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Dodge Caliber 2006 Review

"I find it a little dark and disturbing," offers one fairytale character on a focus group in a clever American TV commercial for the car.

That may be a little strong, but Dodge Australia boss Gerry Jenkins knows that the Caliber is not for everyone. "Dodge is bigger than Chrysler and Jeep combined in the States. It is a product icon like Coca-Cola, Levi's or Harley-Davidson."

The Caliber has launched with a pair of four-cylinder engines — a 110kW 1.8-litre unit coupled to a five-speed manual and a 115kW 2.0-litre driving through a CVT automatic.

There are three trim levels currently available: the entry-level ST; mid-range SX, and the range-topping SXT. Prices range from $23,990 for the ST 1.8-litre manual to $29,990 for the 2.0-litre SXT CVT.

A 127kW 2.4-litre engine will be available later this year in the sportier R/T model. The range will be completed at the same time with the arrival of a 2.0-litre turbo diesel.

Built only at the Belvidere plant in Illinois in both left-hand and right-hand drive for more than 100 markets worldwide, supply of the Caliber is likely to be restrained for the foreseeable future.

"We will be getting as many as we can but realistically the expectation is for 2500 sales between now and the end of next year," Dodge's general manager for national sales, Brad Fitzsimmons, says.

"The Caliber has all the fuel economy benefits of a small car combined with the best bits of a compact SUV."

Trim levels and inclusions in the Caliber are commensurate with the price but the choice of materials is disappointing. All touch surfaces, other than the seats, are made of hard-feel plastic, which immediately conveys a "budget" feel.

Dual front and side-curtain airbags are standard, as is a one-touch power window for the driver, heated folding power mirrors, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, remote keyless entry, a drink chiller bin in the dash and a neat flip-up phone or iPod holder in the centre armrest.

In the ST, fabric seats, 17-inch steel wheels and 60/40 split-fold rear seat is standard fare.

The SX trim adds reclining rear seats, a fold-flat passenger seat, six-disc CD changer, driver's seat height adjustment and 17-inch alloy wheels.

With the SXT, standard trim also includes leather heated front seats, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, front fog lamps, chrome grille treatment and additional interior brightwork.

Carrying on the fun theme, the accessory packs include a pair of drop-down rear speakers in the tailgate capable of taking care of any serenity that may be found at a remote picnic spot.

Mechanically, the Caliber package is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition.

All models sit on the same architecture — a well-proven independent strut with coil spring over gas shocks front end and multi-link rear with link-type stabiliser bar, coil springs and gas shocks.

The car's "tall" styling and raised ride height (195mm clearance) lean it towards a degree of body roll in cornering but it quickly settles. Ride quality is at the better end of the scale, particularly on highway surfaces where it is solid and quiet.

Mid-corner bumps can unsettle the suspension and there is a degree of kick-back through the wheel but none of it is at a particularly disturbing level.

You can save time when shopping for the Caliber by putting a line straight through the 1.8-litre offering.

It may be the only engine offered with the manual box and, on paper, its performance data doesn't seem to give that much away to the 2.0-litre. Don't believe it. It is, quite simply, a disappointing and frustrating package, serving to make the 2.0-litre CVT appear an oustanding option. That 5kW and 12Nm can make as much difference as this does is a poster lesson in why matching engine and gearbox is crucial.

For an additional $2500 in SX and SXT — you can't get the CVT or the 2.0-litre in ST trim — the benefits are enormous.

Without destroying an impressive fuel economy (8.4l/100km on the test) the CVT package provides enthusiastic delivery, mid-corner urge and the ability to attack slight slopes without dropping back to third gear.

Inside, apart from the aforementioned first impression of budget surroundings, the Caliber has little to hang its head about.

Space is quite good, with reasonable knee and headroom in the rear — generous in the front — and only a minor complaint about difficulty with entry and exit to the rear.

Vision is not great: large A-pillars and a small rear window are the main offenders.

Most controls come easily to hand although the phone and iPod holder is a nuisance when deployed and offers a better environment when tucked away.

The sins of the manual, meanwhile, are compounded by the lack of a left footrest for the driver and the consequent painful annoyance of having the hard, sharpish edge of the centre dash console gouging the outside of the leg.

The sound system is good and there are plenty of storage pockets. Luggage space is adequate and access good but again, use of hard plastics — justified as a wash-out choice for active lifestyles — showed wear and tear from luggage wheels with a few hours' use.

Different? Yes. Desirable? To the character set, it will be irresistible. The question is, will there be enough characters to make Dodge's return to Australia a warm one.

TIMELINE

Dodge in Australia

1915: The first Dodge imports brought to Australia by Adelaide's Cheyney Motor Car Company. Soon after, local assembly is begun by T.J. Richards and Sons with some imported as components and other bodies made in Australia.

1937: A group of independent Dodge and Chrysler importers buys a controlling interest in T.J. Richards and renames the company Richards Industries.

1941: Dodge-Chrysler assembly lines build parts for the Australian war effort.

1947: Company name changed to Chrysler Dodge DeSoto Distributors Ltd.

1951: Chrysler Dodge DeSoto Distributors reach agreement with the Chrysler Corporation of Detroit to manufacture complete vehicles in Australia. Chrysler Australia Ltd is formed.

1960-72: The Dodge Phoenix is assembled by Chrysler Australia.

1976: Last Dodge ute assembled by Chrysler Australia.

2006: Dodge Caliber returns the Dodge badge to Australia

Pricing guides

$5,005
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,530
Highest Price
$7,480

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
R/T 2.4L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $5,060 – 7,480 2006 Dodge Caliber 2006 R/T Pricing and Specs
ST 1.8L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $4,070 – 5,940 2006 Dodge Caliber 2006 ST Pricing and Specs
SX 1.8L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $3,850 – 5,720 2006 Dodge Caliber 2006 SX Pricing and Specs
SXT 2.0L, ULP, CVT AUTO $2,640 – 4,180 2006 Dodge Caliber 2006 SXT Pricing and Specs