SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - After a full decade on the market, Dodge's once-popular Neon has disappeared. The Plymouth version faded away years back, with the demise of that nameplate.
Taking the place of the Neon is a new, modestly larger Caliber. Rather than a four-door sedan, the Caliber is a hatchback - a body style that hasn't been especially popular in the American market. Billed as "a small car that acts big," the Caliber is about the same length as a Neon, but 4 inches higher and an inch wider.
Rather than a single engine choice, Dodge offers three four-cylinder possibilities: 1.8-, 2.0- or 2.4-liter, developing 148, 158 or 172 horsepower, respectively. The smaller engine has a standard five-speed manual gearbox, while the 2.0-liter is offered only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). With an R/T package, the Caliber's 2.4-liter engine has an AutoStick version of the CVT (with six discrete "gear" ratios), plus all-wheel drive. A manual-shift version of the 2.4-liter will be added later. Engines were developed in cooperation with Hyundai and Mitsubishi.
Dodge sought a 5-percent fuel-economy improvement over the Neon, and claims to have succeeded. The CVT promises 6-8 percent better mileage than a conventional step-type automatic transmission.
Greg Howell of the product design office noted that the Caliber's crosshair grille was borrowed from a late 1990s show truck. The "clamshell" hood aims at a more trucklike appearance. In fact, the Calibers does look like a little Magnum (Dodge's larger sport wagon).
Fender flares are "very proud," Howell proclaimed, and the rear end features "laid-over back glass." Dodge's goal was 30-percent glass, compared to 70-percent body.
Acceleration is on the sluggish side with the 1.8-liter engine and manual shift. Too often, that engine feels like it's straining and doesn't come across as eager to get to speed. On the plus side, the gearbox shifts quite well and the clutch is reasonably well-behaved (though some care is needed to get smooth takeoffs).
Overall, the base Caliber yields a pleasant experience in a versatile and stylish smaller car. But in this case, more power would be welcome. Even non-power hungry drivers are likely to bemoan the shortfall.
You get considerably more get-up-and-go with the 2.0-liter engine and CVT, even though the power differential isn't great. This shiftless transmission works effectively, though it may take a while to get used to the fact that when you push hard on the gas, the engine snaps into high rpm - and it takes some time for the car to catch up. Few mature drivers should feel a compelling need for the stronger 2.4-liter version in the R/T.
Pleasantly satisfying most of the time, the Caliber yields only occasionally notable jarring, but road noise can be considerable on some coarser surfaces. Manual-shift Calibers also emit a struggling sound while accelerating. Even with the base model, handling is at least semi-sporty in nature, inspiring more confidence and security than expected.
In the attractive two-tone interior, front seat bottoms are not long, but offer good thigh support. Side bolstering is moderate and back support adequate. Front leg space is long, but the driver's knee might touch the console. Front headroom is quite good, as is elbow space.
Rear headroom is okay, but the roof is lower at the outside positions. Rear legroom, on the other hand, dips to marginal - not good at all with the front seat slid backward.
Black-on-white gauges are no problem to read, but the white is quite bright. Visibility is unobstructed, but the Caliber's rear quarter windows are worthless. The "Chill Zone" accessory takes up much of the glovebox space, but it's quite neat, holding four bottles side by side.
Sticker prices start at $13,985 (including destination charge) for the base SE, which is $410 below the last Neon. A 2.0-liter engine and CVT may be installed at extra cost. Standard wheels are 15-inch, and the liftgate contains fold-down speakers.
The $15,985 SXT has the same engine/transmission choices but adds 17-inch wheels and a chrome grille, plus 60/40 folding seats, a folding front passenger seat, and the "Chill Zone" glovebox cooler. Topping the list, the $19,985 R/T AWD models include a 2.4-liter engine, 18-inch aluminum wheels, foglamps, and sport suspension.
Curtain-type airbags and a driver's knee-blocker airbag are standard, but antilock braking (including an Electronic Stability Program) is standard only with the CVT setup.
Dodge targets 20-somethings who are "very social" and "very active," said senior brand manager Jim Yetter, with a $45,000 median income. "We see the small-car segment growing," Yetter said. Built in Belvidere, Illinois like the Neon, the Caliber is one of 10 new Chrysler products expected this year.