2009 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport Review
By Chris Haak
Sometimes when I take a step back to think about all of the money I’ve spent over the years on foolish things – money that I would love to have in my bank account again – I wish I had a way to make better decisions at the appropriate time rather than retrospectively. Hindsight is 20/20, after all. Fortunately for me, I have a wife who doesn’t like to spend money, so she keeps me in check for the most part. Chrysler apparently had no such luxury.
Whoever at Chrysler (which was part of DaimlerChrysler at the time) made the choices of what to spend money on and not to spend money on in the development of the Dodge Caliber needs someone like my wife to tell them when they are spending money on foolish things. Meanwhile, as the car’s interior materials are in need of serious improvement, the Caliber’s creators were busy adding superfluous features that add very little to the experience of spending time with the Caliber daily. It’s sort of like the way I spent money on a new car that I didn’t need at the end of the summer in 2008 instead of spending money on fixing a few things around the house.
The Dodge Caliber has some really neat features, and sounds like a pretty slick car on paper. In the plastic, though, let’s just say that it’s too bad cars aren’t driven and lived with on paper. The Caliber that I tested included a 9-speaker Boston Acoustics audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio, “leather” wrapped steering wheel withredundant audio controls, 17 inch aluminum wheels, stain repellent cloth seats, cruise control, CVT transaxle with manual shifting capability, It also had Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat paint, which is a $225 option and a shade of red I happen to be a sucker for.
The first problem with the Caliber is that I don’t know exactly what it is. I suppose it’s more or less a car, but it’s one that is trying way too hard notto be. It shares more design DNA with the recently-euthanized Durango than with, for instance, the Avenger sedan (with which it shares many platform components). It has large fender bulges and a big rig-style front end seemingly lifted intact from the Dodge Ram pickup. If ever a car had too much testosterone in its design, the Caliber is it. If a VW New Beetle is a “chick car,” then the Caliber is a car that makes it difficult for me to imagine any female owning or driving it. The front end design, in spite of looking out of place on a car (if in fact it is a car) is probably the best-looking angle on the Caliber. The door panel gaps were seemingly wider than in many cars, and the doors did not make a reassuring sound when closed (that’s something common on many cars in this price class – not just Dodges). Perhaps I’m being too rough on the Caliber – if Dodge was marketing it as a small crossover (earlier versions had been available with all-wheel drive, though that option has been discontinued), its truckish looks and less-than-elegant shape might be more acceptable. Unfortunately, it’s clearly listed on Dodge’s website as a car.
So the exterior design and quailty may not be quite up to snuff, but what about the interior? Bad news there. Many cars in the Caliber’s price class ($16,000 to $20,000 before rebates) have too much hard plastic in their interiors, but at least have a few soft spots where the driver and passengers are likely to regularly come into with something that is not a seat. The Caliber afforded no such luxury. Door panels, armrests, dashboard, and more were all constructed of roughly-grained industrial-quality plastic. Fortunately, I was wearing long sleeves each time I drove the car, because it’s purely BYOP (bring your own padding). Even on the hottest summer days, I’d recommend an elbow pad before utilizing the center console’s armrest; the area in front of my elbow literally started to hurt when daring to leave on the armrest for too long.
I was able to find a reasonably-comfortable driving position, and headroom was ample. The material on the seats seemed to be fairly decent, although the seats were too flat and didn’t seem to have enough foam stuffed into them. When I adjusted the driver’s seat to my ideal driving position, it was nearly impossible for me to squeeze into the left rear seat. Legroom was non-existent. It was possible to move the driver’s seat forward a few inches to a less-than-ideal position for me and to squeeze into the back seat, but then my knees came into frequent with the hard plastic underside of the dashboard, which intrusively cut into my personal space. Speaking of a lack of space, there isn’t a lot of cargo space behind the back seat. The cargo area is easily accessible thanks to the hatchback body style, but as we noted with the similar Jeep Compass, the cargo area is small, partly due to the sloping rear hatch.
Chrysler was probably stung by criticism of the Caliber’s interior quality when the vehicle was launched; as we noted earlier this week, the Jeep Compass/Patriot (with which the Caliber shares a platform) received a redesigned dashboard design. The Compass (with the SXT Sport package was my tester had) instead gets the same old dash as the first-year Calibers, but with a completely tacky body-color slab surrounding the radio and climate controls. Now, if the car was silver or black, it might not be as bad, but you’ll recall that this vehicle was Red Crystal Pearl Coat, which looks very much like nail polish. The first time I peeked into the window of the Caliber, I was almost mortified by the color of this trim. I made an unflattering comment about it to my wife (spelling the worst of the words I said so my 3 1/2 year old son didn’t understand what I said). Later that first evening with the car, that same son asked to check out daddy’s new car, so we ventured to the garage. Without any prompting (or him knowing what I was talking about earlier with my wife, since he has no idea what a “center stack” is), he said, “What this, daddy? It’s a little ugly.” Of course, he was pointing at the red center stack. The original PT Cruiser had some body color interior trim that worked extremely well. This doesn’t.
The weird thing about the Caliber’s interior is that there are a few islands of good-ness sprinkled about. Going back to my original point about wasting money, though, I don’t know why Chrysler decided to spend money on gimmicks like mood-lighted cupholders (they were green), a detachable LED flashlight integrated into the rear dome light, drink coolers in the glove box, drop-down speakers in the rear hatchback lid for tailgating, and a pretty nice woven headliner. Neither the Corolla, nor any Scion products have any of those features (and have particularly awful furry cardboard headliners), but why not skimp on stuff like that and spend money on, you know, the driving experience? Or on improving the parts of the interior that buyers will touch or look at all the time?
The driving experience was underwhelming. Where our writer was somewhat intimidated by the task of taming the Caliber SRT4 last year, and felt that the SRT4 version almost had too much power, the SXT version of the same car was plenty tame. I can’t say that there was any area in which the Caliber particularly excelled dynamically – brakes, ride, handling, steering, or acceleration. The brake pedal was spongy and had a long travel before biting into the rotors and drums (yes, it had rear drums – a pretty rare feature nowadays). The car’s high greenhouse didn’t help handling, as the car felt more top-heavy than would a “normal” car that has no truck pretensions. The Caliber SXT Sport’s 17″ Firestone tires should have been large enough and wide enough to have decent grip, but they did no favors for either the steering or braking.
When accelerating from a stop, with the CVT set to “drive,” the car hesitates for a moment, then does its weird CVT thing by working its way to a high RPM rate and just staying there until the driver releases the accelerator pedal. It’s a similar sensation to other vehicles that I’ve driven with a CVT, including the recent Nissan Altima 2.5SL Sedan a few weeks ago, but the 2.0 liter four cylinder is not a particularly refined-sounding beast, so any transmission that puts a noisy engine into a high-RPM range and leaves it there for several seconds doesn’t strike me as a good idea. The CVT allowed me to “shift gears” manually, but was kind of doughy between each gear. While other CVTs (such as Nissan’s very good ones) do a credible job of imitating a gear change when in manual mode, including adding a degree of firmness, the Caliber’s CVT changed gears quickly, but with no firmness at all. The indicated sixth gear ratio was also a lower ratio than the highest gear the CVT could engage on its own, which seemed kind of odd. In other words, shifting into 6th gear from drive was a downshift.
The Caliber is proof positive that Daimler absolutely looted Chrysler of any product development know-how prior to spinning off the company into the hands (jaws?) of Cerberus as Chrysler LLC. I’m confident that the Caliber, Compass, Patriot, Avenger, and Sebring have all proven to be valuable learning experiences to Chrysler executives as they try to pick up the pieces that Daimler left for them and emerge as a viable car company. Chrysler has proven that it does a very good job with minivans, luxury minivans, large luxury cars, muscle cars, really muscular muscle cars, and really muscular sedans, but after a week with the Caliber, it has shown me that it needs to go back to the drawing board on cars like the Caliber. The car is just not a very good car, and help on that front from Chrysler’s new friends at Fiat can’t come soon enough.
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