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Published on Sat, Jun 23, 2007

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

BANG WITH A BUCK By Jeff Mathews

The Dodge Caliber is a feature-packed vehicle, from its optional all-wheel drive to the "refrigerated" glove compartment. It is definitely not bland. The sharp-lined exterior shape results in a spacious interior. The inside is very roomy, with a large dashboard top. My test Caliber R/T had a two-tone scheme, which helped to warm up the interior - a good thing, too, given the large expanses of plastic relieved only in the center stack by chrome (an R/T feature). The instrument panel is actually more attractive than most parts of the interior, with three large, easy to read gauges, uniformly backlit by a light blue luminescent light (along with lit rings around the cupholders). The speedometer includes a series of black circles that contain various warning lights, while the gear indicator is under the tachometer, and the trip computer, if equipped (called EVIC), is under the gas and temperature gauges.

The cruise control is easy to operate. When the system is active the word CRUISE appears above the odometer, but there is no indication of when a speed is locked in. Other controls are generally sensible and accessible, with window functions on the door next to mirror controls, lights (including dimmer and fog light) on one stalk, and wiper/washer (both front and rear) on the other stalk, and an easy to use climate control layout. Then there is the AutoStick manu-matic automatic transmission (mounted in the center stack), which is easy enough to get used to. More on that later. The Caliber has several powertrain options; it starts with a 1.8 liter engine with 148 horsepower. The next engine up is a 158 hp 2.0 liter version, which is coupled to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The R/T model brings the top of the line 2.4 liter engine, with 172 hp. The R/T can be had with all-wheel drive, which comes standard with the CVT transmission.

The transmission itself is interesting. First, the AutoStick converts the CVT to a manumatic. The advantage is that the driver controls the gear ratios. The disadvantage is that it is not especially responsive. The AutoStick is activated and de-activated by pushing the shift handle to the right and leaving it there for a few seconds, which seemed a little awkward. Also awkward is the method of changing gears - a right-and-left system instead of the usual forward-and-back. The CVT Caliber's acceleration is more than sufficient, but does not feel sporty. Gas mileage is adequate, though to me it seems a bit on the low side for a car of this size. Now, for the clever features. First, of course, is the refrigerated glove box, which is essentially an air conditioner vent routed through the box (the vent can be closed easily if desired) coupled with a rubber bottle rack that can hold four 12-oz water bottles. Above the water bottle holder is a second glove compartment; beneath it is room for the various books and papers and so forth. Then there is the fold-flat front passenger seat, and the cargo area light that can be removed and used as a flashlight. It has a decent battery life since it uses LEDs; but the light is really for emergencies only. There are also two auxiliary power outlets - a 12-volt and a 115-volt.

Handling is good, better than most SUVs and not as good as many cars, but more than good enough for most drivers, even those who like faster turns. The ride is a little firm but still on the comfortable side. Sound insulation is good, without much wind or road noise. The 2.4 engine is fairly noisy under acceleration, but moderately quiet when cruising. The a/c vents are quiet, and the air conditioning itself cooled down the interior rather quickly. Visibility was very good given the size of the window glass, with a small rear corner blind spot; headlights are decent, interior illumination is pleasant, and the sun visors slide back and forth to block out the sun effectively. The stereo was simple to use, and rather basic in design and features (all the features you would expect from a car stereo system including single-disk CD & MP3 player). Sound quality was good. There is a premium sound system option, though this was not included with the test car. There are steering-wheel mounted buttons, though at first they seemed rather inaccessible - located behind the steering wheel (on most cars, these buttons are on the front side), requiring the driver to reach through the steering wheel. Though this sounds odd, once I got used to the configuration, it became fairly easy to adjust the stereo controls - though it takes a little bit of memorization since there are no labels indicating what stereo function each button controls.

One new feature is the iPod connectivity, which turns out to be a simple 1/8" jack in the stereo with a cord to go to the iPod, and a swing-out iPod holder in the center console. It's not especially sophisticated, though it is a convenient place to put your iPOD Nano or a Blackberry 7100t phone; you can't use the car's controls to navigate your music, however. The only really clever part of this feature is the iPod holder itself, which swings out so you can see and use the device, and then flips and folds back in to hide the device. The clever next step would be to route the jack into the center console itself so the iPod could remain connected instead of having to be plugged and unplugged. The seats are comfortable on the R/T, with a manual height adjuster; the steering wheel tilts through a wide range of positions without detents, but doesn't telescope. Rear seats have good headroom, but legroom is a bit tight. The rear seats actually recline on the SXT and R/T models. Getting in and out seemed easy enough. In terms of storage areas, the cargo/trunk area was large, in length and width, but not especially deep. The cargo area isn't carpeted, and has a plastic cover over the large temporary spare, so things tend to slide around (but it's easy to clean). The rear seats only fold down if the front seat is pulled forward a bit (reasonably - most drivers won't find it to be a problem). There are also map pockets, a small center console (just under and behind the iPod holder), and several small cubby spaces in the center console and doors. The R/T comes with a variety of options, including side curtain front and rear airbags, four wheel antilock disc brakes, power windows, rear defroster, keyless remote, power mirrors, rear window wiper/washer, automatic power locks, cruise, air, CD with wheel-mounted controls, tilt-wheel, fog lamps, and 18" aluminum wheels. That, with all wheel drive, comes to $20,065 including destination. My test car had the $195 SIRIUS Satellite Digital Radio option, which includes a 1-year service to SIRIUS. The total was $20,260.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT The Caliber is great as an entry-level people hauler. If you're looking for something with a little more speed and performance, you might prefer to give up some space and gadgets for something a little more fast to drive. But in any case, the Caliber R/T is a solid entry in the compact-car market. For more information about Dodge products, go to

SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T Price: Base $19,475; as tested $20,260 Options include: Customer Preferred Package 26X (Sport Appearance Interior Group, luxury front & rear floor mats, blue seat inserts) $225; SIRIUS (R) Satellite Digital Radio (one-year service) $195 Engine type: 2.4L DOHC 16-valve in-line four engine, with dual variable valve timing EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway: 23/26; 28 gallon fuel capacity Horsepower: 172 @ 6000 rpm Torque: 165 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm Drive configuration: Front engine / all-wheel drive Transmission type: Continuously Variable Transaxle, Electronic 6-speed automatic overdrive Suspension: Front - independent MacPherson strut, coil springs over gas-charged shock absorbers, and stabilizer bar Rear - Multi-link independent with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar, gas-charged shock absorbers Wheels and tires: 18-inch aluminum wheels P215/55R18 all-season performance tires Brakes: 4-wheel discs with ABS Variable assist power rack/pinion steering Overall length/wheelbase: 173.8 inches/103.7 inches Overall width: 68.8 inches (excluding mirrors) Overall height: 60.4 inches Overall weight: 3308 lbs

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