The Big 2.5 have always struggled with vehicles of the four-cylinder persuasion. A series of broken nameplates dating back to Omni, Vega, and Pinto highlights Detroit’s longstanding fear and loathing of Thinking Small. Now the 0.5 is attempting to renew its ardor with the Caliber, branding it a “world car” and exporting it to Europe. Unfortunately, the Caliber shows that bad Detroit habits are hard to break, firing blanks in this latest battle of the econobox wars.
The Caliber goes to enormous lengths to distance itself from the smiley-faced four-door that preceded it. Dodge’s designers replaced the Neon’s batted-eyelash visage with their trademark crosshair grille, giving the youngster a mini-me Durango look. The shared lineage continues with the sedan’s steeply raked windshield and pronounced wheel wells, also strongly derivative of El Durangito.
The Caliber’s tail is angular and stout, in the great Volvo XC90 tradition. The Dodge’s protruding taillights and loading lip are strangely reminiscent of its sibling, the Jeep Compass. The roofline tapers back behind the C-pillar above side-rear windows and a roof spoiler, offering more than a passing nod to the Lexus RX.
All these influences are appealing in theory, laughable in fact. Despite the “anything but cute” advertising spin, the Caliber’s faux-bravado pastiche contradicts its maker’s intentions. The SUV-lite’s oversized bits are akin to puppy paws waiting for the attached dog to grow up. The resulting angry compressed truck exterior seems, well, silly.
The Caliber’s cabin is standard issue Chysler: slightly quirky but mostly dull. Perhaps the $16k market demographic has a high tolerance for cheap plastics and oversized gauges, but how did DCX decide that gray is the new black? Choosing between “slate gray” and “pebble beige” is like deciding whether or not to cut the crusts off a piece of white toast. The Caliber SXT Sport attempts to lighten this fug of mediocrity with a red or blue dash bezel and seat inserts (also available on R/T). It's about as sporty as a baseball cap on a bank clerk.
On the positive side, the Caliber’s seats were plenty comfortable. Four days and several hundred miles behind the wheel required no emergency trips to the chiropractor. The Cailber's audio system offers a wikkid flip-out MP3 holder in the center console. And the ChillZone glove box/cooler is a clever idea that shows just how far our culture has evolved on the drinking and driving front.
Chillzone in Caliber, heated/cooled cup holders in the Sebring, a dining table in the Caravan… what is it with Dodge and Chrysler and eating/drinking in their cars? Instead of building vehicles with a high fun factor, they’d rather sell consumers mobile dinettes. They should borrow a bit of finesse from BMW, with a bit less BMI.
The Caliber serves up three engine choices: a 1.8-liter 148hp base unit, a 2.0-liter 158 hp mill, and an allegedly performance-oriented 2.4 liter 172 hp “powerplant.” (Readers with a European address may partake of a VW-sourced turbodiesel.) Our CVT-equipped 2.0-liter tester sounded chronically unhappy with the business of driving. Even modest bouts of acceleration produced cruel and unusual noises. The brutal din may account for the transmission’s hesitation — perhaps it doesn’t want to offend Caliber drivers’ ears.
The Caliber’s handling matches its discontented drivetrain. Despite an independent rear suspension, the car displays all the grace of a sumo wrestler on figure skates. At the risk of inflicting metaphor overload, the tiller provides less feedback than a bumper car, with precisely none of the fun. And when it’s time for the “fun” to stop, the base model’s rear drums sound the death knell for pre-disc technology; though hopefully not for the car’s occupants.
To be fair, the Caliber’s suspension does a reasonable job maintaining its composure on city streets, back roads and Interstates. The car’s handling at two-tenths is competent enough for the typical commute or mall safari. Nonetheless, the front-wheel drive Caliber exhibits the sort of numbness and ride-handling compromises that the transplants cured more than a decade ago. And the poor outward visibility is disgraceful: an insurance deductible ready to happen.
Taken as a whole (as required), the Caliber does nothing particularly well– unless the ability to schlep chilly drinks takes top priority. If DCX’ ultimate goal was to convince our NATO allies that downsized Yank tanks can be fun and refined, they’ve failed on both fronts.
A top notch refresh of the Caliber’s rental fodder predecessor would have been a better way for the automaker to get back into the small car game. In any case, The Dodge Boys should revisit the Caliber soon, before they lose all credibility in the four-cylinder sweepstakes.