You know, somewhere, sometime someone must have said, “Hey, I’d like a car that look like it was made out of Legos.” Probably about the same time small cars suddenly were replaced by tall wagon-y things. Yep, we’ll betcha. Because that would explain the 2007 Dodge Caliber.
The Dodge Caliber, of course, replaced the Neon, whose cute “Hi!” had grown stale and the four-door small sedan concept brittle in a fickle automotive market. Since “hatchbacks” are still so not chic, the Caliber goes “five-door” with a chunky look that inspired some observers to ask whether the 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T with all-wheel drive was on a truck platform.
Nope. Just like the Chevy HHR and Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Dodge Caliber is a tallwagon with lots of room inside and access to that capacious interior via the stern. The styling eschews retro. Rather, it’s what happens when Dodge’s chiseled design theme is compacted to small car size
The Caliber, new for 2007, is offered in three front-drive trim levels, SE, SXT and R/T. All-wheel drive is available on the R/T only. The Caliber R/T also has a standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with dual variable valve timing. One of Chrysler’s “World Engine” designs, it’s rated at 172 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. The lesser Calibers come with a 1.8-liter 148-horse four-cylinder, standard on the SE and SXT, or a 2.0-liter 158-bhp four, optional in either.
A five-speed manual transmission is available in all models except the all-wheel drive R/T which comes standard with a “second-generation” continuously variable ratio transmission (Dodge calls it “CVT2”). Rather than the conventional stepped fixed-ratio transmission, CVT transmissions have a belt and pulley system that allows the engine to go to peak torque rpm and stay there while the car catches up.
(Get used to it. As the upper end gets six, seven and eight speed conventional automatics, midrange and compacts will see more CVT transmissions. In fact, no conventional automatic is available in the Dodge Caliber).
Our tester, a Dodge Caliber R/T, had AutoStick, an option exclusive to the R/T. AutoStick allows the CVT to be shifted like a conventional automatic, with “gear” ratios programmed into the pulley system to mimic a conventional transmission. It defeats the fuel economy benefits of the CVT, so any driver using it is hastening global warming just that little bit more. On the other hand, it makes driving a little more satisfactory as well, so what the heck.
Despite the R/T’s bigger engine, one of our drivers complained about a lack of oomph. It’s not that the Caliber R/T is slow —that’s reserved for the smaller-engined Calibers—but it’s hardly a threat to the space/time continuum, Still, we suspect that the sensation of pokiness is partly due to the CVT. It actually aids acceleration because the engine stays at maximum output, but the constant rpm sounds like nothing is happening, and because the R/T’s 172 horsepower doesn’t slingshot 3,300 pounds of mobile cubism, it doesn’t feel like much is going on either.
That said, it’s unnerving to drive the 2007 Dodge Caliper R/T in full automatic mode on a gollywiggling road and have the engine rpm swinging wildly, whooping up coming out of a corner then sagging when the throttle is lifted, all without any relationship to vehicle velocity.
However with AutoStick, the Caliber R/T can be driven like a sports car. Well, at least a chubby sports car with tall seating and an underabundance of power. But unlike some sporty Eurotypes, AutoShift will not shift up unbidden regardless of revs or pedal pressure. However, it won’t downshift at speeds that would frag the engine. In other words, the transmission works as well as a manual—but without the joy of clutch.
The Caliber R/T’s engine is no Prince of Smooth. Acceptable at idle, it grows harsh as rpm increased, and there was an odd harmonic at mid-range revs. The latter may not be universal; we’ve talked with owners who hadn’t experienced it. Or maybe we’re just too sensitive.
Cornering is unremarkable. It follows the helm but with no great insight, fitting the mold as a transportation module despite the promises made by the R/T badge. Instead of Road/Track it stands for Road/Transport.
But even if the R/T moniker is a cheat, our 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T was as useful as a Swiss Army knife with pockets. Lots of pockets. There are bins to the left of the steering wheel, another below the radio and above the HVAC controls, but neither has a lip to keep objects from rolling out.
The Caliber has two glove boxes, however, one over the other. Our test vehicle’s upper “garage door” lid didn’t want to stay open. The lower glove box has contours for four soft drink cans that are cooled when the a/c is on. But it won’t cool with the engine off so if you plan to stop, you’ll need that cooler anyway.