Dodge Caliber SRT4 Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs

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.

P.J. McCombs
P.J. McCombs

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  • Mobileknight Mobileknight on Jun 14, 2010

    I bought the 2009 Caliber SRT4 and love it. I live in the mountains with some wonderful twisty highways, I can do the corners at almost double the posted limit and boy is it nice. It hangs onto the mountain highways like a cat on a wool blanket. I am not looking for cute, I am not looking for european luxury at twice the cost, even the japanese competetor at the same price could only give me 2/3 of the horsepower. I am looking for fun. And btw, I am not 19, but over 50.

  • Jgajic Jgajic on Jul 22, 2013

    This article and the people posting after it have totally missed their mark. I didn't belong to this group, but had to register just so I could say something. Ive had a mazda protégé and Mazda protégé5 since 2000. Great cars. But rust easily and repairs start around 170,000km and by 250,000km, they are falling apart. Great car, fun, quick, built well. But also made for the younger crowd. id say late 20s and all through 30s. At 45 and having an active family and live style, looking for something to reflect that. 08 Caliber Looking for something with more power, not so young looking, and can carry an 8 foot latter. And also complete! I wanted something that I didn't have to do anything to. Saw the SRT4 Caliber...just had to have it. I didn't even drive it but knew that I wanted it. What a car!!!! Has everything that you need. Water bottle cooler, dimming rear view mirror, updateable NAV system, 500+ watts of KICKER sound (freaken awesome!!), 19" sexy yet strong and well suited wheels, leather seats, all the gauges you need even 0 to 60 and quarter mile gauges, 6 speed, 2.4 with turbo, very good crash test rating with airbags, sun roof, very comfy seats, plenty of room for a family, and more that I missed im sure. The fantastic! What car out there has all of this in it? There isn't one. Oh, and used, I paid $14,000 CAD for it. Only has 42,000km....practically new! There are 2 thinks I see that would make this car better. one, a limited slip differential. and two, a suspension that takes corners that are less than perfect. I aint no girly boy, I can handle the torque steer, and love it. Makes me appreciate the power that much more. But for women out there that want to experience this beast, it would be helpful. For the men that complain...suck it up buttercup! Do some extra curls and then drive the car. Point two, this car really does stink around rough corners. and I am only comparing it to my 02 mazda protégé. that thing ate up rough turns. don't know how they did it. If Dodge put that same technology into the Caliber, would have been so much better. I tried driving the same turns with the SRT4, no where near the speed and finesse of the mazda. I live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. There are many types of cars up here. A lot of everything. But have never seen another SRT4 Caliber. Soo very rare. Looked at the register, only 6000 made in 08 and 09. 750 08s made it to Canada, only 150 Orange ones. Id say its quite a rare car. I love it! It looks fast just sitting there. Looking back, only have one regret....wish I bough one 5 years ago.

  • Alan Like all testing and analysis work you need a good set of requirements. If you don't you'll find or end up with gaps.
  • Alan In aviation there is more vigourous testing, well, until Boeing changed things.
  • Alan This outcome was certain.The US, Australia and Canada need to approach this differently. A policy towards plug in hybrids should of been a first step. As in CAFE gradually tighten FE from there.There's no reason why you can't have a 2 litre F-150 with electric motors putting out 400-500hp. A 2 litre turbo is good for 200hp more than enough to move a pickup.Also increase fuel tax/excise every year to fill the void in loss of revenue.
  • Doug brockman hardly. Their goals remain to punish us by mandating unsafe unreliable unaffordable battery powered cars
  • Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?