2007 Dodge CALIBER-4 Cyl.
Wagon 4D SXT 2.0
A five-passenger, five-door hatchback-cum-small station wagon, the Caliber offers a choice of four-cylinder engines. There's also a choice of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the latter making the Caliber a capable winter vehicle. The Caliber is relatively affordable. Its starting price is below last year's Neon, and fuel economy is respectable, achieving 28/32 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form, according to federal government estimates. At the other end of the scale, an SRT4 version is expected in spring 2007 with a turbocharged engine generating 300 horsepower.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of headroom, and there's a large amount of cargo space here. Packaging is functional, with folding rear seats that have an optional reclining adjustment and an optional fold-flat front passenger seat to make room for a ladder or more likely, a surfboard. A couple of innovative options, especially for a car in this price class, are an air conditioned compartment in the glove box to chill water bottles or sodas and a swing-down stereo speaker panel attached to the liftgate that converts the back end to a sound stage for beach parties or tailgating.
The Caliber is no sports car, but we most enjoyed the mid-level SXT model with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission.
Dodge is gambling a huge chunk of change on the hope new car shoppers looking for value and function can be persuaded hatchbacks are acceptable again, that five-door, small wagons have a place in American garages. The Caliber makes a good case.
The SE ($13,425) comes with the 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. The 2.0-liter engine is optional ($100), and both engines are available with the CVT automatic ($1000). The SE comes with cloth seats; tilt steering column; an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers and an auxiliary input jack; a cell phone/MP3 player holder built into the front center sliding armrest; 60/40-split, folding rear seat; removable and washable vinyl cargo mat; and all-season, P205/70R15 tires on hubcapped, steel wheels. Air conditioning is not standard, nor are power windows. The SE comes with manual roll-up windows and manual outside mirrors.
Options for the SE are as extensive as the standard equipment is basic. The air conditioning system ($1000) includes a Chill Zone inside the glove box that holds four, half-liter water bottles. The Power Equipment Group ($545) includes power windows, outside mirrors and keyless remote central locking. There are two uplevel stereos, one adding cassette and MP3 capability and six-disc CD changer ($420), the other just MP3 and the six-disc changer ($320). Two other audio options are available, Sirius Satellite Radio ($195), including a pre-paid, one-year subscription, and a speaker package called MusicGate Power ($435) comprising a Boston Acoustics sound system with nine speakers. Finally, buyers can order floor mats ($50), daytime running lights ($40), an engine block heater ($35), a cargo area cover ($75) and an ash tray and lighter ($30). A Trailer Tow Group ($130) adds an engine oil cooler and a wiring harness.
The SXT ($15,425) also comes standard with the 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual, with the 2.0-liter engine and CVT optional, but the list of standard features expands dramatically. The features in the SE's Power Equipment Group are included, as is air conditioning with the Chill Zone; a 115-volt, AC power outlet; floor mats; a flashlight-like removable lamp that stows and charges in a receptacle in the rear headliner; height-adjustable driver's seat and fold-flat front passenger seat; a reclining, 60/40 split rear seat; and all-season P215/60R17 touring tires on steel wheels with hubcaps.
SXT options include the Leather Interior Group ($1045), which gets leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats and a manual lumbar adjustment for the driver's seat. Seat heaters can be ordered for the cloth seats ($250). Cruise control is available ($250), as is a sunroof ($750), and UConnect, a Bluetooth, hands-free cell phone capability ($275). A Driver Convenience Group ($400) adds a compass, an ambient temperature gauge, HomeLink, auto-dimming inside mirror and a tire pressure monitoring system. A Security Group ($275) includes the cargo area cover, an alarm and an air filtration system. A Sport Package ($645) includes fog lamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels and a Sport Appearance Interior Group with contrasting inserts on the cloth seats and color-keyed instrument bezels and gear indicator for the automatic transmission. Aluminum wheels are available ($400). Audio options and other items listed above are also available.
The R/T ($19,425) comes standard with the 2.4-liter engine, the CVT, and all-wheel drive. Standard features include the SXT features, the Sport Appearance Interior Group, cruise control, leather-clad steering wheel with audio controls, cargo cover, a sport suspension with performance steering and P215/55R18 all-season performance tires on aluminum wheels. Options include those above with adjustments necessary to accommodate features standard on the R/T; for example, the Leather Interior Group price ($910) reflects the fact the leather-wrapped steering wheel is among the features included in the Sport Appearance Interior Group. An option unique to the R/T is a set of chrome 18-inch wheels ($700). A front-wheel-drive R/T is expected later in the model year.
An SRT4 version will be added late in the model year with a turbocharged version of the 2.4-liter engine pumping out 300 horsepower through a Getrag, six-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential. Suspension, brakes and steering will be beefed up to handle the increased performance, and cast aluminum wheels will wear W-rated, P225/45R19 tires. Much of the interior trim will track the Sport Appearance Interior Group, but unique body trim pieces will visually set the SRT4 apart from lesser Calibers.
Safety features that come standard include multi-stage front airbags, inflatable driver knee blocker, and full-coverage side curtain airbags. Front seat-mounted side airbags aren't available on early models, but will be optional across the line. An electronic stability program with traction control will be offered on the SXT and R/T, but not on early models. Antilock brakes come standard with the CVT but are optional with the manual transmission on the SE and SXT ($400); Brake Assist will be optional on the SXT and R/T.
The trademark crosshair grille dominates the front end; depending on model, this is either body color or trimmed in chrome. Massive headlights are notched into the leading corners of the front fenders. A pouting lower lip-like bumper separates the grille and headlights from a slimmer, lower air intake and (uplevel) fog lamps.
The side view shows strongly blistered fenders front and rear beneath a wedge-shaped beltline. Tires mostly fill the wheel wells, but we expect aftermarket hardware will be popular amongst younger buyers. The lower portions of the doors wear longitudinal moldings, again, body color or chrome highlighted, that look like a bi-level rocker panel but aren't, but that nevertheless minimize the Caliber's height. Full-round door handles, either chrome-trimmed or body color, bridge scooped-out grip spaces.
The roofline arcs cleanly from its junction with the hood just aft of the front wheel well over the side door windows to pinch off at the tail end of the rear quarter glass. Topping this arc but stopping at the top of the backlight (rear windscreen) is an unbroken, thick strip of black molding the Caliber's designers say is supposed to work with the arc and the truncated back end to impart a coupe look. We're not sure why that was important or that it necessarily succeeds, but it does buff up the Caliber's side aspect.
The back end pulls from the Magnum, too, with a steeply raked backlight beneath a roof-mounted spoiler and above a mostly upright lower liftgate, employing a hatchback style arguing against any comparisons with a traditional station wagon. A relatively short rear overhang and oversize taillight housings add credence to the argument.
The instrument cluster and center stack are the picture of efficiency. Gauges are large, round and gleefully legible. The center stack presents the stereo face and climate control panel in stark relief with functional knobs, buttons and switches and trimmed in matte metallic plastic or not-very-convincing wood grain.
The shift lever extends from the base of the stack; the notched gate on the CVT makes ratio selections intuitive, the manual gearbox less so, but not bad for a front-wheel-drive. The power point serves neither the cell phone holder nor a radar detector well; located at the extreme base of the center stack, it leaves cords either draped over the center console's cup holders or dangling down the dash between the instrument cluster and the center stack.
The MP3 player/cell phone holder flips up out of the front of the center console armrest and, while properly sized for an iPod or similarly shaped MP3 device, adapts best to candy bar-style cell phones. Also, the sliding armrest covers a range of three inches, which is helpful for drivers of shorter stature, but when all the way forward, it blocks the rearmost of the two cup holders.
As the Caliber is relatively tall, standing more than four inches above the Neon, the seats are closer to chairs than cushions bolted to the floor. This eases climbing in and out.
The front seats are comfortable, but far from plush, with decently bolstered back cushions. Bottom cushions, or squabs in designer lingo, are more flat than sculpted and a bit short on thigh support. Front-seat headroom is impressive, topping the five-door Mazda3 hatchback by almost two inches, the five-door Ford Focus ZX5 hatchback by almost an inch. It falls short of the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix by about a half inch. Legroom up front is adequate, equal to the Mazda3, bettering the Focus by a full inch and matching the Vibe and the Matrix. A cautionary note about the driver's seat-height adjustment, however: It pivots at the front, which means trading legroom for height.
The rear seat is a bench and legroom is somewhat cramped, trailing all four competitors. Rear-seat headroom, however, tops both the Focus and the Mazda3, by about a half-inch, but loses to the Vibe and the Matrix by almost an inch. The Caliber bests the Focus and Mazda3 in cargo room (by more than 8 and 16 cubic feet, respectively), but falls short of the Matrix and the Vibe (by more than 5 cubic feet.) Compared with the old Neon, the Caliber is roomier and offers more than three times the Neon's cargo space.
Miscellaneous storage scores mixed ratings. The bi-level glove box, with a compartment on the top of the dash in addition to one in the traditional location, earns high marks, especially the innovative Chill Zone. But front door map pockets will hold maybe a paperback and a map, there are no map pockets in the rear doors, and the front seatbacks are bare of any magazine pouches. Illuminating the cup holders (there are only two, and they're in the front console) helps at night, though sliding the center armrest all the way forward pretty much blocks the rear holder.
Visibility out the front is good. Like many other modern designs, the hood drops away so quickly it disappears from sight; you may want to learn where the fenders are before you have to navigate a dark parking garage. The large backlight frames a good picture of what's behind, and the tall greenhouse and rear quarter windows show what's in the side mirrors' blind spots.
The stereos generate quality sounds, with the top level, Boston Acoustic setup rivaling home systems of only a few years ago. Called MusicGate, the Boston Acoustics system features nine speakers, including 3.5-inch tweeters, a subwoofer and a pair of speakers in a boom box attached to the inside of the rear liftgate and that swings down for tailgating or whatever when the liftgate is open. It's capable of entertaining the neighborhood.
Of the three trim packages and powertrains, we believe the SXT with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual delivers the best all around performance.
The 2.4-liter's 172 horsepower arguably does a better job of motivating the one-and-one-half ton hatchback, but the CVT was neither as comfortable nor as precise in its selection of gear ratios as we hoped, and as Dodge promises. Left in Drive, it constantly sounds and feels like an automatic in serious need of having its bands tightened, or like a manual gearbox with a slipping clutch. Even in AutoStick mode, which involves imposing an electronically managed shift pattern on a transmission designed not to shift gears, engine speed wandered noticeably within the selected ratio. And while Dodge says its testing shows the CVT improves fuel economy by between 6 and 8 percent over a four-speed automatic like that in the Neon, the 2.0-liter with five-speed manual outdoes the CVT by 3 or 4 mpg, according to the EPA's ratings. Also, the Mazda3's 2.3-liter engine with five-speed automatic returns an estimated 25/31 city/highway mpg, easily topping the Caliber CVT's 23/26 mpg.
The 1.8-liter base engine betters the 2.0-liter's fuel economy by 2 mpg in both city and highway driving, but with fully 10 percent less torque and peaking at 5200 rpm, it's also the least responsive to the gas pedal when you need it the most.
All three engines delivered their power smoothly, with no disruptive surges or flat spots. Pedal layout is decent, while not quite ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts, and there's a dead pedal where drivers can rest their left foot on long trips.
Driving and handling dynamics are mostly consistent across the line, about on a par with the Vibe and the Matrix but not quite in the same league as the more tautly sprung Mazda3 and much lighter Focus. There's not as much body lean in corners as we expected in a car this tall. Under hard acceleration, the Caliber SE and SXT show some torque steer, where the front-wheel drive tugs at the steering wheel, a shortcoming shared with every front-wheel-drive car we can remember in this class.
Likewise, the Caliber's weight is biased to the front, so understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning) is the default mode when corners are entered a bit too fast. The all-wheel-drive R/T is much better mannered in both these regards, especially in tight corners, when the system distributes the power as appropriate between the front and rear wheels to put the power where it can be used best, as much as 60 percent to the rear wheels if necessary. One downside to the AWD is the added unsprung weight with which it burdens the suspension, mass that's felt over parking lot speed bumps and rough pavement.
The disc/drum brakes standard on the SE and in the SXT are competent. The R/T gets the best package, with discs at all four corners and ABS. We're sure there's a good marketing reason behind making ABS an option on the SE and SXT and Brake Assist optional only on the SXT and R/T, but we're disappointed these safety features aren't standard as they increasingly are on off-shore brands in the Caliber's price range. We feel the same way about the electronic stability program, which can help drivers avoid crashing.
There's little wind whistle at everyday highway speeds, and even at extra-legal rates of travel, we carried on conversations in normal tones. Road noise increased with the size of the tire's footprint, meaning it was most persistent in the R/T. The added grip from the larger footprint more than compensated for this intrusion, however.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona.
Model as tested
Dodge Caliber SXT ($15,425)
3 years/36,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
158-hp, 2.0-liter inline-4 ($100); CVT ($1000); cruise control ($250); AM/FM/MP3 stereo with six-CD in-dash changer and nine speakers ($320); MusicGate system ($495); Sirius Satellite radio, with one-year trial subscription ($195); 17-inch aluminum wheels ($400); Driver Convenience Group ($400); power sunroof ($750)
Model Line Overview
Dodge Caliber SE ($13,425); SXT ($15,425); R/T AWD ($19,425)
Safety equipment (standard)
frontal airbags; full-coverage, side curtain airbags; child safety seat anchors (LATCH)
Safety equipment (optional)
2.0-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
Specifications as Tested
air conditioning with ChillZone cooler box; power mirrors, windows and keyless remote central locking; cloth upholstery; height-adjustable driver's seat; AM/FM/CD with four speakers and auxiliary input jack; tilt steering wheel; P215/60R17 all-season touring tires on hubcapped wheels; 115V AC auxiliary power outlet; 60/40 split folding rear seat; and fold-flat front passenger seat
Engine & Transmission
2.0-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
158 @ 6400
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent, multi-link, coil spring. gas-pressurized shocks, link-type stabilizer bar
independent MacPherson strut, coil spring-over gas-pressurized shocks, stabilizer bar
P215/60R17 all-season touring
independent, multi-link, coil spring. gas-pressurized shocks, link-type stabilizer bar
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear