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Goodbye Neon, Hello Dodge Caliber

Dodge Takes a Chance With a Hatchback. The Caliber is Dodge‘s new compact car entry, going on sale as we write these words. Taking the place of the Neon in Dodge showrooms, the Caliber is offered as a five-door hatchback. Dodge is right on in adopting this new bodystyle; while not a trendsetter in choosing to offer only a five-door hatchback, Dodge is ahead of the curve. Hatchbacks and wagons aren’t poised to overtake sedans in volume, but there is growing demand for vehicles with flexible interiors and these usually take a hatchback silhouette.

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As a hatchback, the Caliber will not see volumes like the Neon (best year, 1996, nearly 140,000 Neons found homes; in 2005 about 113,300 were sold). But success today can be more accurately measured in per-unit profit than in pure volume, and Dodge may find a solid payoff for its risk.
AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents were among the media who got a chance to explore the Caliber up close and take a first spin around the block. Here’s our report.


Target: First-Time New Car Buyers, Parents
Dodge Caliber carries the styling, utility, and attitude that twenty-somethings who grew up with SUVs have come to appreciate, but in a package sized and priced for their budget. This group, as well as other age demographics, has come to demand the utility that can be found in hatchbacks and wagons, versus traditional sedans and coupes. Along with first-time buyers, Dodge is hoping that the low pricing strategy and high safety and convenience feature content will appeal to parents looking to add a car for their teens to the household fleet.
While Dodge is targeting twentysomethings, they won’t be disappointed if they attract GenXers and Boomers who are young at heart. The Caliber has the utility and style to attract a broad-based market.

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Dodge kept on-the-go buyers in mind and incorporated modern convenience features when designing the Caliber and made sure it can be offered at an affordable price. It is also significant that even the base model looks tough and aggressive. Gone are the days of identifying the base car by its black bumpers, tiny wheels and tires, and cheap-plastic-looking hubcaps.
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Interior: A Higher Caliber
Though one might expect a cheap-feel interior for a $14,000 car, Caliber does not make that mistake. The dash and door panels have a pleasant feel, unlike the scratchy hard plastic feel that particularly abounds at lower price points. The headliner is a woven cloth material rather than the felt-type, “mouse fur” lining that many cars are doomed to wear. Among the not-so-good elements are the base model’s plastic interior door handles. They feel rubbery and insubstantial, though they appear to be about the same size as the chrome pulls on the R/T and SXT.
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Beyond the interior space and utility hatchbacks are born with, Caliber offers interior touches that will make it easier to live with. Though not innovative or industry-first features, Dodge was successful in picking and choosing those that will suit the intended demographic.
Interior seating space leaves the second-row passengers comfortable, but some reported a bit of difficulty getting in and out of the driver’s seat. We also found the front passenger’s side legroom to feel a bit cramped. Headroom was ample. Visibility is excellent in all directions, as it should be with this type of package.
Among the standard items are an armrest that slides forward for shorter drivers and includes easy storage for a cell phone or MP3 player, front illuminated cup holders, removable and washable vinyl cargo mat, and 60/40-split rear seats. The standard radio includes an auxiliary jack for hooking up that MP3 player. All Calibers are standard with the same full-length console, something not always true in the lower-priced segments. The MP3/cell phone holder in the center console gives drivers a convenient place to store items that seem to be required for driving these days and is sized well, but when extended it makes for a cluttered area and has a slightly cheap feel.
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Optional equipment designed to appeal to busy, on-the-go people includes upgrading to a reclining and fold-flat 60/40 split rear seat and fold-flat front passenger’s seat, MusicGate rear speakers (housed in the hatchback, when the hatchback is raised, the speakers fold down for an instant tailgating stereo), an optional Chill Zone glovebox that has an upper area kept cool by the air conditioner and has room for four 20-ounce bottles, removable recharging flashlight (which also serves as a light for the cargo area), a removable vinyl floor for the cargo area, steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, and an optional 115-volt outlet in the center console. The star options, MusicGate and Chill Zone, are available at any trim level, along with Sirius satellite radio and other audio upgrades.
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Leather seats are available, or SXT and R/T models can be ordered with an appearance package that has cloth seats with inserts cued to the exterior color. The sport package seats were more attractive than the leather. The leather quality is not impressive and only actually on the visible seating surfaces. The Sport Appearance package also includes a color-keyed center console appliqué that is not really any more attractive than the standard finish. It all comes down to taste, but if we were doing the ordering, the standard Pebble Beige two-tone interior and cloth seats would be just fine; neither the leather nor the sport appearance package were appealing enough to encourage us to check that box. Later in the year, a new seat fabric said to be extremely easy to clean becomes available as well.
Base Model Doesn’t Look Base. There are subtle cues to identify which model Caliber you’re looking at, but even the base model carries body color fascias, a body color grille, and a rear spoiler and rear window wiper/washer. R/T and SXT get a chrome grille. SE and SXT offer body-color bodyside molding, while the R/T gets chrome instead. Sharp-looking halogen headlamps with a detailed chrome surround are standard on all models. The R/T also adds chrome door handles inside and out, chrome bodyside rub strip. The base car is standard with fifteen-inch wheels and tires (SXT and R/T can opt for seventeen- or eighteen-inch wheels), but by using a taller profile for the smaller wheel, the wheel-tire package still significantly fills the wheel wells. The design of the base wheel cover mimics the upper model’s alloy wheels for a sharper look.
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Safety: Staying Competitive and Soothing Parents
With Hyundai and Kia putting six airbags into nearly everything they build, the bar has been raised. Caliber answers with the required front airbags of the latest technology, standard side curtain and driver knee bolster airbags, and optional front-seat side airbags. Later in the year ESP becomes available; ABS is optional from launch. Aside from the safety features found on the order list, the Caliber was engineered to handle crashes better and uses higher-strength steel to keep the passenger compartment intact as much as possible and manage crash forces while minimizing the weight penalty.
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Low Entry Price. The base SE model launches at $13,985, including destination charges. The next step up is the $15,985 SXT. The SE and SXT get a 148HP 1.8L and a five-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels, though both can be ordered with the 158HP 2.0L mated to a continuously variable transmission. At launch, the next in line is the R/T AWD ($19,985), with the 168HP 2.4L mated to the CVT. In summer 2006, a front-wheel-drive R/T becomes available with the 2.4L and a five-speed manual transmission, likely to be priced about $17,985. Along with offering the extra engine, the R/T models get more standard features, more chrome accents, and steering and suspension tuned for a more sporting ride.
Caliber’s Strength Is In the Overall Package
We first drove the R/T AWD model, later experiencing the SXT with the 2.0L and CVT, and finally a short stint in the upcoming front-wheel-drive, manual-transmission R/T. The R/T AWD was the best of the three, though the SXT held its own amongst the competition and would not be a bad choice. In terms of driving experience, Caliber meets expectations but does not exceed them. Taken as a whole, the Caliber is competitive, but if you’re more concerned about the fun-to-drive factor, a Mazda3 hatchback might be more your speed. The Mazda doesn’t offer as much interior room or the aggressive and American personality of the Caliber, though, and we walked away thinking these were two solid choices that would appeal to different personalities and both have the ability to please their owners.
The CVT-equipped Caliber was more pleasant to drive than the five-speed manual. While the Caliber benefits from the high H-point, pedal placement seemed relatively high and for a shorter drivers like myself, getting into comfortable position that allowed operation of the clutch. This driver preferred the CVT, especially for an entry that is more about utility than about sport. The Caliber’s manual has decent shift and clutch action, but it required me to be closer to the steering wheel and sitting higher than I would like. In most situations, a manual is my top choice. But when the vehicle’s purpose is more about function than a sporty drive and the manual transmission is difficult to adjust for (or if, unlike the Caliber, the manual just doesn’t work that well), I’d opt for the automatic, in this case CVT.
All considered, the Caliber is a strong package. Though not groundbreaking like the Neon was in its day, the Caliber offers aggressive styling that does stand out wrapped around an useful and competitive package. Aside from perhaps exterior styling for some, there may not be any one particular feature or attribute that screams “take me,” but those who choose Caliber are likely to have long and happy relationship with their cars.
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