Nobody asked me, but . . .

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear.  When Honda says small car, it means Fit.  When Dodge says small car, it’s talking Caliber, a car that’s about 18 inches longer, 2.5 inches wider and as much as 800 pounds heavier than a Fit.  The Caliber is replacing the Neon in the Dodge lineup and both the Neon and the Caliber are Honda Civic-size.

Calibers are available in five trim levels, ranging from the base 1.8-liter SE at $13,425 up to the 2.4-liter R/T AWD (all-wheel drive) with an MSRP of $19,425 (plus $560 destination charges) we tested.  A CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) is standard in the R/T AWD and optional in all other models.

With the Caliber, Dodge designers have gone out of their way to create the illusion of a larger car.  The exterior looks like a smaller version of the Magnum.  Inside, the large gauges, heater/vent/air conditioning dials and steering wheel, along with the expansive dash give the perception of a larger car.  All the better to fool American buyers who don’t feel comfortable driving small cars.

The R/T AWD’s “big” 4-cylinder is a necessity in a “small car” weighing more than 3300 pounds.  But even its 172 horsepower is barely up to the task of hauling around that much weight. And as a result, the EPA estimated fuel economy is a modest 23 mpg city and 26 highway.

The CVT tries hard, and by its very nature it keeps the revs higher than the ears enjoy hearing.  There is no melody to a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder revving above 6000 rpm.  The transmission features a manual gate with six distinct ratios, and the Caliber feels more peppy and less strained when driven in this mode.

From behind the wheel the Caliber R/T AWD not only looks like a big car but also it feels like a bigger car. The steering and brakes are heavy.  Around corners it has a big-car feel: substantial but never light and nimble.  The ride is firm.  The R/T models have performance steering and a sport suspension aimed at enthusiast drivers.  Test drive the other Caliber models if you prefer a less sporty driving experience.

In addition to being the Chrysler Group’s first compact car to offer all-wheel-drive, Dodge Caliber is the Chrysler Group’s first passenger car to use an electromagnetically controlled all-wheel-drive system that manages torque split from front to rear, based on road surface conditions.

The system works on demand, without need for driver input, driving only the front wheels until power to the rear wheels is needed, which optimizes fuel economy. All-wheel drive also is used between speeds of 25 and 65 mph to ensure precise handling during performance driving.

Along with an ABS braking system (standard on models with CVT), Dodge Caliber also is the first Chrysler Group compact car to offer Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with traction control on SXT and R/T models (late availability).  These confidence-inspiring features are ideal for all-season go-power in Northern New England’s notoriously wet, slippery, snowy, icy, muddy driving conditions.

Dodge doesn’t use the words “station wagon” to describe the Caliber, but I can and will.  The rear hatch and folding rear seats create a large functional cargo area.  There are plenty of storage cubbies strategically located throughout the cabin, including a clever two-level glovebox (but no lock).  Plus numerous thoughtful details, including extendable visors and a cell phone/iPod holder built into the center console.  But these are counterbalanced by seat controls that are awkwardly positioned and outboard vents that are irritatingly low.  And despite its exterior size, the Caliber’s interior doesn’t offer much more room than a lot of smaller cars I can name, including the Honda Fit.

At $14,000 dollars I expect to find hard plastic interior surfaces.  But when a model such as the R/T AWD is just a five spot under $20,000, I look for higher-grade materials and better fit and finish.  Come on Dodge, you can do better.

I find the Caliber R/T AWD a bit of an enigma machine: Big car on the outside, but small car on the inside.  A compact car with mid-size car price and fuel economy.  Thoughtful design touches mixed with some frustrating controls.  The peace-of mind of all-wheel drive and available stability and traction control combined with a not-so-peaceful 4-cylinder and CVT.  A blending of Chrysler and Daimler technologies and engineering.  Maybe trying just a little too hard to be both germane and German.  A 22-caliber rifle shot in a shot gun market.

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