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2006 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport Review

A Few Bullets Short

A three-quarter front view of a red 2006 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport

In short: A comfortable, well-equipped 5-door hatchback.

If there was ever a car concept perfect for today’s automotive climate it could be the Dodge Caliber. Americans everywhere are becoming increasingly torn between their love affair with sport utility vehicles and their newfound environmental/economic concerns regarding fuel economy. Understandably, people probably aren’t ready to switch back to regular sedans and certainly not wagons, so making bridge-gapping vehicles like the Caliber seems like a pretty smart move. It’s a fuel-efficient compact car with chunky SUV styling that should make Americans forget they’re driving a member of the much-maligned hatchback species. Although the Caliber’s execution is a little flawed, there’s no faulting its intent or purpose.

Within the Dodge hierarchy, the Caliber replaces the Dodge Neon, an unlamented little sedan that outlived its cutesy usefulness years ago. Next to Hemi-powered Chargers, Magnums and Durangos, the Neon looked as out of place in a Dodge dealership as Lara Flynn Boyle at a hot dog eating contest.

Several views of the 2006 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport

The Caliber is an entirely different animal with quasi-macho styling that masks a size and powertrain that are far from butch—but we’ll get to that later. Despite being lumped together with other new small cars like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa, the Caliber is actually a fair bit larger than those subcompact hatchbacks. At 173.8 inches long, it’s about the same size as the similarly shaped Toyota Prius. That translates into a much more substantial-feeling car, with a sense of security enhanced by high sills and an upright windshield perched beyond the lofty and lengthy dash top. Those who are skittish about climbing into a smaller car should find this reassuring. Out back, the sloping hatch limits the trunk’s total area, but the cargo floor is bigger and probably more useful than those in other small hatchbacks.

At present, three inline-4 engines are offered (not counting the forthcoming 300-horsepower Caliber SRT4) with our SXT trim level test car equipped with the middle-of-the-road 158-horsepower four banger. That’s a lot of juice for a small car, but with a portly curb weight of 3,100 pounds (the similarly sized Honda Civic is 2,804) and a wonky continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Caliber is miles from being considered swift. Nail the gas and the engine responds with a reluctant “moo,” like an indignant cow being forced into the milking machine. The CVT tries to maintain optimal revs, but instead seems to retard the car’s progress even further and exacerbates the less-than-thrilling noises coming from the engine bay. The Autostick manumatic feature found in the upgraded Caliber R/T might have helped the situation, but so would that car’s 172-horsepower engine (but not by much).

A view of the 2006 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport's engine

Regardless, the Caliber is far too heavy and lacks the powertrain refinement required to make it the exciting car it wants to be. The non-linear, borderline-numb steering doesn’t help things either, providing zero driving fun in a sub-20K class that is now inhabited by grown-up go-karts (Honda Fit) and junior sports sedans (Mazda 3). The ride is comfortable enough, though, and folks who enjoy a more leisurely driving experience will find the Caliber perfectly acceptable as a daily driver.

The Caliber makes up for a lack of driving excitement with enough visual pizzazz and character to set it apart from the pack. The exterior definitely has that macho, SUV-like beefiness to it that buyers should gravitate toward—particularly younger men. Our test car’s Sunburst Orange paint bled inside, with a color-keyed center stack and orange seat inserts. Some people might find the latter a little garish and tacky, but at least it brightens an otherwise grey habitat. The rest of the interior is filled with OK-looking, but cheap-feeling plastics that are at least slightly better than the comically bad materials found in the Caliber’s fraternal twin, the Jeep Compass.

Younger customers should appreciate the Caliber’s nifty features like glowing cupholders, bi-level beverage-cooling glove box, ceiling-mounted flashlight, flip-down tailgating speakers in the hatch and armrest iPod holder. The latter is a neat idea, but it can get in the way and the auxiliary mp3 jack is located on the stereo faceplate requiring a chord to snake a good foot from armrest to dashboard (even with our pictured Belkin Auto Kit). Putting the aux jack and an AC outlet in the armrest compartment would fix the problem.

The Caliber can be summed up as a car with the right approach at the right time but with questionable execution and a few too many pounds. It has the look and character shoppers are looking for nowadays, but it also lacks the refinement and quality that continue to drive many of those shoppers to import brands.

Read a review of the 2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4

A three-quarter rear view of a red 2006 Dodge Caliber SXT Sport by a marina

Warranty/Service: 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty; 3-year/36,000-mile powertrain warranty; towing assistance during warranty.

Base Price: $13,575 /As tested: $18,625

Technical Specifications

Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback

Engine: 2.0-liter inline 4 cylinder
Horsepower: 158 bhp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 141 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable

Curb weight: 3,100 lbs
Wheelbase: 103.7 in
173.8/68.8/60.4 in
Turning circle: 35.5 ft

Brakes: front-wheel disc, rear-wheel drum with ABS
independent front and rear

Safety: front airbags; side curtain airbags

0-60 mph:
10.0 seconds (est.)
Top Speed: 119 mph (est.)

EPA City: 26 mpg
EPA Highway: 30 mpg

Likes: lots of character; nifty youth-oriented features; comfortable daily driver

too heavy; powertrain not up to the task; cheap plastics; MP3 jack should be in the armrest; fuel economy could be better

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(Updated: 04/17/09 SV)