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2009 Dodge Caliber SE Review

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Notable for What It’s Not
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

On our first drive to town in the Caliber SE my pretty blonde said, “What’s up with this. I didn’t know they still made cars with roll-up windows.”

I can’t remember the last time I drove a car with roll-up windows either; or without power locks and mirrors, or without a tach for that matter. And, how many cars list AC as optional anymore. The story of this Caliber SE (entry level) seems to be the story of what it doesn’t have. It’s a story of content.

Now remember, this is the basic, no frills, economy car, though it sure doesn’t look like it. Caliber is the replacement for the long-running Neon, which as most of you know was a stylish little sedan when it came out, but after a few too many years on the market it began to be seriously dated. Built in the Belvidere, IL plant, it also had intermittent quality problems to go along with design shortcuts that slowly eroded its reputation.

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Caliber is built in Belvidere as well and was introduced with great fanfare to replace the Neon a few years ago when SUVs and CUVs were all the rage. I remember the press conference in Detroit, in a restaurant parking lot across from Tiger Stadium, where a couple dozen selected press folks were treated to a preview. At the time it seemed a remarkably bold move to give the replacement for the cheapest car in the fleet such a dramatic styling and design statement, with strong, masculine lines, innovative creature comfort and conveniences. The pre-production version we saw was well equipped and a full step beyond what I expected.

A front-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door, it’s still an economy car at its core, somewhere between a small CUV, a station wagon, and a hatchback. It’s a bit difficult to categorize. It’s certainly more than just a little 4-door sedan. It appeared to have nothing in common with the antiquated Neon, except perhaps the basic platform.

High, broad shoulders and angular details compliment the characteristic Dodge crosshatch grille. Bulging wheel arches makes it look more truckish than sporty. In this case the wheel wells have too much blank space with the visually undersized 15-inch stamped steel wheels and faux-chrome wheel covers.

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The interior is part of Caliber’s charm. You’ll recognize the typical Dodge design elements right away in the instrument panel and center stack. A purely utilitarian shifter extrudes from the lower section of the center stack. Simple, intuitive controls integrate well into the theme. Materials are about what you’d expect in an entry level economy car, and that’s not to denigrate them much. These days even the bottom line cars are better than mid-range were just a few years ago. I found nothing substantial to complain about, nor much to rave about.

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I found the seats comfortable and generous enough. The rear seat had more room than I expected. Cargo area is exceptional in this econo-car class with 18.5 cubic-feet behind the back seat and a substantial 48 cubic-feet with the rear seats folded nearly flat.

Little has changed in these few years since introduction visually.

Our base Caliber is powered by an anemic 1.8-liter four banger with 148 horsepower and just 125 pound-feet of torque. A couple of generations ago – during the K-car era – we would have thought that plenty. This is a 3,000-pound car now, though, and it feels pretty weak. I entered the freeway where the entrance ramp and acceleration lane climb a gentle slope and at full throttle, winding it tight in each gear. I barely made it up to speed. For a few extra bucks you can get a little more grunt with a 2.0 or 2.4-liter I4s – 158 and 172 horsepower, respectively. Or you can go for the turbo 2.4 in the Caliber SRT with 6-speed manual Getrag transmission for plenty of performance.

Our Caliber SE is rated at 24-mpg in the city and 30 on the highway, using regular fuel of course. The fuel mileage difference is minimal between our 5-speed manual and the optional CVT. With a 13.6 gallon fuel tank we have a range of 350 miles or better.

Suspension is conventional and tuned like a non-descript economy car. The ride and handling are pleasant and unremarkable. You certainly wouldn’t want to autocross with this one, but it is perfectly competent in normal circumstances. Brakes are discs in front and drums in the rear.

The driving experience is good. I found the 5-speed stick easy to drive smoothly with a light clutch and competent shifter. You won’t be fooled into thinking you’re in a more expensive or sporty car, but you’ll probably find it reasonably fun to drive.

The base price on the sticker shows $15,710. According to the Dodge Web site this reflects the promotional employee pricing, down from a base of $17,090. This one even shows AC as a $1000 option with the famous “Chill Zone” glove box drink cooler and air filtration system. We’ve talked about what it doesn’t have but we find it is equipped with a few admirable features like halogen headlamps, six airbags, AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD/MP3 player, electroluminescent instrument cluster, tilt steering column, rear window wiper and washer.

The new car warranty covers the car for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the drivetrain for life. That lifetime warranty only applies to the original owner.

If you’re shopping for an entry level economy car and you want one with a bit of brash personality this Caliber might be for you. If it’s purely content you’re after, you’ll probably find more for your money elsewhere.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved