2011 Dodge Caliber Review by Steve Purdy +VIDEO
Much improved inside - Tepid overall
By Steve Purdy
I’ll never forget my first encounter with the new Dodge Caliber in late 2005. It was a regional press preview at a restaurant right next to the then-new Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit. The concept version of the car was revealed at the Geneva Motor Show a few months earlier but I hadn’t paid much attention. Seeing it here close up brought me to the realization that it was light years ahead of the pedestrian Neon it was essentially replacing.
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The innovative design has not changed from that day until this, though Caliber is no longer fresh. It’s only 6-years-old, but that is a long time in today’s blindingly fast product development cycle. Based on its initial success in the U. S. market it ended up being sold around the world but is due for replacement by an Alfa-based small car of which we’ve not yet had a hint. Caliber ended its European sales in 2010, will cease being produced in the US in November of 2011 and in Canada sometime late in 2012. We’re reviewing here one of the last of this brand of little car.
On-road look at the Dodge Caliber (2010 MY)
Caliber, assembled in Belvidere, Illinois with a listed 73% U.S. content, looks and acts more like a small crossover with its masculine, trucky shape and utilitarian features. The 5-door configuration with decent interior volume is wrapped in bulging, edgy sheet metal that seems modern and retro at the same time. With a characteristic Dodge cross-hatch grill and huge tires, its stance and profile suggest performance and durability. Neither of these attributes come to the fore, by the way, in anything but image.
Inside, we find that just about everything looks and feels better than the last one we reviewed about two years ago. No longer do cheap and tawdry materials call attention to themselves. Rather, the leather seats, new dash design, leather-wrapped steering wheel and judicious chrome trim provide a much improved cabin feel. Our Rush test car happens to be the 4th highest of 5 trim levels so this assessment may not apply to the bottom of the line model. Controls are simple and easy to manage except for the Electronic Vehicle Information Center that can only be managed by reaching awkwardly through the steering wheel.
Ingress and egress to the rear seats is surprisingly easy for this big guy. Rear seats fold flat with a 60/40 combination and the front passenger seat back folds flat as well for longer cargo needs. Volume is about average for compact hatchbacks with about 48 cubic-feet available with seats folded.
The entry-level car, called Express, starts at $17,380 without options or destination charges. Then we have Heat, Mainstreet, Rush (the one we’re testing here) and Uptown. Both the Rush and Uptown start at $20,585, with Rush being billed as the sporty one and Uptown having more luxury. I’m intrigued by the model names since we’re used to names like SE, SXT, R/T and SRT from Dodge. These sure sound like names focused on the urban youth market.
The 2011 Caliber Rush in our driveway shows a bottom-line price of $23,880 including a $700 Security Group, the leather trim upgraded seats for only $650, the $300 Convenience Group which includes, among other things the Electronic Vehicle Information Center, the CVT shift AutoStick transmission for $1,000 and the $395 Media Center which includes CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/Nav.
Even without all these options the Caliber Rush comes with a good level of standard content including: 4 airbags, active head restraints, 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, brake assist, hill start assist, electronic stability control, power locks, keyless entry, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring, extra 12-volt power outlet, AC with automatic temp control, power windows, media center with 30 GB hard drive, USB port, audio jack, 9 speakers with subwoofer, 6.5-inch touch screen control, Sirius Satellite radio w/one-year subscription, Uconnect phone with Voice Command, auto-dimming rear view mirror, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, illuminated cup holders and a removable, rechargeable flash light. The Rush also comes with 18-inch aluminum and chrome wheels shod with low-profile (55-series) tires, power heated mirrors, fog lamps, a chrome exhaust tip and rear spoiler.
The Caliber’s powertrain is not its strong point. While entirely adequate and reasonably economical it won’t put a smile on your face. The 2.4-liter VVT, 16-valve engine makes 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is tepid and wheezy. Though you can get a 5-speed manual transmission our test car has the CVT (continuously variable transmission) which is mostly responsible for the wheeze. I would recommend the former if you drive for fun, the latter if you don’t care. The EPA rates our 3,000-pound, CVT-equipped test car at 22 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. That’s just about what we experienced.
Handling and driving dynamics are good, but again, nothing to write home about. Suspension is of conventional design and geometry. Suspension tuning strikes a good balance between agility and comfort. We did not challenge it much this week by pushing it hard. Our sense is that most owners will not either.
The Dodge new car warranty covers the Caliber for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the powertrain for 5 years or 100,000 miles.
We’re still fond of the design of the Caliber. While a purely aesthetic evaluation might tend to criticize for a bit too much visual complexity, we find it to be one of those cars that we like to look at. And it’s a perfectly competent every-day car as well.
Kudos to Dodge for upgrading the interior just in time to replace it with something fresh emerging from the new and untested marriage with the Italians. Can’t wait to see what’s that will be. In the meantime you’ll probably find some real bargains on this Caliber during its waning months.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved