For a moment, turn away from the uncertain prospects of Chrysler’s Fiat-directed future and consider the subject of this review as nothing other than one entry in the popular five-door hatchback segment of the North American compact car market.
That’s what I had to do, anyway, in order to rationalize driving and writing about a vehicle that a lot of folks would justifiably consider to be a loser car from a loser car company. The question is, is it really?
Regardless of whether or not the 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT is a loser, one thing’s for sure: it’s a goner, as a Fiat-sourced replacement will be phased in somewhere within Chrysler’s multi-brand lineup over the next five years. That doesn’t matter to the compact hatchback customer who’s looking for cheap-but-new (and ostensibly dependable) wheels today, though. Fortunately, the Italian corporate shot-callers decided to make Dodge’s current contender in this market a little more tolerable by giving it a new interior for 2010, something the dealer source I spoke with said was the result of a $500 per car endowment from Fiat that tasked Chrysler with improving the vehicle without raising its price.
Alleged interior improvements notwithstanding, the exterior remains the visual equivalent of what a Star Trek-type transporter might yield if it malfunctioned and disastrously reassembled the molecules of a car, a truck, and a small crossover in one, horrible mutant of glass, steel, and plastic. The Ram-tough grille treatment looks just as out of place on a frugal compact as it did when the Caliber first appeared, and the panel seams where the sides of the car meet the roof are still covered with cheap, gray (“pre-faded black”?) plastic strips that look just as contrived as the over-sized comic-book-looking head- and taillight elements.
Happily, things improve inside, as Fiat’s stop-gap money appears very well spent. Borrowing most – if not every – premium interior cliché from the last ten years, Chrysler engineers have thankfully imbued the cabin with niceties such as chrome-ringed gauges, a decent steering wheel, and better upholstery throughout. Soft-enough-touch materials abound, and the new console houses a touch-screen entertainment center with decent ergonomics and features that are at least class-competitive. (My favorite: one touch rippage of all songs from a CD onto the internal 30-gig hard drive.) There’s also a (parked-mode only) DVD player. All this audio-hippery would be cooler if audio phasing was better, but overall, the system doesn’t sound bad.
The “not bad” theme continues as you contemplate the interior’s functionality. Given the comparative popularity of small sedans in the compact market today, it’s a fair bet that most hatchback buyers are looking for enhanced utility. Here the Caliber really delivers, with a fold-down (and reclining) rear seat that reaches near-flat status, a plastic-backed flip-forward front passenger’s seat, and headroom that’s every bit as ample as Jessica Simpson’s [insert favorite body part here]. Far and away, though, the Caliber’s most noticeable bit of interior redemption is it’s rear cargo area. Flash-covered plastic panels that looked like shipping-duty refugees have given way to much better looking, thicker equivalents, and the flimsy floor panel covering the temporary spare has been ditched in favor of a substanital mouse-fir-covered, multi-piece unit that, according to the manufacturer, can hold up to 250 pounds.
But don’t put 250 pounds back there (or much more than that, anyway), because an already-taxed 158-horsepower 2.0-liter four banger will only seem less impressive as you urge it forward. Even though throttle response is pretty good, you’ll quickly realize that there’s just not much there, other than maybe a disturbing resemblance to early Saturn fours in the (lack-of) smoothness department. If not for a very capable CVT that dutifly keeps this thrashy sewing machine within easy driving distance of its torque peak, the engine’s NVH alone would be a good reason not to buy this car. At one point, I lifted the hood while the engine was running. Closing my eyes, I was instantly transported to a 1970’s office building where I was surrounded by a typing pool filled with fast-fingered secretaries pounding away at their IBM Selectrics. Somewhere (probably at a race track) there are louder fuel injectors, but I’ve haven’t heard them.
What I have heard are comments from lots of regular Caliber rental customers involving driving dynamics that don’t do diddly to dissuade derrogatory discourse. And I see why. Ever serve on a team or work group that couldn’t agree on anything? Just pretend that Congress was responsible for the Caliber’s chassis setup and you’ll fully comprehend the way the car rides and drives.
Let’s start with the least-offensive part: The steering – though a little light – seemed decently responsive but had a real “artificial” feel that I would associate with some of the lesser-quality electric power steering systems I’ve encountered. Except that the Caliber’s system is hydraulic. Oh well, at least the ratio seemed well-chosen.
But the really horrible part of the Caliber’s driving dynamics involves the complete disharmony between the springs/dampers (extraordinarily mushy) and the 17-inch tires (bone-jarringly stiff). The rock-ribbed construction and hard, brittle compound of the ill-chosen rubber neither gripped nor glided, yet I was able to count no less than three Town Car-worthy up-and-down motions after a hitting a medium-sized pothole at 45 MPH thanks (or no thanks) to the big-car-from-the-Sixties suspension tune.
At this point, I turned on the radio (to drown out the road noise produced by the awful tires). But even the shrill tones of Lady Gaga were no match for the sound I made when I nearly rear-ended a Bimmer in traffic after expecting that the Caliber’s brakes might actually perform like those fitted to other modern automobiles. The vague ineffectiveness of this car’s binders is simply inexcusable. Ever driven a vehicle equipped with high-performance, high-heat range brake pads early in the morning when they’re cold and require excessive pedal effort and increased stopping distance? If so, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from this mass-market, garden-variety little Dodge hatchback on a daily basis. In other words,the Caliber’s brakes are bad…almost scary bad.
But is the whole car bad?
I remember Dan Rather once saying, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that he didn’t believe Bill Clinton was a liar, because, “I think you can be an honest person and lie about any number of things.”
Debate that statement all you want, but I can’t help but apply similar logic to the Caliber: I believe a car can have a number of serious flaws but still be a decent car. Sure, the cons outweigh the pros by a ton here, and yes, the Caliber is a dying model from a seemingly dying brand built by a company with a still-uncertain future. But for the right customer – one who only has $17,320 (as my moon-roofed tester stickered for after three grand worth of incentives)…and who needs a dependable, new hatchback – I think the Caliber might be…certainly not the best choice…but at least a decent one.
One thing’s certain, though: Chrysler derived the maximum bang for their meager upgrade buck by investing in a nicer interior for this wayward little hatchback. If gradual product improvements as effective as this one become consistent year after year throughout the company’s entire product line, maybe Chrysler’s future won’t look so bleak after all.