DRIVE TIME


Dodge's New Compact Has Bite

Mark Solheim

The entry-level Caliber ain't got a Hemi, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's still bigger and delivers more power than its cutesy Asian counterparts.



With its series of ads touting its powerful 5.7-liter V8 engine ("That thing got a Hemi?"), Dodge has tried hard to exploit the testosterone factor in winning buyers. So it's a pleasant surprise to see the tough-talking maker of the Magnum, Charger and Ram show a softer side.

That would be its new compact, the Caliber. While just over a quarter of all Dodge vehicles this year have been purchased by men, some 43% of Caliber sales have been to women. Why? Women tend to be sensible consumers interested in good gas mileage, utility and safety -- all of which the Caliber delivers. Women were also loyal buyers of the Dodge Neon, which the Caliber replaces.

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No pansy

It may be in touch with its sensitive side, but the Caliber's chiseled, Dodge-like looks set it apart from the new breed of cute, diminutive cars imported from Europe and Asia. Put a Honda Fit next to the Caliber and note the difference in length and girth. The Caliber weighs about 600 pounds more than the Fit, is about 16 inches longer and sports 18-inch wheels, versus 15-inchers on the Fit.

You get more power, too. The top-of-the-line R/T all-wheel-drive model ($19,985) has a 2.4-liter engine that produces 172 horsepower; the Caliber is also available in the 1.8-liter-engine, 148-hp base model SE ($13,985) and SXT ($15,985). There's also an optional 2-liter, 158-hp engine in the SE and SXT. (The Honda Fit's 1.5-liter engine produces 109 hp.)

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In the economy class, bigger is a double-edge sword. Gas mileage, ranging from 23 city/26 highway to 28 city/32 highway, is below its Asian counterparts. And the extra weight tends to make the Caliber a little logy in acceleration and cornering.

But the extra brawniness also gives the car a slight edge in safety, and the Caliber earns the top, five-star rating in frontal and side crash tests conducted by the U.S. government. Side-curtain airbags are standard equipment, and skid-controlling stability control will be an option in late-2007 models.

Cool features

With its hatchback rear opening, the Caliber is a little bit wagon, a little bit crossover SUV. With the rear seats up, you get 18.5 cubic feet of cargo room. Fold both rear seats flat and you open up 48 cubic feet. Rear legroom is a respectable 35.6 inches. In the front of the cabin, storage space is generous, with a double glove box and four cupholders.

On the short list of nitpicks, the center console cover slides back and forth but won't lock into place. Also, the radio and temperature display is oddly relegated to a tiny area beneath the fuel and temperature gauge.

But you do get an MP3 jack, complete with cord and an iPod/cell-phone holder. And the cupholders are illuminated by a Scion-inspired glow.

In a world of pricey gasoline and global warming, smaller is better. The Caliber is solid, and solidly built, as well as small.




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