Cool Small Cars: 2006 Kia Rio 5, 2006 Nissan Versa, 2006 Dodge Caliber, and 2006 Honda Fit

Erik B. Johnson
Brian Konoske

2006 Dodge Caliber

Save for the hot-rod SRT4 version, the Dodge Neon never glowed very brightly, so when it came time to replace it, Chrysler decided to ditch the nameplate and do something different. "For us to come in with a traditional three-box sedan and try and out-Japanese the Japanese or out-Korean the Koreans," comments Chrysler's senior vice president for global brand marketing, George Murphy, "would be ridiculous." Instead of a compact sedan, then, the Neon's replacement is a compact crossover wagon.

In packaging, stance, and design, the Caliber is a small car, American-style, as different from the Asian members of our group as hot dogs are from wasabi, even though its $13,985 admission price is similar. The base Caliber SE is a genuine stripper, however, with crank windows, no air-conditioning or ABS, and a cabin filled with plastic. Still, it does have side- curtain air bags, illuminated cup holders, and a jack and center-console sleeve for your iPod.

The standard powertrain is a 1.8-liter four with a five-speed manual. Its 148 hp is a big number in the small-car crowd, but it's up against an even bigger number: 2966 pounds, the Caliber's portly curb weight. Buyers of the SE and midlevel SXT can upgrade to a 158-hp 2.0-liter, but for now it's mated exclusively to a CVT, which endlessly revs the engine without the feeling of much forward progress. The top-spec R/T gets a 172-hp, 2.4-liter engine and all-wheel drive, but again with the CVT only. While the Caliber's powertrains don't inspire, the car handles, steers, and rides well and has good body control.

Styling, features, and packaging are the Caliber's contributions to the small-car potluck. Its chunky, aggressive exterior certainly sets the Caliber apart from a typical anodyne economy car. The upright rear end allowed Dodge designers to carve out 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. Open the hatch, and two (optional) articulating speakers swing down from the trim panel and face rearward for tailgate parties. Another cool feature is a section of the glove compartment called the Chill Zone that holds four beverage bottles and has cooled air vented through it.

Far more interesting than the Neon, the Caliber is beefy, extroverted, and innovative, yet kind of cheap beneath the surface-a very American approach. Together with Dodge's truly subcompact Hornet concept unveiled at Geneva, it shows that American carmakers need not be shut out of the cool-small-car trend.

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