Full Caliber

Good looking, practical, and with excellent fuel economy, the new Dodge Caliber hatchback would be a lot more fun if it weren't so slow

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Nice looks, built-in glovebox cooler, available all-wheel drive

The Bad: Slow acceleration, wind buffeting with rear windows down

The Bottom Line: A gorgeous but flawed little hatchback

Slide Show > >Up Front I'm torn when it comes to evaluating the new Dodge Caliber. On one hand, it's a great-looking, practical little car that appears to be well-built and has excellent fuel economy. It's exactly the kind of car I need, and I'd definitely consider buying one. But it also has several negatives that would give me pause—and don't buy one if you're a driving enthusiast, because it's pokey.

So here are the pros and cons.

To my eye, the five-door Caliber is a gorgeous car, especially considering it's an inexpensive compact station wagon. The exterior styling is distinctive without sacrificing functionality. The front end and grillwork have faint echoes of the Dodge Ram pickup trucks. The roofline is curvy and slopes down in back, making the car's lines seem fresh, but it's not so radically sloped as to cut into head and shoulder space in the back seat.

And some of the paint choices are outstanding. The "Inferno Red Crystal Pearl" paint job on my test car was just beautiful. The "Black Clearcoat" and "Sunburst Orange" Calibers I've seen on the road look fabulous too.

The Caliber also has some attention-grabbing features that set it apart. For instance, all Calibers with air conditioning come with a little refrigerated compartment integrated into the glovebox—big enough to hold four small water bottles.

It only keeps the drinks cool, rather than genuinely cold, but, still: When was the last time you saw a built-in refrigerator on an inexpensive compact car? Another nice touch is the illuminated rings around the cupholders that glow at night so you can find them easily.

The car's interior styling is very clean. As Honda (HMC) does in its new Honda Fit (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/21/06, "Nice Fit") and Civic (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/06, "Civic Virtues"), Daimler Chrysler (DCX) manages to make inexpensive materials seem classy.

That's especially true if you pay an extra $645 for the appearance package that gives you color-keyed instrument panel and shifter bezels and inserts in the seats. My test car came with a tasteful slate-grey interior, and adding touches of "Inferno Red" to the dash, center console, and seats made it look distinctive.

Another simple design touch that made a big difference: The retro-look shifter is like the ones that tractors used to have. It's an upright stick set in a shift-pattern cut-out in the metal center console. Yet the shifter knob is chromed, making it also look elegant.

The Caliber, which shares the GS platform with the Mitsubishi Lancer, comes in three trim levels. The entry model, which is very basic, starts at $13,985. It comes standard with a stick shift and a small 1.8 liter, 148-horsepower engine.

You have to pay $1,100 extra to upgrade it to a slightly more powerful 158-horsepower, 2-liter engine and an automatic transmission—though it is a sophisticated continuously variable automatic that improves fuel efficiency. You also have to pay extra for amenities such as air conditioning ($1,000), power doors, windows, and mirrors, and keyless entry ($540), and antilock front brakes ($400).

The more up-market SXT, which I test-drove, starts at $15,985. It comes standard with stuff like air conditioning, but you still have to pay extra for the bigger engine and automatic transmission. My test car with an automatic listed for $18,475. The Caliber I covet, the all-wheel-drive version of the R/T, costs a bit more. It has a 174-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine and sports suspension, and starts at just under $20,000.

Whichever version you get, the Caliber is easy on gas. Even the R/T is rated to get 23 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway.

The others are rated higher: My test SXT is rated at 26 in the city and 30 on the highway. In a stretch of 508 miles of mainly (fast) highway driving, I got 25.4 mpg.

Not surprisingly, the Caliber is selling well so far. DaimlerChrysler has sold 50,881 of them this year through the end of July. That's far fewer than the 75,996 Neons it sold during the same period last year, but it's a strong performance, considering that dealers are still selling the last Neons out of inventory, and Dodge sales in general are off 9% this year.

Calibers are moving off the lots as fast as the company can make them: On average, they sell in a mere 12 days, according to the Power Information Network, vs. nearly 60 days for the average car. (Like Business Week and BusinessWeek.com, Power Information is owned by The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

Behind the Wheel The driving experience is not this car's strong suit. Even the more powerful R/T takes more than 10 seconds to go from 0 to 60, which is annoyingly slow. This car really lumbers when you punch the gas from a full stop, and there's not a lot of oomph when you move out into the passing lane at highway speed. Handling isn't distinguished either. And the steering has that slightly heavy front-wheel-drive feel to it.

The continuously variable automatic transmission, which was supplied by Jatco, a Nissan (NSANY) subsidiary, also takes some getting used to. When you hit the gas to move out onto the highway, for instance, the transmission steps down, then runs out in one continuous, undifferentiated arc. You keep expecting it to shift gears, but it never does.

I drove my test car from northeast Pennsylvania to Boston and back in a single day (more than 500 miles), and found it reasonably comfortable for a small car. The seats are supportive, with plenty of side-bolstering, and the driver's seat is easy to adjust manually. On a long drive, you appreciate small comfort-enhancing features such as the tilt steering wheel and the adjustable sliding armrest.

However, I also discovered that my test car seemed to have a major design flaw. When you put the rear windows down at highway speed, the wind-buffeting was shocking. The car started to vibrate and made a continuous wind-tunnel-type noise that would drive you batty if you had to listen to it for more than a few minutes.

The first time it happened, I pulled off the highway to check the tires and look under the car because it felt like something was dramatically wrong. The problem occurs even with only one rear window down, and the buffeting starts as soon as either rear window is lowered more than one-third of the way.

Most people don't drive on the highway with the rear windows down because it negates the air conditioning while reducing fuel efficiency. Still, if you're considering buying a Caliber, test-drive it on the highway with the rear windows down first.

The Caliber is too new to have J.D. Power ratings, but Dodge as a brand scored slightly below average in Power's latest Initial Quality ratings, and further down the list in the longer-term dependability ratings. So, quality glitches are always a worry.

Buy It or Bag It? This car's main appeal is its practicality. It has much of the versatility of the Honda Fit in a slightly bigger, more solid-feeling package. With the back seats folded down, cargo space is 48 cu. ft. The hatchback and relatively wide rear doors make it easy to get dogs and cargo (and rear-seat passengers) in and out. The passenger seatback also folds down to create a flat table, opening up space for hauling long objects. The floor panel in the rear cargo space is removable and washable.

Despite its lumbering acceleration and the weird wind buffeting, I'd still consider buying a Caliber, though the base model seems too stripped down for my taste. If you live in the Sunbelt, I'd suggest going with SXT and paying a bit more for the upgraded interior. It's a good alternative to the Ford (F) Focus and the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix (neither of which come with all-wheel drive).

If you live in the Snowbelt, the all-wheel-drive option makes the Caliber is good alternative to, say, a Subaru. Plus, it's manufactured in Belvidere, Ill., which gives it the added appeal of being made in America.

Most buyers seem to agree that the better-equipped versions of the Caliber are worth the extra money. In the real world, according to the Power Information Network, the average price of the Caliber is $17,840, slightly less than a Honda Civic ($18,685) and more than a Toyota Corolla ($15,903). The Caliber is selling well because it has a lot of value packed into it at that price.

To see more of the 2007 Dodge Caliber, click here.

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