By Rick Newman
It's supposed to appeal to active 20-somethings looking to carve out a bold identity. But I wonder if the new Dodge Caliber, an inexpensive raised wagon (AKA "crossover") might gain popularity with moms and suburbanites.
Why shouldn't it? The Caliber has a lot of features that parents appreciate just as much as do attitude-laden guys blaring hip-hop out the tailgate--including top safety ratings. It's basically an economy wagon, starting for less than $15,000, that gets decent gas mileage in the mid-20s. But it's also a faux SUV that sits higher, like a Subaru Outback, which makes the people inside feel a little more empowered than the typical budget shopper. And there are some nice basic goodies: The cargo area has a vinyl floor that's easy to wash. The standard upholstery is a stain-resistant synthetic that holds up to spilled drinks and worse, whether it comes out of a Red Bull can or a juice box. The huge glove box has a nifty compartment that holds four beverage bottles and can even use the A/C to keep them chilled. The seats fold down in all kinds of convenient ways, good for all the kids and stuff that parents need to haul around. Pile the family in.
But manage their expectations. There's a cool factor to the Caliber, since it looks young, but its road manners are a bit adolescent, too. The vehicle is nimble like a small car, but it also feels a bit rough, reminding you that this is an economy car after all. I drove the upscale R/T model with all-wheel drive--list price starting at about $20,000--which comes with a zesty 172-horsepower engine, big 18-inch tires, some suspension refinements, and other features that make it a competent road warrior. For the price, the performance is satisfying. The base model, however, is more meek. At the base price of about $14,000, the Caliber starts with a 148-horsepower engine and much smaller tires. And the interior on all models is somewhat spartan, with a squared, blocky dash that's more reminiscent of a truck than a car, and surfaces that are plasticky and hard in places. Twenty-somethings might not notice, and children won't either. If Mom and Dad aren't too particular, the Caliber is a vehicle that offers a little something for the whole family.
Nits: Rear headroom is tight for adults, one of the trade-offs for a high seating position.
G forces: The base engine is a modest 148-horsepower fourcylinder, while the sporty R/T model packs 172 horsepower and some other performance upgrades. At best, the Caliber can be considered perky, thanks to relatively small dimensions that make the car lightweight and agile.
Gizmology: Climate and radio systems are basic and functional. There are a few nice surprises in the Caliber, though. The center armrest slides forward and back to accommodate drivers of different sizes. There's the funky beverage holder atop the glove box. And the optional "MusicGate" speakers swing down from the rear tailgate when it's opened and hang down so the sound travels outward--perfect for tailgate parties or picnics.
Kidmarks: The back seat handles kids nicely (better than it handles adults), with twin cupholders and seats that recline for naps. As a hatchback, the Caliber is particularly practical for handling kids and related gear. The 60/40 folding rear seats, for instance, let you haul some bulky items with room left for a child.
Hot or not: Not. The Caliber comes close, but it's more muscular than curvy, and it lacks the svelte styling of the Mazda3 or the Audi A3.
Pain at the pump: Modest. Mileage ratings range from 23 mpg/city to 32 mpg/highway. Full details are atwww.fueleconomy.gov.
Crash course: The Caliber earns 10 stars out of 10 on both the government's frontal and side-impact crash tests. Rollover resistance rating is four stars out of five. Details:safercar.gov. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private testing group, rates the Caliber "good" in all categories. More info:IIHS.org
Price points: Base prices range from $13,985 to $19,985. Price as tested: $23,935. (Prices include delivery fees.)
More info: Dodge.com