicker, lighter and far more entertaining to pilot. It's also got a stylish and upscale interior that makes this Dodge seem pretty low-caliber.
Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Schmidt says:
In my high school years, I could imagine a Caliber parked in my driveway. With its aggressive styling and unique features like the Chill Zone and liftgate speakers, this car would solidify a spot as the talk of the parking lot. Of course, a part-time job at Pizza Hut isn't going to pay for the $21,450 R/T model we tested.
In my college years, I could still imagine a Caliber parked in my driveway. This car is suitable if moving reliably from Point A to B is primary and performance is secondary. The drone of the CVT in auto-mode is efficient when sipping fuel and climbing steady grades, but it leaves me needing more on-ramp acceleration to get up to freeway speed.
In my post-college years, I imagine a Caliber parked down the street in somebody else's driveway. Maybe it was school that taught me to see the big picture and in this case the big picture is quality. There is not an illuminated cupholder or ceiling-mounted flashlight that can distract me from the poor build quality of our test car. Between the multiple misaligned panels and loose levers on the steering column, I lost confidence in the car. These visible quality deficiencies left me asking myself the question, "What issues are there that I can't see?"
"I have only had my car for a week and so far I love it. I also have a Ram 1500. And to me this is a mini Ram. It is fun to drive and turns heads wherever we go." — Mzree9, March 30, 2006
"Well balanced to drive. My R/T has plenty of power. I still haven't figured out how a car can have no gears and an auto-stick, but not a problem. Plastic interior a little cheesy, but what the heck for the price." — J. Messier, April 21, 2006
"CVT takes a little getting used to, but the autostick is kind of fun. We like the exterior styling, with a higher stance than most cars its size. Only criticism is that the six-disc CD changer doesn't have the MP3 mini-jack, so I'll have to get an FM modulator." Steve, April 6, 2006
"Comparing the Civic, Mazda 3, Focus and Vibe, this rocks for the same price/features as the rest. Exterior is very different and Dodgy, much better than the others IMHO. 6 cyl would be nice, but I'll take it! Fun drive!" — George, March 30, 2006