Dodge Caliber: There's nothing dodgy about it

This car's launch show includes a funfair try-your-strength test. And if you're a man and the right side of 40 there's nothing quite like this hatchback/MPV/SUV, says John Simister

Model: Dodge Caliber 2.0 diesel
Price: From £13,495 (range spans £11,495 to £15,430)
Engine: 1,968cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 229lb ft at 2,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 115mph, 0-60mph in 8.8sec, 46.3mpg official average
CO2: 161g/km

If you buy a Dodge Caliber, you are 89 per cent likely to be male, most likely under 39 years old. You'll have looked at all the cars in the Golf/Focus/ Astra etc class and felt strangely dissatisfied. If Dodge's marketing works, you will find that missing something in the Caliber.

The what? The Dodge Caliber, the car suggestive of a size of firearm (but not, of course, of a very un-macho alcohol-free beer). This car, say its ads, is "anything but cute". It will be launched in the UK with the help of a road show including funfair try-your-strength tests - you know, the ones in which you hit an anvil with a hammer and see how far skywards soars the indicator. "Are you Dodge enough?" they will ask.

Then there are the viral internet ads, showing the things that happen if you have an attack of Ramrash (the ram is Dodge's symbol). Go to they're very amusing.

But what is it all for? Will anyone take you seriously if you buy into the Caliber idea? Or are we British just too aloof, too cynical, too oblique? Look at the Honda HR-V, aimed at fun-loving youths liable to jump into the sea at any moment. HR-Vs were bought almost entirely by people, mainly women, of late middle age.

I'm not sure that will happen to the Caliber. It's just too in-yer-face. What Dodge has really done is reinterpret the old Matra Rancho, also a front-wheel-drive hatchback that looked like a 4x4. Aha! So the Caliber is one of those crossover things, then, a crossbreed of SUV and normal car.

Well, kind of. But even crossovers usually have four-wheel drive, and there's no Caliber 4x4 heading Europe's way for a while.

So you're buying the looks, the high driving position, the perceived air of ruggedness. You're buying proof that there's a market for an image so strong that the reality doesn't matter. Four-wheel drive? Too many buyers nowadays neither know which wheels propel their wagon, nor care.

The Caliber is cheaper than a 4x4, though. In the US, where the Dodge brand outsells its Chrysler and Jeep stablemates combined, it's a bargain-basement car. Even here, the entry model's £11,495 is good value. That car has a 1.8-litre engine, conspicuously absent on the press launch, but we could try the 2.0-litre turbodiesel (it's a Volkswagen engine) and the 2.0 petrol, which comes exclusively with a continuously-variable automatic transmission. The petrol engines come from a joint "world engine" venture between DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, and the Caliber's underpinnings are shared with the next-generation Mitsubishi Lancer.

So what is it like, this not-quite-crossover? It has deep flanks with muscular-looking wheel arches, and a bulging bonnet sitting proud of retro-curved front wings. Inside, you sit high - you have to, to be able to see over the looming dashboard - and your view forward is badly obscured by the thick windscreen pillars and hefty mirrors. You're surrounded by the hard surfaces of a cheap car, but all is well finished and assembled, and it's rattle-free.

And what's this? Surely a world first: illuminated cupholders, glowing in the dark. There's more stuff; how about the Chill Zone compartment above the glovebox to keep bottles cool, or the optional MusicGate Power sound system in which a pair of big speakers hinges down from the open tailgate to add sounds to your beach party. Other goodies include a rechargeable torch and an iPod interface (optional). All the toys (plus the mechanical and structural bits you don't see) are shared with the new Jeep Compass, whose UK debut isn't decided yet as it's a bit weedy for a Jeep.

As for the carrying of beach-party kit, the rear seats and the front passenger seat fold flat, but the rear hatch opening is surprisingly small. Worse, the tailgate is hard to close against its struts, and the hand-hold is so awkward that you can retain grip only by spraining all fingers. The door pockets are uselessly small.

How does it feel to drive, then? And does it matter, provided it's adequate? No one is going to buy a Caliber for its dynamic prowess, after all. It stays level in corners despite the height, and achieves this without an over-stiff ride over bumps thanks to well-judged suspension damping. The steering is light and quite vague, though, as an SUV's often is. See, the Caliber even feels like a 4x4.

The 2.0-litre, 156bhp petrol engine sounds uninspiring and needs a sportier exhaust note, but the CVT transmission works well and doesn't cause the engine to rev noisily every time you accelerate, unlike some such systems. It has an Auto Stick manual mode, in which the CVT's ratio-morphing is held at six points to give the illusion of a normal gearbox, but the downshifts can be jerky. Acceleration is quite leisurely, with 11 seconds needed to reach 60mph.

The 2.0-litre diesel, with 140bhp but much more pulling ability and six-speed manual transmission, is greatly preferable despite its gruff tones. Its response to the accelerator is mushy but there's enough energy there to tug at the steering when accelerating hard. The diesel brings the Caliber alive, and you can start to have proper driving fun.

More of that fun will be available with the SRT-4 version planned for UK launch next spring. This will have a 304bhp, 2.4-litre turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual gearbox. It's likely to retain front-wheel drive, in which case that steering tugging could reach epic dimensions. It's possible, though, that plans will change and all four wheels will be driven - in which case it could be the fastest compact SUV of all.

Right now, though, the Caliber is a bridge between regular hatchbacks, compact MPVs and small 4x4s. As such, it has no direct rival. Whether you see that as a good thing depends on your degree of Dodgeness, I suppose. The worrying part is that the idea may just strike a chord with the public. In which case, the evolutionary train of car design has just hit the buffers.

The rivals

Volkswagen Golf Plus 2.0 TDI Sport: £18,540

Same engine as the Caliber, same high build, but MPV- rather than SUV-flavoured. All five-door family hatchbacks will be like this one day, says VW. Good car, well made and fun to drive, but very expensive.

Ford Focus 1.8 TDCi LX: £15,045

The unexciting but great-to-drive Focus looks expensive next to the Caliber. The engine delivers just 115bhp; to match the Caliber you will need the 136bhp 2.0, starting at a heady £17,240.

Hyundai Tucson 2.0 GSi 2WD: £14,395

This is currently the only "4x4" available here in a Dodge-matching front-wheel-drive version. But if you want a diesel you'll have to accept 4WD, pay £16,395 and make do with 111bhp.

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