The Dodge Caliber is a five-seat four-door hatchback that replaces the compact Neon. The Neon was a sedan, and Dodge won't say if a sedan will come next, but it might be significant that the Dodge Magnum had no sedan sister for about a year. Its sedan cousin came in the form of the Chrysler 300. The Dodge Charger sedan was added later.
The Caliber fits in a class among the Ford Focus ZX5, Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Impreza wagon and Toyota Matrix. It's an ambitious project — a "world car" intended for sale in nearly 100 countries in both left- and right-hand drive and with a choice of three gasoline engines and, overseas, one diesel. In North America it will come in SE, SXT and R/T trim levels.
When it goes on sale, the Caliber will be the debut model for a new platform developed with Mitsubishi. It's built alongside the upcoming Jeep Compass in the Belvedere, Ill., assembly plant that formerly built the Neon. The new engine family — also a joint venture, with Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. — is also built domestically, at a jointly owned plant in Dundee, Mich.
The Caliber is clearly a Dodge, thanks to the crosshair grille — and the signature red paint that seems to adorn all Dodge models upon their introduction. It resembles the Magnum, though the latter is a wagon with a longer nose and cargo area. The Magnum's controversial greenhouse — short relative to the bodyside — appears again here. The Caliber has very large wheels for a car of its size and class: Fifteen-inch steel wheels with wheel covers are standard on the SE, but the SXT jumps to 17-inch aluminum wheels, and the R/T's are 18 inches. A black rail that runs from the base of the A-pillars and along the roofline to the taillights tricks the eye into seeing a lower, sleeker shape — a design element used previously on the Chrysler Pacifica. Despite the look, the Caliber actually sits a bit higher than a common compact car.
The rear end, and especially the taillights, seem borrowed from the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, but the overall effect here is good and modern.
Designed to compete with some of the nicer compact models on the market, the interior has decent-quality materials, a sophisticated design and two-tone color schemes, even in the base trim level. Be the transmission manual or automatic, the shifter juts out from the dashboard's center control panel. Many people complain about this placement, but it's not likely to go away, especially in a world car. Overseas buyers prefer this location, and it also frees up some space by eliminating a floor console.
The cargo floor is plastic, similar to that of the Matrix and Vibe, to ease cleaning. The panel itself can be removed. For the truly filthy, stain-resistant seat upholstery will come later in the year.
There are many slick features in the Caliber, including illuminated cupholder rings, an MP3-player holster and a center armrest that slides forward 3 inches for improved comfort. The SXT and R/T trim levels add a 60/40-split, folding backseat and a folding front passenger seat to extend the cargo area. A 115-volt household power outlet is optional, as is a ceiling-mounted flashlight. The rechargeable unit can be reached from behind the car or from the backseat.
The glove compartment has upper and lower sections, the bottom of which can serve as the optional Chill Zone beverage cooler. Connected to the air conditioning, it chills up to three cans or bottles that rest on a contoured mat. We've seen heated/cooled compartments before, but this one cools even when the cabin heat is on, by running the air-conditioning compressor.
MusicGate Power is Dodge's name for a Boston Acoustics premium audio system with two special speakers in the liftgate itself. They face forward normally, but when the liftgate is raised, they can be swung down to aim rearward and play for tailgate partiers or other such loiterers. The feature is shared with the Jeep Compass.
The 1.8-, 2.0- and 2.4-liter versions of the four-cylinder engine produce 148, 158 and 172 horsepower, respectively. In addition to increasing with engine size, the torque output also characteristically comes at lower engine speeds. The ratings are: 125 pounds-feet at 5,200 rpm, 141 pounds-feet at 5,000 rpm and 165 pounds-feet at 4,400 rpm for the small, medium and large engines, respectively. The EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy for each is 28/32 mpg, 26/30 mpg and 23/26 mpg, again respectively.
The engines are very modern: all aluminum with variable valve timing and flow-control valves in the air intake that help ensure complete, clean combustion at all engine speeds.
Currently the SE and SXT trim levels come with the 1.8-liter and five-speed manual. The 2.0-liter and continuously variable automatic transmission are optional. Front-wheel drive is the only choice at these levels. The R/T comes only with the 2.4-liter, CVT and all-wheel drive. An R/T with a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive is promised for October 2006.
Disc/drum brakes are standard; four-wheel discs and antilock brakes with brake assist are optional in some cases.
In addition to the required airbags, the Caliber has standard side curtain-type airbags and a driver's knee airbag designed to keep the driver positioned properly for the primary restraints. Front seat-mounted side-impact airbags will become an option later in the year along with an electronic stability system and traction control.