Monday, April 14, 2008

Dodge Caliber SRT-4 is Yowza Spot-On

There is great nobility in the small car and a lot to love about a modest automobile that is a capable performer, knows its place in the world and does small car things small car well. As the air cooled Volkswagens proved a generation ago, the honest compact can stand on its own merits and doesn't have to be pretend to be something it's not.

While I was largely disappointed by the compact cars at the last Los Angeles Auto Show, I was quite taken by the Dodge Caliber. Comparatively, it really seemed to be a car of integrity, both in construction and design. For example, the uninspiring Toyota Yaris has power windows while the bottom-of-the-barrel Caliber has manual crank up windows. All things being equal, one look at the Yaris' more feature-rich window sticker and it would seem to best the Caliber, but the Caliber feels like a better car. It seems that the Dodge budget for power windows went into building quality instead. Of course, I don't have their respective balance sheets in front of me, but the Caliber earned my respect with its quality feel and materials.

A four-door hatchback, the Dodge Caliber is a champion of utility. The cubic foot cargo specs lie, as any hatchback owner can attest to the extraordinary volumes that present themselves when necessary. Without the limits of a sedan, the hatchback lets you think in terms of a world without barriers. Recline the passenger seat and you are able to carry 8 foot 2" x 4"s, one end wrapped in an old t-shirt and resting on the dash while the other end sticks out the hatch with an attached Twix wrapper serving as a red warning flag. Add a 6' Noble Fir Christmas tree, two flats of pansies, two bags of Quikcrete, a case of Tecate, a large pizza, two cans of Ajax and a new water-saving toilet to really appreciate the black hole qualities of the hatchback. Believe me, your passenger won't mind sitting in the back seat one bit. What with the pine smell and the limo service, they will feel like a Kennedy on the way to Hyannisport.

So, if there is nobility in a small car of restraint, what if that piety is thrown out the window and a monster is born? The Renault Turbo R5 breathed fire into the lowly LeCar and transformed it into a true classic of the 1980's - a decade in which few classics emerged. And consider the VW GTI, which practically invented the hot hatchback. What are these bastardizations of economic restraint when they crash head on with turbo chargers and giant disc brakes? Hopefully, examples of exquisite balance in the form of extreme performance driving onto freeway entrance ramps, downtown lane splitting, and abandoned business park skid pad practice.

As I already respected the Caliber, I was thrilled to learn that Dodge SRT is shopping the parts bins and building a little beast of a hatchback... A turbo charged aluminum 4 with cast iron cylinder sleeves and tiny oil squirters to keep the pistons from melting. Big brakes and half shafts off a full size Dodge. Functional cold air scoops at the front bumper and ducts to cool the brakes. All the typical racecar treatments that you would add if you were going racing, like improved intake air flow, higher compression, bigger injectors, higher volume fuel pump and an external oil cooler.

The hood scoops gave me pause since they seemed to be non-functional geegaws, but they are open and used to exchange air to keep the under hood temperatures lower. The interior is a little tarted up for my taste, but I love the aftermarket boost gauge and dash gizmos that report 0-60, 1/4 mile time, braking distance and g-force.

This would really speed up garage saling!

Caliber SRT-4 (Around 300HP, 260 ft. lb of torque, 23 mpg)
Reportedly around $22,000