Exterior Design: ***
Unlike the polarizing design of the Dodge Magnum, the Caliber goes for universal opinion. Unfortunately that opinion is not very good. The Caliber does, however, succeed on two fronts: It's not girly, nor does it have the bland, jellybean-space-shuttle shape of other hatchbacks like the Mazda5 or Honda Fit.
Interior Design: ****
While some of the materials are, well, crap, the Caliber has a few novel features and a ton of space. The body color inserts on the seats and audio/HVAC stack are a nice touch as well.
Neither strong nor weak, the Caliber simply gets the job done. The engine is quiet and, compared with other domestics' fours, very smooth. All-wheel-drive (optional in the tester, but standard on the R/T) ensures no wheel slippage.
ABS is standard, and "state-of-the-art electronics" help avoid the occasional rapidly approaching guardrail.
Plain vanilla (as opposed to special vanilla) defines the Caliber's ride. Some chassis flex occurs over bumps, along with a few ominous "thump" noises.
The Caliber feels as if, to paraphrase former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, corners were cut. The steering is vague, thanks in part to the AWD, and the soft suspension goes into understeer just comtemplating a fast corner.
Despite the attached numeral (two of what?), CVT2 is just a continuously variable transmission. Since it continuously (go figure) adjusts the gear ratio, there are no upshifts to sweat. Drivers unnerved by the stasis of revs can use the AutoStick manumatic feature, which can "shift" among six specific ratios.
Figure this one out. The upgraded stereo does not have an aux input, despite the Caliber's highly advertised iPod-friendly storage slot in the armrest. But there are optional steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls, and the drop-down liftgate speakers are perfect for jamming out to Freedom Rock at the tailgate party.
The Caliber is loaded with toys, like the AC power adapter, rear speakers, and "Chill Zone" glove box. Even the rear dome light detaches to double as a flashlight. The only real bummer is the aforementioned iPod slot, which doesn't actually hold any iPods larger than the Nano. Austin's Blackberry 7100t phone fit perfectly, but it's more narrow than even fourth-generation iPods.
Not only is it big, and not only do the rear seats fold down for more space, but the front passenger seatback folds down for especially lengthy cargo.
The base Caliber, which starts at $13,985 (good luck finding one), is a lot of car for the money. The R/T, which costs in the low twenty-thousand dollar range with a few options, seems like less of a bargain, but it does have AWD, space, and all those features.
It all depends on your priorities. The Caliber is great as an entry-level people hauler, but the lead-footed would be more satisfied giving up some space and gadgets for something a little more fun to drive. In other words, the Caliber is a great car to recommend to your friends so they can help you move because your Miata's trunk is too small.