The 2009 Dodge Caliber is a reasonably priced, highly practical car. The form factor of the Caliber is that of a crossover utility vehicle: longer than a normal 5-door hatchback, but shorter than a station wagon. The hatchback design allows you to carry much more cargo than a regular 4-door sedan, and with the back seats folded down, it provides very flexible passenger and cargo space arrangements. The sheet metal has clean-cut lines with strong edges. Some may find it looks boxy, but the simple, clean, and strong lines caught my eye as soon as the car came out. As of the time of writing, Dodge has priced the very base SE hatchback model at $16,210, and the configuration as tested (SXT Sport with the 2.0L engine and CVT upgrade) is being listed at $18,765.
The interior is fairly spacious and comfortable. The front seats can be moved higher or lower, in addition to front and back. But even at its lowest position, it takes a little effort to get into the car. The centre console design seems to be a common Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep design template, as I have seen the same design in the Jeep Wrangler. It looks simple but works. A backseat passenger did note that there was a bit of draft around the feet with the car driving on the highway. Dodge advertises a special cooler section in the glove compartment, but I really didn't see much a point to it.
The review vehicle was equipped with an 2.0L I-4 engine which outputs a maximum of 158 bhp at 6,400 rpm and 141 lb-ft torque at 5,000 rpm, The power output and acceleration leave a bit to be desired. When you really put your foot down on the gas pedal, the engine sounds somewhat strained. The interesting thing is that while this engine only requires regular 87-octane gas, when I went to fill up the tank, the gas station was out of regular and was selling 91-octane premium gas at the price of regular, so I filled it with the premium, which noticeably improved the sound and feel of the engine. According to information provided by Dodge, the review model is equipped with continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which improves the gas mileage. During my week with the car, it didn't feel much different from a common automatic transmission; and indeed, the gas efficiency was good—surpassing what I would expect from a 4-cylinder engine of this size.
When in motion, the car feels like it's well planted on the ground, which is a bit surprising considering its curb weight of 3,038 lb. The power-assisted steering is fairly light, but it still feels connected to the front wheels. During the review period, Toronto was hard-hit by two major snowstorms that dropped close to 12 inches of snow on the ground. The car was not equipped with winter tires, so the wheels did slip on the snow, but the drive remained assuring. I could tell by feedback from the steering wheel the moment the car had slipped and made adjustments. While driving up a steep hill, I saw a bus, two trucks, and two sedans stuck on the hill, but the Caliber managed to make it to the top. The braking is on the soft side and you have to step a little harder on the pedal at the tailend when decelerating to bring the car to a stop gracefully.
Overall, for the price tag of $20,000, as a package, the car met my expectations. The interior was adequate, but somewhat bland. The negatives include the engine feel (when using regular gas) and the braking. The positives include the steering feel and the gas mileage. Even on horrible snow-covered roads, I never lost confidence in this car, which was a big plus.