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Car reviews - Dodge - Caliber - SXT CRD 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Individuality, stability control, spacious cabin, performance with economy, cruising ability
Room for improvement
Stodgy dynamics, limited vision, cheap plastics, no auto option, noisy diesel engine

26 Oct 2007

MOTORING journalists who dismiss the Dodge Caliber are missing the point.

Sure, it doesn’t handle like a Ford Focus or cosset you in quality surrounds like a Volkswagen Golf, but the DaimlerChrysler small car has striking looks and surprising charm.

Nobody gave us a hearty thumbs-up when driving by in a Golf or Focus (respective GTI and XR5 hot hatches excepted), but many did in the Caliber.

This distinctive, dinky Dodge is like the Chrysler 300C in that it polarises people’s opinions, makes a mark in their memories and stands out – literally in the case of the 1.535 metre high Caliber – in an over-crowded small-car segment.

In years to come, you might just be able to picture this car in a way many people can recall a Chrysler PT Cruiser, 300C, Mini or Beetle.

In a world dominated by dullards like the Toyota Corolla, this has to be highly commendable.

But we think there is something else, something altogether darker, at play here.

The Caliber is a little like a rap artist such as Eminem – unashamedly brash, undeniably blokey, perhaps a little trailer trash in its populist appeal, and indisputably all-American.

So people respond to it irrationally, often without objectivity, and perhaps even with prejudice.

Not for wallflowers, snobs or people with anti-US sentiments, then, the Dodge definitely touches a nerve.

It is therefore ironic that one of the best things about this American car is its German engine and gearbox, because the Caliber CRD employs Volkswagen’s trusty, if ageing, 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder direct-injection diesel unit found in a bewildering array of Volkswagen Group vehicles, from Skoda to Audi.

It also serves a large number of other Chrysler and Mitsubishi products, since the VW TDI unit has been engineered to be used in their joint-venture GS/JS platform that also underpins the former’s Sebring, Avenger, Compass, Patriot and Nitro models, as well as the latter’s Lancer and Outlander cars.

In this case, the diesel drivetrain provides enough power and economy to lift the Caliber CRD above its disappointing petrol brethren.

Nevermind the distant diesel clatter emanating ahead because there is 310Nm of pulling power available from an easy-access 2500rpm, while the Caliber’s 103kW top is at a relatively revvy (for a diesel) 4000rpm.

Floor it and the growling CRD leaps into action, quickly building up momentum (and noise) as the driver puts the weighty but precise six-speed manual gearbox through its paces.

This car’s party trick is its ability to settle on the national limit in sixth gear with the engine barely ticking over 2000rpm, to make for a lazy and relaxed highway cruiser.

Astoundingly, compared to the sportiest petrol Caliber (the 125kW/220Nm 2.4-litre R/T), the CRD sprints to 100km/h faster (9.3 versus 9.7 seconds) and is faster overall (196km/h versus 192).

The diesel’s speed is matched by impressive fuel consumption figures. We averaged between seven and eight litres per 100km over a variety of urban driving, with the (effective) air-conditioning almost always on.

It may surprise you to learn that, despite the tall boxy design, the stable Caliber is not at all assailed by strong crosswinds. On the other hand, this American car’s disdain for tight corners will raise no eyebrows.

Armed with steering that is a little low geared but still pleasant enough to use, the Caliber simply lacks cornering finesse.

There isn’t the suppleness in the coil sprung suspension for total bump absorption, while the handling – while sufficiently responsive and certainly safe and secure – lags behind the better European and Japanese efforts as far as feedback, subtlety and precision are concerned.

In fact, the Caliber’s blunt dynamics are complemented by the rather bluntly presented interior.

Initial impressions are favourable, with its chunky dash, tall ceiling and ample leg and shoulder room. Even two-metre tall people can stretch out in the front passenger seat, with space to spare.

The instrument cluster’s dials are large and clear, the radio and heater/air-conditioning controls are easy to reach and a cinch to operate, there are lots of places to put stuff into and nothing squeaked or rattled in our test car.

But the plastics seem cheap, looking and feeling like they belong to a bygone era when hard and wearing always won over style and tactility.

Have Dodge’s people sat inside a new Korean car lately? By comparison, Kia’s efforts are light years ahead of the Caliber.

Seriously, why can’t American car manufacturers take a long hard look at the way compatriot Apple’s products, for instance, look and feel?

And it’s not just the dash that is covered in grainy hard surfaces. The load area, set up high, has a practical but el-cheapo plastic floor covering that further instils a low-fi ambience to the Caliber’s cabin.

Furthermore, it seems that Dodge missed an opportunity to inject some real versatility into the Caliber’s spacious interior, since the rear seats – while boasting some rake adjustability – do not slide or remove in the way that the crossover styling might suggest.

Big fat pillars, combined with a shallow glass area, do their upmost to limit rear vision, while the gimmicky iPod/MP3 holder that is incorporated in the centre armrest just gets in the way of gear-changes.

Annoyingly, the steering wheel does not adjust for reach (just height).

Yet, in the end, we still became more and more open to, as well as charmed by, the Caliber diesel’s character.

Even in base ST guise, it represents excellent value for money – especially since ESP stability control is standard.

You have to pay well over $33,000 for the identically-equipped – if slightly torquier – Golf 2.0 TDI.

Sure, the Caliber CRD cannot compete in dynamics or quality with the best on offer - and not offering an auto is a real bummer - but the point of this car is that the dull handling, cheapo plastics, audible engine and limited side vision are not deal-breakers in a generally competent car with memorable style and gusto.

If you ‘get’ the Caliber, just make sure it’s the CRD diesel.

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