By on August 30, 2006

caliber.jpg 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.

dg007_007ca1.jpg 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.

745348_2.jpg 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.

745348_4.jpg 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.  

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49 Comments on “Dodge Caliber AWD R/T Review...”


  • avatar
    phattie

    18 inch rims on a 20k domestic car; the owners are going to have a fit when they find out how much it costs to replace the tires on those.

  • avatar
    Zarba

    All the reviews I’ve read have panned the car, but they’re selling like hotcakes.

    Sorry, for $20K I’ll take a used CR-V.

  • avatar
    philbailey

    Absolutely spot on from my personal observations. I don’t know who this (lady?) is, but that’s one mean and realistic road test. Even admitting the odd driving error, which most “super driver auto journalists” will never do.
    Hey, they all missed their F1 chance, that’s why they write about cars.
    It will be a shame if this is the last DCX vehicle to be featured here.
    Dodges’ spinmeisters will not be happy.

  • avatar
    Steve_S

    My guess is that its the base model that is selling so well. Hauls a bunch of crap for a college student and doesn’t cost all that much.

    I’d much rather have a Mazda 3 hatch myself for the R/T kind of money.

  • avatar
    a_d_y_a

    Here is an idea, drop the 3.5 V6 from the charger into this beast. Drop the stupid transmission and give it a rear bias awd. And then label it r/t.

    The real problem with this vehicle is

    “A lot of girls think it looks cool.” and I dont.

  • avatar
    RicardoHead

    Call it ugly all you want: the Caliber does not suffer from that typically boring euro-japo-foofoo blandness that we mostly see in this price range. Looks-wise, I’d take the Caliber anyday over a new Civic sedan aka abortion (I know, different class) but which one gets the styling praise?

    I agree though, that dash is one butt-ugly shade of gray. Phil Donahue would be proud.

  • avatar
    gearhead455

    Another note…
    The Caliber is a joint venture between DCX, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. The three engines available for the Caliber where developed mainly by Hyundai and Mitsubishi. The CVT transmission in the Caliber is also found in a Nissan (same supplier).
    I would also suspect that some of the AWD components are barrowed from Mitsubishi.

  • avatar
    Spartacus

    If you disliked to 18″ wheels on the R/T, you’ll hate the 19 inchers on the SRT4.

    Then again, you’ll get 300 HP and 260 lb-ft of twist with them, along with a 6 speed manual tranny…

  • avatar
    Rocketeer

    Now I really want to see a picture of the MusicGate. Do the speakers really hang like testicles? How does that look with the falopian tube and uterus (sp?) Dodge Ram logo?

  • avatar
    sleepingbear

    Your AD’s seem to be working fine- not a big deal imo.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Good review Lesley. Its not a perfect vehicle,but it sounds like pretty good value for the price.Nobody domestic, or import, can build a vehicle that does
    everything for everybody.

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    Caliber looks the unholy spawn of a Dodge Ram and a Chevy Malibu.

    I saw one in bright yellow from the side the other day. It looked like a 7/8 scale Aztek.

  • avatar
    Yuppie

    The back end looks like someone who tried to copy a Volvo wagon while under the influence of hallucinogens, or was told that he could not spend so much on taillights.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    LOL, thanks Philbailey, quite a change from the “obsequious bottom feeder” you called me last month. ;)

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    While I don’t care for the look, I like the fact that DCX at least seems to be trying something different. This is why I believe they’ll do better than the other big 2. They may not get a hit every time, but they keep trying.

    I would be interested in seeing some kind of unbiased analysis of the different AWD systems, i.e. ‘on demand’ (which this seems to have) vs. true AWD, and how the different brands stack up. I realize that a lot of you on the coasts or in the South don’t really need AWD but here in the Rocky Mountains it’s a lifesaver.

    But, if AWD were not a concern and I needed a semi-sporty-sort-of-truck-like-thing, I think I’d also take a look at the Chevy HHR. No, it won’t set any speed records, but it’s powerful enough to get around in traffic, it’s bigger (or at least it seems bigger) than the Caliber, while returning better MPG, and although it’s a subjective thing, I like the styling of the HHR a lot more.

  • avatar

    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.

    Lesley,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review, perhaps esp this passage. My best laughs of the week so far.

    Agree w/ Martin Albright about the styling of the HHR, although from the reviews I’ve read, I wouldn’t recommend it.

  • avatar
    passive

    As I’ve said at other times (possibly in other places, I don’t remember), the Caliber is a huge mistake for DCX. I actually think it’s pretty damn good, however.
    The reason I see it as a mistake is that it simply won’t capture any significant portion of the small-car market, because it looks like an SUV. It will however (and this seems to be born out in my locale), sell like hotcakes. But I would bet dollars to donuts that those sales cannibalize 300s, Chargers, Magnums, and eventually Avengers/Sebrings. It’s by far the cheapest application of the good-looking (to many) Dodge truck nose that they have taken to putting on practically every vehicle. So people who come in on the edge of buying a Charger will be able to save themselves $10k and pick up one of these.

    On the whole, I think it is a very nice vehicle, but Dodge really needed to pair it with a decent subcompact in order to take advantage of the rising fuel costs. I think it would have been brilliant to reincarnate the Neon as something similar to the Beetle or next Citroen C3, as that is the market that the original Neon advertising pulled in anyway. Of course, Dodge is just for men with large testicles nowadays, so perhaps even having a “sensible” car on the lot would destroy much of their branding efforts. :)

  • avatar
    jaje

    DCX is doing the smart thing – differentiating themselves from their competition (mainly the Japanese but also the Big 2). They just don’t have what it takes to build a competitive car if there are competitors. The 300, Caliber, Sprinter, (PT Cruiser at one point) sell well b/c there’s not much to choose from. They have a class onto it’s own. The Caliber is also cheap which enlarges it’s base of potential customer so we’ll see in the long run.

    As for where DCX competes with similar competition look at the Durango / Ram (worst of the big 3 in trucks) / Caravan (after the Japanese and Korean’s caught up) / Peon (just to get any life in this little rental car break down they had to slap a huge turbo’d engine into it to sell maybe 5k more a year) / Sebring / Intrepid (now discontinued) / Pacifierica, etc.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    philbailey:

    Some of us are really fantastic drivers. Why just the other day…

  • avatar
    carguy

    It looks like DCX’s intent was sound: Cash in on the exploding mini-ute market with an affordable SUV-esque small car that young men won’t be afraid to be seen in.

    Sadly, it was the poor execution of a good idea that was the problem. I don’t think the fact that it is slow is such a problem – the Honda Fit is no race car either and yet there is a long wait for it. It is the appaling cheap interior look and feel combined with dull driving dynamics that prevent this car from being what it could have been. Both are items that could have been addressed if they spent a little more time on the development process.

    I like what DCX is trying to do but they will need to do better if they want to differentiate themselves from Ford and GM.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    carguy – agreed – overall I like what DCX is doing. It will be interesting to see how the SRT-4 Caliber fares in terms of driving fun.
    As for Dodge being for “men with big testicles” shee-oot, what am I gonna do with my obnoxious custom Dakota…

  • avatar
    miked

    This summer I rented one of these (well – the base model version, not the R/T) and I was quite disappointed. The rental had 20 miles on it when I got it, so at most it was rented once before. The dash was hard plastic that wasn’t even disguised to look like soft touch plastic (The plastic in the rav4 is also hard but at least looks soft). The dash and center console rattled when I drove over the first speed bump out of the rental parking lot, and the dash kept rattleing the whole three days I had it.

    The engine left lots to be desired, it seemed to always down shift into 1st for every on-ramp merger and then just screamed away at high rpms (no idea how high – the rental had no tach) and didn’t accelerate at all. (of course this could be my fault as I only drive automatics the 1 or 2 times a year I rent a car). Now I’m not one that lives for power like most commenters here, my daily driver is a ’89 4runner with a 110hp 4 cyl (when new, my guess is it’s more like 90-100 hp now after 250,000 miles) and the too tall gearing for the oversized tires. I’m lucky to cruise at 70 on a down hill with a tailwind (I’m not kidding!). I had a harder time getting the caliber up to speed than my 4runner. Merging in the caliber was one of the scariest things I’ve done in a car. I don’t know if it’s an underpowered engine or a poorly programmed transmission, or what, but it was the first time I drove a car that reluctant to accelerate.

    Speaking of my 4runner, it has a 2″ homemade lift (read: caster is all screwed up) and recirculating ball steering (read: 1/8 turn play in the steering wheel), but I had a harder time keeping the caliber going straight down a smooth highway than my 4runner. It’s like it was actively doing the opposite of what I wanted. If I ever relaxed a bit, the car would just start randomly veering – quite scary.

    I would be embarrassed to be on the engineering teem that designed this. I realize that the goal here is to have a cheap car, but it’s still not worth the price they’re charging!

  • avatar

    Everyone else has already slammed this car, so Dodge’s PR people can hardly fault TTAC for doing so. I personally reviewed it over six months ago, so I might have been among the first to give it a less than glowing review.

    A link to my review is on this page:
    http://www.truedelta.com/models/Caliber.php

    I’ve more recently sampled the AWD powertrain in the Jeep Compass. If memory serves, it’s slower than the 2.0 despite the additional power, likely because of the additional weight and driveline losses.

    Reply to a comment above: Hyundai was only involved in the engine. The platform is a joint Mitsubishi-Chrysler effort, but I believe that the development of specific cars off the shared platform is largely independent.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Agreed. The motor is a joint venture, the Global engine.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Aside from proactive styling and marketing, I don’t see what these new Crossovers do better than a RAV4, CR-V and Escape. Thanks for the confirmation, Lesley.

    Is it just me, or does the Caliber’s interior look like an MRI room you drive to work?

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Um… dunno, never had an MRI? LOL!

  • avatar
    chanman

    The ‘Dangling Package’ tailgate speakers

    http://www.canadiandriver.com/photos/2007/dodge/caliber/07caliber_21.jpg

    Canadian driver reviews:

    http://www.canadiandriver.com/testdrives/07calibersxt.htm
    http://www.canadiandriver.com/articles/jm/07caliber.htm

    Again, not too keen on the CVT.

    By the way, I’ve noticed most people comparing to RAV4′s and CR-V’s, but wouldn’t the natural point of comparison be the other tall mini-wagon, the Matrix/Vibe pair? (which incidentally I expect to be replaced soon after the new Corolla is introduced)

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    With AC and all the goodies, 14k is a good deal on such a car (compare to Matrix or Vibe), then again the base model is suppose to be slow, noisy, and fuel efficient.

    I think this is a good product from DCX at this segment, it will at least keep people noticed if they want something similar, instead of forcing them to go to the competitor. What I am worried about, is whether this car will sell enough to make them money, whether it is for an improvement for the next version, or keep them from cheaping it out over time.

    People that spend 14k on a new car usually don’t complain about acceleration, FWD, or hard plastic.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Yup, for 14k, it’s okay… the AWD loaded version is closer to 24k Canadian though.

  • avatar
    philbailey

    Lesley:
    OK, so maybe I made a mistake and you ARE in the Kenzie category.
    See what you can do about the rest of AJAC will you? They’re about to enter that ridiculous charade at Shannonville again.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Kenzie is a friend and mentor. What can I say about a guy that sold me a 323 for $25 :)

    Testfest has been moved to the Niagara region as of this fall.

  • avatar
    passive

    There’s really only one vehicle I know of sold in NA that the Caliber really competes with. The Nissan Versa.
    They are nearly identical in terms of size, with the Versa having a more spacious back seat. They use the same CVT (though it seems to get more praise in the Versa, probably because it was developed in concert with the Versa’s engine). They have engines that are fairly close in output, with the Dodge being a little higher, but a bit heavier as well.

    The Yaris and Fit are both smaller, though from a practical standpoint, that may not end up mattering. The Matrix, Vibe, and HHR are more expensive.

  • avatar
    ktm

    The gripe about the transmission (should) is not (be) specific to DCX but CVTs in general.

  • avatar
    renegade211

    The Caliber will sell like hotcakes in Europe.

    Why? It’s reasonably practical, but bigger, bolder and cheaper than the competition’s econobox compact hatchbacks.

    Sure, a VW Golf or Opel Astra might be more refined, but the Dodge delivers bold design and a 140 hp base engine (VW Golf: base engine is 85 hp or so).

    Order it with a manual transmission, and the excellent Peugeot-designed 30+ MPG diesel engine available in Europe, and it makes a really attractive car.

  • avatar
    wstansfi

    LW,
    What makes the engine note in the back that errs on “fart in a can?”

    I drove a rental Malibu 6cylinder last weekend and the noise coming from the back sounded like a continuous “ungh.” My wife and I agreed that it sounded like the car was continuously straining at stool, but neither of us could pin down exactly what that noise was.

    Thanks,
    wstansfi

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Straining… at stool?
    Well, with the Folgers can crowd, it’s grossly overestimating the exhaust diameter needed… who knows what ailed the Malibu. Lumpy gas?

  • avatar
    qfrog

    What is the point?

    Are we making a subaru alternative? Does the AWD unisex suzuki aerio really threaten DCX’s sexuality I mean sales. What went wrong with the neon? Was it really that hard to improve on the neon, at least the neon wasn’t disturbing to view from any angle. Ok so the neon’s interior was furnished by rubbermaid’s garbage can department co-operating with cheaptextilesRus. Panel gap… oooh yup that too.

    Feels like DCX has their entry level car buyer S&M chamber suitably well outfitted with select tools of the trade.

    If I was buying a 5 door hatch for a reasonable sum of $$$ I’d be looking at the Mazda 3 and the VW Golf which dont punish you for your income level quite so much as say… anything made in this country .

  • avatar
    rudiger

    0-60 in over 10 seconds? Hell, my Prius does that, costs about the same, and gets 44 mpg in the city…

  • avatar

    I was about to shoot off “Your Prius doesn’t cost about the same,” but then I realized that providing an easy alternative to such seat-of-the-pants conclusions is why I created the pricing portion of my site. So, how different are the prices of the Prius and Caliber?

    Comparing the FWD CVT Caliber at minimum level of shared features, and including the Prius’ $3,150 tax credit (which will soon be cut in half):

    Before adjusting for remaining feature differences:
    MSRP: Dodge $2,905 less
    Invoice: Dodge $2,164 less

    After adjusting for feature differences:
    MSRP: Dodge $1,425 less
    Invoice: Dodge $817 less

    So, if you assume you’ll pay about the same over invoice for both (probably not a good assumption) and adjust for features I guess they’re not so far apart after all.

    But once the tax credit goes away, the situation will change entirely.

    Cars the Caliber is most often compared to on my site:
    1. Mazda3
    2. Toyota Matrix
    3. Pontiac Vibe
    4. PT Cruiser
    5. Scion xB
    6. MINI Cooper

    Cars the Versa is most often compared to:
    1. Honda Fit
    2. Toyota Yaris
    3. Toyota Corolla
    4. Mazda3
    5. Scion xB
    6. Ford Focus

    Mostly a different crowd despite the similarities. The Mazda3 is the Kevin Bacon of the bunch.

    This data can be seen for any model in the pricing database by going to its page via http://www.truedelta.com/brands.php . It’s often interesting to see which cars people feel are similar enough to be worth comparing.

  • avatar
    ChartreuseGoose

    One thing I’d like to kick in is the added usability afforded by extra ground clearance. I’d agree with everything that Leslie said about the car, having driven it, but the modicum of rough-road capability that the thing has redeems it slightly in my eyes. It’s certainly better suited for that sort of thing than, say, my Vibe, and looks to have higher clearance than an SX4. It’s cheaper than a Subaru Outback Sport (lifted Impreza) or Forester, and has more cargo room than the SX4…so it’s got a little niche for, say, low-income people who need to drive on rough roads frequently. Such as poor-ass grad student me, who’s currently looking for a reliable way to get to my research site….

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Goose: While the Caliber may be less expensive than a new OBS or Forester, you can get an less-than-1 year old one for about the same price as this. So, unless you absolutely have to have a new vehicle, I’m not sure this one looks that good.

    Which, in many ways, is symptomatic of the malaise that’s hit the US car industry. It’s not so much that the Detroit cars are objectively bad – they’re not. It’s just that the imports seem to offer so much more .

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Yeah, it would take a little effort to get a Prius for close to the price of a Caliber R/T, but it’s possible (particularly since Dodge dealers don’t seem to be discounting this model).

    The situation may not change that much after the Prius $3150 tax credit is cut in half at the end of September, either. The tax credit, regardless of amount, only applies to MY06 cars (which should all be sold by Sept 30, anyway).

    With gas prices now dropping as quickly as they had been rising, I would imagine that Toyota dealers will simply have to start discounting MY07 Prii to move them.

  • avatar
    cold02rex

    As far as having a car that can and will do most anything (rapidly).
    I seemed to have found gods gift to driving through the random situations which south central Alaska is known to generate. I would hesitate to take
    the Caliber anywhere close to the places Ive been (god I need to buy that skidplate).

    For my 20k I would do as I have already and find a well looked after WRX wagon. The time spent in researching and joining your local chapter (www.nasioc.com) is worth every penny saved.

    Being faster in any direction in any season than %80 of cars sharing the roadway is nice too.

  • avatar

    Martin: gotta compare apples to apples. If we’re talking used, how much will a used Caliber cost? Might be hard to find right now, but next year?

    Rudiger: You had me worried for a second that I’ve been providing incorrect info on my site. But, nope, the tax credit applies to 2007s as well:

    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/tax_hybrid_new.shtml

  • avatar
    rodster205

    Why hasn’t anyone mentioned it’s sister, the new Jeep Compass? Probably because those are even WORSE looking than the Caliber! The Compass has been in dealerships at least a month and I have yet to actually see one driving around. What a POS!

    That said, I am predicting the new Jeep Patriot about to come out will actually steal sales from the Caliber. Also off the same platform, the Patriot has Cherokee/mini-Commander styling that will probably be huge. You heard it here first. I’ll take my Patriot with the 5-speed though.

  • avatar
    rodster205

    Here is the Patriot since there has been zero pre-publicity for it, unlike the Compass…

    http://www.jeep.com/en/07patriot/index.html

  • avatar
    rudiger

    According to the above referenced website, the 2007 Toyota Prius is not eligible for any hybrid tax credit (full or partial). Only the 2005-06 Prius is eligible.

    2007 Toyota models that are eligible for a tax credit are the 2007 Camry Hybrid and the 2007 Lexus GS450h.

  • avatar
    MrK

    Now that all the reviews I’v seen are mostly from 2006. Why don’t you do a follow up. I drove an R/T through snow up to the bumper and the thing sayed right where I wanted it to. It averaged about 23 miles per gallon for a tank of gas driving on the roads that were plowed. After about 1000 miles it turned out to be a pretty good car. It has a great stereo, satilite, cd player, and mp3. Sure it doesn’t have loads of speed, but driving it off a cliff? (It isn’t THAT bad). I think the exhaust sounded better than those cans the kids put on their civics. If you do use the manual shift it does get up to speed faster. Its not the dog everyone said it is. The only reason I would’t get one is because I’m 6ft 1in and I could feel my hair on the roof all the time. Lean the seat back and the steering wheel is too far away. So anyway, how about some realistic follow up to the original, everybody dump on the new guy syndrome, reviews.


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