Dodge Caliber 2.0 CRD SXT

We can’t remember when last a new vehicle elicited such a response from the public, and few people – if anyone – watched it go by without a second glance. Dodge’s keywords include bold, powerful, capable and street-smart… Visually, it lives up to the hype

If cars were judged on presence alone, the Dodge Caliber would, in the eyes of many, score a perfect 10.

The huge, upright, chromed grille makes a strong opening statement, and the squat profile gives it a determined, aggressive look. Broad doors and a narrow glasshouse add to an effect that can best be described as “gangsta chic”, emphasised by a roofline that is dramatically arched, ending in a stubby, squared-off rear lip.

Massive 17-inch wheels raise the ride height and look menacing by filling the wheel arches almost to capacity. The overall effect suggests that this is a compact Sport Ute with a dash of attitude, though Dodge describes it as a “5-door sports tourer”.

But appearances are deceptive: the Caliber is ultimately a large hatchback, and a frontwheel- drive one at that. This 2,0-litre turbodiesel model is the flagship of the Caliber range, and comes in SXT trim. This means everything that opens and shuts and a raft of neat features which make it possible to virtually live in it – a growing need as average speeds creep slowly downward.

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★

The drivetrain of the Caliber is an impressive one, combining a 2,0-litre turbodiesel with a 6-speed box. Output of 103 kW is good for an oil-burner of this capacity and its 320 Nm of torque is equally noteworthy.

The Caliber comes fitted with four airbags, and there is obviously ABS, aided and abetted by full stability control.

The living quarters of the Caliber hold the most promise and there are plenty of surprises in the detail. The front cup-holders are illuminated, the sunvisors slide along their mounting rail for perfect positioning and the “Chill Zone” compartment allows four tins of your favourite beverage to be kept at the ideal temperature.

The Caliber also boasts features such as leather chairs, cruise control, in-dash six-CD shuttle with MP3 compatibility, tyre pressure monitor, heated seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a comprehensive driving computer marred only by the poor positioning of its activation button. Some of these features form part of the Luxury Group specification – the alternative to the more youthful and funky Sport & Sound package.

★ ★ ★

The seating of the Caliber is comfortable enough, and the ability to set seat height and lumbar support means that most drivers will be able to find a decent driving position. The steering column adjusts for height only.

The rear is less comfortable. While the seats are softly padded, they’re very flat – which does at least mean it’ll manage three occupants with an equal level of comfort. The 60/40 seatback can be set to two angles 12 degrees apart by tugging on a strap – a separate strap for each of the two sections.

The back seats fold to extend the luggage space, as does the front passenger seat, for extremely long items to be carried. Total load volume is 1341 litres but the standard luggage area is below par, thanks to an irregular shape and the low height of the luggage cover. The removable boot floor is hard, slippery vinyl, which looked as though it would be prone to scratching. Underneath it there’s a spacesaver spare.

By European or Japanese standards, quality is barely average. Mediocre panel fit is evident in a number of areas, and it isn’t only the fit that disappoints: acres of hard plastic cover the cabin, literally from door to door, with moulding lines very much in evidence.

★ ★ ★ ★

The turbodiesel is sourced from VW and has identical power and torque figures. Performance is eager and with a decent array of ratios to choose from, brisk progress can be made in virtually any kind of road condition. With its plentiful supply of torque and well-spaced ratios (though first is almost too short) overtaking is a cinch. Economy was remarkable, and we’d expect seven per hundred to be an achievable average.

But it’s the rest of the package that lets it down. Some torque steer is evident, and the drivetrain shunt makes it fairly difficult to drive smoothly in the low gears. The engine doesn’t feel quite as refined as it does in its VW application, and there’s a thrumminess at idle, and a hint of vibration. Overall cabin insulation also leaves something to be desired.

Stopping ability is hard to fault, though: the wide tyres bite hard against the tarmac and it slows with real assurance. No signs of fade were evident in our 12-stop, 80 km/h to standstill test regime.

Ride and handling
★ ★ ★

The Caliber boasts a decent suspension system, combining front struts with a multi-link, independent rear, and as a result it covers ground smoothly. It rides high (ground clearance is 176mm) and is tuned for comfort, and that sometimes affects handling precision.

While it straddles speed humps with ease and soaks up the bigger imperfections, a series of undulations can get the body out of sync with the wheels – a disconcerting trait when it happens mid-corner. Steering is both responsive and accurate, but an absence of feedback gives the impression of driving by remote control.

★ ★ ★

Whether the market sees the Caliber as a crossover vehicle or not, it is hard to think of an objective reason why it should by chosen ahead of a long list of talented rivals, or near-rivals, the vast majority of which boast similar space and flexibility coupled to superior refinement and quality.

Its saving grace may be the fact that it has a serious dose of visual attitude, a badge which is completely uncommon yet simultaneously appealing, and a marketing and advertising campaign which has certainly “sexed it up”.