This new engine is also mated to a brand new Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), following the lead that Nissan and Audi had set for belt-driven ‘boxes’. Driven as a conventional transmission, the car is responsive and quick, without the ‘rubber band’ effect that usually besets a CVT. The transmission is also commendably parsimonious, quickly reducing the engine speed to under 2000 rpm as soon as the car stops accelerating. This also occurs at highway speeds, which means the Caliber cruises at 100km/h with the engine ticking over at less than 2000 rpm. Flick the lever left or right, and the car becomes a sequential 6-speed manual gearbox.And like any true-blue American, the Caliber’s cabin is thoughtfully practical, if not always subtle or refined. Americans spend more time in their cars than anyone else in the world, and there is a cooler compartment for drinks (works better with cans than bottles) for hot and thirsty outdoor activities. There is also a handy iPod/mobile phone holder that flips open from the centre armrest, complete with extensive warnings should an accident occur if one is operating the device while driving. Even the drink holders are special - not only do they comfortably accommodate Big Gulp cups, and mugs with handles - they are also lit at night with cool blue rings. The built-in torchlight is also very clever and practical. There are plenty of useful storage spaces all over the dashboard, and the contrasting light/dark grey colour coding is smart. Not so subtle is the quality of the cabin plastics, which have a shiny finish, but are probably hardwearing and tough as well. The cabin also converts very quickly into a load area for bikes and equipment when the seats are collapsed and folded away. In keeping with its rugged looks though, the Caliber’s ride is on the firm side, and the driver is continually kept aware of the irregularities on the road surface.
Priced at $89,000/- the Caliber is the Chrysler Group’s entry-level model, undercutting the PT Cruiser by about $10,000. This pits it against the Toyota Camry and European executives like the Peugeot 407 and Volkswagen Golf. On its side, it has unbeatable presence and turns heads like no other car. It is also thoughtfully practical, and seems to be designed for people into sports and outdoor activities – it certainly has the looks of an outgoing and dynamic sporty SUV. It certainly isn’t for office-bound types that have no imagination. A fresh, new concept in an increasingly crowded and marketplace – which makes the Caliber a once in a blue moon, true-blue American phenomenon.