In these uncertain times people are downsizing. Maybe the kids are fleeing to college and there’s no need for a Suburban to cart the soccer team around. Fuel economy and the national economy are two more reasons big thirsty SUVs aren’t selling like they used to. It’s hard to give up the ability to stuff a dorm room full of stuff into a vehicle though. Hatchbacks to the rescue. Not only are they handy, they don’t require a 3-point turn when parking at the local Safeway.
Looking like the offspring of a sport ute and sports car, Dodge Caliber’s strength is versatility. It’s been around for a few years, but they’ve freshened it up for 2010, correcting some of its shortcomings. The Dodge folks have dropped off a new Rush model all done up in an attractive (and extra cost) Inferno Red paint.
The trickle before the flood
Unlike its domestic brethren Ford and GM, Chrysler has been laying low in the product department with very little in the pipeline. That’s about to change, over the next year nearly every model will be either all new or significantly refreshed. Couldn’t have come soon enough.
Caliber’s sheet metal looks pretty much the same. No need to discuss its sporty chunky design, folks either like the strong lines or they don’t (and you know where you fall). Not much middle ground here. Look closely at the large 18-inch wheels to find a chrome facia over an aluminum wheel. Some will cry poseur, other see a handy and inexpensive way to replace nasty scraped up rims. Just like the overall design, people feel strongly about it. Personally I think it’s a creative idea. Wish the sideview mirrors had a breakaway feature.
Spending money where it shows
Dodge paid attention to what the driver sees the most of- the cabin. A new instrument panel is much easier on the eyes. The outgoing dashboard, savaged by the auto press, used low grade materials with lots of seams and cutlines. The updated design which also sees duty in chassis mates Jeep Patriot and Compass is conservative, not nearly as bold as the Caliber’s exterior. Most plastics are hard with a matte finish, the places that fingers and elbows touch are soft. The steering wheel and brake handle are leather wrapped
Controls have a silky feel, and yes, that is automatic climate control. Other standard equipment includes handy stuff like iPod integration, heated seats, a regular 115V electrical outlet, Bluetooth connectivity and a Chill Zone that uses the air conditioning to keep drinks and lunches cool. Yes, it works... when using the AC. Cup holders are lighted, a surprisingly nice touch at night.
The 6.5 inch touch screen appears to house a nav system. It doesn’t (and won’t). However the nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system complete with subwoofer sounds great and the interface makes it easy to switch from CD, 30gig hard drive, iPod and AM/FM/SIRIUS radio. You can even watch DVDs when the car is in park. A USB port makes it easy to load tunes or photos for custom wall paper (or rip from CDs or DVDs). For you tailgaters, speakers drop from the inside hatch for those impromptu parking lot parties. I actually used them when raking leaves the other day.
Take a back seat
The rear space isn’t as feature laden as the front, surprising that there are no map pockets or power ports in back. There’s a decent amount of width for three adults though with generous headroom but no foldable armrest. Easy to reach cupholders might annoy the center passenger.
Caliber has a good work ethic. Attention surfers, the front seat folds flat and the cargo floor is reversible to a hard plastic to keep sand out of the carpet. A bright idea? There’s a rechargeable LED flashlight that’s certain to get lost (Dodge recognizes that and promises that replacements are affordable).
Express, Heat and Uptown Calibers move along with a 2.0-liter four cylinder making 158 HP and 141 lb-ft of torque. Rush gets a bump up to a 2.4-liter inline four producing 172 horsepower. The front wheels get their oomph from an automatic-type continuously variable transmission or CVT.
This tranny has the expected elastic dynamic that CVTs often have. Nail the throttle and the engine revs up and maintains a distinct constant moan as the speed builds. An argument in favor of their use is efficiency. This Dodge is hardly tops in its segment though. There are all-wheel drive crossovers that get similar EPA ratings to Caliber’s 23 city, 29 highway score.
Caliber has average acceleration, 0-60 coming up in around 8.5 seconds. Driving dynamics, ride quality and interior noise are all mid-pack. Whether it’s the sport suspension or the lower profile tires, sharp bumps make themselves known through the optional leather hides. There’s more understeer than expected and buyers that expect electronic stability control and side torso bags should understand that they are not standard, but part of $880 Security Group.
There’s is some evidence that Americans are rediscovering how useful and versatile hatchbacks can be. My control test is of course the TP Trunk method and in it Caliber manages an average five bundle score. Under the load floor there’s a spacesaver spare tire, something that some manufacturers are beginning to eliminate.
Caliber Rush starts at $20,800, this tester stickers for $24,390 before incentives ($2,000 or 60 month 0% financing at this writing). Competitors include VW Golf, Toyota Matrix, Suzuki SX4 and Chevy HHR. Dodge packs some unique features into this refreshed hatchback, ones that few other vehicle have. And while the driving dynamics are not best in class it’s good to see Chrysler investing to keep product fresh. For those who need lots of utility, Caliber is a useful choice.