By Andrew Ganz
Tuesday, Mar 17th, 2009 @ 11:09 am
Chrysler hasn't exactly been reeling in awards for its lineup of passenger cars, but that's not to say the Michigan automaker isn't at least trying. Dodge took a bold risk when it replaced its Neon sedan with the Caliber hatchback, with the outcome of that decision still undecided. So with the final verdict on the Caliber still up in the air, Leftlane decided to take a closer look at the compact hatch to see where it really lands on the success meter.

What is it?
The Caliber is Dodge's entry into the compact hatch segment, riding on the same platform as the Jeep Compass and Patriot. Our R/T tester isn't the highest-performing version of the Caliber - that honor goes to the fire-breathing SRT4 model - but the "Road and Track" package does offer some nice amenities that give the Caliber a more sporting flare, at least on paper.

What's it up against?
The Caliber is actually on the big side compared to its compact hatchback competitors, but it battles against the Mazda Mazda3 hatchback, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Saturn Astra and even the Honda Fit.

Any breakthroughs?
The car itself doesn't have any major breakthroughs, but the fact that Dodge made the switch to the compact hatch segment is pretty amazing, given the historically limited appeal of hatchbacks in North America, the Caliber's key market.

How does it look?
Although most small hatchbacks on the market have a sleek look to them, Dodge decided to take the Caliber in a different direction. Its chunky design is much more rugged and tough looking than other cars in this segment. Some like it, some don't, but we tend to side with the former.

The front of the Caliber is highlighted by Dodge's signature cross-hair grille, which was done up with a chrome finish on our R/T model. Pronounced wheel arches flow into the Caliber's slab-sided body, with the car's roofline combining that of a wagon and small sport "ute. The rear of the Caliber has a lot going on, with a number of different shapes and body lines coming together all at once. A small ledge just aft of the rear window gives the Caliber an almost notchback look.

The R/T package also adds bigger wheels and tires, which better fill the Caliber's large wheel wells.

And the inside?
Although Chrysler has been much maligned for its interior quality and design as of late, the Caliber seems to have side-stepped any real disasters. True our optional Inferno Red interior accents might not sit well with all buyers, but overall Dodge did a surprisingly nice job with the Caliber.

Controls are mounted high and within easy reach on the center stack, with the higher-than-normal gear shift giving the car a little personality. The Caliber's head unit is standard issue Chrysler, which means it won't be winning any beauty contests, but it also means it is intuitive to use. In fact, we found our tester's stereo to be one of its stronger points. The sound was simply awesome - thanks to a standard Boston Acoustics system complete with subwoofer - and the flip down hatch speakers made working around the garage a joy while we drained the Caliber's battery. We also enjoyed the Caliber R/T's standard heated front seats on a few cold nights.

The Caliber's gauge cluster is well thought out and easy to read, especial with our R/T's white-face gauges.

One other neat feature the Caliber offers is a "Chill Zone" glove box. Mounted within the lower glove box, the Chill Zone can keep up to four canned beverages icy-cold - just make sure they are legal to consume while behind the wheel.

Rear seat room is more than adequate for two typical adults, although taller passengers will find head room a little tight. Despite the sloping rear roofline, cargo room is excellent, especially with the rear seat folded flat. Unfortunately for the Caliber it drew moving duties the week we tested it, but handled everything we threw at it with nary a complaint.

We still have a few gripes, however: The first is that the car's A-pillars are way too thick. Combined with the Caliber's pushed back driving position, it means huge blind spots, especially when navigating corners. We also wish the Caliber featured a standard automatic headlight switch, something found in most cars on the market today. And although Chrysler has stepped up its game when it comes to interior quality, we still can't understand why the Pentastar insists on using a terrible foam/plastic material for the Caliber's headrests.

But does it go?
Despite the badging, the Caliber R/T isn't the little performance machine you might expect. However, with 172 horsepower on tap, the Caliber is no slouch. The peppy 2.4-liter four-cylinder is more than up for around town duties and even has enough grunt to induce a bit of wheelspin. Just don't go getting into a drag race with the Caliber SRT4 or Mazdaspeed3.

Our Caliber R/T employed Chrysler's Continuously Variable Transmission, which we weren't completely sold on. The gearbox delivered power smoothly enough, but seemed to operate almost as a two speed - under continuous power the revs would uniformly climb but then suddenly drop off.

Fortunately, the Caliber's CVT also comes with a manual mode, imitating six forward gears. Shifts are lightning quick in manual mode, although shifts must be performed on the console-mounted lever.

The R/T adds upgraded wheels and tires, which help the Caliber negotiate any twisties you may come upon. Plenty of fun can be had up until about 7/10ths, at which point the Caliber starts to understeer.

But even with a four-cylinder and a CVT, the Caliber's fuel economy numbers don't quite stack up. EPA ratings show 21/25 mpg city/highway, which is far below the segment average. For comparison, the 361-horsepower Pontiac G8 GT returns 24 mpg on the highway. Something's amiss here.

Why you would buy it:
If you can look past the Caliber's dismally low fuel economy numbers, it's actually a pretty neat little car. Funky looks give it a unique personality and it's one of the few cars that can straddle the line between hatchback and SUV. The Caliber R/T's performance is sporty without being over the top and the little hatch offers plenty of interior volume.

Why you wouldn't buy it:

You expect your compact cars to be efficient and the polarizing style doesn't gel with your tastes.

2009 Dodge Caliber R/T base price, $19,545. As tested, $21,425.
Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat Paint, $225; Continuously Variable Transaxle II with AutoStick, $1,075; Destination, $580.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.

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