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