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.
Admittedly, both products — the Caliber and the Lancer, respectively — have their faults, but I’d argue that Mitsubishi managed to create a more rewarding compact offering. Even in non-Evolution trims, the Lancer delivers sharp steering, taut cornering, and a generally compliant ride quality.
It’s amazing how different the Caliber feels. Contrary to the Rush nameplate affixed to this top-spec car, the Caliber doesn’t enjoy being hustled in the slightest. The higher stance and seating position may appeal to SUV admirers, but virtually no effort was made to rein in the body roll that results from a raised center of gravity. This drives less like a small hatchback and more like a small SUV — and if you look carefully at the Monroney, you’ll see Dodge calls this its “sport suspension” package. Yikes.
We’re on the cusp of a new wave of small vehicles, notably the Nissan Juke and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, that promise to bridge the gap between hatchback and sport-utility better than the Caliber does. Unless you’re smitten with the styling or swayed by some sweet incentives offered by your friendly Dodge dealer, I’d hold out for something different.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
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).
When you’re driving the Caliber, it feels like you’re driving a vehicle that’s much larger, thanks in part to the Dodge’s chunky styling, high door sills (which are tricky to climb over), numb steering, average ride quality, and high center of gravity. I’m a Mopar guy by birth, but the current Caliber/Compass/Patriot and Avenger/Sebring products make it very difficult to wave the flag proudly.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
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).
With all of the above, however, the Caliber is not very satisfying to drive. Straight-line acceleration is no more than adequate, and any sort of aggressive driving will not be rewarded. As Rusty observed, it feels like you’re driving a much bigger vehicle than the “small station wagon” the government classifies it as. It’s high center of gravity, high beltline, and generally clunky styling make it seems more like an SUV than the company’s only product that could conceivably carry the “small car” banner.
Having said that, its SUV-ness gives it a decent amount of cargo space behind the front seats to haul things, and the cars higher ride height gives the driver a decent field of vision in heavy traffic.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
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.
The navigation system is a bargain at $1275. On my drive home it recalculated my route based on traffic volume, which was a welcome switch; unfortunately it lead me directly into a construction zone that was also jammed.
The Dodge Caliber isn’t a terrible car, just as long as you get one close to base price. Paying anything more than $20,000 for one should be illegal.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
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.
All of this goes to say that there’s nothing wrong with the Caliber that an infusion of cash couldn’t fix. The interior, for instance, is decently laid out, but has spectacularly cheap materials. The “leather” on these seats feels like what you find on a school bus bench, and there isn’t any soft-touch plastic to be found. The 2.4-liter isn’t terrible (it’s not great either), but there’s not much insulation to keep out its droning. The most egregious area though, is its suspension. Somehow, it manages to ride harshly and float.
We can hope now that Fiat will soon come to the rescue with a respectable portfolio of small cars, but it’s a shame Chrysler’s last solo small car wasn’t a more valiant effort (get it?).
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
2010 Dodge Caliber Rush
Base price (with destination): $20,745
Price as tested: $25,995
2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
30GB hard drive with 6700 song capacity
6.5-inch touch screen
Sirius satellite radio
Uconnect phone with voice command
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Audio jack input
9 Boston acoustic speakers
Heated front seats
60/40 split reclining rear seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Options on this vehicle:
Security group — $940
Electronic stability control
Daytime running lamps
Remote start system
Trailer tow wiring harness
Engine oil cooler
Leather interior group — $795
Leather-trimmed bucket seats
Satin silver instrument panel
Satin silver shifter bezel
Driver convenience group — $300
Tire pressure monitoring system
Electronic vehicle information center
Universal garage door opener
Continuously variable transaxle — $1000
Auto stick shift control transmission
Power express open/close sunroof — $845
Engine block heater — $95
Media center 730N — $1275
Key options not on vehicle:
21 / 25 / 23 mpg
Size: 2.4L DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 158 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 141 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Continuously variable transmission
18 x 7-inch chrome clad wheels 215/55R18 all-season tires