If you want practicality with a small footprint, there’s no question: compact hatchbacks rule. DaimlerChrysler has been a little slow getting to the party, but more than makes up for it with the all-new Caliber.
Caliber now fills the company’s entry-level spot, but that’s the only thing it shares with the defunct Neon/SX 2.0 (Caliber will, however, share its platform with the new Jeep Compass).
Everything is new, including a choice of three “world” engines, developed in partnership with Mitsubishi and Hyundai, and built in Dundee, Mich. (the Caliber itself is assembled at the Belvidere, Ill. Dodge plant).
All engines are four-cylinders: a 148 hp 1.8-litre on the base SE and mid-range SXT trim lines, an optional 158 hp 2.0-litre on those models, and exclusive to the R/T, a 2.4-litre that makes 172 hp. There will also be an SRT4 model that packs 300 horses under that little hood.
The 1.8-litre uses a five-speed manual, while the 2.0- and 2.4-litre engines are mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Instead of gears, this unit uses a belt and pulleys to produce a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios.
It takes a little while to get used to the CVT, since you expect shift points that never come, but the result is better fuel economy.
My tester was a base SE, which starts at $15,995. It had the optional 2.0-litre with CVT and anti-lock brakes for an extra $1,200.
Perhaps I fell prey to marketing, but it was a case of pay a little, get a lot: my stripped-down car felt too pricey at $17,195.
But moving up to the 2.0-litre-equipped SXT for $18,895 adds power windows, locks and mirrors, 17-inch wheels, tachometer, cargo light with removable flashlight, 115-volt outlet, folding front passenger seat, reclining rear seats, driver’s seat height adjuster, and air conditioning with the much-ballyhooed Chill Zone.
The latter adds a removable rubber mat and a/c vent to one of the gloveboxes, to keep the edge on cold drinks.
Expect the well-equipped SXT to be the most popular model of the three. You can also move up to the SXT Sport for another $600, which adds aluminum wheels, some trim items and chintzy body-colour seat inserts and centre stack that cheapen an otherwise clean interior.
The 2.0-litre is a powerful performer; the CVT’s sound gives little indication of what’s actually happening, so it’s easy to look down and be surprised by how fast you’re really going.
The ride is firm, and the suspension transmits a fair bit of road noise, but the car feels substantial and it handles sharp turns well.
The Caliber looks like a scaled-down cross between a Magnum and Durango, with a clever black roof moulding that makes the angular C-pillar look thin and curvaceous.
Open it up, and there’s an 80-cm-long rubber-floored cargo space with the rear seats up, and 140 cm when they’re folded. The only thing missing is grocery bag hooks â€“ c’mon guys, what’s up with that?
Up front, the tiny map pockets are pretty much useless, but there are numerous other cubbies, including twin gloveboxes.
The centre armrest should have a stop on it: it slides forward annoyingly when you’re hiking yourself up in the seat.
The deep cupholders have illuminated rings (for making water bottles glow at night, according to the company’s website) and they’re fine for travel mugs, but a medium double-double disappears out of reach.
On the plus side, the heater controls are big and simple, the CVT’s gated shifter pulls straight down into gear, and should you have an iPod, there’s a holder in the armrest for it, and even the base radio has an auxiliary jack.
At the other end, you can order the optional MusicGate premium system, with a flip-down boombox in the hatch for tailgate parties.
On the safety side, all trim lines come standard with curtain airbags and a driver’s-side inflatable knee blocker, still relatively uncommon at this price point.
Dodge is hoping to hit the younger crowd with Caliber. I’ll take my knocks if I’m wrong, but despite iPod jacks and glowing cupholders, I think most will go to the over-35 crowd, who are more likely to have a soft spot for a station wagon. That happened with PT Cruiser.
Caliber is simply practicality on wheels, packing superb cargo space into a vehicle that is, believe it or not, shorter (both in overall length and wheelbase) than the Neon/SX 2.0 sedan it replaces. Oh yeah, and much, much better.