Ah, the Caliber. Few people have sympathy for Dodge and the cars they have built over the past decade, which has lagged behind the competition. With the Caliber, many said it was proof Dodge was incapable of building a decent compact car. To those detractors, I’d like to remind them that the Dodge Neon was a very successful small car. But when the Caliber debuted in 2006, it was a radical departure from the petite, curvy Neon. When my wife proposed a surprise trip to Pennsylvania, I bemoaned the fact we would be driving a Caliber that weekend, but thought it would be an excellent chance to see how good, or bad, the car really was.
The Caliber is available in one body style, a four door hatchback. The styling is characterized by blocky, blunt looks all around, with a crossover type stance and ride height. Suffice it to say, the Caliber’s competition offers nothing that looks like the Caliber. The Caliber has also been around since 2006 with very few changes, and the car is starting to show its age. I did find the Tungsten exterior color tasteful, and dare I say added an elegant touch. I could do without the optional 18″ chrome bling bling wheels, however. Interestingly, once I was in the Keystone State, our Caliber was getting compliments for its looks. One woman, who was admiring the car, asked me what it was. When I replied it was a Dodge, she responded “Oh, they still make Dodge’s?” Eek.
The Caliber has been heavily criticized for its cheap interior, and in 2010 received an upgrade. Yes, there is still a sea of hard plastic, the center armrest screams bargain basement, but there are soft touches here and there. That said, the interior is simple and straightforward. Gauges are easy to read. In other words, this is a car you can simply hop in and go. Over a span of three days we put on about 600 miles on the Caliber, and I must say we did so in relative comfort. Features like a nine speaker Boston Acoustics stereo with subwoofer, Sirius satellite radio and GPS navigation were treasured items on our journey with the Caliber. Another neat feature was a cool box under the glove compartment that we put four water bottles and a couple juice boxes in. And it actually works. After five hours driving, beverages I put in the cool box were still nice and cold when we arrived. A very nice feature for road tripping.
The Caliber is available with two engines, a 2.0L with 158hp, and a 2.4L with 172hp. Our car was thankfully equipped with the 2.4L engine. Although some Calibers are available with a manual transmission, our car had a joyless, power-sucking CVT. Acceleration was leisurely at best, but once at highway speeds, the Caliber could cruise all day at 80mph without complaint. However, in twisty, undulating roads with four adults and a child on board, the Caliber wheezed, groaned, roared, and complained loudly just to maintain a reasonable speed. The Caliber’s EPA fuel economy rating of 22/27 MPG city/highway is also nothing to be proud of, especially since cars it competes against can get 40mpg on the highway. That said, the Caliber offers a decent ride, assuring braking ability, and acceptable steering feel and response. It doesn’t come close to the chassis dynamics of the VW Golf, but the Caliber is a surprisingly competent ride.
The Caliber is offered in five trim levels, which seems like overkill to me. Our test car was at the top end, fittingly called ‘Uptown’. Standard on the Uptown is auto climate control, Sirius satellite radio, Boston Acoustics audio, power driver’s seat, heated leather seats, UConnect phone, USB port, auto dimming mirror, foglights and 17″ alloys. Our test car added a Security Group, which includes additional airbags, alarm, and remote starter. plus the 18″ chrome alloys, and Navigation for a grand total of $23,570 including delivery. Plenty of features, but stacked against what I feel is the current segment leader, the Hyundai Elantra, the Caliber is more expensive and not as good a car.
Yet after seven days, covering about 700 miles, the Caliber did everything I asked of it, and unless fully loaded with passengers, without complaint. An acquaintance of mine who doesn’t know much about cars asked me “Does anyone make truly awful cars anymore?” and the simple answer is no. So, Dodge does in fact, know how to build a compact car, and for now, the Caliber will have to do. However, the excitement lies ahead in Fiat’s input in future small cars from Dodge, and the goal is to elevate the brand from merely competitive to the head of the pack.