Here's the problem: between driving the Dodge Caliber R/T and writing its review, I managed to spend time behind the wheels of a Honda Civic Si sedan, a K20-powered Honda Fit, both new Scions, and a Ferrari 512 TR. Barring the mid-engine MILF magnet, all the aforementioned cars are in roughly the same price range, give or take $2000, and all are more interesting to drive.
Don't get me wrong. As basic transportation, the R/T is not bad. It's a practical four-door hatch with decent room for five people and their luggage. Ours was well-equipped with four-wheel disc brakes and ABS, 18-inch wheels, and a 'Chill Zone' air-cooled glovebox. But dynamically, the car feels overstuffed and underwhelming, particularly when compared against the Fit and Si. Not a fair comparison to either brand, but hey, we're getting bored waiting for the Caliber SRT-4.
Under the hood is the 2.4-liter variant of the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance unit developed by DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. It's the same as the one found in the new Lancer GTS and shares design elements with the turbocharged 2.0-liter in the next-generation Evo.
Mashing the R/T's gas pedal provides no insight on the performance of either the Evo or SRT-4. At least, I hope not. Though the engine is reasonably torquey, the car feels slow. Dodge engineers clearly tried hard to give their small car a big car ride: free from harshness, vibration and, well, fun. And they weren't able to engineer out the noise. Gear changes with the five-speed manual are achieved more by sight than by sound. Not because the cabin is particularly quiet, but because the engine note doesn't seem to change. Tech ed Chen offers a different explanation: excessive gear noise masks the change in tone from low to high revs. I thought that was wind noise from barn-like aerodynamics and panel gaps.
The car handles the way it looks: not ugly, but not pretty either. Damping is a hair on the sporty side: the R/T's MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension negotiate bumps firmer than expected. Keep the speed sane and it will hold a corner smoothly. Push it and understeer ramps up quickly, washing out the front tires in a controlled, drama-free fashion. Basically, it's boring to drive at the limit, so you won't spend much time there. Overall, the chassis bodes well for the SRT-4. It's tight and squeak-free, and seems like a great platform for upgrades.
With a sport appearance package and special paint, our R/T came in at $18,215. That's a lot, given that the same money can buy one of the new Scion xBs, with the same sized engine, more room, and some trick accessories like satellite navigation. The Caliber R/T is not a bad car, it's just not enough in this competitive segment. We'll wait for the Caliber SRT-4.