You've already read the review of the Jeep Compass (or at least you looked at the pictures). Well, the Dodge Caliber is a Jeep Compass with a Dodge grille grafted on. Actually it's the other way around. I'll just say the Dodge is the car DCX was supposed to build, while the Jeep is the botched-nose-job twin that made it to production because it "did well in the clinics."
But enough about the Compass, we're here with the Caliber, and trying our best to avoid any Dr. Evil Fembot-like puns. The Caliber follows up the Dodge Neon, which was launched under the oh-so-cute tagline of "Hi." That probably explains the "Anything But Cute" advertising message of the Caliber. But we didn't need an ad to tell us the Caliber is ugly, we can see it with our own eyes. Although it's a more awkward, Citroen CX kind of ugly rather than a what-were-they-thinking, Studebaker Avanti kind of ugly. [How dare you — ed.]
On a positive note, the Caliber is definitely not bland. And the exterior shape results in a spacious interior. The inside feels huge, although a large dashboard top is a shade too minivanlike for our tastes. The plastics, which reviewers have universally maligned, are not quite as bad as you'd think. They look great until you touch them and realize how horribly cheap they seem. But such is the compromise of a budget car (though the Caliber R/T we tested starts at $19,985). You could have nicer plastics, like a VW Rabbit or a Honda Civic, or you could have cool shit like body-color inserts in the seating and on the dash, a semi-refrigerated drink compartment, lighted cupholders, AC power, and flip-down rear speakers. It really depends on what you like, and if you like features, the Caliber has a ton of them.
Unfortunately, if you like driving, there are better choices than the Caliber. The Caliber goes about its transportation duties with a can-do approach. The 172-hp four-cylinder gets things moving quietly, but not exactly quickly, and it's likely either of the less-powerful engine choices struggle in this area. Part of the sluggish response — also somewhat evident in the steering — has to be due to the all-wheel-drive system. The continuously variable transmission also hides some driving sensations with its smoothness. Like the interior plastics, though, enthusiastic driving spotlights the budgetary trade-offs. From a market standpoint, that's probably a good idea. Budget-car consumers tend to focus on safety, features, and space, and the Caliber succeeds on all of those fronts.
Let's just say, if the wizards who built the Neon SRT-4 can make a similar transformation with the Caliber SRT-4, that car will be awesome. In the meantime, the Caliber presents itself as a solid entry in the compact-car market. [Mike Austin]