Dodge's approach to the sport compact segment has never been subtle, and its newest, the 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4, has all the understated grace of an Apache gunship.
The formula was set with the turbocharged Dodge Omni GLHS (for Goes Like Hell) from the mid-'80s and the more recent turbocharged Neon SRT-4. Both were raucous, crude and cheap, and generous levels of torque steer came at no extra charge. They also looked like the economy cars on which they were based, but they routinely stomped the competition in tests of speed.
It should come as no surprise then that the company's newest performance compact, the Caliber SRT-4, packs big turbo-generated horsepower, strong torque steer and unlikely styling. Oh, and it has a low, low price of $22,995.
All right, so maybe $23 grand doesn't seem all that cheap for a Caliber, Dodge's hunchback small car. But how does $23 grand for 285 horsepower sound? Better, we would think.
That kind of number takes front-drive sport compacts to a new level of absurd power. Even the mighty Mazdaspeed 3, winner of two Inside Line comparison tests, makes 263. After that, nothing comes close for the same amount of coin. Not the Honda Civic Si (197 hp), not the Subaru WRX (224) and not the VW GTI (200).
Dodge starts with the 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder that powers the Caliber R/T. We were not particularly impressed by this motor when we tested an AWD version of the Caliber R/T some time ago. It posted a sluglike 10.1-second 0-60-mph time. Although the Caliber R/T's continuously variable transmission was a large part of the problem, the engine looked better on paper than it felt on the test track.
The solution? A big ol' Mitsubishi TD04 turbocharger. The turbocharger, along with a freer-flowing intake, an intercooler and a fat 3-inch exhaust system bring an additional 113 hp to the table. The original Omni GLH (non-turbo) made a whopping 110 peak hp.
Internal engine mods include pistons cooled by oil squirters and mounted to forged connecting rods. Specific injectors flow more fuel (high octane recommended). And an external oil cooler keeps the Mobil 1 synthetic from getting too toasty. The engine cranks out 265 pound-feet of torque beginning at 2,000 rpm.
The engine feels strong, with that familiar turbo-motor swell of power, but it doesn't feel that much stronger than the Mazdaspeed 3's mill, which turns out a sick 280 lb-ft of torque. But we believe Dodge when it says that the SRT-4 will get to 60 mph in "the low 6-second range." The front-drive six-speed Mazda will do the deed in 6.1 seconds. The new Subaru WRX, with a relatively paltry 224 horsepower and a five-speed will get to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. This leads us to the issue more important than peak horsepower numbers.
Power to the Pavement
All that fat turbo power is routed through a dual mass flywheel to a Getrag six-speed manual transmission through a brake lock differential and onto 19-inch front wheels shod with Goodyear F1 Supercar tires. The result of this is our old pal torque steer.
We're not just digging on Dodge here. To try to quell the squirreliness, Mazda electronically limits torque output in the Mazdaspeed 3's low gears. Launching the all-wheel-drive WRX aggressively might be abusive to the powertrain, but the results speak for themselves.
If the options are (A) torque steer or (B) less torque, we'll take A. Actually, we'll take a rear-wheel-drive car, but that's not what we're talking about here.
Stab the SRT-4's throttle and as the turbo-juiced power swells, the steering starts making decisions on its own, and they're never good ones. If you're driving on a crowned road or you're riding in truck troughs when you stomp the throttle, well, just be prepared.
The SRT-4 will top out at 155 mph.
The cable-operated six-speed requires some muscle to shift and lacks the slick mechanical feel of a Honda or Mazda shifter, but works reasonably well. And the shifter's position, sticking out of the lower part of dash, is more comfortable than it looks.
And the SRT-4's ride quality is better than we expected of a sport-ified economy car riding on huge 19-inch wheels. We traversed some seriously lumpy two-lane surfaces in rural Indiana and the SRT-4 was never a chore to drive. The tall body is reasonably well controlled and roll is reduced considerably from a standard-issue Caliber.
Dodge lowered the MacPherson front suspension 1.1 inches and dropped the multilink independent rear 0.87 inch. Specifically tuned ZF Sachs dampers are used and carry stiffer springs than those on a stock Caliber. The 24mm-thick front antiroll bar is the same as that of the Caliber R/T. Dodge has increased the thickness of the rear bar (to 18mm) in an effort to reduce understeer. This is largely successful, as the SRT-4 is a neutral-handling machine up to very high cornering speeds.
The brakes, upgraded to 13.4-inch rotors up front and 11.9-inch rotors in back, are stellar. The car we test-drove wore special track-worthy pads SRT says are available through Mopar performance parts but not as a regular option. They felt strong, steady and powerful throughout a day of hard driving.
Our time beating up the Caliber SRT-4 on the bucolic Putnam Park racecourse was genuinely fun, even if the Caliber feels strangely tall and upright for track use. The only major complaint we have about the car's racetrack performance is the inability to put all the power down at corner exits.
We would prefer a proper mechanical limited-slip differential to the SRT-4's traction-control-based arrangement. With the so-called Brake Lock Differential, a wheel speed sensor detects wheelspin and applies the brake to that side to force the transfer of power to the other side. As a rule, we think that applying the brakes to make forward progress is the wrong approach.
The Caliber comes with a full complement of other electronic chassis systems including antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control — all standard.
Looks That Kill
Senior SRT cowboy-boot-wearer Herb Helbig says that the Caliber SRT-4 has an "'I'm going to kick your ass' face to it." We're not entirely certain that's what the face says but there is no mistaking the car for something else. A deep front airdam, a center-mounted hood scoop and two hood-mounted exhaust vents give the snub-nosed Caliber a unique brusqueness. Helbig describes the long hatch-mounted spoiler as "a big-ass spoiler." About this, we will not quibble. A 4-inch exhaust tip and a rear bumper cover treatment that mimics racecar diffusers round out the exterior changes.
The interior has the same fit and finish faults as the standard car but SRT dresses it up with a leather-covered steering wheel, a leather "carbon-fiber"-pattern shift boot and heavily bolstered sport seats with grippy fabric inserts. The tachometer also swaps position with the speedometer to take the center spot in the instrument cluster, and a little boost gauge is mounted to the far left of the dashboard.
An available "performance pages" display can record 0-60-mph, 1/8-mile and quarter-mile acceleration times, braking distance and maximum G-force. We'll test its accuracy against our GPS-based equipment when we get one out to the test track.
There are only a few options offered on the SRT-4 and none of them will boost its performance any further. There's a sunroof, an upgraded audio system and polished wheels.
Dodge Boys Drive Bad Toys
The 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4 will clearly not be to everyone's taste. Although it's enormously powerful, it's heavy at 3,189 pounds and Dodge admits it isn't any faster than the lighter and less powerful Neon SRT-4 of several years ago. It's also unusual-looking, and by unusual we mean fugly.
But is does pack the most power you buy for your dollar. And that's got to count for something.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.