That’s because the Caliber is a car that manages to blow away the time-worn maxim that small, inexpensive cars are nothing more than basic transportation for folks on a tight budget. Compared to the Dodge Neon it replaces, the new 2007 Caliber represents an entirely different breed of compact car based on fundamentally different assumptions. Instead of viewing the decision to drive a smaller vehicle as a “have-to” imposed by a buyer’s more modest means, Dodge product planners have assumed – and we think rightly so – that there are an awful lot of folks out there who actually prefer to drive compact vehicles because of their livelier driving dynamics, greater fuel economy, better maneuverability, or all three.
Chief among these small car-buying prospects is the much sought after “active lifestyle” consumer who might otherwise be drawn to sport-utility vehicles for their ability to haul a wide variety of outdoor paraphernalia. The 2007 Dodge Caliber meets those buyers’ needs head-on with an immensely practical five-door hatchback design that combines the size and stylish good looks of compact wagons with virtually all the functionality of a small SUV.
In the final measure we came away from our experience with the 2007 Dodge Caliber thinking of it as the equivalent of a BB gun that packs the punch of a .44 Magnum. If those first impressions are correct, the Caliber should have what it takes to make a big bang in the small car world.
Because every new entry in the 2007 Dodge Caliber’s increasingly competitive category will ultimately have to compete on price, Dodge product planners were faced with a serious challenge. Their goal was to create a new vehicle that could be both affordable enough to place it within reach of first-time new car buyers while still offering enough desirable content to draw in more upscale prospects who might not ordinarily consider a compact car.
To that end, the entry-level Caliber SE model is priced at a relatively affordable $13,985 (all prices include the $560 destination charge). For that modest amount of dough – about $400 less than the outgoing Neon – you get niceties like cloth upholstery, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, an AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary audio input jack for connecting an iPod or other MP3 player, and multi-stage front and side-curtain airbags. Despite these desirable standard features, we have to note that this base model may be a bit too basic for the tastes of modern car buyers with its quaint details like crank windows and manual door locks. The good news is that you can pile on a wide array of good stuff including power windows and locks, air conditioning, upgraded audio systems, and more from a long list of extra-cost options.
Step up to the midrange Caliber SXT trim level and you get all the expected modern trimmings, plus reclining rear seatbacks and a fold-flat front passenger seat. Add an extensive array of really cool bells-and-whistles and the $15,985 starting price starts to sound pretty reasonable.
At the top of the Caliber heap is the sporty R/T model which adds a more powerful engine and all-wheel drive. Other hardware upgrades include sport-tuned suspension and steering components, and 18-inch alloy wheels. Caliber R/T prices start at $19,985 and top out at $24,620 for a fully-loaded example.
The 2007 Dodge Caliber also breaks the compact car mold by including some very important safety features, either as standard equipment or extra-cost options. For starters, all Caliber models come equipped with five airbags. Multi-stage front airbags for the driver and front passenger adjust the force of their deployment to match the severity of an impact. A knee-blocker airbag for the driver adds additional protection. Side-curtain airbags, which help reduce the likelihood of head injuries for outboard passengers in both rows, are also standard. Torso-protecting side-impact airbags are available as an option on all Caliber models.
Antilock brakes, another must-have safety feature in our book, are optional on SE and SXT models with a manual transmission and standard on SE, SXT, and R/T models with the CVT automatic. The system also includes an emergency brake assist feature which helps bring maximum braking force to bear when it senses a panic stop. Electronic stability control, a system that can detect and correct an impending skid before it happens, will become available as an option later this year. It’s a feature we feel so strongly about that we’d consider waiting to buy a Caliber until we could get it. A tire-pressure monitoring system is also available as an option.
Nuts and Bolts
Whatever its hopes for the North American market, Dodge is counting on the 2007 Caliber to help the brand gain a toe-hold in both Europe and Asia. At the heart of this international push is a new family of four-cylinder engines developed as part of a cooperative effort between DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai. The Caliber is the first vehicle to get these so-called “world engines” which are produced at the joint venture’s manufacturing plant in Dundee, Michigan.
The three gasoline engines offered in North American markets (a 2.0-liter turbodiesel will be available elsewhere) feature a number of advancements including dual variable valve timing. This technology, which varies the opening and closing of both intake and exhaust valves, is said to result in more power, smoother operation, and a five percent fuel economy improvement compared to the outgoing four-cylinders.
The Caliber is also the first compact car in Daimler Chrysler’s line-up to use a continuously variable transmission. From a driver’s perspective, this transmission, widely referred to as a CVT, operates like an ordinary automatic. Inside, however, its system of tapered pulleys and belts provide an infinitely variable selection of gear ratios that allow the engine to spend more time operating in its most efficient rpm range, thereby improving fuel economy by as much as eight percent compared to a traditional four-speed automatic.
The 2007 Dodge Caliber SE and SXT both get a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder version of these engines as standard equipment, along with a five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. A 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder/CVT combo is available as an option on both models. The sportier R/T gets a sizeable bump in the powertrain department with a 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. For now all R/T models come equipped with the CVT automatic and all-wheel drive. A front-wheel drive Caliber R/T equipped with a five-speed manual transmission should be along later this year.
A compact car’s ability to squeeze maximum mileage out of a gallon of pricey petrol is one of the category’s prime attractions and the Caliber does reasonably well in this regard. Final EPA figures aren’t available yet, but predicted fuel economy numbers for the trio of engines range from excellent (28 city/32 highway for the 1.8-liter) to merely respectable (23 city/26 highway for the 2.4-liter).
Dodge product planners tell us they were out to create a “small car that acts big” with the 2007 Caliber. For the most part, we think they’ve succeeded. For starters, the Caliber is four inches taller and about an inch wider than the Neon it replaces. These larger dimensions and an additional inch of ground clearance give its “ready-for-anything” positioning a good bit of credibility.
All car designs are intended to make a visual statement and, to our eye, the combination of those larger dimensions and the car’s rakish profile says both “sporty” and “capable” in one glance. It’s a look that’s hard to categorize, however, as it shares styling cues with both Dodge’s Magnum station wagon and Durango SUV. With its oversize headlights and bold fender flares, the Caliber tends to look like a much bigger vehicle than it is. Despite this visual heft, the 30/70 ratio of glass-to-sheetmetal in its proportions actually manages to make it look more sleek than stubby.
The Caliber SXT’s available 17-inch alloy wheels and the R/T model’s standard 18-inch alloy rims further enhance this solid visual presence. While we didn’t have the opportunity to check out an SE shod with its standard 15-inch steel wheels and wheelcovers, we figure it’s a safe bet they’d look pretty wimpy by comparison.
As carefully crafted as the Caliber’s exterior is, even more thought went into the car’s interior. The cabin reminds us of other recent DaimlerChrysler vehicles we’ve admired, with clean uncluttered design and an emphasis on function. All models come with a two-tone interior dressed up with brushed aluminum-look accents and attractive cloth upholstery. The Sport Appearance Group option package, which includes a center stack surround painted to match the brightly-colored seat inserts, gives the interior a custom look. Leather upholstery is also available as an option on all trim levels.
While the Caliber boasts a five-passenger interior, we think that claim is a bit disingenuous. Yes, there’s technically room for three average-sized folks in the back seat, but the floor-mounted rear seat cupholders give the center passenger no place to put their feet, essentially making this a four-seater for anything other than short trips. That said, those four passengers have a surprisingly good amount of room in which to stretch out. Back seat occupants enjoy generous leg, foot, and headroom even if they happen to be sitting behind a taller driver. Reclining rear seatbacks on SXT and R/T models add an extra measure of comfort.
Our biggest complaint about the Caliber’s cabin is the wide swathe of hard plastic that greets you at every turn – not that we necessarily expect dash or door panels covered in fine Corinthian leather at this price point. But a little fabric or soft rubber trim in a few key areas like the door panels and armrests would go a long way to making the interior as inviting as it is innovative.
Innovative interior design is a 2007 Dodge Caliber hallmark. Whatever negatives we can find inside the Caliber are largely overshadowed by its long list of especially nifty features. The center armrest between the front seats, for example, can slide forward up to three inches to accommodate different sized drivers. Built into that armrest is a flip-up holder for an iPod or cell phone which makes it easy to the keep your tunes or telephone within easy reach.
But that’s just the beginning. A 110-volt AC power outlet on the center console will allow you to top off your MP3 player or cell phone batteries while you’re on the go without the need for a separate 12-volt charger. Even the pair of cupholders in the console are pretty trick, with illuminated blue-green rings that help you guide your beverage to a safe resting place in the dark.
And you’ll have no fear when darkness falls as Caliber SXT and R/T models both come with a handy rechargeable flashlight that pops out of a built-in holder above the cargo area. While you’re back there you can flip down the slick optional liftgate-mounted speakers to share your tunes with the outside world when the hatch is in the raised position.
Without doubt our favorite feature is up front, however. The “Chill Zone” beverage cooler built into the tri-level glovebox of all air-conditioned cars can hold four 20-ounce water bottles. Taken together, these features make us think “road trips and tailgate parties, here we come!”
With a cargo area floor covered in tough vinyl, the 2007 Dodge Caliber is ready for a rowdy tailgate crowd, and is designed to make bringing home a load of landscape materials on a Saturday morning a no-worries affair. With that in mind, we find it curious that the backs of the rear seats are carpeted, which means you’ll still have to throw down a tarp when hauling messy cargo with the seats folded down.
A standard fold-flat front passenger seat on Caliber SXT and R/T models makes a passable table for parking lot picnics and, when combined with the 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, allows you to stuff an eight-foot ladder inside and still close the rear liftgate. We’re told that the rear cargo area will also swallow a pair of mountain bikes with their front wheels removed.
If there’s any shortage in this well thought-out interior it would have to be storage space. In addition to the upper and lower compartments in the glovebox, there’s a shallow cubby in the dash below the radio, a couple of small map pockets in the front doors (oddly enough, they’re too short for a map), and a pint-sized bin under that sliding armrest in the center console. Storage for the odds-n-ends of back seat passengers is virtually nonexistent.
On the road, the 2007 Dodge Caliber proves itself to be a likable little truck-ette. Not an exciting performer mind you, but likeable nonetheless. We had a chance to drive both a front-wheel-drive SXT and an all-wheel-drive R/T, both equipped with the CVT automatic. Of the impressions those two cars left us with, perhaps the most striking is how little difference we noticed between them.
Acceleration with the SXT’s optional 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine can be described as leisurely, lacking the oomph we were looking for during several passing opportunities. Suffice it to say that you’ll want to plan ahead and give yourself plenty of room in similar situations. That being said, we think most buyers will find this engine entirely passable for daily driving. What surprised us most, however, is that the 14 additional horses under the R/T’s hood didn’t make nearly as much difference as we expected. The 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine’s pickup was only marginally better than its smaller sibling, a result we attribute to the additional 269 pounds of curb weight it has to cart around thanks to the standard AWD system.
We also noted that both engines sounded a little coarse when pushed, an attribute that’s accentuated by the CVT’s tendency to let the engine rev at a high level for a long period of time under hard acceleration. While we didn’t get to drive either model fitted with the five-speed manual, we expect that setup would be a good bit more lively than the cars we drove. Should you feel the urge to run through the gears manually, we should note that the AutoStick manual shift mode on the R/T’s CVT produced reasonably quick up- and downshifts through its six simulated gears. If they’re anything like us, however, we expect most buyers will be perfectly happy to cruise along with the shift lever in “D.”
Overall, both models displayed sure-footed handling that inspired confidence both in traffic and on the open road. Both exhibited a good amount of body roll in enthusiastic cornering, but the car always felt stable and its handling secure and predictable. The Caliber’s four-wheel independent suspension gives the car a better than average ride quality, especially when compared to most small sport-utes. Small pavement imperfections melted away while the impacts of larger bumps felt very well-controlled. Steering action feels sharp, precise, and nicely-weighted in both models. Both the SXT’s front disc/rear drum brake setup and the four-wheel discs on the R/T proved entirely competent in panic stops despite a fair amount of nose dive.
Our day-long drive through the mountains northeast of Phoenix leads us to conclude that the 2007 Dodge Caliber’s got the goods to attract buyers who had previously written off the idea of driving a compact car. And if there’s a performance deficit – even in the sporty Caliber R/T model we drove – the rumored Caliber SRT-4 model should prove just the remedy for the acceleration and handling blues.
FAQs and Specs
How does the Caliber stack up against the competition?
The 2007 Dodge Caliber faces stiff competition, particularly from the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Honda Element, Mazda 3s 5-door, and redesigned VW Golf. Still, with its innovative interior and sensational design, it compares favorably in the class. Dodge offered a back-to-back drive with the Toyota Matrix, and the Matrix felt a little sportier on the road, with slightly better acceleration and handling.
Based on your experience, which trim level(s) would you recommend?
If you’re a first-time car buyer or on a tight budget, we’d suggest going with the SE, adding a few select options, and calling it good. For most everyone else, we’d recommend the SXT unless you feel the need for the added peace-of-mind the R/T’s all-wheel-drive system can offer when the weather turns nasty. Finally, if you’re one of those folks who enjoy a good spirited drive now and then you might want to wait a few months until you can take the front-wheel drive, five-speed manual version of the R/T for a spin – or get in line for the rumored Caliber SRT-4 performance edition.
What’s with that funky raised black trim piece that starts at the bottom outside edge of the windshield and runs along the roof all the way to the rear spoiler?
We wondered about that, too. Apparently, its primary function is to disguise an awkward-looking seam where two important structural elements come together. Dodge designers also told us it helps give the Caliber a lower coupe-like profile and we can see their point as it sort of disappears when viewed from a distance. Still, we can’t help but wonder why, with all of DaimlerChrysler’s immense resources, they couldn’t find a better way to handle this transition than slapping a long plastic band-aid over it.
Test Vehicle: 2007 Dodge Caliber SXT and R/T
Price Range: $15,985 – $24,620 (includes $560 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder (SXT); 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder (R/T)
Engine Horsepower: 158 horsepower at 6,400 rpm (SXT); 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm (R/T)
Engine Torque: 141 lb.-ft. at 5,000 rpm (SXT); 165 lb.-ft. at 4,400 rpm (R/T)
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Curb Weight, lbs. : 3,039 (SXT); 3,308 (R/T)
EPA Fuel Economy (estimated city/highway): 26/30 mpg (SXT); 23/26 mpg (R/T)
Length: 173.8 inches
Width: 68.8 inches
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Height: 60.4 inches
Legroom (front/rear): 41.8/35.6 inches
Headroom (front/rear): 40.0/38.9 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Cargo Volume: 48 cubic feet
Competitors: Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus Wagon, Honda Element, Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra GT, Jeep Compass, Kia Spectra5, Mazda 3s 5-door, Nissan Versa, Pontiac Vibe, Scion xB, Subaru Forester, Subaru Impreza Wagon, Toyota Matrix, Volkswagen Golf
Photos courtesy of DaimlerChrysler