- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 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 attractive and highly acclaimed Magnum wagon.

Dodge believes 20-somethings with median yearly incomes of $45,000 are likely to purchase the Caliber. For many of these buyers, Caliber will be their first new car purchase, as previous vehicles were likely acquired in used condition. Alternatively, Dodge also sees a market among 40-somethings looking for suitable first cars for their children. Perhaps, mom and dad will get a full-grown Magnum and son or daughter might enjoy the pint-sized Caliber. With a base price of $13,985 ($560 destination charge included), Caliber undercuts the 2006 Neon SE by $410. Parked alongside the outgoing sedan, the new Caliber sits one inch shorter, on top of a wheelbase that has shrunk by 1.4 inches. Width and height have swelled, however, as the Caliber is 1.4 inches wider and 4.4 inches taller than the Neon. Ground clearance has also grown by just under a inch.

Caliber possesses many of the design attributes inherent in recent Dodge products. The emphatically articulated fender flares, large “crosshair” grille and vaultlike body-to-glass ratio emulate styling cues found on the Magnum and Dakota/Ram pickup trucks. 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, or rear, pillars. Dodge believes this creates a “coupelike visual quality” when viewed from the side, and we agree. Another point of interest is the taillight placement and design, both of which suggest modeling cues from the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Several unique interior features create an environment both conducive to leisure and conscious of safety and utility. The available Boston Acoustics nine-speaker audio system includes two pivoting speakers in the rear lift gate. With the hatch open, these speakers swing down and face rearward, supporting tailgating and related outdoor activities. 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, vinyl flooring in the rear cargo area and a flat folding front passenger seat provide additional 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 optionally on SE Calibers, and includes ABS as a part of the package.

Mid-level SXT models are still powered by the 1.8-liter engine and include the 2-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. In addition to the plentiful standard equipment found on the lower models, R/Ts flash optional 18-inch alloy wheels and tires. Fog lights, a chrome grille, chrome plated side moldings and body-color door handles, lower fascias and sill moldings help the R/T flex its muscle. A FWD R/T model arrives later in the year.

Dodge will also build a Caliber with a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine for markets outside of North America. The company hopes European enthusiasm for hatchbacks will cause overseas customers to embrace the Neon’s replacement.

With typically higher gas prices and shorter distances to travel, Europeans have long known the virtues of hatchback utility and economy. Caliber suggests that American manufacturers are beginning to realize this critical segment.

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