The Dodge Caliber is a new entry onto the South African market, and at first sight it has a lot to offer, with exciting new looks based around a chunky crossover theme and high stance. But does it deliver?
What is it about
The Dodge Caliber has already had a fair amount of indifferent press following its launch in Gauteng, and we too were not really impressed with most of the range - with the exception of this one, the 2-litre turbo-diesel CRD.
Returning to the car for a full test on "home turf" did little to dent our initial enthusiasm, although it's certainly got a long way to go to compete against the VW Golf, the car DaimlerChrysler SA - which imports it into this country - says is the Caliber's main competitor.
Not that I believe executives were really serious when they said this. The Golf, after all, is a South African institution, while Dodge is a fledgling brand (in its new incarnation).
Though the Caliber is a bit of a segment-buster, we believe it is still going to be bought by people looking for a C-segment car - but one with a different take on the standard hatchback formula.
So for the purpose of our evaluation the Caliber finds itself up against the likes of the Golf 5 2.0 TDi (with which it shares, ironically, an engine), Astra 1.9 CDTi, and Focus 2.0 TDCi - formidable opposition indeed.
Onto that playing field we would also throw diesel-powered versions of left-of-centre offerings such as the Astra GTC.
Where the Caliber differs from its main competitors is in having a significant height advantage (both in roof level and ground clearance), slightly greater overall length (though class-average wheelbase), and 17 inch wheels which would not look out of place on a sports-ute.
There is a lot to hold a person's interest once inside, and Dodge seems to have put a fair degree of thought into making the cabin a pleasant and user-friendly place to while away traffic jams.
Some unusual features include illuminated cup holders, sun visors that can be repositioned by sliding them along their fixing rail, and an air-conditioner linked storage compartment ahead of the front passenger, with space to keep up to four tins at the ideal temperature.
Caliber can be ordered with either Luxury Group specification or the more youthful Sport and Sound package. The latter includes the additional, rear-facing speakers (for outdoor entertainment guaranteed to irritate anyone in earshot) which are linked to the in-dash six-CD shuttle with MP3 compatibility.
The test Caliber was in Luxury Group spec, a level which comprises leather chairs, auto-dimming rear view mirror, cruise control, tyre pressure monitor, heated seats, and a comprehensive driving computer - more 'cute' than the 'anything but' television marketing would have you believe.
There's manual driver's seat height adjustment, a luggage cover, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, and 17 inch alloy wheels shod with 215/60R17 tyres.
On top of that the SXT also gets front fog lights.
Instrumentation seems to come straight out of the latest PT Cruiser, and sees three heavily hooded dials, the centre one with a revcounter, that on the right the speedo, and the left one with fuel and water temperature gauges.
There's a triple layer glovebox, the top one with a its own lift-up lid, the middle one for cooling cans or bottles, and the lower one of the traditional dropdown variety.
Rear seats are flattish, but the backrest angle can be set to one of two angles, 12 degrees apart. It also has a 60/40 split, and the front passenger seat can also tilt forward to accommodate extremely long items. Total volume is 1 341 litres, but there is not a huge amount of space under the retractable luggage cover, which is set rather low.
The boot floor is designed to be removed and hosed down if necessary, with the result that it is made of hard (and therefore slippery) plastic. Underneath it resides a space saver spare.
The top-of-the range Caliber comes fitted with four air bags, and there is anti-lock braking, linked to a full stability control package.
The front seats are quite comfy, and hold one extremely well in hard cornering, though those in the back seemed a bit skimpy in terms of under-thigh support.
I could just sit behind the driver's seat when it's in my normal driving position, my knees all but touching the seat back.
While the cabin has lots of surprise and delight features, it disappoints in two significant areas: the fit and quality of materials, and overall refinement. There is too much engine noise, including a thrumming at idle which is surprising considering the sophistication of the powerplant.
There is also more wind noise than there should be
With 103 kW and 320 Nm, the Caliber has good performance, and its fast-shifting six-speed gearbox means it does not have any trouble keeping up with the traffic, or overtaking it.
That said, the Caliber is almost 200 kg heavier than its German rival, and this shows in terms of off-the-line acceleration.
It goes from rest to 100 km/h in 9.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 196 km/h, while fuel economy sees overall consumption of the order of 6.9 litres/100 km.
The Caliber also fares quite well in the ride, handling and roadholding stakes.
The rear suspension is a fully independent multi-link arrangement, with the front by lower control arms and spring struts.
With its radical tyre choice there is no lack of grip, but what impresses more is the level of composure and lack of excessive body roll considering its height.
If only the steering made it a bit more rewarding by giving some feedback.
There's also a degree of torque steer, which can on occasion be disconcerting.
So what would make anyone go out and buy a Caliber?
There are not ultimately many logical reasons why, and DaimlerChrysler South Africa does not help the Caliber's cause by offering a short warranty and service plan, both only extending to three years or 60 000 km.
However, what is apparent is that the 2.0 CRD version is easily the best of the range, though it is still going to have a tough time against logical rivals.