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.