2009 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport Review

By Chris Haak

03.17.2009

img_2545Sometimes when I take a step back to think about all of the money I’ve spent over the years on foolish things – money that I would love to have in my bank account again – I wish I had a way to make better decisions at the appropriate time rather than retrospectively.  Hindsight is 20/20, after all.  Fortunately for me, I have a wife who doesn’t like to spend money, so she keeps me in check for the most part.  Chrysler apparently had no such luxury.

Whoever at Chrysler (which was part of DaimlerChrysler at the time) made the choices of what to spend money on and not to spend money on in the development of the Dodge Caliber needs someone like my wife to tell them when they are spending money on foolish things.  Meanwhile, as the car’s interior materials are in need of serious improvement, the Caliber’s creators were busy adding superfluous features that add very little to the experience of spending time with the Caliber daily.  It’s sort of like the way I spent money on a new car that I didn’t need at the end of the summer in 2008 instead of spending money on fixing a few things around the house.

The Dodge Caliber has some really neat features, and sounds like a pretty slick car on paper.  In the plastic, though, let’s just say that it’s too bad cars aren’t driven and lived with on paper.  The Caliber that I tested included a 9-speaker Boston Acoustics audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio, “leather” wrapped steering wheel withredundant audio controls, 17 inch aluminum wheels, stain repellent cloth seats, cruise control, CVT transaxle with manual shifting capability,   It also had Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat paint, which is a $225 option and a shade of red I happen to be a sucker for.

img_2538The first problem with the Caliber is that I don’t know exactly what it is.  I suppose it’s more or less a car, but it’s one that is trying way too hard notto be.  It shares more design DNA with the recently-euthanized Durango than with, for instance, the Avenger sedan (with which it shares many platform components).  It has large fender bulges and a big rig-style front end seemingly lifted intact from the Dodge Ram pickup.  If ever a car had too much testosterone in its design, the Caliber is it.  If a VW New Beetle is a “chick car,” then the Caliber is a car that makes it difficult for me to imagine any female owning or driving it.  The front end design, in spite of looking out of place on a car (if in fact it is a car) is probably the best-looking angle on the Caliber.  The door panel gaps were seemingly wider than in many cars, and the doors did not make a reassuring sound when closed (that’s something common on many cars in this price class – not just Dodges). Perhaps I’m being too rough on the Caliber – if Dodge was marketing it as a small crossover (earlier versions had been available with all-wheel drive, though that option has been discontinued), its truckish looks and less-than-elegant shape might be more acceptable.  Unfortunately, it’s clearly listed on Dodge’s website as a car.

img_2511So the exterior design and quailty may not be quite up to snuff, but what about the interior?  Bad news there.  Many cars in the Caliber’s price class ($16,000 to $20,000 before rebates) have too much hard plastic in their interiors, but at least have a few soft spots where the driver and passengers are likely to regularly come into contact with something that is not a seat.  The Caliber afforded no such luxury.  Door panels, armrests, dashboard, and more were all constructed of roughly-grained industrial-quality plastic.  Fortunately, I was wearing long sleeves each time I drove the car, because it’s purely BYOP (bring your own padding).  Even on the hottest summer days, I’d recommend an elbow pad before utilizing the center console’s armrest; the area in front of my elbow literally started to hurt when daring to leave on the armrest for too long.

img_2509I was able to find a reasonably-comfortable driving position, and headroom was ample.  The material on the seats seemed to be fairly decent, although the seats were too flat and didn’t seem to have enough foam stuffed into them.  When I adjusted the driver’s seat to my ideal driving position, it was nearly impossible for me to squeeze into the left rear seat.  Legroom was non-existent.  It was possible to move the driver’s seat forward a few inches to a less-than-ideal position for me and to squeeze into the back seat, but then my knees came into frequent contact with the hard plastic underside of the dashboard, which intrusively cut into my personal space.  Speaking of a lack of space, there isn’t a lot of cargo space behind the back seat.  The cargo area is easily accessible thanks to the hatchback body style, but as we noted with the similar Jeep Compass, the cargo area is small, partly due to the sloping rear hatch.

img_2537Chrysler was probably stung by criticism of the Caliber’s interior quality when the vehicle was launched; as we noted earlier this week, the Jeep Compass/Patriot (with which the Caliber shares a platform) received a redesigned dashboard design.  The Compass (with the SXT Sport package was my tester had) instead gets the same old dash as the first-year Calibers, but with a completely tacky body-color slab surrounding the radio and climate controls.  Now, if the car was silver or black, it might not be as bad, but you’ll recall that this vehicle was Red Crystal Pearl Coat, which looks very much like nail polish.  The first time I peeked into the window of the Caliber, I was almost mortified by the color of this trim.  I made an unflattering comment about it to my wife (spelling the worst of the words I said so my 3 1/2 year old son didn’t understand what I said).  Later that first evening with the car, that same son asked to check out daddy’s new car, so we ventured to the garage.  Without any prompting (or him knowing what I was talking about earlier with my wife, since he has no idea what a “center stack” is), he said, “What this, daddy?  It’s a little ugly.”  Of course, he was pointing at the red center stack.  The original PT Cruiser had some body color interior trim that worked extremely well.  This doesn’t.

img_2528The weird thing about the Caliber’s interior is that there are a few islands of good-ness sprinkled about.  Going back to my original point about wasting money, though, I don’t know why Chrysler decided to spend money on gimmicks like mood-lighted cupholders (they were green), a detachable LED flashlight integrated into the rear dome light, drink coolers in the glove box, drop-down speakers in the rear hatchback lid for tailgating, and a pretty nice woven headliner.  Neither the Corolla, nor any Scion products have any of those features (and have particularly awful furry cardboard headliners), but why not skimp on stuff like that and spend money on, you know, the driving experience?  Or on improving the parts of the interior that buyers will touch or look at all the time?

The driving experience was underwhelming.  Where our writer was somewhat intimidated by the task of taming the Caliber SRT4 last year, and felt that the SRT4 version almost had too much power, the SXT version of the same car was plenty tame.  I can’t say that there was any area in which the Caliber particularly excelled dynamically – brakes, ride, handling, steering, or acceleration.  The brake pedal was spongy and had a long travel before biting into the rotors and drums (yes, it had rear drums – a pretty rare feature nowadays).  The car’s high greenhouse didn’t help handling, as the car felt more top-heavy than would a “normal” car that has no truck pretensions.  The Caliber SXT Sport’s 17″ Firestone tires should have been large enough and wide enough to have decent grip, but they did no favors for either the steering or braking.

img_2541When accelerating from a stop, with the CVT set to “drive,” the car hesitates for a moment, then does its weird CVT thing by working its way to a high RPM rate and just staying there until the driver releases the accelerator pedal.  It’s a similar sensation to other vehicles that I’ve driven with a CVT, including the recent Nissan Altima 2.5SL Sedan a few weeks ago, but  the 2.0 liter four cylinder is not a particularly refined-sounding beast, so any transmission that puts a noisy engine into a high-RPM range and leaves it there for several seconds doesn’t strike me as a good idea.  The CVT allowed me to “shift gears” manually, but was kind of doughy between each gear.  While other CVTs (such as Nissan’s very good ones) do a credible job of imitating a gear change when in manual mode, including adding a degree of firmness, the Caliber’s CVT changed gears quickly, but with no firmness at all.  The indicated sixth gear ratio was also a lower ratio than the highest gear the CVT could engage on its own, which seemed kind of odd.  In other words, shifting into 6th gear from drive was a downshift.

The Caliber is proof positive that Daimler absolutely looted Chrysler of any product development know-how prior to spinning off the company into the hands (jaws?) of Cerberus as Chrysler LLC.  I’m confident that the Caliber, Compass, Patriot, Avenger, and Sebring have all proven to be valuable learning experiences to Chrysler executives as they try to pick up the pieces that Daimler left for them and emerge as a viable car company.  Chrysler has proven that it does a very good job with minivans, luxury minivans, large luxury cars, muscle cars, really muscular muscle cars, and really muscular sedans, but after a week with the Caliber, it has shown me that it needs to go back to the drawing board on cars like the Caliber.  The car is just not a very good car, and help on that front from Chrysler’s new friends at Fiat can’t come soon enough.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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17 Comments

  1. I agree with all of those who since the begining sais the Caliber is UGLY, the more I look at it the more i say it, its simply UGL, Outside it looks like several designers worked on the car, but none of them knew each other, one worked the front end another the green house and another the ugly rear part of the car, and then Chrysler took all those designes and placed them together.
    About the interior……… just look at the instrument cluster, the speedometer, it has funny lights coming on in a circle, and about the materials… A friend of mine bought the first Caliber, she trade in a PT, after I sat on her new Caliber I was shocked, and what to say about after driving it, the CVT tranny with the 2.0 engine is terrible!!

    I cant find a positive thing about the Caliber, many owners wanted and waited for the Neon replacement, they were also shocked after seeing the UGLY Caliber.
    The Neon SRT 4 was a HIT, just look at the Caliber SRT 4 can we say the same positive things, NO, of course NOT.

    Chrysler should STOP building it, the car needs to go back to the drawing boards and after that it has to come out with a new name.
    Chrysler WASTED the Caliber name, Chrysler NEEDS to have much better designs at all, same goes here to the UGLY COMPASS !

  2. Thanks, this is a well written review. I was out visiting family in California two weeks ago and rented a Caliber. Its a wretched automobile, but better than the chevy cobalt I drove two summers before. I think the massive fleet sales to the rental companies has really undermined my willingness to look at small cars made by the big three. Every time I drive one, I cringe and vow never to buy an american made small car. Even the Koreans have figured out how to build a decent serviceable small car, why can’t the big three? Saturn used to be OK. In terms of quality and reliability, a 1990s Saturn was at least as good as a 1980s Toyota.

  3. Had they only not discontinued the Neon but done a mild Focus job to it (good radio, improved reliability, etc) it would be a better car than this POS. Not a good car, but certainly better and not a monument to wasted money.

  4. I just bought a 2009 Dodge Caliber SXT.
    This is a great car, in my opinion a much better car than Toyota Matrix.
    I’m surprised at the negativity I read about Caliber,
    I would recommend that for anyone looking for a small car; just test drive Dodge Caliber, Toyota Corolla/Matrix, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and see which one you like better. You may be surprised.
    Don’t let the crowd make up your mind for you.

  5. The Caliber has some awesome aspects, and some not so awesome aspects. The flashlight, cooler, and cupholder lights are awesome, and I use the Cooler from September through to May each year, as it gets too hot sitting in the sun all day with the engine off. The flashlight is an amazing flashlight, I used it camping/at a cottage/etc, and its never let me down, and it lasts forever. The cupholder lights are great and help you find the cupholders at night.

    As a Caliber owner since November 2006, I know that the car isn’t perfect, and I blame the cost-cutting on Daimler. But what else do you expect for a $15000 car? I have never been impressed with any import compact cars at all. The caliber has an awesome seating position, and has a ton of flexibility with the seats. The folding front passenger seat should be a standard feature on all cars. I can’t say much about the CVT other than I bought the 5-speed manual for a reason. The CVT is ok, but it wasn’t for me.

    And the fact that it gets 40MPG on the highway in the summer with the A/C on, with a comfortable seat, and loaded up to go to a cottage is just fine by me. If I was in an import for 4 hours straight I would be ready to hurt somebody due to the pain in my back from their funny seat postitions. And the Caliber has more back seat room than most cars out there in its class, its a higher seat, and there is tons of room under the front seats. Have you sat in the back of a Civic with the front seat all the way back? I’d rather walk.

  6. Your not that good at reviewing cars, but i won’t go there. This a really a nice looking car, it takes the new look that is sweeping the nation such as transformers in to play. This look has been around for many years now but not seen much by adults unless they were gamers. Your out of touch, antique in your approach to the new look. The Caliber is a car yet look’s bulky and powerfull enough to be a SUV. I saw it roll by me at 35mph and thought i saw a SUV. I rented it and my kids love it’s looks to, so it’s not just me and my wife that love it’s shape. Oh, we have been driving those very fancy german jobs for some 30 years or so, this car does have the right stuff to pass those antiques by. Dodge has a winner on it’s hands and you better get up tp date with what look’s keel not cool.

    Thank you Dodge
    Joseph

  7. Welcome to Autosavant, Joseph.

    I’m glad that you like the Caliber. You’re one of the few people in this world who actually do. It’s a car lacking identity, it’s not a good-looking car, the interior is cheap, the engine is noisy, the CVT sucks, and the driving experience is unrefined. The car is styled to look like the toughest car on the road, but any Caliber other than the SRT4 version doesn’t come close to having anything of substance to back up that super butch shape.

    With all due respect (although you showed me little of it), anyone who thinks the Caliber is good looking has zero eye for automotive design and just as much good taste. If you’ve been driving German cars for 30 years, you’re clearly older than me, as I’ve only had my license for 18 years, so perhaps the world has passed you by instead. I defy you to name one person other than your immediate family that aspires to own a Caliber.

    By the way, every word that ends in ‘s’ doesn’t need an apostrophe (look’s, it’s shape, etc.). I may not be the world’s best reviewer, but I don’t snipe at others’ work with a comment littered with grammatical errors either.

  8. Dear Chris,

    Your arrogance is fairly nauseating.

    The car has a great styling that a LOT of people like. It’s rugged and not just another teardrop design that permeates the marketplace. Mercedes and BMW’s are beautiful these days BUT they look the same. What the diff between a Honda FIT or Nissan Versa. I’m confident you would approve of those designs…vanilla ice cream to me.

    A lot of negative comments have been said about the quality of the vehicle and are are not without warrant but you are WAY off base in regards to styling.

    Stop with the pompous style critic shtick…you don’t have the eye for it.

    PS – Critiquing someone due to their grammar or spelling is juvenile. Do you make fun of people who stutter as well?

  9. I personally think the styling is great! At least it doesn’t look like an electric shaver, like every Japanese or Korean sedan.

    This “car” is really a FWD SUV: it has 8.1″ ground clearance, and reasonable storage. That’s why I’m interested. Combined with a US$4,500 Obama rebate, and US$3,500 Chrysler rebate, that’s a whopping $US8000 off your best price, bringing cost to below $10k USD. This is hard to turn down.

    I want a vehicle to replace my old ’89 Cherokee for hunting–and get good mileage, as well. AND go over sand and dirt roads without dragging the chassis like a sedan or ripping mufflers off.

    You can’t have everything on the cheap. Refinement, smoothness, high power. Is the blend good enough at these low prices? With a lifetime warranty to boot? Is the armrest too hard? Buy a small beige pad, and Velcro it on..

    If there’s an SUV in this price range, with that warranty, with that good mileage, tell me. I’ll buy it. There are no small trucks, either, which get as good mileage, and have a lifetime warranty.

    Think of it as a small truck, only with rear seats and better gas mileage.

  10. I really am happy with my new caliber. I had a honda for 10 years and really needed something new. So I went with this, I love it!!! I think its a great first new car for me and I think that people are too judgemental about everything these days. Holly crap I have never heard people gripe so much about a stupid car. Well duh people are going to love or hate it thats why you test drive the car and decide if you like it or not. If people are going to buy a car that is made then keep making it. Just an FYI chrysler is like anyone in America they want to make a profit and they did off this car. So if you open a buisness and an ugly product does well are you going to stop carring that product? Just a little food for thought!!!

  11. I love the SXT I just bought. I have 500 miles on it already (notice I called it an “it”, not a “her”).
    That is out of respect for it. IT runs great. IT turns a lot of heads due to the super look it wears. IT handles well enough for what it is. IT has a CVT tranny and a 2.0 motor and it goes fast enough for what it is. It is not a BMW or Mercedes and doesn’t pretend to be.
    It is a crossover vehicle that is rated a solid 5 out of 5 for safety. Anti-lock brakes all the way around and Side Curtain Airbags are standard. It comes with a lifetime warranty on the drivetrain. What more could you ask for for the money spent?
    The interior seating is comfortable and there is a lot of room for me. I weight 250 lbs. @ 6 foot tall.
    I test drove a KIA Spectra and a Chevy Cobalt before buying this crossover and I am glad I did. This Caliber wins hands down in most respects.
    I also drove an HHR and a PT Cruiser. They both lose also.

  12. The Caliber elicited a lot more passion than I thought possible.

    Not my cup of tea in the looks department, but to each his own.

  13. I just purchased a Caliber and love it. All the reviews have read have came down hard on the plastic interior but that is what I liked about it. I have a 4 yr old boy , which is boy all the way so it is easy to clean. When we were test driving cars i noticed that where his little feet reached while sitting in his booster was always the back of the seats in all of the different models we tried, and since the seats have the plastic on the back I don’t have to worry about them getting dirty and staining.

  14. I’ve owned my 2009 Caliber SXT Sport for 16 months now and have no complaints. This is a great little car that gets decent gas mileage and has plenty of power. Even with four people in the car and the a/c on, I had no problem keeping my speed up. I love the CVT – it’s always in the right gear. I traded and 08 Caliber SE Plus for the Sport. Teh interior took a little getting used to, but now I can’t imagine the blander look of other models. The Caliber is a good looking CUV-type car that has much more space in it that it looks. It is comfortable to drive, stable at any speed, and is covered by a Lifetime Warranty on the powertrain. Will it last as long as my friend’s 1970 Dart GT? I intend to find out.

  15. I bought a caliber sport in 2008 i still have it and love it

  16. Caliber looks ugly to me. I think also, since it was a replacement for the Neon, which was a good, fun-to-drive little bread and butter CAR, that people tend to compare it to cars. In my opinion, Chrylser really screwed up by replacing the Neon with the Caliber. Freshening up the Neon and maybe adding a wagon option would have been a better approach.

  17. I currently own a 09 sxt caliber, I have to say 90% of the time I love it. There are times when I wish it had more power, but if you notice when you lift the hood there is space and predrilled holes to implement a turbo to boost your power. This is a great looking car when looking at it from the front, with the classic powerful dodge look that we all know and love. The hatch back has never been a thing of beauty in my eyes’, but it is nice that i can put three full bags of hockey equipment, 6 sticks and a couple cases of beer while still being able to have 4 passengers remotely comfortable. I agree that the plastic on the interior is cheap looking, but this car was made to be a family vehicle, dodge had parents inmind (ie: what m. shaffer was saying), The CVT is louder than most regular automatics, but i will take the smoothness of transition through gears for a little noise any day..far trade…all in all, if i am rating this vehicle it easily gets 4 out of 5
    comfortable, good storage, great price, amazing ground clearance, awesome sound system, nice look, good visability…but yes a little noisy…get over it

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