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Dodge has introduced a remarkable replacement for the Neon. The all-new 2007 Dodge Caliber draws the best elements from hatchback, wagon and minivan designs, delivering a vehicle that doesn't truly fit in any existing category but does a lot of things quite well.
A five-passenger, five-door hatchback-cum-small station wagon, the Caliber offers a choice of four-cylinder engines. There's also a choice of front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the latter making the Caliber a capable winter vehicle. The Caliber is relatively affordable. Its starting price is below last year's Neon, and fuel economy is respectable, achieving 28/32 City/Highway miles per gallon in its most frugal form, according to federal government estimates. At the other end of the scale, an SRT4 version is expected in spring 2007 with a turbocharged engine generating 300 horsepower.
The front seats are comfortable, with lots of headroom, and there's a large amount of cargo space here. Packaging is functional, with folding rear seats that have an optional reclining adjustment and an optional fold-flat front passenger seat to make room for a ladder or more likely, a surfboard. A couple of innovative options, especially for a car in this price class, are an air conditioned compartment in the glove box to chill water bottles or sodas and a swing-down stereo speaker panel attached to the liftgate that converts the back end to a sound stage for beach parties or tailgating.
The Caliber is no sports car, but we most enjoyed the mid-level SXT model with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission.
Dodge is gambling a huge chunk of change on the hope new car shoppers looking for value and function can be persuaded hatchbacks are acceptable again, that five-door, small wagons have a place in American garages. The Caliber makes a good case.
Dodge seemingly wants people to consider the Caliber as a downsized Magnum, and to believe this makes it essentially a sporty mini-minivan-cum-compact station wagon. Nice idea, but the package doesn't quite deliver. Everything it does, it does well, but absent some fairly substantive aftermarket add ons, it doesn't quite achieve the sporty part.
Of the three trim packages and powertrains, we believe the SXT with the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed manual delivers the best all around performance.
The 2.4-liter's 172 horsepower arguably does a better job of motivating the one-and-one-half ton hatchback, but the CVT was neither as comfortable nor as precise in its selection of gear ratios as we hoped, and as Dodge promises. Left in Drive, it constantly sounds and feels like an automatic in serious need of having its bands tightened, or like a manual gearbox with a slipping clutch. Even in AutoStick mode, which involves imposing an electronically managed shift pattern on a transmission designed not to shift gears, engine speed wandered noticeably within the selected ratio. And while Dodge says its testing shows the CVT improves fuel economy by between 6 and 8 percent over a four-speed automatic like that in the Neon, the 2.0-liter with five-speed manual outdoes the CVT by 3 or 4 mpg, according to the EPA's ratings. Also, the Mazda3's 2.3-liter engine with five-speed automatic returns an estimated 25/31 city/highway mpg, easily topping the Caliber CVT's 23/26 mpg.
The 1.8-liter base engine betters the 2.0-liter's fuel economy by 2 mpg in both city and highway driving, but with fully 10 percent less torque and peaking at 5200 rpm, it's also the least responsive to the gas pedal when you need it the most.
All three engines delivered their power smoothly, with no disruptive surges or flat spots. Pedal layout is decent, while not quite ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts, and there's a dead pedal where drivers can rest their left foot on long trips.
Driving and handling dynamics are mostly consistent across the line, about on a par with the Vibe and the Matrix but not quite in the same league as the more tautly sprung Mazda3 and much lighter Focus. There's not as much body lean in corners as we expected in a car this tall. Under hard acceleration, the Caliber SE and SXT show some torque steer, where the front-wheel drive tugs at the steering wheel, a shortcoming shared with every front-wheel-drive car we can remember in this class.
Likewise, the Caliber's weight is biased to the front, so understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning) is the default mode when corners are entered a bit too fast. The all-wheel-drive R/T is much better mannered in both these regards, especially in tight corners, when the system distributes the power as appropriate between the front and rear wheels to put the power where it can be used best, as much as 60 percent to the rear wheels if necessary. One downside to the AWD is the added unsprung weight with which it burdens the suspension, mass that's felt over parking lot speed bumps and rough pavement.
The disc/drum brakes standard on the SE and in the SXT are competent. The R/T gets the best package, with discs at all four corners and ABS. We're sure there's a good marketing reason behind making ABS an option on the SE and SXT and Brake Assist optional only on the SXT and R/T, but we're disappointed these safety features aren't standard as they increasingly are on off-shore brands in the Caliber's price range. We feel the same way about the electronic stability program, which can help drivers avoid crashing.
There's little wind whistle at everyday highway speeds, and even at extra-legal rates of travel, we carried on conversations in normal tones. Road noise increased with the size of the tire's footprint, meaning it was most persistent in the R/T. The added grip from the larger footprint mor
The 2007 Dodge Caliber is at the same time innovative and retro, a hatchback that's more like a station wagon but with hints of the utility of a minivan. The SE offers good, basic transportation, the SXT is more fun to drive, and the R/T delivers affordable advanced technology with the assurance of all-wheel drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona.
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