True Blue American
Dodge Caliber SXT 2.0 Review
With the Caliber, DaimlerChrysler launches Dodges’ world car, on that has been developed to bring American values to a world wide audience
America’s “Big Three” consist of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, but of these, only Chrysler offers a truly American product. In Singapore, General Motors is represented by Chevrolet, Opel and Saab, and none of the cars are produced in North America. Ditto for Ford, which gets its cars from Europe. Chrysler (and Jeep) may look American, but most of them were produced in Austria and Mexico (for the PT Crusier). It is only with the launch of the Dodge brand, and the new 2.0-litre Caliber, that Chrysler Jeep has a bona-fide, design and made-in-the-USA product in its line-up. On the other hand, the Caliber is also a “world car” - after the relative success in Europe and Asia of the PT Cruiser and 300C, which were designed and developed primarily for the America market, and exported as an after thought, the Chrysler Group has developed the Caliber to be exported from the very beginning, and sold throughout the planet.
Stylistically, the Caliber has all the IN-YOUR-FACE boldness that makes the larger 300C so attractive. It’s scaled down on the Caliber, of course, but the combination of broad shoulders and chunky shapes makes almost every other car on the road look weak and insipid by comparison. In terms of concept, the Caliber is also different – it is not just an ordinary 5-door hatchback, but one that crossovers to looking like an SUV as well, with its tall 215/60 tyres and 17-inch rims. It is also sporty, with a sleek, fast back and coupe-like small windows. This is quite an ambitious combination of concepts, but the Caliber comes across very well resolved while remaining distinctive and unique. Engine size has traditionally been the stumbling block that prevented American cars from succeeding with our size-sensitive taxation system, and this is the first indication that the Caliber was designed for international markets. It is jointly-developed by Mitsubishi and Hyundai, and also powers the Sonata (and Kia Magentis) in its 2.0-litre form, and the Mitsubishi Outlander as a 2.4-litre. This means spec-wise, the Caliber’s engine is bang-up-to-date with twin cams, 16-valves and the latest variable valve technology. It is also impressively smooth and quiet, unlike our experience with other 4-cylinder Chrysler engines found in the PT Cruiser and Mini.
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.