- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

As entry-level economy cars go, the Dodge Caliber is another in a gaggle of basic transports vying for our attention. A competitive price, roomy accommodations and decent fuel economy are its (and many others’) primary selling points.

It has a few nifty available features separating it from the herd and perhaps increasing its appeal to certain buyers. The chilled glovebox and the fold-down speakers located in its hatch engineered to max out the sound when tailgating spring to mind.

Its exterior styling also enhances its uniqueness. There is no confusing it with any of its competitors. The Neon, which it replaced in Dodge’s lineup, was not nearly as distinctive. At the end of the day, though, the Caliber is just another economy car, or it was until this year when the SRT-4 joined the lineup.

The most powerful engine previously available to the Caliber is the 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four found in the Caliber R/T. Dodge performance wizards have taken that engine and turbocharged it for the SRT-4. This pumps the pony count up to 285 horsepower and increases torque from 100 pounds-feet to 265 pounds-feet.

For most readers these are just numbers; but from behind the wheel, the four second or so improvement in acceleration time from a standstill to 60 mph is noticeable and exhilarating. The SRT-4 accomplishes this yardstick task in about six seconds — better-than-should-be-expected performance for the SRT-4’s $22,995 base price. If you want to check out the 0-60 time yourself, there is an optional unit that let’s you.

Transferring all that engine production to the front wheels falls to a six-speed manual transmission. The SRT-4 is the only Caliber edition utilizing this particular transmission. It shifts smoothly with relatively short throws.

When viewed as an economy hatchback, the fuel economy is less than wonderful, but begin thinking in terms of higher performance sedans and the numbers are more palatable. The Environmental Protection Agency rates its fuel efficiency at 21 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

When accelerating, it’s best to keep both hands tightly gripping the plump, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Front-wheel-drive cars, and particularly those oozing gobs of power, tend to pull to the left or right during hard acceleration. Dodge has tried to minimize this in the SRT-4 by, among other things, lowering the ride height and adding a cross member to the front suspension. Although its efforts somewhat mitigate torque steer, they don’t eliminate it.

Putting some positive spin on it, you could say this adds character to the driving experience as you could say your chute not opening adds character to your skydiving experience. But torque steer being the common bugaboo that it is, eventually just becomes part of the everyday driving experience. It may surprise you in the beginning, but you will rapidly accommodate it.

Firmer tuning combined with twin-tube ZF gas shocks at all four wheels deliver a steady, balanced platform. There is just a slight hint of body roll with virtually no lift on acceleration or dive on hard braking. The predictable cornering won’t have passengers covering their eyes.

The SRT-4 rolls on 19-inch wheels and rubber. Among the Caliber’s four versions only the R/T and SRT-4 have standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock. As a function of the anti-lock system, they both also share electronic brakeforce distribution. The SRT-4, however, is the only Caliber model with stability control, traction control and emergency braking assist as standard equipment.

Although its chiseled exterior — including a unique hood with functional air scoop and a rear spoiler the size of an ironing board — and gutsy powertrain belie the SRT-4’s economy mission, Caliber’s interior doesn’t.

The $8,500 premium required to upgrade from the base SE to the SRT-4 covers enhancements beyond those mentioned previously and include power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, cooled glovebox, and leather trim on the steering wheel and shift knob.

However, other than some alloy trim, upgraded upholstery and floor mats, the SRT-4 cabin is little removed from the SE’s. The styling is plain even for an economy car and no effort is made to disguise the liberal use of plastic.

Although it features a CD player and auxiliary input jack for a personal music device, this is the same four-speaker audio system found in the SE. Tacking $1,190 to the bottom line buys a sound system upgrade that increases the speaker count to 13 with a subwoofer and the aforementioned flip-down hatch speakers, as well as an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Moving up to the SRT-4 does provide redundant audio controls on the steering wheel. A $1,395 GPS navigation unit is also available.

The front bucket seats are comfortable enough and provide a fair amount of side support.

The church pew-like 60/40 split rear seat folds flat with the cargo floor, bumping cargo capacity from 19 cubic feet to 48 cubic feet. The front passenger seat also folds flat enabling the carrying of long items. Caliber can carry five, but four will be much more comfortable.

The Caliber SRT-4 is proof positive that you don’t need to be in the Billionaire Boys Club to put neck-snapping performance at your command. If you have a racecar driver attitude, but an economy car budget, the SRT-4 certainly falls within those parameters.


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