Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Dodge Caliber Was an Ahead-Of-Its-Time Shitbox-Prophecy

The Dodge Caliber Was an Ahead-Of-Its-Time Shitbox-Prophecy
In which I simultaneously praise and rip to shreds a car that unknowingly helped create a segment

When was the last time you thought about the Dodge Caliber? When was the last time you saw a Dodge Caliber? The answer to either is probably a long time, but somehow the Neon's successor was actually ahead of its time in spite of being largely forgotten. With SUV-inspired styling laid over a front-wheel-drive platform and available all-wheel-drive, widespread platform sharing, a high-performance turbo version, and even European availability, the Caliber was a crossover, a mini-CUV, before such was even “a thing.” And yet it came about when America was still too caught up in wanna-be-retro design, shoddy if not outright crappy build quality, and trying to shake off the miserable PT Cruiser-induced hangover for the car's engineers to create something that ever had a chance at setting the sales figures world on fire. And still, the Caliber managed to overcome it all, and in doing so would foreshadow many cars to come...even if it was somewhat of a shitbox.

Let me explain...
(Follow the jump to read on)

With a design seemingly derived from all the right and wrong parts of a Magnum-Neon-Nitro lovechild but in a wanna-be-brawny, hard-plastic kind of way, the Caliber certainly stood out amongst its rivals though not necessarily in the best of ways. This translated directly to the interior which, in typical early turn of the millennium fashion, was equally low-rent as it was ridden with bland-beyond-belief styling. But manage to get past this and remember that it came about in a world when bigger was better and people still aspired to own an H2 and it's blatantly clear how and why it failed at the time. The Caliber tried to hide side effects inescapable of a small car trying to look big, and also the inevitable shortcomings shared with the corner-cutting “quality” common of this DiamlerChrysler vintage.  It was a great car when defined generally, but fairly shitty when described specifically. Despite this, we absolutely have to respect the Caliber.

Let me explain: for better for worse the Caliber helped to contribute to, without knowing it would do so, the explosion of what is today's quickest-developing and fastest-growing segment. To reiterate the details: car platform raised slightly to accommodate hatchback-turned-SUV-influenced appearance, available AWD, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines, a high-performance turbocharged variant, platform sharing, and so on. Back when the Caliber debuted in 2006 the crossover was just starting to develop and CUV was just a jumble of letters. Accordingly, it was very out-of-place; it wasn't so groundbreaking that it had to define a segment entirely on its own, but didn't really fit into a specific category either. But jump forward ten years and time-machine any of its would-be modern competitors (CX-3, Countryman, HR-V, Crosstrek, Juke, etc.) back to 2006 and they'd all be equally out of place as was the little Dodge. In creating the Caliber, Dodge helped the manufacturers recognize the potential for a massive new market bearing a Goldilocks-esque effect for the average American consumer: to appear big and strong but not to have to deal with any of the side effects of being so, i.e. “have your cake and eat it too” (and as we know, Americans love to eat cake).

And then we have the antithesis to the Caliber: its SRT4 counterpart, a spiritual successor to the ever-controversial Neon bearing the same descriptive moniker. With its still-powerful-even-in-2015 turbocharged 285 horsepower driven through torque-vectoring-free front wheels, six-speed stick, chunky body-kit and wide fenders, it was an insane package that never gained a huge fan-base (or sales figures), never beat the GTI or Mazdaspeed3 it was supposed to do battle with, and never really made a mark on the hot-hatch segment but yet went about its ways with an I-give-no-shits attitude that was somewhat lovable. 
As if to exemplify this, the SRT4 had a boost gauge where an HVAC vent was in non-SRT models, and if that doesn't say 2 Fast 2 Furious-esque hilariously mal-equipped performance model I don't know what does. And the thing was, it actually had the balls to back it up. Maybe not the outright speed and maybe not the handling prowess (...definitely not the handling prowess) but if power was balls, oh did it have balls. To make something so boring so wild and untamed, that deserves some praise. A good vehicle, no. But an exciting one, oh yes.

Aside from the SRT4, the Dodge Caliber simply existed at the wrong time. And yet, its influence on modern crossovers is extremely evident. See all those small cars that have a little ground clearance but even less off-road ability? You can thank the Caliber for at least a portion of that. What was an in-between, poorly defined vehicle at the time now can be looked at as the ancestor to many of the cars we see so much of today. I say they should bring it back: a modern Caliber with Durango-and-Charger lovechild styling, Renegade underpinnings, and any of the common FCA engines could make for a great vehicle. It would even fit Dodge's arsenal well, slotting in-between the Dart and Journey in order to fill the gap of “gotta have it in the lineup to be a fully-rounded brand” street-happy hatchback. And obviously it would have to pay homage to the original, which suffered an unfortunate, uninspired, and outright unloved life. If Dodge could properly execute a modern Caliber it would have a good chance of being a hit, but for now we just have to appreciate that they built the original at all, whether that means respecting it or loving it or hating it for bringing about an equally love/hate genre. And so, we can declare it the least-likely vehicular prophecy in recent memory: the Dodge Caliber. Thank you for existing...I think.

-Ross, 10/15/15

Images courtesy of Google Images

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