Aimed unashamedly at the Volkswagen Golf, the Caliber differs in being higher and more robust-looking than its German counterpart. DaimlerChrysler SA, under whose auspices the Dodge brand falls, calls it a crossover.
Inside the dimensions are very similar to the Golf's, with enough room in the back for three adults at a pinch, plus a versatile luggage package.
And it has a few special features all its own, such as a cooler box that hold five cans or bottles, a sound system that also plays MP3s, and a removable central interior light that doubles as a rechargeable torch.
As far as styling is concerned, there's nothing like the Caliber available on the market at the moment, although those who follow trends will recognise the big Dodge Magnum (Dodge's version of the Chrysler 300C)in the bold "four quarter" grille.
Available in either plain body colour or with chrome trim according to the model, this is flanked by large headlamps, with built-in foglamps under the bumper on top models.
From straight on there's a very macho look, emphasised by the wide wheelarches and the under-bumper lip spoiler.
The bonnet is big and flat and chunky, too.
This macho look continues when you see the car from the side, with a rising crease line that gives a "wedge" appearance.
There are bulbous wheelarches at the back, too, fitted with either 17 inch or 18 inch wheels on the top versions.
And then to the roofline, which defies the SUV look by surprising with a fastback rear end, much like a BMW X5.
The tail has a squared-off look which, again, reminds one of the mighty 300C, with large taillights and a hatch-top spoiler.
Inside the dashboard is quite angular, and features a centre console dropdown panel in either metallic-look plastic, or coloured to match the seat inserts on versions with the "Sport & Sound" package.
This console flows back between the seats, where it is terminated by a lidded box which has a sliding lid which drivers can use as an armrest.
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.
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.
There are four models available at the moment, and such has been demand that Dodge boss David Elmore estimates you'll have to wait three months for the most popular versions, which seem to be the 2-litre turbo-diesel and the 2-litre CVT automatic.
The entry level car is the Caliber 1.8 SE, and this comes in with a lusty 110 kW 16-valve variable valve timing petrol engine courtesy of an alliance between Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Mitsubishi, and mated to a 5-speed manual gearbox.
Next up is a 2-litre version producing 115 kW, and mated to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) automatic gearbox
Top of the tree is a CDR turbo-diesel fitted with Volkswagen's direct injection 2-litre TDi motor pushing out 103 kW, plus massive torque.
A big plus on all the Calibers is the high level of equipment at the price.
Standard equipment on all models includes side-curtain air bags, illuminated front cup holders, 12-volt power outlet, centre console with sliding armrest that moves forward 76 mm to accommodate shorter drivers, armrest lid with flip pocket for storing a mobile phone or an MP3 player, dual-purpose rechargeable/removable interior light, vinyl load floor, driver one-touch-down power windows, power locks, power folding exterior mirrors and remote keyless entry with engine immobiliser.
Lots of stuff
Standard equipment on the Caliber SE includes all of the above plus fabric seats, 60/40 split rear seats that fold flat and recline (up to 12 degrees), a fold-flat front passenger seat, manual driver's seat height adjuster, tonneau cover, AM/FM CD radio with MP3 compatibility, rev counter, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, cabin and cargo lights, body-colour grille crosshairs and fascias, black door handles and 17 inch steel wheels with wheel covers and shod with 215/60R17 tyres.
Moving up to the Dodge Caliber SXT, additional standard features include speed control, beverage cooler, bright silver instrument bezels and switches, body-colour side mouldings, chrome/body-colour grille crosshairs and front fog lights.
The SXT can be ordered with either of two packages - Luxury or Sport & Sound, for the same price.
Luxury includes leather-trimmed bucket seats, leather interior, manual driver lumbar support adjustment, heated front seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, AM/FM 6-disc CD radio with MP3 compatibility, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel and tyre pressure monitor.
There are 17 inch alloy wheels with 215/60R17 tyres.
The Sport & Sound package includes colour-keyed seat inserts, instrument panel and gear shift trim accents, black B- and C-pillars, AM/FM 6-disc CD radio with MP3 compatibility, Musicgate Power sound system (includes 6 Boston Acoustics speakers and sub woofer, articulating speakers on the rear tailgate, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a leather-wrapped steering.
To explain those tailgate speakers, this is to pander to those who want to sit in a public space with the tailgate open and blast their music to the heavens.
When the tailgate is open the speakers drop down so they are vertical, and add their sound to the two speakers already fitted in the sides of the luggage area.
This package also sees 18 inch alloy wheels with 215/55R18 rubber.
A power sunroof can be specified as an optional extra on all models for R9 900.
On the road
We drove the cars on a route totalling about 180 km in and around Gauteng, which meant there was only time to get our hands on two versions.
Our first choice was the CRD, and as we expected this excelled, that lusty TDi engine more than capable of dealing with the approximate 17% power loss at Reef altitude.
However the Caliber is almost 200 kg heavier than its German rival, and this shows in terms of acceleration.
Dodge says the car goes from rest to 100 km/h in 9.3 seconds and on to a top speed of 196 km/h, while fuel economy sees overall consumption of the order of 6.1 liutres/100 km.
The car is quick off the mark thanks to its massive 320 Nm of torque, and the six-speed gearbox gives nice close ratios so one can get the best out of the engine.
The diesel is also the only car in the range which gets the electronic stability programme (ESP), as much to harness the torque through the front wheels and prevent wheelspin as anything else.
One immediately feels at home in the car, with a nice solid feel to it that matches its solid looks.
Long fast sweeps are dispatched with absolutee calm, and the car kept its composure well on the only sharp bend we encountered on our drive.
Ride comfort is excellent, and there's little noise inside save for the growl of the motor under hard acceleration and some road noise on rougher road surfaces.
Suspension is independent all round with McPherson struts at the front, with an anti-roll bar, and a multi-link independent rear with coils. Disc brakes are fitted both ends, the fronts ventilated, and ABS antilock braking is standard.
The other car we got our hands on was the 2-litre petrol, which comes only with the CVT 'box.
Though I'm not a great fan of these gearboxes the Calibers' behaved as it should, keeping the revs up while accelerating hard, then dropping them once cruising speed had been attained.
Remarkably smooth, it also proves very quick on the uptake when you select manual mode, though normal auto downshifts were not as fast as I would have liked.
The car also didn't feel as quick as I expected from a 115 kW machine.
No doubt this is partly due to its weight, but also, I think, because the all-alloy motor develops its maximum torque of 190 Nm at a rather high 5 100 r/min, with maximum revs at 6 400.
It's also indicated by Dodge's official performance figures of 0-100 km/h in a tardy 11.8 seconds and top speed of 186 km/h. Indeed, the 1.8 model is only 0.6 seconds slower to 100, and does 184 km/h.
This is the third time Dodge has come into South Africa, and I think it's definitely a case of third time lucky.
The first Dodges were big American cars, much loved here. Then came the Mitsubishi Colt coupe, re-badged as a Dodge, and equally loved.
And now the Caliber.
It certainly has all the credentials to make the grade, and offers a well-priced alternative for those looking for a hatch with pizzazz.
There are a lot of boring-looking cars out there at the moment, but boring is definitely not a word you'd use to describe this US hatch.
- 1.8 SE R169 900
- 1.8 SXT R179 900
- 2.0 CVT SXT R189 900
- 2.0 CRD SXT R219 900