Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh
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2008 Dodge Caliber

Oshawa, Ontario – When it comes to automobiles, I like all-around versatility. Single-purpose is fine when it’s a secondary toy, like a two-seater sports car or rock crawler, but if I’m going to have one vehicle for everyday use, it’s got to be able to do as much as possible, and as economically as possible.

That’s why I like tall wagons: they’ll hold five people, they’ll handle cargo (often as well as some compact pickups), they have a compact footprint for inner-city use, and they’re smaller and generally more fuel-efficient than crossovers or compact SUVs. There are a number of them on the market, and while it has its shortcomings, the Dodge Caliber also has quite a bit in its favour, including its price.

The Caliber starts at $15,995 in base SE form; among its compact peers, only the smaller Nissan Versa undercuts it, at $14,598, and everything else – including the 2008 Toyota Matrix, Suzuki SX4, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Vibe and Chrysler PT Cruiser all start between $17,000 and $20,000. Taken to its R/T level, the Caliber bases at $21,995, while the turbocharged, tuner-inspired SRT4 is $24,995.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

While price shouldn’t be the single factor in a purchase, value for the money should be extremely important, and overall, the Caliber delivers, especially if you evaluate it with its cost in mind.

Four engines are offered, all four-cylinders: a 1.8, 2.0, 2.4, and a turbocharged 2.4-litre in the SRT4. A five-speed manual is the default transmission (except on the SRT4, which has a six-speed), but my SXT tester’s 2.0-litre was mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the only choice for an automatic. Adding the CVT also adds anti-lock brakes. The engines are a Caliber strong point, since they’re among the highest horsepower in the segment, but the CVT never really won me over: it retains much of the “rubber band” feel that many competitors have overcome, and its manual mode, which allows for up- or downshifting through a series of preset “shift points”, was harsh and sluggish. I’d like this car better with a conventional automatic transmission, but Chrysler says that the CVT is more fuel-efficient. To that end, I averaged 8.6 L/100 km in a week of cold-weather driving, to the published average of 8.1 L/100 km – something that usually doesn’t happen.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

Speaking of fuel efficiency, the Caliber also points up a kink in the federal government’s ecoAUTO rebate program for fuel-efficient vehicles: while the Caliber shares its platform and engines with the Jeep Compass and Patriot, and those models are rated at the same fuel efficiency, they qualify for a $1,000 rebate, while the Caliber does not. Transport Canada classifies them as SUVs, while the Caliber falls under the stricter regulations for cars.

The base Caliber SE starts at $15,995, but it feels under-equipped; the SXT, at $17,995, is a far better value, adding air conditioning, power mirrors and windows, power locks with keyless entry, 17-inch wheels, assist handles, 115-volt power outlet, YES Essentials stain-resistant upholstery, flat-folding front passenger seat and a removable, rechargeable flashlight, all of which are missing on the base model.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

My tester was further optioned with a $995 package that added cruise control, leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls and alloy wheels, which I liked, and a Sport Appearance Package, which I didn’t. It includes seat inserts – which were gaudy red panels on my car – and a matching red centre stack cover that looks like something you’d buy at a flea market and glue on. Is there some elderly gentleman in the design department who’s helplessly trying to figure out what the tuner kids would like?

Overall, the dash is a weak point: it’s a huge expanse of plain, rock-hard plastic panels that could be fitted together much better. Backlighting is restricted to the driver’s window, and none of the passengers get power lock buttons. Controls are simple, which is good, but the a/c and defogger switches are tiny buttons inside the heater dials, and you can’t turn on the rear defogger if you’re wearing gloves.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

There are two good-sized gloveboxes, and the upper one contains a feature called the “Chill Zone”: a removable plastic mat holds four cans or bottles, and a vent routed into it keeps pre-chilled drinks cool as long as the air conditioning is on. Open cubbies in the dash hold CD cases and other small items, but the door pockets are too small to be good for anything. Cupholders in the floor console contain illuminated rings, and that’s a good thing, since they’re so low they can’t be easily located otherwise at night.

The stereo’s auxiliary jack is located on its faceplate, and a panel on the armrest flips forward, providing a place to store one’s MP3 music player while it’s being used. It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice, the flip-up holder just gets in the way. The armrest slides forward and back, but it would be better if it locked in place: if you try to adjust your seating position by supporting yourself on the armrest, it’ll slide out from under you.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

My seats might have been ugly, but they were comfortable, as is the Caliber’s ride: firm enough that it isn’t wallowy, even on sharp curves, but supple enough to soak up all but the worst road imperfections before they get to the cabin. It feels well planted, especially on the highway, where it’s very smooth and stable; a friend of mine drove his from Ontario to Arizona and was very satisfied with it as a long-distance hauler.

It’s also a very effective cargo hauler: the rear cargo area is 82 cm long with all the seats up, and when the 60/40 rear seat is folded, it lengthens to a flat 150 cm. Fold the front passenger seat, and you’ve got 245 cm, which will get your eight-foot boards home from the lumber yard with the hatch closed. The rear cargo lamp doubles as a flashlight, which charges itself while it’s snapped into place.

Back in the 1980s, Chrysler turned itself around with the K-Car, a line of inexpensive, plain but immensely practical sedans and wagons. I was working in the automotive retail end of things at the time, and I always said that if your budget was in the K-Car’s range, you couldn’t do any better for value.

Test Drive: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT car test drives dodge
2008 Dodge Caliber SXT. Click image to enlarge

The Caliber reminds me very much of the K-Car: well under the radar of enthusiasts, and far more plasticky than it needs to be, but it’ll do the job better than you expect for the price on its window. It’s very telling that three people got into my tester the week I had it, and each overestimated its price by at least $4,000.

There are a lot of viable contenders in this segment – cars like the Chevrolet HHR, Nissan Versa, Suzuki SX4, Mazda5, and the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, which will be all-new for 2009, along with Caliber’s stablemates, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Jeep Compass and Patriot – and the Caliber deserves a place among them on the test-drive list.


Pricing: 2008 Dodge Caliber SXT

  • Base price: $17,995
  • Options: $2,545 (Preferred Package of Sport Appearance Interior Group, body colour moldings and grille, fog lamps, cruise control, leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls and 17-inch alloy wheels, $995; CVT with ABS and AutoStick, $1,300; SIRIUS Satellite Radio, $250)
  • Freight: $1,200
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Price as tested: $21,840 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives


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