2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4 Review
Hotter than a two dollar Hadron Collider
By David Surace / Photos by Kelly Surace
I have a conundrum to share with you. In the automotive media, we’ve come to regard an automobile’s design or build flaws as “character”, or “personality”. There’s a certain romance about rough-hewn edges, to be sure, but when is a flaw just a flaw? When is it OK to be imperfect, and when is it NOT OK to be too perfect?
I have experienced a car which is imperfection personified, the Dodge Caliber SRT4. For automotive buyers of many different stripes, this over-pressured Caliber (CSRT4 for short) offers a lot of drawbacks. It’s rough, it’s unrefined, it’s overpowered, it’s loud, it’s ugly. Even if those things sound good to you, you’ll still have right to be disappointed—it’s heavier and bigger and softer than its own forebear, the Neon SRT4, a car which won raves from the press for being… honestly, about as hardcore as getting a tattoo of your face on your face.
So the verdict, therefore, is easy: With all the incriminations that can be levied against the imperfect, dubious Caliber SRT4, I loved every second I had with it.
I’m actually glad to say this hotted-up Caliber enters familiar territory in the United States by this point in history. The factory-tuned, front-wheel-drive compact car has been represented fairly well over the last couple decades: Honda’s Civic Si, Ford’s SVT Focus, Volkswagen’s GTI, Chevrolet’s newly turbocharged Cobalt/HHR SS, Mazda’s MazdaSpeed3, the MINI Cooper/Clubman S, and the previously mentioned Neon SRT4.
If you really wanted to reach into history to look for inspiration, you could pull something from Dodge’s own big-hair yearbook: the 1986 Omni GLH-S, an aggressively modified, madly turbocharged creation from my personal favorite Texas chicken farmer, Carroll Shelby. (The model’s initials: Goes Like Hell-S’more.)
In terms of price, Dodge’s modern entry falls about midway through the pack at a starting price of $22,435, with the sticker on my rather loaded tester reading $26,175. So the primary difference that the Caliber brings to this already-crowded table is the number of horses: 285 of them to be exact, making 265 pounds-feet of torque. (As if that weren’t enough, dyno graphs from owners continue to circulate that those numbers are grossly conservative.) Believe it or not, you can give thanks to the existing 2.4 liter “World Engine”, co-developed with Hyundai and Mitsubishi, which, courtesy of Chrysler’s mad scientists at Street and Racing Technology, has been treated to a honking turbocharger (good for about 15 pounds of boost) and an enormous pancake of an air-intercooler, mounted squarely behind Dodge’s cross-bar grille so the folks (who care) can see.
That’s not the only stuff the SRT squad massaged. Over the standard Caliber, the suspension is dropped 28mm in the front and 22mm in the rear, and the shocks stiffened by about 50 lbs per inch; the front brakes are brought in from the police-equipment Dodge Charger, and will even take the police-spec brake pads if you order them; the front anti-roll bar from the Caliber R/T model was brought in, as well as a stiffer rear sway bar; aggressive tires on sparkling 19” wheels are standard, in either Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-weather flavor or Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires; the driver’s information display under the gas gauge gets a neat set of optional “performance” doodads like 0-60 time, G-loading, 1/4 and 1/8 mile times; the standard seats are replaced with body-huggers, embroidered with the SRT logo; there are minor aero improvements like a lowered front apron, extra vents in the hood, a duck-tail spoiler and molded under-body splitter.
But these details are somewhat hard to see; without the aero bits and extra leather trim, it still looks like a standard Caliber, with the same low-buck plastic interior and block-of-Velveeta exterior that car is famous for.
In other words, it’s about 10 lbs of ugly in a 5 lb bag.
So why I should care so much about this arrogant, bulging, snub-nosed monstrosity of a car is a very difficult subject to talk about in rational terms. Therefore, I’m going to argue about it irrationally.
Let’s imagine going to the store in a regular Dodge Caliber to buy some milk:
I went to the store and bought some milk.
There’s a good chap! The cats will be happy. Let’s go ahead and add three letters and a number (SRT4) to the end of that car’s name. Now, replay the scene:
I cast a Spell of Shattered Asphalt! Mighty Trees part in Fear as Two Hundred and Eighty Five Fire-Breathing Horses adjust the Rotation of the Earth, in my Quest! I seek only The Most Precious Milk…of the Holy Cow!
Now, I don’t mean to imply that Chrysler is weaving LSD into the seat covers; the Caliber SRT4 is simply a machine that transforms the everyday back-and-forth trudge into a sensory adventure for the driver. This is a difficult car that begs for your attention and commitment during normal operation, a quality that is (unfortunately) too precious in the current American automotive market.
For example: the launch from 1st gear. It’s simply impossible to hide damn-enough-near 300 pressurized horsepower in a front-wheel-drive car, so even with the standard stability and traction control activated, there’s still a very delicate balance between leaving rubber stripes and lurching to a halt. My first few work commutes went something like this: The traffic light would turn red. I would come to a stop, then immediately make an obnoxious F1-style standing start, yours truly holding the tach needle at about 3000 rpm (to keep from bogging down) until the light turns green, then suddenly launch off into the horizon like a catapult shot from an aircraft carrier. (To the elderly lady in the white Buick LeSabre: I was not actually attempting to challenge you, but congratulations on winning your first street race. If I had gotten into second gear, however, you would’ve gotten owned.)
Far from frustrating me, this behavior beguiled me—the CSRT4 adheres to your brain the way peanut butter sticks to your hair. From the moment I stepped out of the car, I longed to get back in and master the proper driving technique. If I just had a few more standing starts, if I could just put a few more miles on it… maybe I could smooth out that 1st to 2nd up-shift, maybe I could make my heel-and-toe a little less clunky, maybe I could take that S-curve on River Road without downshifting. So I took this car out at every opportunity, many times for no reason at all other than to “put miles on the car,” a condition that needs to be carefully explained to even the most understanding of spouses.
A lot of this phenomenon has to do with the everyday handling, which a lot of potential buyers will probably place in the “flaw” column, but I found immensely enjoyable. Hardcore, performance-minded buyers will probably find the stock suspension too soft and the center-of-mass too high, while the “non-car-people” will find it tosses their insides a bit too much. The former group will most likely replace the stock suspension with something more adjustable and ready for the track anyway, while the latter group will probably have never heard of the CSRT4 to begin with. The sensation that sticks out in my mind is a “pulled-down” feeling, in which any bump or irregularity in the pavement results in a solid yank downward—the car first, squishy occupants second. This happens at high speeds AND low speeds, so I have a feeling the shocks’ rebound setting (the force which pulls the wheels back toward the car, or vice-versa, after a bump) is very aggressive, in a wise attempt to keep those 285 horses stuck to the ground as often as possible. Once I got used to the frequent tugs from the seatbelt, I started to read it as a confidence-building sensation, one that’s bolstered by copious amounts of feedback through the chunky steering wheel, and plenty of feedback through the seat.
And this is where the spartan, cheap Caliber interior starts to make sense: it’s an office. When it’s just you, the bear-hug seat and the controls, the other stuff hardly matters. I would happily buy this car without a high-zoot stereo or a nav system, even though my tester had both, but I would definitely check the box for Dodge’s Uconnect hands-free Bluetooth phone pairing system, thus far the easiest I’ve ever used.
I feel even luckier that for such a rewarding driving experience, the CSRT4 returns fairly decent gas mileage– the sticker reads 22mpg city/27mpg highway on the current EPA cycle, though even with my boorish behavior around town I still managed a steady 23mpg. You can even feed it 87 octane gas if you want, though the SRT engine is much happier sipping 93 octane. These numbers pale in comparison to the venerable MINI Cooper S, which returns mpg numbers in the mid 30s, but the CSRT4 has one-hundred-and-thirteen horsepower in hand over the British contender, for a very similar price tag. Even as a certified Euro-snob and MINI-lover, I have a hard time picking a fight with that figure. You could hitch a lower-model MINI Cooper to the Cooper S, and still have less horsepower than the Dodge (which, remember, is conservatively rated).
You’ll notice two paragraphs back that I said the words “I would happily buy this car”. My longtime friends will tell you that I’m the person who’d sworn up and down that my next new car would be a MINI Cooper, but now I wonder… could I, would I dare to spend my own money on this hotter-than-a-two-dollar-pistol Caliber (pun entirely intended)? Without question, yes. This car’s flaws form a personality spectrum that leaves me maddeningly smitten. Besides driving me crazy, this car has driven straight into my shortlist.
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