Dodge Caliber 2.0 Diesel SXT Sport review
by David Finlay (23 January 2007)
According to Chrysler Group UK, the two main selling points of the Caliber - the first Dodge to be imported into this country under that brand name - are that it's cheap and it looks interesting. There's no room for argument there, but you have to wonder if these things on their own are enough to justify buying the car.
I've now had two opportunities to investigate this. The car tested here is the range-topping SXT Sport (with the peculiarity that leather upholstery, which is standard on the lower-spec SXT, is an optional extra on this one), and I've already dealt with it in a previous road test.
But that article was based on relatively short experience of the car. This time I've been living with it for the best part of a week.
One of the first things to emphasise is that the diesel Caliber has a third appealing feature in addition to the two mentioned above. Chrysler is perhaps less keen to go into much detail about this one, because it's not a Chrysler item. In fact it's the Volkswagen Group's 2.0 TDI engine, which graces each of the vast number of cars it's fitted to, and which is by some way the best part of the Caliber.
Strange to say, then, that it can be rather annoying. The Dodge's noise suppression - unlike that of, for example, the larger Jeeps - isn't great, and the TDI makes quite a racket when you start it up from cold. Things get better as it warms up, but the diesel rattle remains apparent even when you're cruising along a motorway.
To use the current buzzword, the Caliber is a crossover vehicle. At heart it's an SUV, but there are elements of a coupé in its design, presumably in order to forestall criticisms of its owners that they have joined the Chelsea tractor brigade.
As I've suggested in the past, though, the Caliber falls between two stools. It's an SUV only in that it's quite tall. There is no pretence at superior off-road capability, since four-wheel drive isn't available, though it will be provided in the forthcoming Compass and Patriot models which share its platform.
This in turn means that luggage capacity has had to be compromised to make room for a rear axle which, in the Caliber, doesn't exist. The official volume is 524 litres, but two of us going on a weekend break found that we had to use the back seat as a sort of annexe to the "proper" luggage compartment. The very high boot floor wasn't particularly helpful either, though at least we didn't have to haul our goods and chattels over a still higher rear sill.
The "crossover" tag also suggests an interesting driving experience. Well, no. The Caliber does not feel anything like as sporty to drive as a coupé, and it's not even as much fun as a number of rival SUVs. Its suspension set-up may make sense in America, but on the very different roads of the UK the Caliber's meagre handling ability can quickly be overcome by the performance provided by the Volkswagen engine.
The situation isn't helped by the fact that there is no proper resting place for your left foot when it isn't required for clutch-related duties, which makes driving that little bit less comfortable both on a long trip and through a sequence of corners.
There is more coupé influence in the styling, but that's not very helpful either. The Caliber looks as if the bottom half of a tall car has been added to the top half of a short one, and while the result is pleasing enough to the eye it's not very practical. The main gripe here is the visibility. The view through the windscreen is good because you sit high up; thereafter everything quickly goes to worms.
The windscreen pillars are thick and obtrusive, the centre pillars more so. By the time you get to the rear of the vehicle, the amount of glass area has been reduced to such an extent that manouevring in reverse is like trying to take a picture while the lens cap is still on the camera. If Dodge has, for whatever bizarre reason, decided to reduce visibility as much as possible, then it has done a very fine job.
Despite all this, I felt more at home with the Caliber after a week than I had during the much shorter period allotted for the first test. But I'm afraid this is more because I became used to it than because of any hidden qualities that made themselves known as time wore on.