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Car reviews - Dodge - Caliber - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Design, chunky styling and build quality, fuel economy, interior room and packaging, luggage space
Room for improvement
Hard interior plastics, steering rack rattle, lifeless steering, front seats need more support, temporary spare

21 Aug 2006

GoAuto 22/08/2006

IF looks count for anything, then Dodge's Caliber hatch may just win a few friends who would not have even been born when the US brand was last sold in Australia.

The Caliber five-door hatch is Dodge's first, and definitely not last, foray into the local scene. It will lead a product offensive of four new vehicles over the next two years.

Caliber is pitched right into the ultra-hot small car scene, with prices kicking off at $23,990 for the five-speed 1.8-litre manual.

Dodge claims it will deliver a new slant to the mid-size car market, even though in reality it will be up against the benchmark cars in the Ford Focus, Holden Astra, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3.

Further up the scale though it has the SUV looks to tackle some large offerings in the Subaru Forester and other soft-roaders, even though it is only offered as a front-wheel drive.

The managing director of the Chrysler Group Australia, Gerry Jenkins, claims the Caliber will be a success because the company's own research had shown that buyers were getting tired of the bland offerings currently offered.

It's a big claim as many rivals have European dynamics, and styling, that appeals to style conscious Aussies brought up on a diet of strong Japan and Euro offerings in the small/medium car segment.

Some however, will be won over by the Caliber's so obviously US-inspired, chunky good looks, big grille and SUV-style packaging. It certainly has visual presence.

Dodge is not expecting an overnight conversion to the US-way of thinking its forecast for Caliber are a modest 2500 over the next 16 months - about 160 cars a month nationally through its 48 dealers.

The important thing is it offers an entrant into the brand.

After Caliber will come the Nitro four-wheel drive, based on the Jeep Cherokee. It arrives in the second quarter of next year.

After that there's an as yet unnamed "medium vehicle" and then in 2008 a large sedan.

But for the time being all eyes are on the Caliber.

Does it stack up?

Well, our short drive on a mixture of Aussie roads shows some promise for the newcomer.

It's roomy, practical and offers two engines, a 16-valve 1.8-litre VVT and 16-valve 2.0-litre VVT, mated to either a five-speed manual or a CVT automatic.

Five models are available, the base 1.8 ST, 1.8 and 2.0 SX and range-topping 1.8 and 2.0 SXT.

Buyers have a choice of a 1.8-litre or 2.0-litre four cylinder engine, pumping out 110kW and 115kW respectively.

The 1.8 delivers its peak power at 6500rpm and 168Nm at 5200rpm while the 2.0-litre's peak power comes in at 6300rpm and 190Nm at 5100rpm.

A more powerful 103kW/310Nm Volkswagen-sourced 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, mated to a six-speed manual, arrives later this year.

On paper the two petrol engines look promising.

With a high level of equipment and safety packaging these cars tip the scales at more than 1300kg, depending on the model, so the engines have their work cut out for them. Both are willing, smooth but peaky four cylinders that require some stirring to deliver their best.

Acceleration from rest is adequate rather than startling but the base 1.8-litre in the ST acquitted itself reasonably well once under way.

Buyers looking for more oomph will have to wait for the 127kW/224Nm 2.4-litre RT model, which arrives later this year.

Interestingly, the 1.8-litre is only available as a five-speed manual in ST or SX guise.

To get the CVT auto you must step up to the 2.0-litre SX at $28,490, which is an interesting strategy when you consider that some of its key rivals have four-speed autos on offer for much less.

Although the upper models offer more kit, we preferred the 1.8-litre, even with its notchy five-speed shifter. The engine did not feel as constrained and felt freer revving.

However, it must be said that the test cars were low mileage examples that should free up with more kilometers under their belts.

Equipment levels are reasonably good and on a par with competitors.

All models get dual front and curtain airbags, vinyl load floor, electric windows and mirrors (heated), central locking, height-adjustable seatbelts, immobiliser, air conditioning with chilled glovebox, in-dash CD stereo, alarm, four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, 12-volt power outlet, sliding front centre armrest, 60/40 split fold rear seats and rechargeable/removable interior lamp.

The SX adds reclining rear seats, fold-flat front passenger seat, 17-inch alloys, adjustable driver's seat, cargo cover and six-disc CD changer.

The range-topping SXT adds leather seats (heated up front), leather wrapped multi-function steering wheel, cruise control (a $450 option on other models), bright silver instrument bezels, body coloured mouldings, chrome grille, front foglights and five-spoke 17-inch alloys. ESP and traction control will be offered later this year (standard on the diesel) for about $490.

The Caliber sits on a 2635mm wheelbase - a Ford Focus is 2640mm - which means interior room is plentiful for four and there is a large luggage area with a washable rear vinyl floor.

At 4415mm long, 1800mm wide and 1535mm high the Caliber sits right in the small car class. By comparison a Ford Focus is just 63mm longer, 40mm wider but 92mm lower.

However, in the Caliber the driver sits high, which affords an "soft-roader" appeal to the driving experience.

The front seats offer reasonable comfort but could do with more cushion shape and support. Rear passengers have plenty of legroom and reasonable headroom afforded by the sloping coupe-style roof-line but the seat cushion is flat and unsupportive.

Suspension is MacPherson-style struts up front and a four-link multi-rear suspension. The large wheels and tyres contributed to almost soft-roader ground clearance at 195mm.

Most drivers will feel comfortable behind the wheel and the manual shift lever in the ST falls easily to hand but there was no left foot rest.

Both the manual and CVT shifters are mounted high and the driver sits high, which means all-round visibility is reasonably good for the high-waisted hatch.

The windscreen however is set well forward, cutting off any view of the front of the car, which could be tricky for parking.

The thick A-pillars also need some familiarisation but the Caliber is not alone as demands for safer vehicles mean stronger crash structures.

Because the windscreen is so far forward, the dashboard seems to impose itself on the front driver and passenger but everything is within easy reach and the chilled glovebox is a nice touch. So too the mobile phone or ipod holder in the centre console lid.

One jarring note around the cabin was the plastics.

After a diet of slush-moulded soft-touch plastics from the Japanese and Europeans the Dodge's hard-edge interior plastics seem like a throwback to the 1970s. Fortunately the fit, finish and build quality of the car matched its sturdy looks.

Another issue was the steering. It errs to lifeless and offers little feel or feedback but that's also a criticism of some other offerings. Being height adjustable only may also fail to impress some vertically challenged buyers.

On the road the Caliber is a mixed bag.

The ride has a comfort, rather than performance, biaise. At highway speeds the hatch soaks up bumps easily and the cabin remains blissfully quiet.

However, over rougher roads, the Dodge can lurch through corners - although maintaining its line - with some bump steer coming through the cabin. The dynamics do not feel as crisp as, say, a Ford Focus or Mazda3. Even a tall-riding Subaru Forester outclasses it over similar indifferent roads.

Rougher roads also highlight some steering rack rattle, which actually puts the Caliber in the league of some more expensive European cars that suffer the same malady.

Overall though it equips itself reasonably well - for a small American hatch. And that may be enough for many buyers seeking something different.

There is a lot to like about the Caliber, not the least of which is its overtly masculine looks.

However, will buyers lining up at the small car smorgasbord see it as a tastier morsel than other similarly specified but less costly offerings?

It's all a matter of taste.

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