In 2006, Dodge ran an ad campaign that garnished some questionable responses. In the ad, a panel of “consumers” looked upon a new Dodge model and gave the Mopar representatives their thoughts. Those consumers were, however, a gaggle of soft and cute stuffed animals that appeared to be confused and even scared. “It’s neither cuddly or wuddly,” said one while another shivered in fear and said that the vehicle simply scared him to death. That vehicle was the Dodge Caliber and five years later, the 2011 Caliber still manages to be one tough looking compact.
Replacing the age-old Neon, the Caliber came on to the industry riding on the GS platform shared by Chrysler and Mitsubishi. The two companies have worked together on projects for years, so the fact that the Caliber shares a lot of its equipment with the Mitsubishi Lancer as well as the Jeep Compass should come as no surprise. The front wheel drive layout features a long for a compact 103.7 inch wheelbase and an average 3,052lb curb weight. All wheel drive used to be an option, but is no longer available for the 2011 model year. Its dynamics are there to be a proper compact car, but the Caliber actually manages to give off a much larger presence.
For our time spent behind the wheel of a Caliber, we did so in a 2011 Heat model. The Heat trim was brought out in 2010 to replace the ‘bland’ sounding SE level. Standard features for the Heat include new-for-2011 18 inch wheels, 115-volt auxiliary outlet, MP3 integration stereo with SirusXM satellite radio, and the ‘Chill Zone’ storage for keeping bottles cold. With a base MSRP of $18,085, our tester featured a few options: $245 Redline paint, $700 Security Group with remote start, $1,000 continuously variable transmission (CVT), and $325 Uconnect phone and aux connections. Options brought the total MSRP to a very competitive $21,056 with destination charge.
Like the Caliber in the original ad campaign five years ago, our 2011 tester is a compact that doesn’t look anything like a compact. The tall stance and hatchback body give off the impression of a shrunken SUV. Most observers were surprised to see just how tall the Caliber sits, especially with its massive 18 inch wheels. The body’s sharp angles and deep cuts are a massive contrast to the old Neon’s curves. The Caliber actually manages to look muscular, especially bathed in the extra cost paint, which is easily worth the price. The Heat edition also helps the Caliber look more macho and less cheap with the wheels and colored body trim. If anything, the Dodge looks like it could easily bomb down a desert road without any hiccup.
Actually bombing down a dessert road or any road for that matter might be more difficult than expected given the Caliber’s looks. Powered by a 2.0 liter DOHC inline four cylinder with variable valve timing, our tester makes 158 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. On paper, this rating isn’t that low, even for the Caliber’s slightly heavy 3,000lb curb weight. But paired with a CVT built by Japanese JATCO, the Caliber is, putting it simply, slow. While driving the car, pulling out into traffic requires careful planning as standing acceleration takes a while to build up. Torque doesn’t really show itself until the engine is in full song, which seems a little tired. Blame can either be put on the Caliber’s weight, CVT or underpowered engine but is probably just a combination of the three. If the Dodge ever wants the Caliber or its next compact car to be truly competitive, power must be added.
Despite being slow, the Caliber is surprisingly smooth. The CVT, which offers shiftless gear ratios, is much quicker to respond than other CVT powered vehicles we have tested. When the pedal meets the floorboard (often enough), the transmission should allow the engine to rev to the most optimal rpm. In the Caliber, it does just that and will even hold the engine at or near redline long enough to safely pass on the highway. This also allows the Dodge to redeem itself for being slow around town as once up to highway speed, it manages to stay there with relative ease. While at that spped, the Caliber will allow a driver to stay there in simplistic comfort.
The interior is very refreshing, especially in a world where there is so much technology packed into ever square inch of a vehicle’s interior that it becomes annoying. The Caliber does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Ergonomically, the Dodge is a success as the seating position, shifter, stereo controls, and HVAC controls are set just right. And despite not carrying an aftermarket audio supplier’s name, the stereo is utterly fantastic. The sound is crystal clear and any audio wizard should be impressed with the levels that can be produced from the Caliber.
Along with the sound, the Caliber has a ride that should be rivaled by its competition. On the interstate, tracking was precise and the quality is surprisingly soft, especially considering the larger wheels provided by the Heat trim. This can mostly be attributed to the Caliber’s fully independent suspension. A hard to come by item for most compact cars, the Dodge’s set up rivals other offerings that feature a torsion beam rear suspension. For 2011, the Caliber was given revised damping and larger sway bars and it really shows. It may be slow in a straight line, but the Dodge actually handles quite well. The steering feel is exactly what a driver of a small car would expect: not too stiff but not too overly assisted. The Caliber can easily be tossed around corners and the grip from the larger wheels and tires is adequate enough to sustain on ramp antics. Suspension wise, the Dodge manages to overcome its powertrain shortcomings and can actually be entertaining to drive.
For the Dodge Caliber, a long life might not be in the cards. Chrysler has announced that the 2012 model year will be the last for the little compact with a more than likely Fiat sourced replacement coming soon. The Caliber may have its faults, but it manages to do something that a lot of compact cars can not: not feel small. With the seats folded down, the Dodge can accomplish most hauling duties and easily swallows any type of outdoor gear. Add this to the high ground clearance, and a driver searching out outdoor adventures shouldn’t have to worry about scrapping the beautifully red paint. Even though this is a multi-purpose vehicle, it has a ride that will never say so and a look that no one will mock. The 2011 Dodge Caliber is a small, efficient and inexpensive mode of transportation that doesn’t have to get in the way of enjoying life.