Used 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4
Edmunds' Expert Review
The 2008 Dodge Caliber is versatile and has some unique features, but a low-quality cabin and underwhelming performance keep this model near the bottom of the small wagon list.
Small wagons and hatchbacks are a common sight in Europe, a reaction to the continent's often narrow and congested streets and higher fuel prices. In the United States, narrow streets aren't a problem, but higher fuel prices have certainly elevated the popularity of these vehicles as of late. All-new last year, the Dodge Caliber was introduced as a replacement for the Neon. Dodge hopes this four-door hatchback can meet the needs of car buyers eager for reasonably roomy transportation that isn't too thirsty at the pump.
The 2008 Dodge Caliber shines in certain respects. Those who favor styling with an aggressive edge will enjoy its looks. Huge headlights, a crosshair grille and testosterone-laden fenders call to mind the Dodge Ram, and available 18- and 19-inch wheels only add to the Caliber's swagger. Inside, you'll find a versatile interior that's a good fit for passengers and cargo; there's seating for five, along with available 60/40-split fold-flat rear seats. The Caliber also boasts distinctive features like liftgate speakers that flip down for tailgate party entertainment, a chilled glovebox for beverages and a handy center armrest-located flip-out storage area that's meant for a cell phone or digital music player. Dodge also offers a wide range of engines in the Caliber, and available all-wheel drive makes it a trusty companion in rough weather.
Unfortunately, we've found that the Caliber also comes with some notable flaws. Chief among these is acceleration; the wagon's mainstream engines, when paired to the continuously variable transmission (CVT), simply don't offer enough get-up-and-go. In testing, we found that an all-wheel-drive R/T model took 10.1 seconds to reach 60 mph, a slower than average time for this class. The R/T's fuel economy is also below par. The 1.8-liter or 2.0-liter engines offer better gas mileage, but acceleration is less than impressive. The look and feel of the Caliber's interior is another problem. Build quality on our test vehicle was disappointing, and many of the plastics are hard and lacking in quality. The Caliber has many safety features, but Dodge makes front-seat side airbags and stability control optional on almost all trims.
A discussion about the 2008 Dodge Caliber wouldn't be complete without a shout-out to the Caliber SRT4, this year's new performance variant. With a starting price in the low $20s, the SRT4 boasts a 285-hp turbocharged engine and goes from still to 60 in 6.2 seconds. Despite offering lots of horsepower for a very affordable price, the Dodge Caliber SRT4 fails to win our wholehearted recommendation. Burdened by its excessive curb weight and abundance of torque steer, it's not nearly as engaging as it should be in hard-driving situations.
As you can probably gather, we're not terribly fond of the Dodge Caliber, and we suggest shopping around if you're interested in a small wagon or hatchback. You'll get more driving excitement from the sporty Mazda 3, more interior room from the spacious Scion xB (along with a killer sound system) and more refinement from the incredibly polished Volkswagen Rabbit. If you're considering the high-performance Caliber SRT4, know that we again prefer the Mazdaspeed 3, as it's just as quick and offers more engaging handling.
trim levels & features
The 2008 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 leanly equipped, with 15-inch wheels and a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack; if you want features like air-conditioning or power windows and mirrors, you have to get them as options. With the midgrade SXT, the picture improves. Its standard features list adds 17-inch wheels, keyless entry, cruise control, a 60/40-split rear seat that folds and reclines, a fold-flat front passenger seat and a 115-volt outlet. Spruce up your SXT with options such as a sunroof, a navigation system, heated front seats and color-keyed instrument panel trim. Dodge also offers upgraded audio choices in the form of a six-disc CD changer, a special Boston Acoustics MusicGate speaker package and satellite radio.
The Caliber's R/T trim brings even more to the party, with standard features such as 18-inch alloy wheels as well as many of the SXT's optional features. The R/T also comes with a sport-tuned suspension and steering rack. 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, and upgraded brakes with vented front rotors. Options on the SRT4 include a display that shows performance metrics like braking distance and 0-60-mph acceleration times.
performance & mpg
The Caliber offers a wide range of engines. Front-drive 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 available with all-wheel drive. The high-performance Caliber SRT4 is front-wheel drive 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. The front-wheel-drive R/T also has a five-speed manual transmission. Both 2.0-liter engine and R/T AWD models come standard with a CVT, which is typically more fuel-efficient than a traditional four-speed automatic. With the SRT4, you get a six-speed manual transmission. According to revised EPA fuel economy estimates, an SXT with the 2.0-liter engine offers 23 mpg city/27 mpg highway, which is about average for this segment. An R/T AWD has a 21/25 mpg rating.
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 free of charge 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 all outboard passengers. There's also a standard knee-blocker airbag for the driver. Front-seat-mounted side airbags are optional. Stability control is standard on the SRT4, but optional on all other Calibers. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration evaluations, the 2008 Dodge Caliber scores a perfect five stars in both front- and side-impact crash tests. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact tests, the Caliber earned the top rating of "Good."
Driving the 2008 Dodge 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.
Another issue has to do with the CVT. In other vehicles, drivers often don't notice the difference between a CVT, which has no distinct shift points, and a regular automatic. However, in the Dodge Caliber, that difference is plain as day: More than any other we've experienced, the Caliber's CVT had the effect of severing the link between driver and power plant. The result is sluggish acceleration and considerable noise as the engine stays at high rpm. Those who crave a sense of connectedness with the road will likely be disappointed.
Dodge's wagon has a smooth ride quality 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 options in this price range.
With its hatchback design, the Dodge Caliber is tailor-made to accommodate most daily tasks. It can seat up to five people, though putting three adults in back will likely result in grumbles about a lack of comfort for the center passenger. The rear seat can be lowered to create a flat load floor, and the rearmost part of the cargo load area is made of vinyl for easy cleaning. With the seats lowered, the Caliber can carry up to 48 cubic feet of cargo. The front seat also folds forward on most models. Dodge is particularly proud of the ChillZone, a special cooled beverage box that's integrated into the glovebox on all Calibers equipped with air-conditioning. In our experience, this feature seems to work best with the A/C on full blast.
You'll likely find the Caliber's interior lacking in terms of materials and construction. The plastic dash has a textured surface, but it still looks and feels too cheap, even for an economy hatchback. The cheap feeling also goes for the unpadded door panels and center console. When combined with the uncomfortably shaped front headrests, these issues can hamper comfort on longer drives.
Features & Specs
More About This Model
We were hoping the 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4 was going to be a replacement for the wholly undiluted original SRT-4. A car we remember fondly through a haze of tire smoke. It was somehow more than the sum of its parts, and it turned a lowly, girlish Neon into a hedonistic device for the male of our species.
But this monument to overpowered front drivers isn't that.
After a week behind the wheel of the Dodge Caliber SRT-4, we've realized it's simply a steroid-enhanced version of Dodge's utilitarian Caliber. And that's like building a rocket-powered Pinto. Interesting exercise? Yup. Quick? No doubt. But do you want to drive it to work?
It's not that the Caliber SRT-4 doesn't have its good points, but the current crop of sport compacts is a tough crowd. To compete, cars need to be fast, comfortable and efficient — big enough to haul a few friends, but small enough to scoot up a mountain road in good time. Occasionally they need to be an autocrosser and a cargo-hauler in the same day. And despite their speed, utility and features, they absolutely can't be pricey.
Few cars manage this feat. Even fewer, the SRT-4 among them, manage it well.
The Numbers Game
SRT vehicles always make impressive power numbers, so we got straight to the bottom of the Caliber's power claims by heading for the Dynojet chassis dyno at MD Automotive in Westminster, California. The Caliber's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at a class-leading 285 horsepower, while its 265 pound-feet of torque is 15 lb-ft less than the Mazdaspeed 3. It redlines at 6,500 rpm and puts the power down through a six-speed transaxle driving the front wheels.
It didn't disappoint. Laying down three consistent pulls, it made 281 hp and 261 lb-ft of torque at the wheels, demonstrating that its power and torque ratings are quite conservative.
It also reinforced the fact that this five-door sends more power to the road than a long list of cars that cost twice as much.
At the Track
Dodge says the SRT-4 is good for 0-60 times in the "low 6-second range" and we verified that claim. Our car hit 60 in 6.2 seconds and went on to complete the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds at 100 mph. The last Mazdaspeed 3 we tested was 0.1 second quicker in both tests. Launches were hampered by the "bog or boil" effect, where the engine either falls on its face or the tires spin uncontrollably. This is likely a drawback of the inertial effects of heavy wheels and tires.
Once out the gate, however, the gearing of the six-speed proved to be spot-on and the shifter rewards with tight action and short throws.
With 13.4-inch front and 11.9-inch rear brake rotors and 225/45R19 tires, we expected the Caliber to scrub off 60 mph in an impressively short distance. It did the deed in 124 feet — 11 feet longer than the Mazdaspeed 3 and 3 feet longer than the Subaru WRX.
SRT chassis guru Herb Helbig told us that with stability control "disabled" (there is a button), its range of authority is opened enough to allow for hard driving — we didn't ever perceive its intervention on the road — but it still offers enough of a safety net to save a driver who gets in trouble.
Still, the Caliber's handling numbers aren't as good as they could be, given the ability to fully defeat its stability control (which can't be done). At 64.1 mph through the slalom and 0.81g around the skid pad, its handling numbers are at the bottom of the segment.
While at the track we compared the Caliber's "performance pages" display against our testing equipment. The car's computer measures acceleration, handling and braking, and displays those numbers on the dashboard. It proved optimistic. Acceleration was the most egregiously miscalculated. The car's computer claimed a 0-60 time of 5.7 seconds and a quarter-mile of 13.8 seconds — much quicker than our numbers. By its estimation, lateral acceleration was 0.88g, considerably higher than the 0.81g we calculated.
The Caliber spoke most honestly about its character when we flogged it in the mountains. Here, where there were no neighbors to upset, it was capable. Hustling through the bends at 8/10ths, its engine is superb and its chassis is well behaved. But there was one problem: It wasn't much fun.
This is mainly a result of it being just too damn heavy. At 3,248 pounds as tested, it's almost 100 pounds heavier than the porky Mazdaspeed 3 and 81 pounds heavier than the Subaru WRX, which packs an all-wheel-drive powertrain.
In the city, at daily pace, the ride is firm but comfortable and the car's portly curb weight gives it a locked-in secure feeling. You know, road-hugging weight and all that. But on a twisty road, we couldn't shake the sense that we were managing excessive mass. And the fact that you're sitting up high like you would in a crossover SUV only amplifies the feeling. It feels like you're tossing around Mom's Jeep Compass, which you are. The Caliber and the Compass share the same chassis.
The most obvious problems are the Caliber's huge, heavy wheels and tires. At 19 inches, they're unnecessarily large and they compromise the car's dynamics. Combined with little suspension travel, they limit the Caliber's abilities.
Its steering is quite responsive thanks to high spring rates and decent roll stiffness, but its ratio should be quicker. At 16.4:1 it's considerably slower than most of its competition, which means there's too much monkey motion behind the wheel.
Stuff They Missed
Then there's the torque steer. The tear-the-wheel-from-your-hands-with-the-violence-to-snap-knuckles torque steer.
Don't misunderstand. We know that any front-driver making this much power is going to suffer some torque-influenced directional challenges, but — trust us on this one — this is crazy. Despite being torque-limited in 1st and 2nd gear, the Caliber changes direction on the wildly erratic whim of physics. Mazda's solution to this problem on the Mazdaspeed 3 — curtailing torque based on a combination of steering angle and gear selection — works elegantly by comparison. And the Mazda makes more torque.
There are other problems. The Caliber utilizes a brake-lock differential that applies the brakes to whichever drive wheel is spinning. At corner exit it is effective at mitigating wheelspin, but doesn't inspire the same locked-to-the-road confidence we get from a mechanical limited-slip differential. Sure, the Caliber goes approximately where it's pointed, but it lacks the down-to-the-millimeter precision of a Mazdaspeed 3.
Add it all up and the Caliber SRT-4 doesn't offer the engaging at-the-limit character of much of its competition.
The Daily Drive
OK, OK, so most buyers will never take the Caliber SRT-4 to a track and most won't flog it relentlessly in the mountains. In the more conventional arena of everyday use, the Caliber performs adequately. It offers a modern, usable interior design and is big enough inside to carry people and cargo more comfortably than the Neon-based SRT-4.
Heavily bolstered bucket seats with cloth bottom and backrest cushioning hold the driver and passenger securely. The rear seats fold flat and we especially like the Caliber's retractable cargo cover, which offers get-the-hell-out-of-the way flexibility. We have reservations about its interior materials and assembly quality, however, which aren't up to the standards set by its Japanese competition.
The Boston Acoustics speakers and subwoofer that came as part of our test car's Preferred Package were impressive. In fact, with the MusicGate speakers folded down and the hatch open, it was loud enough to get us an invitation straight out of the parking lot where we were demonstrating its aural muscle.
Check Your Wallet
One of the pillars of every SRT product, according to SRT and Motorsports PR representative Kathy Graham, is bang for the buck. And SRT is justifiably proud of the Caliber SRT-4's value. Let's not forget that buyers still get a lot of power for the money.
The car before you rings up a $26,490 price tag (up from its $22,995 base price) thanks to its $150 Inferno Red Crystal paint, $915 Customer Preferred Package, $1,185 SRT Option Group II, $795 power-operated sunroof, $400 polished wheels and a $50 upcharge for the optional Goodyear F1 Supercar tires.
A similarly equipped Mazdaspeed 3 tallies about $900 less, while Subaru's all-wheel-drive Impreza WRX wagon with comparable features goes for $2,600 more.
Let's Be Honest
The first-generation SRT-4 sent a message about its intent as soon as the ignition was keyed. It was loud. It was stiff. It was fast. And when driven hard, it was honest — a machine whose economy-car roots served its go-fast intentions very well.
It's harder to make that argument for the Caliber SRT-4. Mostly, this is due to the Caliber's too-tall, too-heavy platform, which simply isn't as well suited to a performance role as was the lighter, shorter, less expensive Neon.
The bottom line is this: We're glad the Caliber SRT-4 is around. It's capable enough for all but the most hard-core drivers, and it's certainly quick. Plus, without focused engineering teams like SRT we'd all be driving electric pods. But, for our money, we prefer the Mazdaspeed 3.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Used 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 Overview
The Used 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 is offered in the following styles: , and SRT4 4dr Wagon (2.4L 4cyl Turbo 6M).
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