Monday, January 14, 2008

Dodge sets sites on young crowd

TEST DRIVE | Relatively inexpensive Caliber SRT4 offers bang for the buck
January 14, 2008

Don't have a lot of money for a high-performance car? The new, youth-oriented $22,435 Dodge Caliber SRT4 hatchback may be the answer to your prayers.

The turbocharged SRT4 is the newest addition to the regular line of Calibers, which can be called compact cars or crossover vehicles. The conventional non-turbo Calibers arrived as early 2007 models, built at Chrysler's Belvidere, Ill., plant.

The front-wheel-drive SRT4 is desirable because it's a compact vehicle with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that kicks out 285 horsepower and 265 pound feet of torque. Its 0-60 mph time is just 5.9 seconds, and it tops out at 155 mph.

That's heady performance for a fairly low-priced hot, well-equipped car, but let's not forget that Chrysler's tradition of selling reasonably priced "pocket rocket" autos began decades ago with its 1984 Dodge Omni GLH ("Goes Like Hell") Turbo model, developed with racing legend Carroll Shelby.

The dual-overhead-camshaft SRT4 engine is a "global" unit that was developed in partnership with Mitsubishi and Hyundai. I first saw the Caliber -- sold with a diesel engine overseas -- when it debuted at the 2005 Geneva auto show in Switzerland because it's the first Dodge brand sold in Europe after an absence of about 20 years.

The SRT4, though, is an All-American model that fits like a glove in the performance-oriented Dodge line here. The regular Caliber has from 148 to 172 horsepower. The SRT4's intercooled engine produces extra punch because of its Mitsubishi turbocharger, polished intake manifold, forged crankshaft and connecting-rod oil squirters for improved cooling. There's also variable valve intake and exhaust timing.

Regular Calibers have rather polarizing styling because their body is designed to be functional, not pretty. It's easy to distinguish the more-aggressive-looking SRT4 from regular Calibers because it has a lowered, raked body, side cladding and a front fascia with brake cooling ducts, larger grille opening and unique hood with a functional air scoop and nonfunctional louvers.

There's also wide 45-series tires on big 19-inch wheels, red brake calipers and an oversized rear spoiler that juts from the rear roof. It increases high-speed stability, but has a tacked-on look.

Inside are performance items including deeply bolstered sport seats, thick leather-wrapped wheel and black-on-white gauges with a center-mounted tachometer. There's also a turbocharger boost gauge in the left corner of the dashboard, which isn't the best spot for a quick read.

No automatic transmission is offered because the SRT4 is for serious drivers. The engine thus shoots power through a Getrag six-speed manual transmission. The short-throw shifter works nicely. But it works with a high-effort, long-throw clutch with an abrupt engagement that doubtlessly will cause drivers to stall the engine a few times until they become accustomed to it.

Estimated fuel economy isn't bad for such a high-performance model, at 21 mpg in the city and 26 on highways. A driver can get a few more mpg in the city by "short shifting'' directly from first to third or fourth gears, but using fifth and sixth gears in town will cause engine balking because those gears are for highway cruising.

A downshift from sixth to fourth gear is needed for the best 65-75 mph passing on highways. While the engine feels strong, a fair amount of shifting is needed to get the best acceleration under any conditions because the SRT4 is rather heavy for its size at 3,189 pounds. However, there's hardly any "turbo lag" that would momentarily delay acceleration when you put your throttle foot down hard.

The engine develops peak torque between 2,000 and 5,600 rpm and peak horsepower between 5,700 and 6,400 rpm. That's a lot of power and torque for front tires to handle. So Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology (SRT) hot rod unit installed oversized brakes and an electronic brake differential that uses the anti-lock brake system to hold down torque steer.

Torque steer is a problem with powerful front-drive autos, especially on wet roads, because it causes the steering wheel to jerk to the left and right a bit during fast acceleration unless steps are taken to prevent it, such as use of a limited-slip differential -- not a solution for the SRT4 because it would cause excessively heavy steering.

The SRT4 has definite torque steer when accelerating hard, but it's held down by the brake differential, lowered ride height and equal-length halfshafts that deliver power to the front wheels. All-wheel drive, offered for the regular Caliber R/T model, would help, but the all-wheel-drive R/T's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) can't handle the potent SRT4's torque. And Dodge doesn't want an automatic for the SRT4, anyway.

Steering is extremely quick, but rather heavy. The firm, high-performance suspension provides confident handling but causes a jumpy ride on broken or wavy pavement. (Car buffs will expect this.) The brake pedal has a solid feel, and the oversized brakes provide sure stopping. A stability control system is standard.

As with other Calibers, the SRT4 has lots of hard plastic in the interior, which has good room up front. However, long-legged drivers might wish their seat moved back more, and leg room is tight for a 6-footer behind the driver.

Curtain side air bags are standard, but front side air bags cost $250. Other options include a $1,395 navigation system and $400 polished wheels.

The cargo area is large, especially with rear seatbacks flipped forward, and it has a wide opening. The hatch raises smoothly on hydraulic struts, but a prop rod is needed to hold up the heavy hood.

While not as refined as some members of the new hot hatchback auto market, the Dodge SRT4 is a definite bang-for-the-buck bargain.

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