Consumers don't like small cars that feel cheap, so automakers are trying hard this year to offer new, small-car alternatives.
Dodge's entry, the 2007 Caliber, is a five-door hatchback that's classified as a compact, not a subcompact, and gets top government crash-test ratings.
It's also big on features and offers illuminated cup-holder rings, all-wheel drive, a layer-it-on audio system, a choice of three - and soon to be four - engines and even a glove box area shaped and cooled to hold bottles and cans.
Unlike its predecessor in the lineup - the Neon - the Caliber doesn't compete at the bargain-basement end of the small-car segment.
Rather, the starting price, including destination charge, of $14,135 for a base Caliber SE puts it in the company of the Toyota Corolla sedan, which starts at $14,825, and the Ford Focus, which starts at $14,075 for a base hatchback.
It's most likely that a buyer will wind up spending at least $16,000 on a Caliber, though, because air conditioning and a continuously variable transmission, which operates like an automatic, add $2,000 in options to the base SE model.
Other Caliber trim levels - the SXT and R/T - are more generously equipped than the base model, have larger, more attractive wheels, and are likely to account for most of the sales.
A fourth version - the high-performance, 300-horsepower, Caliber SRT model - is due later this model year. Prices for the SRT aren't yet announced.
The five-passenger Caliber is noteworthy because it's the first Dodge planned from the outset to be sold in Europe and dozens of other countries, not just the United States.
As such, the Caliber's front styling isn't quite as bold as on other Dodges (think the Magnum and Ram), yet there are enough Dodge styling cues on the outside that the Caliber has some good on-road presence.
I especially liked that the seating position is nicely raised about 4 inches above that in other compact cars so passengers don't feel as though they're resting on the pavement.
Despite the car's higher center of gravity, the tester with all-wheel drive held its line in curves and corners without feeling unsettled or tippy. Save for a 37.2-foot turning circle, the car looked bigger than it handled.
Indeed, the test car, an R/T model with standard CVT and sizable 18-inch tires, felt competent and comfortable in both city and highway travel.
It didn't lack for power, either. The R/T's uplevel gasoline engine, a 2.4-liter, double-overhead-cam four-cylinder, can put out 172 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm, which is easily more sprightly than the Corolla's 126 horses and 122 foot-pounds of torque. It's also more than the 151 horsepower and 154 foot-pounds of torque in a Ford Focus with its 2.4-liter four-cylinder.
Drivers hear the Dodge's engine when this powerplant is accelerating, but in regular driving, there was much more road noise than engine noise.
Don't look to this engine for fuel economy. Even with the more fuel-conscious CVT mated to it, this 2.4-liter engine is rated at just 23 miles per gallon in city driving. A four-cylinder-powered bigger car such as the Toyota Camry has a higher government rating than that.
Highway fuel economy isn't much better. A Caliber R/T is rated at 26 mpg, which is equal to the government rating for a two-wheel-drive Hyundai Santa Fe SUV.
Buyers more concerned with fuel economy might want to test drive Calibers with the base, 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter, double-overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine. It's rated at 28/32 mpg by the government.
The midlevel engine - a 158-horsepower, 2-liter, double-overhead-cam four-cylinder - is rated at 26/30 mpg. All three engines burn regular unleaded gasoline.
The seat upholstery in the tester was an eye-catching mix of gray with bright-orange inserts and is odor-, fade- and stain-resistant. The material is a new fabric being rolled out into several DaimlerChrysler vehicles.
Depending on the stereo system you want, you can add optional satellite radio, along with Boston Acoustics premium audio with new MusicGate that provides speakers that can be pulled outward from the rear liftgate to better direct the sound at tailgate parties.
THE VEHICLE: 2007 Dodge Caliber R/T, an all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact hatchback
BASE PRICE: $13,575 for base Caliber; $15,425 for SXT; $17,475 for R/T with manual transmission; $19,475 for R/T with continuously variable transmission
DESTINATION CHARGE: $560
PRICE AS TESTED: $21,500
ENGINE: 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder producing 172 horsepower
TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable
EPA MILEAGE: 23 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
LENGTH: 173.8 inches
WHEELBASE: 103.7 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,308 pounds
FUEL CAPACITY: 13.5 gallons
BUILT IN: Belvidere, Ill.
OPTIONS INCLUDE: Driver convenience group (tire pressure monitor, Boston Acoustics audio), $400; MusicGate power sound system (articulating speakers in liftgate), $400
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