Dodge delivers high-Caliber shot at changing
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
ARIZ. --- The desert of Arizona doesn’t have much in common
with Chicago in midwinter, notwithstanding some pretty
elaborate McCormick Place simulations during the Chicago Auto
Show, which started with February 8-9 media previews. But
there was a significant connection this year.
Chrysler showed that its most
compact commuter vehicle will be of a higher Caliber, when the
2007 Caliber was introduced to the media in Arizona.
the Chicago show, Chrysler Group, along with the rest of the
automotive world, might be adding distance in another
direction from General Motors and Ford, its United States
competitors. The new Dodge Caliber is a combination downsized
SUV and upgraded sedan/wagon, with a completely flexible and
fun-to-drive combination of the best assets of both.
Upon first examination, at the Frankfurt Auto Show in
September, and again at Detroit’s Auto Show in January, I was
dazzled by the looks of the Cobalt, and I assumed it might be
a personal/luxury crossover that might cost from
$25,000-$35,000. I was surprised to learn the base SE model
Caliber starts at $14,000.
Then I got to
drive one in late January in the mountains surrounding the
Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, and I am convinced that the
Caliber, from idea to production, is of extremely high…ah…caliber.The
Caliber will probably prove enormously popular by both
what it isn’t and what it is -- first, being NOT
enormous in size; second, being a kick to drive; and
third, being remarkably inexpensive to operate, and
particularly to buy.
to media days at the Chicago Auto Show, and Jason Vines,
Chrysler’s unceasingly clever public relations
coordinator, pulled on a wig portraying "Wink Jasondale"
to play a Dating Game parody called Driving Game, and
unveiled three vehicles – first, a new Nitro R/T; last, a
new Dodge Rampage concept pickup; and between the two, the
new SRT-4 – which is a turbocharged, 300-horsepower
version of the Caliber.
On either side of Chrysler’s introduction, General Motors
and Ford both unveiled their newest large trucks – GM with the
new Chevrolet Avalanche and Ford with a redesigned Lincoln
Navigator. Let’s see, now…two new large trucks, from two
companies that are in financial crisis-mode because of the
serious dropoff in large-truck/SUV sales. Hmmmmm.
Meanwhile, the rest of the automotive world seems to have
realized that smaller, more compact "crossover" SUV sales are
going right past the big-truck versions in 2006, and are
scrambling to enter that more rational compact-SUV segment,
the Dodge Caliber seems to be another blast out of the park
for Chrysler. Caliber fulfills all the requirements of larger
SUVs with the obvious assets of a compact crossover SUV, but
if it’s a crossover, it’s coming from the compact sedan
driveability end, more than the truck end. It is being built
in the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plan, right on I90 as you
drive westward from Chicago.
Going against the flow has become a standard for Chrysler,
from days of the Prowler, to the Viper, to the PT Cruiser, to
the 300, Magnum, Charger and upcoming Challenger. For now, it
is the Caliber. "We monitor the industry," said Chrysler Group
product communications director Rick Deneau, "and when
everybody else goes right, we go left."
Consider that the Neon was Chrysler’s successful little
compact/subcompact that had a good life but has now
disappeared from Chrysler’s product list. The Caliber,
actually, is the replacement for the Neon. And yet, at $13,985
(including destination), it starts $410 below the Neon, with
huge upgrades in content. It may meet all responsibilities of
a compact family car, but with its Dodge cross-hairs grille,
hump-backed wagon-back roofline, and flexible utility inside,
the Caliber crosses over to cover virtually all features that
people have been getting from outrageously expensive SUVs.
Chrysler’s recently arranged collaboration with Mitsubishi
and Hyundai on engine-building pays off with a World Engine
variety for the Caliber. Built in a new plant in Dundee,
Mich., but also being built in Japan, South Korea, and
elsewhere in the world, the base 1.8-liter engine has 148
horsepower, the 2.0-liter has 158 horsepower, and the
2.4-literhas 172 horsepower. All three are family-united
four-cylinder engines, but with varying bores and strokes
because of computer-selected optimum sizes for balance and
refinement. All have chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, and
variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust sides of
their four-valve-per-cylinder layouts. (The just-announced
SRT-4 takes the 2.4 and turbocharges it up to 300 horsepower
and 260 foot-pounds of torque, but that’s a later story.)
Calibers start out as front-wheel drive, and the top R/T
comes with all-wheel drive. Transmissions range from a
five-speed manual up to a second-generation
continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which can be
selected with an AutoStick feature that simulates manual
choice of six automatic gear stops. All Calibers built with
40-percent high-strength steel throughout the body cage, plus
magnesium and hot-stamped steel reinforcement beams for
side-impact protection and hydroformed front and upper
cross-members for further structural rigidity. Standard
side-curtain airbags augment the other safety features.
The 1.8 engine is standard in the SE and SXT. In the
$13,985 SE base model, options include the 2.0, with the CVT.
Same as the $15,985 SXT model, which adds more interior
versatility, including a 115-volt household electrical outlet,
and an expanded option list that includes heated leather
seats, power sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, and
electronic stability control. The top R/T model has all that
the SXT offers, plus electromagnetic all-wheel drive at
$19,985, and has the 2.4-liter engine standard, along with the
CVT with the added AutoStick feature, plus antilock brakes,
sport suspension, performance steering ratio, foglights,
18-inch alloys, and a chrome grille.
There is no resemblance to the Neon, but whatever the
Caliber is, it takes care of those folks who wouldn’t consider
the Neon, or any subcompact, because of diminutive size. The
Caliber is 4 inches taller, 1 inch wider, and 1 inch shorter
overall than the Neon. It also measures 5 inches longer and
2.5 inches lower than the PT Cruiser. With a rear floor that
is easily removable for cleaning, and split fold-down rear
seats, it has enough interior room to appeal to a universal
array of buyers. Chrysler intends to sell Caliber in 98
countries, and designed it to also handle right-hand-steering.
Every manufacturer is trying to attract the 20-something
segment, and Caliber has certain appeal there, but with
marketing projections of 50-50 male-female buyers, it’s a
logical contender for any commuter, any small family, any
second-car seekers, and even for those looking for an
inexpensive but safe car for an offspring reaching driving
The kind of details that can set a vehicle apart from
competitors also are available in the Caliber. A rechargeable
flashlight, for example, is a handy and useful feature. A
second glove compartment, one high and one low, are also
handy, and the lower one has a chiller box that will hold four
20-ounce pop or water bottles. A household electrical outlet,
first seen on the Toyota Matrix, is a brilliant addition – no
more searching for a cigarette-lighter adaptor.
And then there’s the audio system, which can be upgraded to
a nine-speaker, 458-watt blaster. When you’re at a picnic, or
tailgating, swing open the rear and you can fold a little
hinged boombox comes down from the ceiling aimed outside, to
fire off your tunes for the conversationally-challenged.
The Caliber designers seemed to think of everything,
including all kinds of parts intended to help satisfy the
potential for after-market tuners, who will find an unlimited
playground for personal alterations.
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.