New for 2007, the Caliber replaces the Neon/SX 2.0 as Chrysler’s entry-level car, but it shares nothing with that discontinued vehicle. It will share its platform with the upcoming Jeep Compass.

The Caliber is the first to use the new “world” engines built by GEMA (Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance), a Michigan-based partnership of DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Three engines are available, all four-cylinders: a 1.8-litre mated strictly to a five-speed manual; a 2.0-litre with a continuously variable transmission (CVT); and 2.4-litre with CVT and Auto/Stick, which produces simulated shift points when manually operated.

The 1.8-litre is standard on the SE and SXT trim lines, which can be upgraded to the 2.0-litre for $1,200; the optional engine/transmission combination also adds anti-lock brakes. The 2.4-litre is used exclusively on the R/T, which is also all-wheel drive, using a system that runs in front-wheel until it senses slippage, whereupon it redistributes torque to the rear wheels.

The base SE includes curtain airbags and driver’s inflatable knee blocker, remote manual mirrors, 15-inch steel wheels, variable intermittent wipers, rear wiper/washer, tilt wheel, 60/40 folding rear seat, removable vinyl cargo area mat, and CD player with auxiliary jack.

The SXT adds chrome grille, power mirrors, power windows and locks with keyless entry, 17-inch steel wheels, tachometer, cargo lamp with removable flashlight, 115-volt outlet, fold-flat passenger front seat, reclining rear seats, driver’s seat-height adjuster, and air conditioning. The a/c includes the “Chill Zone”, which adds a removable rubber mat to one of the two gloveboxes; the mat holds four cans or bottles, and a vent routed into the glovebox keeps the edge on chilled beverages.

The R/T adds four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, cruise control, sport suspension, chrome trim, 18-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps and illuminated entry.

Both the SXT and R/T can be optioned with a “Sport” package, which includes 17-inch aluminum wheels on the SXT and chrome-clad 18-inch wheels on the R/T, along with trim additions and body-colour centre console cover and seat inserts. All three trim lines can also be optioned with the $395 MusicGate Premium Sound package, which includes a flip-down, boombox-style speaker set in the liftgate; open the hatch, flip down the MusicGate, and you have tunes for your party.

The Caliber is a well-done little hatchback, offering the practicality and roominess of a station wagon with a compact footprint. Although it looks longer, it’s actually shorter, both in wheelbase and overall length, than the Neon/SX 2.0 it replaces. The 1.8-litre is a little underpowered here, but the 2.0-litre works so well that you’ll really only need to go up to the 2.4-litre if you want the rest of the R/T package. The Caliber has a firm ride that transmits road noise, but it handles well for a car with this high a centre of gravity. Expect most buyers to go for the mid-line SXT, which offers the best line-up of features for the price. And stay tuned for the SRT4 version, which will shoehorn 300 horses under that little hood.

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