2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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In 1994, Chrysler introduced its new compact sedan, dubbed the Neon. It was a fun, inexpensive and funky ride in its early incarnations, but it was allowed to stagnate, and in later years — renamed the SX 2.0 for the Canadian market — it was overtaken by competitors that were better-priced, and just plain better.

The SX 2.0 was dropped for model year 2006; now, for 2007, the company has filled its entry-level point with the all-new Caliber. That spot is all the Caliber has in common with Neon/SX 2.0; this is an entirely new model and shares nothing with any current Chrysler products, although it will lend its platform to the upcoming Jeep Compass.

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The Caliber comes with a choice of three ‘world’ four-cylinder engines, all produced in Michigan by GEMA (Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance), a partnership of DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai. The base SE and mid-line SXT start with a 148-hp 1.8-litre, mated exclusively to a five-speed manual; these two trim lines can be optioned to a 158-hp 2.0-litre which comes only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The R/T comes strictly with a 172-hp 2.4-litre, and its CVT has an Auto/Stick mode that simulates shift points when manually selected. (Later on, there will also be an SRT4 that will shoehorn 300 horses under that little hood.)

Unlike the front-wheel drive SE and SXT, the R/T uses an all-wheel drive system; it runs its front wheels until it senses slippage, whereupon an electronically-controlled coupling distributes torque to the rear wheels.

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The SE starts at $15,995, the SXT at $17,695 with the 1.8-litre; it costs $1,200 to upgrade to the 2.0-litre, which also throws in anti-lock brakes. (The R/T is $23,995.) The SXT will undoubtedly be the biggest seller of the three lines. The SE is bare-bones, and my 2.0-litre tester, at $17,195, felt too pricey for what was included. But moving up to the SXT with optional 2.0-litre, at $18,895, seemed like much more of a deal, since it added power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless entry, 17-inch steel wheels, tachometer, cargo light with removable flashlight, 115-volt outlet, fold-flat front passenger seat, reclining rear seats, driver’s seat height adjuster, and air conditioning (noticeably absent is cruise control, which can be added for an extra $250).

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The a/c package includes the much-advertised ‘Chill Zone’, which is handy but not as revolutionary as you might think. One of the two gloveboxes contains a removable rubber mat, moulded to hold four bottles or cans, with an a/c vent routed into it. It won’t actually refrigerate your drinks, but if you start with cold bottles, it’ll keep them on edge as long as you have the air on.

You can also take the SXT up to the ‘Sport’ level, for an additional $600; it adds 17-inch aluminum wheels and some trim changes, including body-coloured centre stack and seat inserts that might look sporty to some buyers, but to me just look cheap and out of place.

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The 2.0-litre is a great fit to the Caliber, giving it good acceleration while returning decent fuel mileage with the help of the CVT (I averaged 8.5 L/100 km). If you’ve never driven one of these transmissions — which uses two pulleys and a belt to provide a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios — you will have to get used to it; you tend to wait for shift points that never come, and the engine revs will not necessarily be in sync with what’s actually being transmitted to the wheels, so it’s not unusual for the car to sound like it’s slowing down when it’s actually speeding up. Once you get over that, though, the preordained shifts of a conventional transmission may seem almost artificial.

The Caliber offers a very firm ride, and the suspension transmits some road noise; on the plus side, it feels substantial, and despite its relatively high centre of gravity, it handles hard turns quite well. The seats are surprisingly comfortable — although the centre console armrest should lock into place; it slides away if you put any pressure on it, such as when hiking yourself up in the seat — and the interior is spacious.

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The driver faces an instrument cluster that’s quite stark; it’s not very attractive, but it’s easy to read. Heater controls are simple to use, and while the gear selector is gated, the shifter slips into gear easily by just pulling down on it. I like the centre vents, which close completely (on so many models you can’t cancel them entirely). The map pockets are so small as to be almost useless, but there are plenty of other cubbies, including the dual gloveboxes. A travel mug fits fine into the cupholder, but you’ll lose the average coffee shop medium-sized paper cup, and it’s quite an effort to lift it out with the fingertips.

On the safety side, all trim models come with curtain airbags and a driver’s side inflatable knee blocker. That’s something I’d only expect to find on the upscale R/T, but Dodge includes these extra bags even on the base SE.

The Caliber looks much like the scaled-down love child of a Magnum and Durango, but with a more angular hatch. A black moulding runs from the top of the windshield to the bottom of the rear window, and cleverly gives the squared-off roofline and C-pillar a curvaceous, Magnum-like profile. It also makes the Caliber look longer, even though it’s actually shorter — in wheelbase and body length — than the Neon/SX.

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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The hatch opens to reveal a vinyl-floored cargo space that’s 80 cm long with the rear seats up, and 140 cm long when they’re folded; a wide opening makes this mini-wagon extremely practical, and if you get the SXT or R/T with the standard folding passenger seat, you can slide stuff in almost the length of the cabin. That cargo floor is removable, by the way — Dodge calls it an UltraFloor panel — so it can be taken out and washed off with a hose if necessary. That should be the norm with vehicles, but most so-called ‘utility’ vehicles use a fixed floor or worse, cover the cargo area with carpet. The only thing missing is a collection of grocery bag hooks, which should also be standard equipment in all vehicles.

I think Dodge is going to sell a ton of these clever little vehicles; the only question is, who is going to buy them? The company says its primary target audience is 20-somethings, and to that end, the cupholders have illuminated rings (which make water bottles glow blue

2007 Dodge Caliber
The optional MusicGate in “party position”, shown on an R/T model. Click image to enlarge

at night, as the company’s Web site proclaims) and the centre armrest contains an iPod holder, with even the base stereo boasting an auxiliary jack with which to use it. There’s also an available Boston Acoustics ‘MusicGate’ stereo, optional on all trim lines for $395, which includes a flip-down boombox-style speaker set. Go to the beach or tailgate party, lift the hatch, pull down the MusicGate, and you can annoy fellow vacationers by cranking the volume to eleven.

But I suspect that the Caliber is going to be another PT Cruiser, which burst onto the advertising scene stuffed with surfboards, and which ended up almost exclusively in the hands of buyers 35 years and older. Younger drivers don’t really understand station wagons, but

2007 Dodge Caliber SE
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older buyers do, and when one comes along that’s easy to park, good on fuel, roomy for its footprint and well-priced, it’s hard to turn it down. Chrysler has sold over a million PT Cruisers, and I won’t be surprised to see Caliber do the same, especially since it has now been launched in markets outside North America. (I’d sure love to get the 2.0-litre turbo diesel that’s just been released in Europe, although DaimlerChrysler says we’ll probably never see it over here.)

The company’s trying to give the Caliber a bad-boy image, with print commercials showing it getting a tattoo or sitting outside the principal’s office, or on television as the one item that a magical fairy can’t turn into something cute. Smart buyers will see through all that, and realize that Caliber’s just a reasonably-priced, well-done wagon for practical people.

Pricing: Dodge Caliber SE

Technical Data: 2007 Dodge Caliber

Base price SE $15,995
Base Price SXT $17,695
Base Price R/T $23,995
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact wagon
Layout Transverse front engine/front-wheel drive/AWD
Engine 1.8-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves, DVVT
  2.0-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves, DVVT
  2.4-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves, DVVT
Horsepower 148 @ 6500 rpm
  158 @ 6400 rpm
  172 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 125 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
  141 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
  165 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual,
continuously variable (CVT)
Tires P205/70R15 all-season
  P215/60R-17 all-season touring
  P215/55R-18 all-season performance
Wheelbase 2635 mm (103.7 in.)
Length 4414 mm (173.8 in.)
Width 1747 mm (68.8 in.)
Height 1533 mm (60.4 in.)
Curb weight 1345 kg (2966 lb)
  1378 kg (3039 lb)
  1501 kg (3308 lb)
Cargo capacity 525 litres (18.5 cu. ft.)(seats up)
  1360 litres (48.0 cu. ft.)(seats down)
Fuel consumption 1.8 n/a
Fuel consumption 2.0 City: 9.0 L/100 km (31 mpg Imp)
  Hwy: 7.3 L/100 km (39 mpg Imp)
Fuel Consumption 2.4 City: 10.1 L/100 km (28 mpg Imp
  Hwy: 8.4 L/100 km (34 mpg Imp)
Warranty 3 yrs/ 60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Assembly location Belevedere, Illinois

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