Pity the poor engineers charged with turning Dodge’s “anything-but-cute,” anything-but-clever Caliber into a proper hot hatch. Transforming the Caliber into a desirable piece of sporting kit seems about as likely as landing Michael Jackson a job as a mall Santa. But here it is, for 2008: the Caliber SRT4. So Dodge’s gone and done the deed anyway. Or have they?
The boffins at SRT faced two fundamental problems whilst squeezing blood from this particular turnip. One is the Caliber’s tall-sitting, proto-SUV stature; it totally, like, wants to be a Ram when it grows up. While the SRT4’s grates, scoops and hulking fender flares all convey the requisite Dodge “attitude,” they turn the already-campy Caliber into, well, a rolling hormone. It’s just right for 13-year-old motorists with $22,995 burning holes in their pockets.
Speaking of not sitting quite right, that’s fundamental flaw number two: stepping into the SRT4 feels like commandeering a bite-sized tank, a sensation as well-suited to a sport-compact as diarrhea is to dating. You sit high off the floor, peering over a tall half-acre of dash through a mail-slot windshield. Military-grade plastic fills your peripheral vision. Ever tried to autocross with A-pillars the size of ham shanks? Cones will tremble at the sound of your name.
Now, lest you think I’m being unfair, all sport-compacts inherit interiors from their pedestrian brethren— for better or worse. But the SRT4’s hand-me-down cabin is as “or worse” as it gets. At the helm, you face bulgy, blocky slabs of sheeny plasti-granite, Tonka-style; fits and surface grains befit the toymaker, too. Look over your shoulder for a particularly good view of the stuff. There’s precious little glass to get in the way.
So, exterior and interior, we’re 0 for 2. Here are two better figures: 285 and 265, the respective hp and torque specs for the SRT4’s turbocharged, intercooled 2.4-liter four. That’s serious stuff for a cheap ride. And fun. Hit it, and you’ll smoke 60 in 5.8 ear-pinning seconds, after two torrential floods of whooshing, gasping, rasping torque. Throttle response fairly sparkles; turbo lag is next to nonexistent.
Twisting this big-lunged Four to the 6,250 rpm penthouse requires an attentive and assertive pair of hands: one to keep the meaty, firmly-weighted steering wheel cocked to the left, countering the SRT4’s fierce torque-steer weave, and another to the notch the six-speed stick through its short, chunky track. That’s right: despite being mounted on a jutting diagonal shelf, the SRT4’s shifter is a treat to stir. Put that in your Si and smoke it.
Arrive at a corner, and all of this snorting and stirring means you’ve likely gone in deeper than you anticipated. Deeper in trouble? Not if the curve in question is a shallow one. Nudge the hefty wheel off-center, and the SRT4 bites like its looks say it ought to; its sticky 225/45R-19 tires keep the Caliber’s 3,248 lb carcass firmly planted to the pavement. Go ahead, drop the throttle, brush the brake. That rear end ain’t goin’ nowhere.
But if you’re stuffing the SRT4 into a rinky-dink hairpin, well, llllet’s get ready to fumble! Here, the nose-heavy SRT4 scrubs harder than Molly Maids. Its front tires grind and judder gracelessly, kicking hard at your hands. Worse, as you’re scrambling to supply more steering lock, you may well find that you’re fresh out. It seems those fashionably massive wheels can’t turn very far. Yep, this Dodge’s got an attitude, all right: understeer.
No matter. Ignore any snickering Miata pilots in the vicinity, and waste the next straight with a stonking swell of torque. But what’s this? As the rush comes, the wheel pulses in your hands, a subtle side-to-side stutter. Is the ABS system on the fritz? Nope. That’s just Dodge’s discount stand-in for a limited-slip diff: the brakes are set up to nibble away at an uppity front wheel, shifting the power back and forth. It’s less annoying than it sounds. But not by much.
All in all, I’ve got to hand it to the loose screws at SRT. They’ve done far more than perfume a pig; they’ve turned the crummy Caliber into a torquey albeit porky buzzbox that’s a kick in the pants to drive. The painfully obvious catch: it’s still a Caliber. It clunks. It rattles. You can’t see out of it. The high chair exaggerates every turn-induced tip and teeter. And deep down, under all its Ginsu-sharp plastic moldings, the poor thing still wants to be a truck.
Which is why enthusiasts no longer in their teens will skip straight to the MazdaSpeed3, Volkswagen GTI or MINI Cooper S– sport-compacts that are not only less intrinsically conflicted, but aren’t much (if any) slower or more expensive. Ah, well. You played a good hand, SRT. Let’s just hope that, next time, the suits upstairs are playing with a full deck.