February 6, 2006 Review and photos by Paul Williams We're seeing some really innovative vehicles on the Canadian market these days, and here's another clever take on a popular category. If you're looking for a value-packed compact car, the new 2007 Dodge Caliber should be right up there on your shopping list. What's so special about it? Plenty. Let's start with the looks. The Caliber could be described as a shortish SUV or a tall wagon - it's very much in that family of vehicles - but it drives like a premium small car, and you'd swear it's bigger than it is. It also looks kind of like a coupe, due to the black, graphic design element that runs along the length of the roof. What the Caliber does so cleverly is build on the emerging demand for practical and fuel-saving crossover vehicles (CUVs) and the popularity of compact cars. The result is a vehicle that in many ways looks and functions like both. Even the base SE model, which starts at $15,995, is packed with desirable features. Side curtain airbags are standard, as is a new, 1.8-litre, 148-horsepower, all-aluminum "World" engine (the Caliber is destined for global markets) with dual variable valve timing. This engine, a joint venture between DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi, is mated to a five-speed manual transmission, but if you want an automatic, the engine displacement and horsepower increase to 2.0 litres and 158 hp respectively, and you get a CVT transmission (selected for smoothness and fuel economy, according to DaimlerChrysler). Anti-lock brakes are also part of the automatic package. Manual or automatic, the gearshift is located in the centre stack, freeing space between the seats. In that space you'll find illuminated cupholders and an armrest-cum-storage box that slides forward or out of the way as required. And inside the storage container is a flip-out receptacle for your iPod (or similar device) which can connect to a small jack in the dash via a supplied cable. Very nice. An AM/FM/CD player is standard, as is the rear wiper and the fold-flat rear seat. With the addition of air conditioning, you also get an enhanced version of the Caliber's clamshell glove box featuring a "Cool Zone" that holds four bottles of your favourite soft beverage, plus lots of room for maps, papers and, yes, even gloves. The "Cool Zone" is only one of many innovative standard features and options on the Dodge Caliber. How about the "MusicGate" audio system that's part of an optional nine-speaker Boston Acoustics premium sound package? When the rear liftgate is open, the speakers can swing down from the trim panel to face rearward for tailgating or other outdoor activities. A vinyl load floor in the rear cargo area is washable and removable, and there's an available 115-volt power outlet. A "UConnect" (*Bluetooth) hands-free communication system is also available, as is Sirius satellite radio. There are numerous small/useful/clever features like these throughout the vehicle, which gives the welcome impression that a lot of people have put a lot of thought into this car. The $17,695 Caliber SXT gets 17-inch steel wheels with covers, up from the SE's 15-inch rims of the same type. The split 60/40 rear seat both folds flat and reclines, as does the front passenger seat which folds forward to create a table-like surface (you can slide an 8-foot ladder in when the seats are folded this way). Additional standard features on the SXT include a dual purpose rechargeable/removable interior lamp, air conditioning, tachometer, power windows, mirrors and door locks, remote keyless entry, a 115-volt outlet in the centre console, seat height adjuster and power mirrors. Available options include electronic stability control, heated seats, power sunroof, fog lamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels, auto dimming mirror and leather interior. A Sport Package is also available on the SXT that includes the fog lamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels and a Sport Appearance Package featuring cloth seats with coloured inserts, and colour-keyed instrument panel bezels. Multiple storage compartments are found in the Caliber's roomy interior, as are numerous thoughtful touches like handy grips for the liftgate, easy-to read instruments, easy-to-use controls, and high quality fabrics and materials. Legroom front and rear is generous, as is cargo room behind the split-folding rear seat. Although it's about the same overall size as a Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, the Caliber's ground clearance is higher. It's also considerably taller than a Mazda3. Those who typically buy compact sedans will find the Caliber eliminates the space compromises inherent in sedans and may even be big enough to obviate the purchase of a crossover like the Ford Escape or Hyundai Tucson (which largely differ in their height). The Caliber sits about 10-centimetres higher than a typical compact car, and in $23,995 R/T trim, just like a small SUV/CUV, it comes with all-wheel drive. The Caliber R/T also gets the 172-hp, 2.4-litre World engine and an Autostick version of the CVT transmission, along with anti-lock brakes, sport suspension, performance steering and 18-inch aluminum wheels (chrome available). Exterior trim upgrades, premium interior fabrics, fog lamps and all the standard features of the SE and SXT models complete the R/T package. But even in base SE trim, the Caliber impresses as a genuine value proposition. The whole car, exterior and interior, belies its low starting price, and when compared with smaller, costlier, alternatives you have to congratulate Dodge on bringing a vehicle of this specification and price to market. The 148-hp engine with five-speed manual is just fine, even though this is a heavy vehicle at 1,345 kilograms (don't forget, it wasn't long ago that Audi was supplying a perfectly adequate 150-hp motor for its 1,520 kg A4 quattro, albeit with the manual transmission rather than the automatic). Nonetheless, the CVT transmission does work better with the uprated 2.0-litre engine, which is why they come as a package, and because this is a second-generation (CVT2) gearbox, the occasional drone of earlier CVTs is virtually eliminated. The big news with the CVT transmission, however, is the Autostick version found in the R/T. This transmission simulates downshifts and provides a much more satisfying and familiar experience for the driver, especially when accelerating. I think many buyers would prefer this, although one does eventually get used to the "continuousness" of the CVT in time. Our driving route with the 2007 Dodge Caliber took us through some twisting roads, fast Interstate highways and city streets. The Caliber in all trim levels was stable in the corners and refined on the open road. Shifting was precise with the manual transmission, and the gears were well-spaced. The R/T, especially, rocketed to 115 on the speedometer before we realized it was MPH rather than KPH. Luckily we were travelling on a remote, desert highway at the time, but it did give us an opportunity to experience the Caliber's quiet, smooth and stable ride even at that speed. A couple of criticisms include the positioning of the flip-up iPod holder, which is very much in the way when using the manual gearshift, and the somewhat small windshield. The wind-up windows and manual mirrors of the SE were an unexpected cost-saving measure, even at the SE's low price, and lack of seat height adjustability in the SE was missed. However, the Caliber is a practical, functional, good-looking vehicle that delivers more than you'd expect in this class. With all versions requiring only regular fuel, the estimated mileage is 9.0/7.3 L/100 km, city/highway for the 2.0-litre engine with CVT automatic (this is expected to be the most popular configuration). The R/T is estimated to return 10.1/8.4 L/100 km, city/highway. All in all, a great effort from Dodge and DaimlerChrysler.