Full 2009 Dodge Caliber Review
What's New for 2009
For 2009, the Dodge Caliber receives only minor changes. Most significant is the availability of new hard-drive-based music and navigation systems. The Caliber also gains added sound insulation to help reduce road noise. Finally, all-wheel drive, previously available for the R/T trim level, has been dropped completely.
The editors on our staff often get asked what the "bad" cars are these days. The answer is that there isn't really a bad car produced anymore, at least not compared to iconic heaps like the Ford Pinto or the original Hyundai Excel. These days, there's a lot of parity in terms of reliability, power and features. Still, there are certainly cars that qualify as "not as good," and the 2009 Dodge Caliber happens to be one of them.
The Caliber debuted a few years ago as a replacement for the Neon. It's Dodge's most affordable and fuel-efficient car, and it's available only as a four-door hatchback. This body style provides added cargo-carrying versatility, and the Caliber comes with some features you won't find on other small cars, such as liftgate-mounted speakers that flip down for tailgate party entertainment, a chilled glovebox for beverages, and available hard-drive-based audio and navigation systems that can store and play digital music files. Dodge also offers a variety of engine choices, including a thumping 285-horsepower engine in the high-performance Caliber SRT4.
Unfortunately, the Caliber suffers from some obvious faults. Chief among these is acceleration -- the mainstream 2.0-liter and 2.4-liter engines, when paired with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) simply don't offer enough get-up-and-go. Calibers fitted with the smaller 1.8-liter engine are more fuel efficient, but they're even slower. The look and feel of the Caliber's interior is another problem, with disappointing build quality and an abundance of hard, low-quality plastics.
While none of the above drawbacks is necessarily a deal breaker on its own, these faults conspire to make the 2009 Dodge Caliber one of the least appealing small hatchbacks or wagons on the market. Competitors like the redesigned Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix twins, the aged but still highly regarded Mazda 3, the distinctively styled Scion xB and the European-influenced Volkswagen Rabbit are all better choices. The Caliber SRT4 is certainly potent, but its uninspiring handling and lackluster overall execution make it a poor choice compared to hot hatches like the Mazdaspeed 3 or Subaru WRX. Overall, you won't be getting a "bad" car if you buy a Caliber, but you certainly won't be getting a particularly good one, either.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Dodge Caliber is a compact four-door hatchback. Buyers have a choice of four trims: SE, SXT, R/T and SRT4. The budget-priced SE is sparsely equipped, with 15-inch wheels and a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack highlighting the standard features list. If you want air-conditioning or power windows and mirrors, you have to get them as options. With the midgrade SXT, the picture improves, as its standard features include 17-inch wheels, keyless entry, air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, a 60/40-split rear seat (that folds and reclines), a fold-flat front-passenger seat, satellite radio and a 115-volt outlet. Main options for the SXT include a sunroof, a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic updates ("Uconnect GPS"), heated front seats, Bluetooth and color-keyed instrument panel trim. Dodge also offers upgraded audio choices in the form of a six-CD changer, a hard-drive-based digital music server ("Uconnect tunes") and a special Boston Acoustics MusicGate speaker package.
The Caliber R/T comes with 18-inch alloy wheels as well as heated seats and the MusicGate speakers. The R/T also has a sport-tuned suspension and steering system. Options include leather seats and 18-inch chrome-plated wheels. The performance-oriented SRT4 trim adds a high-output turbocharged engine, a unique hood with an aggressive-looking (and functional) air scoop, 19-inch wheels, sport seating, a lowered suspension, upgraded brakes and a performance metrics display. The hard-drive music server also comes standard. Options on the SRT4 largely mirror the R/T's, although the SRT4 offers an exclusive 13-speaker Kicker audio system.
Powertrains and Performance
The front-wheel-drive Caliber offers a wide range of engines. SE and SXT models come standard with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 148 hp and 125 pound-feet of torque. A 2.0-liter engine is an optional upgrade; it makes 158 hp and 141 lb-ft of torque. The Caliber R/T comes with a 2.4-liter engine good for 172 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. The R/T is also the only Caliber that qualifies for super-clean PZEV tailpipe emissions status in California emissions states. The high-performance Caliber SRT4 is front-wheel drive as well and packs a 2.4-liter turbocharged engine good for 285 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque.
In terms of transmissions, the 1.8-liter engine comes paired to a five-speed manual only. For the 2.0-liter engine, a CVT is the only available transmission. The Caliber R/T is offered with either a five-speed manual transmission or the CVT. Dodge equips the SRT4 with an exclusive six-speed manual transmission.
The EPA's fuel economy estimates for a 2009 Dodge Caliber fitted with the 1.8-liter engine are 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined. The more common 2.0-liter/CVT and 2.4-liter/CVT combos result in ratings of 23/27/24 mpg and 21/25/23 mpg, respectively. Surprisingly, the SRT4 isn't far behind at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined.
Dodge Caliber SE and SXT models have disc brakes in front and drums in the rear. Antilock brakes are a stand-alone option on these trims, but they're included if you order the 2.0-liter engine and CVT. R/T and SRT4 models have four-wheel disc brakes and standard ABS. All Dodge Calibers come standard with head-protecting side curtain airbags for outboard passengers. There's also a standard knee-blocker airbag for the driver. Front-seat side airbags are optional. Stability control is standard on the SRT4 and optional for the SXT and R/T.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, the 2009 Dodge Caliber scored a perfect five stars in both front- and side-impact tests. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset test, the Caliber earned the top rating of "Good." The side-impact resulted in a second-worst "Marginal" score.
Interior Design and Special Features
Like most hatchbacks, the Dodge Caliber makes it easy to deal with daily tasks. The rear seat can be lowered to create a flat load floor, and the rearmost part of the cargo load area is made of easily cleaned plastic. With the seats lowered, the Caliber can carry up to 48 cubic feet of cargo.
This year's Caliber also boasts the availability of Chrysler's corporate hard-drive-based navigation and audio systems. The Uconnect tunes system features a touchscreen, a USB port and a 30GB hard drive that can be used to store and play digital music. The navigation system utilizes the same unit but adds voice-activated GPS capability. It's impressive technology, to be sure, but the interface isn't as cleanly organized as that of other navigation and audio system units.
Quality is an area where the Caliber really falls behind other affordable hatchbacks. We've found the interior to be lacking in terms of materials and construction. The plastic dash has a textured surface, but it still looks and feels cheap, even for an economy car. "Cheap" is also a good word for the unpadded door panels and center console. When combined with the uncomfortably shaped front headrests, these issues can hamper comfort on longer drives.
Dodge likes to bill itself as a purveyor of fun-to-drive vehicles ("Grab life by the horns!"), but the 2009 Dodge Caliber must not have gotten the memo. Driving a run-of-the-mill Caliber is not an especially pleasant experience, even by the standards of budget-priced hatchbacks and wagons. Acceleration is unimpressive whether you stick with the base 1.8-liter or ante up for the 2.4-liter in the R/T model, and all of the engines have an unrefined power delivery that's magnified when the CVT is specified. The Caliber rides smoothly enough on city streets but rarely generates much excitement for the driver, even in R/T trim. The SRT4 offers lots of brute force, but its heavy curb weight and abundant torque steer make it less entertaining than other high-performance choices in this price range.