Angular Dodge Caliber offers frugal utility, plus AWD perks
The Dodge Caliber, sibling to the unusual Jeep Compass the Jeep that doesnt even try to be a Jeep is itself definitely the most squarish brute of the new school auto family.Remarkably angular both inside and out, the Caliber fills a curious niche with the optional security of all-wheel drive, a ton of room inside (I used the car to move house and can attest to its ability to absorb furniture and plenty of boxes) and a driving experience thats sprightly but not excessively sporty.After a week of testing the car in Denver, we ended up getting a non-AWD Caliber as an affordable rental car during a pre-Christmas trip to Arizona and my parents enjoyed the relative space and fuel frugality of the vehicle living up to the 23 city/26 hwy MPG figures suggested.Despite having sharply chiseled looks that make it the smaller cousin of the much more aggressive and muscular Dodge Charger and Magnum, the Calibers 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine and an efficient but buzzy continuously variable transmission setup dont quite amount to tire-burning monster.Rather, the Caliber is a modern, functional and slightly stylistically chunky runabout thats adaptable, easy to drive and definitely more laid-back than its Hemi-powered relatives.
A squarish hood and bumpers, oversized headlights and taillights, shiny five-spoke wheels, and a long, curving roofline that swoops over small rear windows all help give the Caliber a distinctive look.Get inside and the futuristic styling continues in the form of two-tone hard plastic doors, a stiff, sliding center armrest with a built-in cell phone or MP3 player holder and an upright shift column that sticks out of the center stack. The split-level dual glove box is complete with an optional bottle chiller (an option which seems ridiculous to us well-cooled mountain folks but makes sense in the middle of a Tucson summer).The large, comfortable wheel features trigger switches for the audio system and sits in front of easy-to-read gauges, including a small digital info screen. Other style points abound, from the blue-lit rings inside the large cup holders to the contoured plastic on the dash. My tester had Sirius satellite radio, a direct plug-in for your iPod and a powerful Boston Acoustics speaker system, including a subwoofer and the new, slightly goofy fold-down boom-box styled tailgating speakers in the liftgate.The heated leather seating was comfortable and in the back theres reasonable room for a couple of passengers, including forward-slanting, Euro-styled headrests; the back seats fold down 60/40, providing 48 cubic feet of storage space.
Overall driving impressions were quite positive, with good mobility, easy parking and a good ride, although I experienced a significant amount of road noise and rattle while traveling on the highway. Both test opportunities were on dry pavement but I assume the AWD system would come in handy during a long, long winter.My dads biggest complaint about the Caliber was the set of tiny side mirrors, which, when combined with the angular windows and a large-headed passenger like myself, meant that he could hardly see a think while trying to change lanes.Getting in and out of the Caliber also requires stepping over very tall rocker panels; I felt there was relatively tight foot and leg space under the wheel.If youre seeking a compact car thats utterly unlike anything else on the market looks wise, at least the Dodge Caliber is an affordable, interesting opportunity.
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