The Galway-Cavendish Forest Rally is a challenging mix of changing elevations, sweeping curves, tight turns and blind drops that runs through nine clicks of thick forest. Chrysler Canada figured it was the ideal spot for a car journalist to test the mettle of their ‘07 Dodge Caliber AWD R/T. So there I was, ferrying the club president and organizer from one end of the road to the other, wondering if Dodge had the right ammunition for the sales campaign ahead.
Dodge’s SUV-flavored hatchback is certainly a better choice for off-road work than the chick car it replaces (the Neon). But they’re right: it’s not cute. With its raked roof line, muscular fenders, beefy four-box grill and awkwardly angular rear, the Caliber looks the unholy spawn of a Dodge Ram and a Chevy Malibu. I’m not saying it’s ugly, but only time will tell whether we look back on the Caliber as the Dodge Omni of the new millennia.
Luckily, the Caliber’s bargain basement price softens the blows inflicted by its questionable style. You can pick up a Caliber SXT for $14k, complete with air conditioning, power windows, a gutless engine and a gearless transmission. Meanwhile, road rally organizers and TTAC journos travel fully-loaded (so to speak). Our $20k press car had on-demand AWD, a [slightly] more energetic 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, leather seats and a sunroof. Oh and a bitchin’ Boston Acoustics sound system called "MusicGate" that hangs a couple of laughable speakers off the liftgate like a set of dangling testicles. Again, like they said, it’s not cute.
The Caliber’s cabin is generic DCX: hard, stark plastics arranged with Germanic efficiency. The R/T’s leather seats cater to sybarites who shun side support. The high seating position provides terrific visibility, but left me feeling a bit perched. Otherwise, the Caliber has plenty of room for official paperwork, a cubby hole for a radio mike, a center console with a 115 volt auxiliary power outlet for radio and siren controls and a washable hard-surfaced cargo area for rally signage. Without going into specifics, the integrated glove box/beer holder also came in handy. Completely closable vents were another bonus, given the huge rolling dust clouds trying to strip the car’s paint.
The interior is also well insulated from intrusive noise and annoying vibration. Unfortunately, there’s that engine note out back, which errs on the “fart in a can” side of aural stimulation. Step on the loud pedal and you are rewarded with a… Bronx cheer? Oh well. Suffice it to say, keep the rpm around 3500 and the Caliber motors along in relative quiet.
With 172 horses pushing 3308 pounds, you’d think the Caliber would be acceleratively challenged. And so it is. The diddy Dodge takes over 10 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60. Blame a CVT (continuously variable transmission) that sacrifices urge on the altar of smoothness. Under max throttle, the Caliber reminds me of a fat kid wheezing away on a Power Wheels tractor; the revs climb faster than the vehicle accelerates. Take advantage of the Caliber’s Autostick manual mode and the car’s computer simulates gear shifts on your behalf. It’s an irritating affectation, but driving off a cliff is the only way you’ll get the Caliber to go any faster.
The Caliber R/T handled well enough on the thick gravel, rock and washboard. Despite 18" rims, the car clung to mixed surfaces with good-natured glee. That said, the Caliber’s lack of tread was almost our undoing; on one tight bend we— OK, “I” spun out in an impromptu four-wheel drift. Back on the blacktop, during highway and around town driving, it’s understeer uber alles baby, guided by a heavy (though predictable) helm.
The Caliber’s R/T model is a nod to the hairy-chested Dodge Charger “Road/Track” muscle cars of days gone yore. While I appreciate Dodge’s spinmeisters’ devious ingenuity, plonking me on a rally course to convince me that the “T” in question needn’t be paved, I remain unconvinced about the wisdom of selling the Caliber R/T as a performance-oriented SUV-ish thingie. Even with sports-tuned shocks and springs and a set of large(r) sway bars, the Caliber is far too slow, top heavy and generally ponderous to satisfy a sporting driver.
In 2005, Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles drove a Charger SRT-8 at the infamous Targa Newfoundland rally. Rumor has it he’ll return to this year’s event driving a much-massaged version of the Caliber R/T. Now that sounds like fun. The Caliber R/T, however, isn’t. If Dodge ditched the CVT and AWD and tweaked the R/T’s suspension they’d have… a slow, nose-heavy, physically challenged hatchback that gets around 20 real world mpg. If DCX is to rally its troops and remain competitive in these fuel-conscious times, they’ll have to do better than this.