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2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 Review

2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

Subtlety has never been a trait of Chrysler's high performance cars. Back in the muscle car days of the late 1960s, the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Charger Daytona sported high rear wings and other aerodynamic modifications that put most of the aftermarket pieces available today to shame. When hot hatchbacks came into vogue in the 1980s, Chrysler's answer was the Dodge Omni GLH, a mean little machine with plenty of power and somewhat less sophistication, developed with input from a certain ex-Texas chicken rancher, race car driver, and performance impresario who also played a key role in the creation of the Viper, a car that practically defines "excessive".

And then there is Chrysler's current Street and Racing Technology - SRTĘ - in-house tuner organization, which, like its German counterparts, creates high-performance versions of Dodge and Chrysler vehicles.

With all of that in its background, the new Dodge Caliber SRT4 comes as no surprise. The Caliber five-door hatchback/mini-crossover is the replacement for the Neon sedan, and there was an SRT version of the Neon. The Neon SRT4 was an aggressively amped-up little beast, with turbo power to match its steroid-fed looks. It was a nice warm-up act for the Caliber SRT4.

Decorated outside with scoops, flares, and spoilers and inside with the expected sport-compact kit, the Caliber SRT4 is about as subtle as a thermonuclear explosion. Poseur it is not, as its overstated looks are backed up by 285 horsepower under the hood, from a force-fed version of Chrysler's 2.4-liter "World Engine". It's matched to a six-speed manual gearbox, made by Getrag, and the standard traction and stability control systems have their work cut out keeping the front wheels relatively tame when the accelerator pedal is mashed to the floor. The suspension is extensively modified for optimum roadholding, and brakes are upgraded to four-wheel discs with floating calipers, twin-piston in front.

On the other hand, the SRT4 is a Caliber, which means it has a large amount of useful space inside a small outside and is a very practical vehicle. Unlike most sports coupes, and many sedans, the Caliber rear seat is actually roomy enough for real people. My week with the Caliber SRT4 encompassed holiday shopping and traffic as well as open highways and backroads. It was great fun on the open road, and, unsurprisingly, less so in traffic. Heavy steering and a tricky clutch made dealing with inattentive holiday parking lot denizens, um, challenging. As with sports cars from the past, this is part of the SRT4's character. People will buy it for the solid kick in the pants when the right foot is flexed, and enjoy the available and useful space, not vice versa. At heart, it's a `60s muscle car reincarnated into the body of a small crossover hatchback - no surprise considering its pedigree.

APPEARANCE: Dodge calls the Caliber SRT4's exterior styling "muscular". Indeed... if such muscles were on a baseball player, the Mitchell Commission would be investigating. The angular, boxy Caliber shape already has some serious fender flares, presumably for a mini-SUV look, so the SRT4's 19-inch wheels, shod with 225/45 performance tires, fit neatly inside with no change necessary. The grille is classic Dodge crosshair, and a bit larger than the one on the regular Caliber - all the better to feed air to the very noticeable intercooler that lurks behind. The hood is higher, to clear the plumbing to the turbo engine, and features three scoops, one forward for intake and two (faux) rear-facing. The SRT4 sits lower on its suspension than the other Caliber models, and is further lowered visually by a front air dam, side skirts, and a rear "venturi panel". But, unlike the old GLH, it still has a reasonable approach angle, although care is still necessary around curbs. A deeper bumper (with that "venturi panel" and an oversized exhaust tip) and visor-type spoiler at the rear of the roof distinguish the rear view.

COMFORT: Interior treatment is Sport-Compact 101: dark synthetics for most panels, with leather for the steering wheel rim and shift knob, offset by red stitching on the seats, steering wheel, and shift boot. Black-on-white instruments, chrome-bezeled of course, "alloy silver" matte plastic material for the center stack, and aluminum-and-rubber pedals complete the treatment. The basic design in unchanged from the lesser Caliber models, but that is no bad thing at all as it then inherits the "Chill Zone" compartment above the main glove box, which holds four 20-oz drink bottles in cooled comfort, the power windows, mirrors, and locks (with remote keyless entry), and commodious space of the SXT and R/T models. The SRT4 does get its own front seats, and they are good ones, with grippy textured inserts and high bolsters, all the better to hold driver and front passenger in place when the engine and chassis are being exercised. The Caliber's high crossover design places the driver's eyes high, for good visibility, and also gives all passengers excellent head room. Rear knee and leg room - for the outboard passengers - is also commendable, and its 60/40 split folding ability adds versatility. The optional Boston Acoustics MusicGate Power AM/FM/6CD-MP3CD/Sirius satellite radio sound system provides high-quality sound. One option not in my test car was the "performance pages" feature, which uses a built-in accelerometer to provide 0-60, eighth- and quarter-mile acceleration and speed, braking distance, and longitudinal and lateral g-force information in a dashboard display.

SAFETY: The Caliber has a five-star rating from NHTSA for driver and passenger frontal impact performance, and front and rear seat side impact performance. Multistage front and full-length side curtain airbags are standard in the SRT4, as are front and rear crumple zones, all-speed traction control, ESP stability control, brake assist, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Looking for quiet refinement? Don't look here. With a stiff, lowered suspension, wide tires, minimal soundproofing, and an abundance of torque and horsepower, the Caliber is pretty much a pocket front-wheel drive muscle car. "Bestial" is a good description; "bland" is not. Yes, the steering is power-assisted, although it still takes muscle to point the 225/45 ZR19 tires, especially at low speeds. Step on the throttle hard, and you will realize that the front wheels are driven by 265 lb-ft of torque. Understeer is the most noticeable handling characteristic, but grip is good. The Caliber's tall stance is good for vision and headroom, but it also means that the center of gravity is high. Stiff springs, shocks, and stabilizer bars tame body roll, and front seat comfort makes up for the ride quality. Compromise? Surely you jest.... This is a performance sport-compact with a heritage that goes back to the Hemi `Cuda. Brakes, however, are far better than anything from the muscle car era. Extra-large discs all around, vented in front, with floating calipers on all corners do an admirable job when it comes time to stop quickly.

PERFORMANCE: Start with the largest version of Chrysler's "world engine", at 2.4 liters displacement. A contemporary aluminum alloy design, with dual overhead cams with variable phasing on both, it does well with 172 horsepower in naturally-aspirated form in the Caliber R/T. Add intercooled turbo boost and a host of internal upgraded to handle it, and the result is 285 horsepower from 5700 through 6400 rpm, with torque peaking at 265 lb-ft from a low 2000 through 5600 rpm. Keep it above 3000 for best results, and the reward is instant power. Clutch effort is heavy, and it prefers quick starts with adequate throttle as opposed to milquetoast idling, so stop-and-go traffic is best avoided. Shift linkage is good, and the six-speed gearbox allows reasonably economical highway cruising as well as quick acceleration - figure 0-60 in around six seconds.

CONCLUSIONS: The Dodge Caliber SRT4 has the soul of a muscle car trapped in a mini-crossover body. Cheap thrills!


2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

Base Price			$ 22,435
Price As Tested			$ 24,510
Engine Type			dual overhead cam turbocharged and
				 intercooled aluminum alloy inline
				 4-cylinder with variable cam phasing
				 and dual balance shafts
Engine Size			2.4 liters / 144 cu. in.
Horsepower			285 @ 5700-6400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			265 @ 2000-5600 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		103.7 in. / 173.8 in.
Curb Weight			3189 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		11.2
Fuel Capacity			n/a gal.
Fuel Requirement		93 octane unleaded premium gasoline
				87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P225/45 ZR19 Goodyear F1 Supercar
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc, dual-piston
				 floating calipers / 
				  solid disc,
				 single-piston floating calipers,
				  standard ABS, ESP, traction control
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut/
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		21 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph				6.1  sec

Inferno Red Crystal Pearlcoat paint		$ 150
Customer Preferred Package 28S - includes:
  MusicGate Power (tm) sound system
  with Sirius Satellite Radio			$ 915
225/45 ZR19 performance tires			$  50
19x7.5" polished aluminum SRT wheels		$ 400
Destination charge				$ 560