Monday, December 6, 2010

Car Review: 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve had my fill of the hassle that has become what passes for domestic commercial air travel. I normally fly Southwest Airlines which has historically gone out its way to make things as easy and painless as possible for its customers; however, even SWA is no match for government red tape and the TSA “security” procedures. As a result, day trips to destinations more than 200 miles away that I used to do via air, I now choose to do via car if at all possible.

I have found that scheduling my business for the afternoon gives me much more flexibility than flying. I get to go to sleep at a normal hour, wake up at a normal hour (or at least not an obscenely early hour), drive four to five hours, attend to business, leave when I’m done, stop anywhere I choose along the way, have a nice relaxing meal with real utensils and arrive home before midnight after a leisurely drive listening to good music, talking to people on the phone, etc. This is much preferable to my routine when flying: try to get to bed early (nearly impossible at Castle Erickson), try to wake up early without disturbing The Queen (also nearly impossible), fight traffic to get to the airport at least one hour early, deal with the TSA (getting more and more difficult each day), get to the gate to find out whether your flight is held up by weather or equipment delays somewhere else in the system (rare but not unheard of for SWA early in the day), board the plane and pray there is an emergency exit row seat with extra leg room available (suffer for an hour or so if not), arrive in the city de jour to see how long it take to connect up with your ride (I hate being at the mercy of others), conduct business sometimes finishing early or late depending on how crazy people are that day, see if there is an earlier/later flight available that’s not full while praying that you don’t get stuck with a “C” group boarding pass (if you’ve never flown SWA, a “C” boarding pass means you are all but guaranteed a middle seat between two fat guys), hope you don’t get hosed by traffic on your way back to the airport, deal with TSA (again…“Sir, we need to do a pat down of your groin.”), arrive at the gate to find out that…yes…your return flight is delayed (a much more common occurrence later in the day), dejectedly scope out the airport food court options to enjoy an exciting fast food experience with plastic utensils, go back to the gate to find out that the flight left without you because the gate attendant lied about how long the delay was going to be and the airport PA speakers don’t work in the food court so that you missed the announcement for your flight (it happened to me once…I was not happy)….

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Driving’s also cheaper for the company for me to rent a car and drive as opposed to paying for airfare and, occasionally, cab fare.

Such was the case last Thursday when I decided to drive instead of fly from Castle Erickson to the north side of San Antonio (269 miles according to MapQuest). At an estimated 4 hours and 20 minutes, it’s a little further than I would like to drive in a single day when adding in the reciprocal 4 hour and 20 minute return drive. However, I’ve made the conscious decision that my dignity, stress level and personal freedom are worth more to me than the off chance that SWA can get me home an hour or two earlier.

So, as with previous business day trips involving driving, I once again enlisted the help of my friendly, local Enterprise Rent-a-car agency. This time the nice folks there gave me a 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT to drive. Knowing me as well as you should by now, I can’t leave well enough alone. I have to take a stab at writing a review of this case. Of note, I have now completed a Detroit car review trifecta: one each for Chevy, Dodge and Ford.

As with my previous car review, here are the official disclaimers and disclosures.

1) Neither Dodge nor its current owners, Chrysler Group, LLC and Fiat have paid me one thin dime for this review. As far as I know, Dodge, Chrysler and Fiat have no clue that I exist.

2) I (actually my company) paid for the privilege of being able to rent this vehicle from Enterprise Rent-a-Car*. Again, no promotional consideration was paid by Enterprise to me for this review. Aside from the guy at the Enterprise rental counter who now recognizes me on sight, I don’t think they have a clue who I am either.

*Interesting bit of trivia: Enterprise Rent-a-Car was named for the aircraft carrier that the founder and CEO served on while in the Navy.

3) I have nothing against Dodge, Chrysler or Fiat (except for the whole government bailout thing…at least twice for Chrysler now…but who’s counting?) or any other car manufacturer. I have looked at Dodge/Chrysler products on several occasions including every time I’ve considered purchasing a new vehicle. To date, I have not purchased one of their products; however, I came very close to purchasing a Dodge Ram 1500 pickup about 15 years ago. I would have too if the salesman hadn’t tried to pull a bait and switch on me. Pissed me off royally. Ford can thank that guy for a sale (I bought a 1995 Thunderbird instead…really great car).

4) I am not now, nor will I be in the near future, in market for a new car. In fact, I will probably never buy a brand spanking new car ever again. I’m more than happy to let some other hapless soul take the hickey on depreciation while I merrily pick up gently used cars for more reasonable prices.

So, where to begin?

Let’s start with what kind of car this is.

Seriously, I’m still trying to puzzle this one out. Is it a crossover? Is it a mini SUV? Is it a small car? Is it a station wagon or hatchback? Is it a motorized beverage cooler? Normally, when car designers sit down to think up a new vehicle, they have some idea of what the actually intent or end result is supposed to be. Apparently, Dodge designers think this method is overrated. It’s almost like they got a memo from HQ that said “One of each.” It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer’s brother comes to visit and we get a flashback to when Homer ruined his brother’s car company after being allowed to design a car.

Let me just say this to all the Dodge designers who may stumble across this: Whatever you were trying to accomplish with the Caliber…swing and a miss.

Now, let’s talk about the name for a moment: the Dodge Caliber. One of the meanings of “caliber” is “Degree of worth; quality”. “Dodge”, of course, means “to avoid or evade”. Putting the two together, it’s actually an accurate description. That’s not to say that the car I drove was of poor quality (it was not luxury car class quality either); however, since I still don’t know what this car was supposed to be, I can’t tell you if it has any degree of worth. Add to that, Dodge’s marketing department came up with several trim levels for this car: Express, Heat, Mainstreet, Uptown and Rush. I’m pretty sure that the car I had was the “mainstreet” version, and I think I can safely say that “mainstreet” is the only one of the five trim level names that could possibly be applicable to this car. “Express” and “Rush” are out of the question as this car only comes with a four cylinder engine. “Heat” might apply if you are comparing this car to a brick oven; however, if you think this is a “hot” car, you need your eyes checked. “Uptown”…please. You can’t be serious.

Okay, let’s talk about something other than bashing the car’s name and apparent identity crisis.

The exterior is probably best described as boxy. The Scion xB, Honda Element and Nissan Cube are probably the only cars on the planet boxier than the Caliber; however, all of them could win first prize at a Star Trek convention for best impersonation of a Borg Cube. This is a car that only rugged individualists with thick skins could love. This car is the ugly duckling that trips over its own four wheels at the high school dance. It has the aerodynamics of a…well…brick. Some cars can slip through the bow wake of an eighteen wheeler with ease. In the Caliber, things get a little bumpy. The car I drove was equipped with 17 inch aluminum wheels and tires which I’m sure helped with handling and ride comfort over the standard 15 inch wheels.

Speaking of handling, the Caliber surprisingly had a good, smooth ride. It handled corners well, and it didn’t brake like a pissed off Arabian looking to ditch a rider and loose saddle (been there…done that…no fun). So, at least Dodge did something right.

The interior isn’t half bad. Unfortunately, it’s only about half good too. Head room and leg room were good for the most part. However, there was not enough room between the key sticking out of the ignition and the radio console for my right knee. I was afraid I was going to break the key off in the ignition. The seats were almost comfortable…but not quite. They weren’t nearly as bad as the seats in the Ford Focus I drove a while back, but that’s not a stellar recommendation of them either. The seats in the Caliber seem to have had a tense truce with my butt and legs for the duration of the trip. One false move on either side, and things would have gone very badly. The radio control layout takes a bit of getting used to, and I would have liked the tuner knob a bit closer. Extra special bonus, all the Calibers come with Sirius Satellite Radio. The cruise control is flat out in the wrong position, in my humble opinion, and not terribly intuitive. The rearview mirror is a joke and all but useless. I quite bothering to look at thing since it showed more “C” pillar and hatchback than anything else. The “A” pillar is freaking huge limiting outward visibility to the point that you feel like you are driving a tank. The car did come equipped with lighted cup holders…ooohh, wow. I’m probably being overly critical on the cup holders; but, after the LED ambient lighting in the Ford Focus, the lighted cup holders are just insufficient.

One thing that may or may not be neat depending on how you roll is the “Chillzone” storage system. The glove box has a drink rack that holds four 20 ounce plastic bottles which are chilled by the AC system (remember what I said about motorized beverage cooler?). I didn’t have the opportunity to take advantage of this feature; however, I can see how it might come in handy. Once or twice over the life of the car. Truthfully, it seems like a solution without a problem.

How about “performance”? It’s got a four cylinder engine with a CVT transmission. What are you expecting? It gets up and goes when it needs to. It will do the speed limit. What more do you want? You’d think it gets good gas mileage. Right? Dodge’s website claims it will get 23 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway. Since Dodge engineers didn’t see fit to include a mileage computer with this car, I can’t give all sorts of nifty analysis about what the car’s mileage was in various driving conditions. I can just tell you that I put 10.047 gallons into the car after driving 274.0 miles which calculates to about 27.27 miles per gallon. So, at least Dodge is not misrepresenting the mileage figures. I do have one question for them though: who thought it’d be a good idea to put a 13.6 gallon gas tank on a car that gets less than 35 MPG? My 2000 Nissan Maxima with a 3.6 liter V6 gets better gas mileage AND has longer legs. So, remind me again why I would want to buy one of these things?

Dodge’s website claims that this car will run you about $18,810 including the delivery charge which is less than the Chevy Cobalt I drove and about the same as the Ford Focus. As a reminder, the Ford was better equipped than the Caliber for about the same money.

Final thoughts. Would I buy one? No. Should you buy one? I have no idea why anyone would want to. Is it a good car-ish thing? If I knew what it was supposed to be, I could probably tell you. Does it reasonably serve its intended purpose? If I could figure that out….

***5/13/2011 Update - I'm watching old Top Gear - U.K. episodes; and, in Series 8, Jeremy Clarkson called the Dodge Caliber "The World's Most Useless Car." There you have it. A professional agrees with my assessment.


  1. Good review, although not quite as bad as the Pontiac Aztek, it does amaze me that Detroit spits out these odd cars every once and a while.

  2. Sobriant, thanks. I can't agree with you more about the Aztek. I think the odd car syndrome comes from a misguided attempt by designers to be "trend setting" or "futuristic". Or, maybe it was just a bad batch of pot. Who knows.

  3. The Pontiac Aztek is perhaps the most hideous vehicle around, IMHO. K, you may be onto something with the bad batch thing.

    I'll stick with my hamster car (which I still haven't done a review on) thank you very much.

    I always enjoy your reviews, keep 'em coming.

  4. GunDiva, thanks for the encouragement, but someone needs to get busy with her car review since Enterprise doesn't stock Ripleys for my reviewing pleasure.

    The whole Aztek thing has got me to thinking that we need to do a top 10 WTH? post about odd cars. I'll have to add to the list of posts that I've been noodling for a while.


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