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NEW CAR REVIEW
Dodge delivers high-Caliber shot at changing market
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

SCOTTSDALE, 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.

 At 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.
Flash forward 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 age.

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 cars@jwgilbert.com.