If I had a working means of time travel, I'd set the machine to 2004 and loan it to Chrysler's engineers. That was the point when Chrysler (er, DaimlerChrysler) decided to end the collaboration with Mitsubishi on what would become both automakers' next generation of small cars.
I can't wait until Chrysler's small and mid-size cars are based on Fiat products. It's hard to think of a compact car that's not better than the Caliber. This test car in particular is loaded to the gills, ringing the cash register at a whopping $26K. Sure, it comes with lots of nice features like navigation, heated leather seats, a sunroof, and a kickin' stereo, but I'd gladly give up those niceties to get a better car (like the Mitsubishi Lancer that Evan mentioned, for instance).
Usually, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That's not the case with the Dodge Caliber. Take a look at the equipment list of our fully optioned test car, and you'll find almost all of the modern features that today's buyers expect: a sunroof, leather seats, a remote starting system, satellite radio, a 30-gig hard drive to store thousands of songs, an iPod connection, and a nav system. You also get a 158-hp four-cylinder engine mated to an optional continuously variable transmission (a 5-speed manual is standard).
I would be hard-pressed to spend $25,995 on this bland Dodge Caliber when I can get a Volkswagen GTI for $1000 more, or a decently equipped Golf for $4000 less. The 2.4-liter engine isn't the least bit satisfying and the CVT transmission is a poor partner for it. CVTs are supposed to boost fuel economy, but the 21/25 mpg rating is nothing to write home about. And the suspension is clumsy over simple road imperfections. However, the new interior is really nice; especially the center stack and leather bucket seats that are part of the leather interior group.
There has been a lot of talk in recent months about Fiat bringing "small-car expertise" to Chrysler, the implication being that the hicks in Auburn Hills only know how to make trucks and muscle cars. I dispute that notion. Anyone remember the K-car? Even if you don't, you probably owned one. The problem with the Caliber has nothing to do with know-how and everything to do with money. When it came time for Dodge to replace the ancient Neon (which some might recall was our Automobile of the Year way back in 1994), it was on a Daimler-imposed starvation diet.