Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Vince Pornelos | posted January 11, 2009 00:00
At first glance, it doesn't seem like a run of the mill compact car... actually, it doesn't look like it went through a mill, as its exterior has as many angles as my high school geometry book. The front is as prominent as can be, with the strong Dodge crosshair grille protruding from the bulbous face, flanked by large headlamps, while the rear has a similar edgy look. There's a high beltline, reminiscent of its bigger brothers like the 300C and Durango, and of course, it wouldn't be complete without the wide fender flares. It looks brash and unrefined, but undoubtedly cool.
The interior is a similar affair with a high, truck-like dashboard and steering wheel. The large dials on the gauge cluster are easy on the eyes, and, strangely enough, I find the red center console (perhaps to match the black body) to my liking, while all controls are within easy reach and easy to use. No manuals required.
I start the motor and explore the feature I was most excited about: the audio system. It's a Dodge specialty, and the Caliber comes equipped with a great audio unit, pumping music through to a collection of Boston Acoustic speakers. Subwoofer included.
Peruse the spec sheet more closely, and you realize that the Caliber is kitted through the roof, with safety features like 7 airbags, stability control, and an onboard computer that displays the trip, mileage, and compass, and even computes fuel consumption and range. There are other nifty features like a glove box-slash-chiller, and when you pop the tailgate there's plenty of boot space as well as another pair of foldable rear-facing speakers… perfect for picnics. American indeed.
The 2 liter engine (rated at 158 hp and 191 Newton-meters) has plenty of power and torque for the compact body. Channeling all that power to the ground is a 6-speed continuously variable transmission, controlled via a gated shifter and Touchshift manual mode (activated side-to-side instead of the usual push-and-pull).
The Caliber makes a great first impression, thus, a great proposition on the showroom floor. However, it's the drive that leaves quite a bit to be desired. Make no mistake, the Caliber is a car that will turn heads (I kid you not) or elicits several thumbs-ups whether you're just getting it washed or comfortably cruise around the most chic parts of town, leaned back in your seat with one arm stretched out grabbing the wheel, but beyond that the novelty wears off.
Case in point is the new Mitsubishi Lancer EX, with which the Caliber shares its platform with (Mitsubishi GS platform for the Lancer, Chrysler PM/MK platform for the Caliber). The engine, transmission, and dynamics of the car are at opposite ends of the spectrum, whereas the Lancer goes for sportscar-like handling while the Caliber goes for comfort. On turn in, the Caliber feels a little unnerving, as the car is a little unpredictable in the corners. The similarity between the two platform brothers have to be the jerk of the transmission while shifting up in manual mode. Noise suppression is rather mediocre too.
After a while, the you might get tired of the body and start to notice the plasticky interior as well. There are other little things too, like the edge on the center console that always hits my right knee or the rather 80's frame headrests or the fact that the audio system is so punchy that little bits of the car rattle with every note of bass. It made a great first impression, however, the follow through wasn't what I was expecting.
If you're looking for a car that redefines the meaning of "fully-loaded", one that'll serve well in and around town and look cool doing it, the Caliber might be right for you.