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Dodge Caliber makes its Aussie debut

It is trumpeted as a potential rival for everything from the Subaru Forester to the Volkswagen Golf, with a macho body which could only have come out of America. But the Caliber is more than a car - it also signals the return of the Dodge brand to Australia.

It will be part of the Chrysler Jeep family and sales will begin later this year, with the seven-seater Dodge Nitro to follow in 2007.

Dodge cars have not been sold in Australia since the 1970s but the head of Chrysler Jeep Australia, Gerry Jenkins, believes it could have a big future. "Dodge is in-your-face, unapologetically macho and unapologetically American," Jenkins says.

"Dodge also sits nicely alongside Chrysler. There is an appetite for edgy, exciting products that is currently not being filled in Australia."

The Caliber is a compact sedan wrapped in a body with four-wheel drive style and is believed to be a much better fit down under than the unsuccessful Neon sedan, which could never match the price or quality of Japanese and Korean cars.

It has a classy combination of equipment, including a nine-speaker sound system with a drop-down panel - with twin rear speakers - which flips down out of the rear hatch for outdoor entertainment.

Mechanically, it will come with three engine powertrain choices - 1.8 litre petrol manual with 106 kiloWatts, 2-litre petrol with 100 kiloWatts and a constantly-variable transmission, and a 2-litre diesel further into the future.

The big question is still to be answered, but Chrysler Jeep is working on a tight price.

"We haven't locked in the starting price yet but I can tell you it will start in the mid $30,000s," Jenkins says.

He believes the Dodge deal will help to drive future growth in the Chrysler Jeep franchise, which lifted its local results by 13 per cent to 7300 vehicles last year.

The 2006 group total is 9000, rising to 10,000 and beyond in 2007.