Thursday, September 13, 2007

2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4: (Torque) Steer into the Sun

I remember a couple years ago when the SRT folks at Dodge announced that they basically wanted to always offer the highest horsepower vehicle in a given segment. It's an honorable goal, and back in the 426 Hemi's glory days (1966-1971) it was enough to give Mopar owners bragging rights. But I don't think winning the horsepower arms race works in 2008, and recent drives of the new Viper and, now, the Caliber SRT4 confirm my theory.

With 285 turbocharged horsepower from the 2.4-liter engine this Caliber is undeniably powerful. And the 265 poiund-feet that come in at 2,000 rpm make the horespower potentially useful. But like the 600 potentially useful horsepower under the Viper's hood, the SRT4 looks better on paper than it feels on pavement.

I remember when torque steer was the price you paid for driving a high performance front-wheel drive car. I experienced plenty of it personally in my 1987 and 1989 Dodge Shadow CSXs. But that was almost two decades ago -- before the Integra Type R, MazdaSpeed Protege and SVT Focus. Those cars proved front-drive performance and fighting the steering wheel weren't a required couple at the pocket-rocket party.

I think the last car I drove with serious torque steer was the late 90s Saab 9-3 Viggen...until yesterday. The Caliber SRT4 will try to steer itself any time you hit the throttle, but if the pavement is less than glass smooth the torque steer can be downright risky. The first few times it happened I told myelf it was an enigma based on some bizarre road surface issue or random oil spil. About the 12th time it happened I relented and realized that, yes, even in 2008 and you can drive a car with scary torque steer.

This is unfortunate because several other elements of the SRT4 were threatening to slightly upgrade my low opinion of the Caliber model line. The interior panels, for instance, which I find among the lowest quality available in the current market, look considerably better in black than they do in the white and gray plastic I'd seen previously in test cars. The six-speed manual means there's no rubber-band CVT to sap power, as it did in every former Caliber I'd driven. And the heavily bolstered seats were supportive and comfortable in the best pocket-rocket tradition (much better than the stock Caliber units).

But, in addition to the shoulder-dislocating torque steer mentioned above, I found the steering to be far heavier than necessary, and certainly no where near the sublime experience offered by the Civic Si or MazdaSpeed 3. And while those 19-inch, 225/45 tires look good wrapped around polished wheels, they transmit a swell of road noise into the cabin as speeds increase, so be prepared to shout when talking to passengers while traveling above 40 mph (and that's before you hit the loud pedal).

So, from the SRT4 I learned that a standard Caliber is probably not too bad if you get a manual transmission and specify a black interior. But for me the extra forward thrust and extra grippy seats aren't worth the extra torque steer, road noise or cost that comes with the SRT4 trim.

No comments: