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Car reviews - Dodge - Caliber - SX 2.0 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
A great styling statement, good interior space
Room for improvement
2.0-litre petrol fails to deliver US-style experience, nothing outstanding dynamically

13 Apr 2007

GoAuto 13/04/2007

COULD it be that DaimlerChrysler – sorry, Dodge – has nailed perfectly with its new Caliber exactly what small car buyers have been looking for?

Not an SUV, but not exactly your regular small car either, the Caliber is the first real crossover crossover we’ve seen here.

Check out the dimensions for a start.

The Dodge is similar in size, but fractionally bigger and notably taller (by almost 100mm) than a Holden Astra and, compared with Hyundai’s Tucson City SUV, also similar in most dimensions except height, where it sits a fair bit (nearly 200mm) lower.

In other words it straddles the dimensional altitude gap that separates most small cars from most small SUVs.

By doing so it manages to look a lot sleeker and less top-heavy than an SUV, but picks up some of the practical issues – like perceived on-road bulk and generous load space - that make these pseudo off-roaders attractive to so many.

And it never so much as makes a suggestion it’s a go-anywhere workhorse.

Two-wheel drive is the order of the day for Caliber. It’s thus a step ahead of Tucson, which started here as an on-demand 4WD and then became available as a front-driver as well, to test the water as far as real SUV requirements were concerned.

It’s little wonder the macho Caliber is described not as an SUV, but as an addition to the local small-car fleet.

Step into a mid-range 2.0-litre Caliber SX after being amazed by its meaty-tyred 17-inch alloy wheels and you are presented with an expansive interior, offering more headroom than its chop-top looks suggest.

The dash is broad and bold to match the monster external fontal aspect, but it’s more funky small car than ingenious SUV. The big, three-dial dash features black-on-white instruments and there’s a colour-coded centre dash that sweeps down to a console containing the high-mounted (original Mitsubishi Outlander style) shift lever for the CVT transmission.

But although there’s a handy bin between the seats along with a sliding centre armrest – and a mobile phone cradle - there’s not quite the profusion of storage spaces that are almost a prerequisite with “lifestyle” oriented SUVs.

The cloth-trimmed seats (leather doesn’t appear until the SXT version) offer height adjustment for the driver (from SX upwards) and are decent enough in proportions, but the steering column adjusts up and down only, which is a little bit of a compromise for those seeking the ideal driving position.

Move into the back seat and you’ll find quite good legroom, even behind a tall driver, along with good headroom on a seat offering a 60-40 split-fold as well as angle-adjustable backrests.

The seats fold forward without fanfare to create a flat-floor load space most people will welcome – and one that passes the two mountain bike test with reasonable comfort. It’s possible to load one bike without removing a wheel, but that procedure is recommended for a two-bike load.

For maximum loads, there’s a foldable front passenger seat (from SX upwards) that joins the rear seats in providing a super-long left-side load space.

Looking around the interior you’ll find the Caliber seems well-enough put together even if it’s clearly no VW in terms of material quality, tactility and fit. The light coloured trim on our test car made for a spacious, airy feel, but was left vulnerable to scuff marks inflicted by lifestyle gear.

The rear floor is sensibly vinyl trimmed for wipe-clean convenience but there’s a disappointment when you lift the lid and find the space-saver spare that is your lot with Caliber. Then you look at the disproportionately large, 17-inch alloy wheels with their V8-like 215/60R17 tyres and see that space considerations were obviously an issue here.

One clever touch revealing Dodge hasn’t completely forgotten the lifestylers is the optional swinging rear speakers that hang from the hatchback lid and can be used for around-the-campfire entertainment.

With its distinctive, aggressive looks that sit nicely alongside the Chrysler 300C in terms of defining its American persona, the Caliber is the sort of car you want to like.

In terms of on-road presentation it’s all bluff and bluster.

The giant grille sits high and bold, there are serious wheel arches for the big wheel/tyre combination and, of course, there’s that high-sill, narrow sideglass look to give a svelte touch offsetting the bluff, short-overhang profile view.

At the back, oversize tail lights said to be the largest in the Chrysler group sit high and proud to accentuate the Caliber’s pronounced wedge shape.

The Caliber rides on an all-independent suspension due to be shared across an expanding range of Dodge product and uses MacPherson struts up front with a coil-sprung multi-link arrangement at the back. With the oversize wheels the Caliber offers a decent 195mm ground clearance – quite SUV-like.

The four-cylinder engine range at this stage comprises 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol and a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, with a 2.4-litre petrol available in just the hi-po R/T version.

The four-cylinder engines come from a collaborative effort involving DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai Motor Company and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, with the 1.8-litre producing 110kW and 168Nm, the 2.0-litre 115kW and 190Nm and the 2.4-litre delivering 127kW and 224Nm.

The turbo-diesel produces 103kW and a handy 310Nm of torque at a slightly higher than normal (for a diesel) 2500rpm.

Transmissions include a regular five-speed manual for the 1.8-litre and 2.4-litre R/T, and a constantly-variable (CVT) transmission that is standard with the 2.0-litre petrol engine. The turbo-diesel comes with a six-speed manual Aisin gearbox.

Our test car was a 2.0-litre SX, which mean CVT was standard, as were the 17-inch alloys, fold-flat front passenger’s seat, rear cargo blind and driver’s seat height adjustment. This comes on top of the already-standard ABS braking, full-length curtain airbags (acting as side airbags in the front), drinks chillier and heated rearview mirrors.

Despite using curtain bags instead of regular thorax side bags, the Caliber has done well in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing where it gained the maximum five stars for side and frontal-impact crash protection.

The overall Caliber drive experience, unfortunately, is not quite up to the promises made by the looks and the packaging.

It is heavier than an Astra but not hugely so, meaning the 2.0-litre engine works with the CVT to respond in any situation providing you’re happy to hear the stepless transmission’s effect on rising and falling revs. When pressed, it all sounds a little frantic, not aurally pleasing and not particyalry fast either, with a quoted zero to 100km/h time of 11.3 seconds.

It’s no Audi/VW in terms of fuss-free power delivery but it does the job. Most of the time, we found ourselves relying on full-auto rather than switching between the six “gears” in pseudo-manual Auto Stick mode.

The engine itself, with the usual twin camshafts, 16 valves and increasingly common variable valve timing (VVT) does the job too, returning a reasonable 10L/100km on testing in mainly urban situations. Add a little more country cruising into the mix and the Caliber would have been closer to the official 8.1L/100 claim.

The Caliber rides and steers competently, if not outstandingly well.

The ride feels as if it’s affected by those big tyres, conveying an impression if lots of unsprung weight in similar fashion to some heavy-duty off-roaders. It makes a fuss where it ought not, even though, generally, the Caliber rides well.

The handling fits the same mould – not a lot of feel through the steering, but responsive to the helm nonetheless and able to tidily follow a chosen line. It just doesn’t encourage enthusiasm when doing so.

So although the Caliber generally does everything a small car should do, there’s something about the reality not quite measuring up to the red-blooded promise of the looks that makes it disappointing. Somehow you want more than a spritely four-cylinder up front.

Maybe the 2.4-litre R/T – or the turbo-diesel – would be something else altogether.

We’ll get back to you on that.

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