My brother is the unfortunate owner of a Dodge Caliber, a rolling symbol of American industrial decline. And it’s not just any Caliber, it’s a high-mileage, poorly-maintained former rental car. Plus, it’s from the first model year of Calibers. Unsurprisingly, I was scared shitless at the prospect of road tripping the thing.
“Hey Dave, can you help me drive to Austin this weekend? It’s eight hours from Fayetteville, and I don’t want to drive the whole way,” my brother messaged me on Facebook a few weeks ago.
“Sure,” I told him, writing from a friend’s house in Fort Worth, knowing full well almost immediately that I had made a terrible life decision. Again.
When my brother—whom I hadn’t seen in months— finally showed up, we greeted one another, had a few laughs, and got ready for the three-hour drive to Austin. But the happiness quickly faded when I looked in the driveway: there it was.
It might look cute with its big eyes and happy grille—actually, who am I kidding, no it doesn’t—but that 2007 Dodge Caliber is a hateful machine.
I’ve dealt with this misery machine a few times before. I once helped my brother realize how screwed up the engine was after he went 12,000 miles between oil changes. Then the car was meant to be the support vehicle in my $600 Jeep XJ road trip to Moab, but actually ended up breaking down, requiring me to drive 30 miles back up the mountain in my beater-ass project car.
Clearly, I don’t look fondly upon this particular DaimlerChrysler-era abomination.
“How’s she holding up?” I asked, my voice cracking as I worried for my life.
“Well, she’s good. Needs new tires—the shop said the current ones are at below 2/32nd — and it also needs four new lower control arms.”
“Four? Isn’t that like, all of them?” I said to him. (It is.) “And how bad are these tires anyway?”
I went and had a look:
There was very little tread left, and there was some cracking going on. But I’ve seen worse. Then I decided to do a little walk-around:
What the hell?! I took a closer look:
“Mother of god,” I howled. “This car is held together with tape. This is the end.” But my brother quickly assured me that the tape was only holding on a plastic belly pan, and no crucial structural components.
Okay, no big deal. I continued my walk towards the front of the car, opened the hood, and took a gander at a 2.0-liter World Gasoline Engine, designed in a trifecta of sadness between Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai.
It was dirty, but it looked pretty—wait, what the heck? Is that a zip tie down near the radiator hose. Let’s have a closer look:
Dammit! It was the zip-tie and JB-weld fix I did on the Caliber all the way back in March (a fix which, I will admit, I’m still amazed worked, as it’s holding in the radiator hose’s hot, high pressure coolant.)
“How have you not replaced this part yet?!” I screamed. My brother told me it’s holding up great, so there’s really no need to fix it.
That’s one way to look at it.
Then I went to the interior, a place very akin to a cave, because it’s got about as many blind spots, and the plastics are grey and rock-hard. There, I found a broken door post and a broken dead pedal.
A broken dead pedal? How on earth does a dead pedal break? I didn’t even think it was possible to break one of those.
Then I got behind the wheel. That’s when my suffering really began. There I was, on my way to one of the greatest cities on earth, but I wasn’t happy because I had to listen to the deafening drone from the car’s continuously variable transmission, which Chrysler must have decided to buy from a Craigslist-sourced snowmobile.
It’s bad. In fact, if there’s one thing about the Dodge Caliber that might make it the worst car of this millennium, it’s that CVT, which gets rid of any bit of enthusiasm the car might have had to actually, you know, go forward.
Anyway, shortly after we left, it began to pour down rain:
“So, the power steering will probably go out any second now,” my brother said, telling me that without that plastic belly pan—which he had tried so valiantly to tape back into position— rain splashes onto the belt and makes it slip, rendering the power steering pump useless.
That moment pictured in the image was my true driving hell. There I sat in this garbage-wagon with worn tires, four shot control arms (bushings or ball joints—hopefully the former), no power steering, no place to rest my left foot, and a coolant hose ready to burst.
On a positive note, the car drove fairly smoothly, and it does have over 150,000 miles, so I figured, worst case, we scratch the VINs, pull the plates and roll it into a ditch somewhere in rural Texas. I doubt it will be the first Caliber to meet such a fate.
At this point, my brother’s gotten his money’s worth out of the car. And it wasn’t a lot of money, either—he (well, actually, our parents) bought the car for around $8,000 when it was only one year old. Clearly dealers were having trouble selling these confused little faux-crossover hatches.
After three hours of terror, I finally arrived safely in Austin, and began a taco-fueled rehabilitation process. The car gods had spared us, and they had even welcomed our arrival in Austin with a nearly rust-free old CJ-2A.
When someone asks you to go on an extended drive in a Caliber, you treat it like drugs: you just say no.