- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

When the first-generation Dodge Neon appeared as an early 1995 model, the “entry level” was still characterized primarily by small compact coupes and sedans. The SUV craze had not yet gripped American consumers, and buyers were content with affordable transportation without massive cargo-carrying capacity.

Dodge’s introduction of the Caliber, the Neon’s successor and replacement, indicates that in the context of SUV versatility, customers now demand their entry-level vehicles not only to be affordable, but also capable of transporting excess cargo and passengers.

Caliber is a five-door hatchback combining the short wheelbase of a compact with the upright stance of an SUV and spacious interior of a crossover station wagon. Don’t be confused, however, this is more than a Neon with fender flares and a taller suspension; the Caliber appears to have been derived from the Magnum wagon.

With a base price of $13,985 ($560 destination charge included), Caliber undercuts the 2006 Neon SE by $410.

Caliber possesses many of the design attributes inherent to recent Dodge products. A black roof panel that starts at the windshield runs the length of the cabin, intersects the prominent roof-mounted rear spoiler and ends at the base of the D pillars. Dodge believes this creates a “coupelike visual quality” when viewed from the side.

Several unique interior features create an environment both conducive to leisure and conscious of safety and utility.

Calibers equipped with air conditioning include the option of ChillZone, a cooled storage area in the glove-box area. Dodge says four 20-oz. beverages fit comfortably.

Two additional creative touches include a ceiling-mounted self-charging flashlight that may be removed for emergency or low light situations, and illuminated cup-holder rings that make placement of a beverage easier in low-light situations. A 110-volt outlet is an extra convenience.

Dodge offers Caliber in three trim levels: SE, SXT and R/T. Base SE models get the standard 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder delivering 148 horsepower in front of a five-speed manual transmission. Standard amenities include side curtain air bags, a 60/40-split rear seat, tilt steering wheel, manual windows/locks and 15-inch wheels and tires. A larger 158-horsepower 2.0-liter version and continuously variable transmission arrive as options on SE Calibers, which includes ABS as a part of the package.

Many options are offered, highlighted by a six-disc audio system, MusicGate speakers, Sirius satellite radio, power windows/locks/mirrors with keyless entry, air conditioning, the ChillZone cooler, cruise control, floor mats and a trailer tow package.

Midlevel SXT models are still powered by the 1.8-liter engine and include the 2.0-liter unit and CVT optionally. In addition to the SE’s equipment, SXT Calibers get reclining and flat-folding 60/40-split rear seats, the flat-folding front passenger seat, ceiling-mounted flashlight, a tachometer, bright silver instrument panel bezels and many of the SE’s optional goodies. Leather wrapping on the steering wheel, a power sunroof, heated seats, leather seating surfaces, 17-inch alloy wheels, an alarm, air filtration system, compass, tire pressure monitor and ambient temperature gauge are all available. All SXTs are distinguishable from the exterior by their body-color side molding, black mirrors, chrome grille and 17-inch wheels with full covers.

At the top of the lineup is an AWD R/T Caliber that is propelled via a 2.4-liter engine with dual variable valve timing and a maximum output of 172 horsepower. Sport suspension, tighter steering, ABS and an AutoStick feature built into the CVT inspire more spirited and controlled driving.

Although the CVT allows a nearly infinite ratio of gears, Dodge’s inclusion of AutoStick creates six ratios, ,and allows semi-manual control. A FWD R/T model arrives later in the model year.

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