Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review: 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

By Graeme Fletcher

Driving towards Putnam Park race track, a regional facility about 80 kilometres west of Indianapolis, my mind is running double time – how is a front-drive car with a compliant, comfortable ride going to handle a 2.9-kilometre, 10-turn thrashing?

After all, a front driver puts the bulk of the mass over the front wheels, which invariably ends in terminal understeer whenever driven enthusiastically. Comfortable rides also equate to equal amounts of body roll and the problem weight transfer brings in its wake. Likewise, firing a ton of power through the front wheels usually brings gobs of torque steer. Vices, vices, vices.

The Dodge Caliber SRT 4 not only handled 12 hot laps with ease, it banished the questions leaving just a very large smile and a sweaty scribe.

The work the Street and Racing Technology group – a bunch of likable gear heads who stress the most important word in their name is and – is nothing short of remarkable. They start with a stock car and turn it into a street-legal track demon. The Caliber is probably the least likely candidate in Chrysler’s portfolio to pick for the SRT transformation – when the base car is married to the CVT, it is, to be polite, a tad pedestrian.

However, by building on the five pillars (exterior styling, race-inspired interiors, ride and handling, benchmark braking and a standout powertrain) the team has produced a blinder – one that will earn an enviable reputation.

The exterior styling is both bold and functional. Up front the large grille openings allow the car to breathe, cool the massive eleven-row air-to-air intercooler (yes, the SRT 4 uses a large turbo to deliver on the final promise) and supply cold air to the brakes via ducting. The front end is also shaped to reduce lift at speed. There’s also a function hood scoop that floods the engine bay with the cool air. Around at the back, the roof-mounted spoiler is 30% larger than the base car and so provides better down force, there’s a drainpipe-sized tailpipe and an under-car defuser. It serves two functions: it helps reduce lift and hides the ugly muffler that sticks out like a sore thumb on the base car. The rest of the body kit makes it look all the more macho.

Inside, the deep-dish front buckets feature large bolsters and a fabric insert, which stops the driver from sliding around, a boost gauge and racer-boy pedals. The rest is all pretty much Caliber right down to the split folding seats and hatchback versatility.

The ride and handling comes from a completely reworked suspension, lowered ride height (28-mm up front and 22-mm in back) and oversized P225/45R19 tires. Everything from sway bars and springs to the ZF Sachs shocks are turned to deliver on both ends of the spectrum. As mentioned, the ride is comfortable. The handling is in a word, fantastic. The dreaded understeer only surfaces when the driver finally reaches the car’s extraordinary limits and even then the SRT-tuned electronic stability control system (it allows more latitude before jumping in) rights the wrong before it gets out of hand.

The brakes? They come right off the 1,860-kg Charger R/T – bolting them onto the 1,447-kg SRT 4 works wonders. The 13.4-inch front (remember when wheels measured 13 inches?) and 11.9-inch vented rotors deliver fast stops while remaining impervious to the effects of heat. Around Putnam, they worked time and again without fading or chattering (normally beating stock brakes on a race track warps them beyond repair).

And so to the motivational spirit that gives the SRT 4 its personality. The 2.4L, turbocharged engine features variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust cams, a ported and polished head, free-flow intake system and a set of headers that lead into that drainpipe exhaust. The work brings 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet at just 2,000 rpm. The latter is brought to a roaring boil by a progressive turbo-boost strategy (at full gale the turbo pumps the air into the engine at 15 psi). The result is a car that rockets to 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds – factor in the base $24,995 price tag and you have world-class bang for the buck.

The six-speed manual box, one specifically designed for the SRT 4, then puts the power to pavement through short shifts (25-mm shorter than the base Caliber) and a progressive clutch. The latter does feel a tad heavy at first, but as soon as you get used to it, it works well putting the bite point in the right place for an exuberant launch. On that note, just watch the early torque steer. If you stand on it from a standstill, it will pull. Let the car get up to around 15 km/h in a reasonably mellow fashion and then gun it – this all but eliminates the trait.

Around the track the SRT 4 proved to be very adept. The 2, 3, 4 track (second gear for one slow corner, third gear for the rest of the lap except the straight, which calls for fourth gear) the suspension and tight steering bring delightful road manners and a rapid response to driver input. The brakes allowed the Caliber to be driven deep into the corners before hammering the pedal and once at the apex, pouring on the power brought an adrenaline-induced smile. In one section (a fairly fast left hander leading into a short straight), the SRT 4 managed to put about 160 km/h on the clock before hitting the binders for a sharp right. On the main straight, the Caliber pulled an effortless 185 km/h!

All to often the halo car in the showroom is the expensive piece that only a lucky few can aspire to – the Viper is still Dodge’s halo car. However, the Caliber SRT 4 is a halo we poor working stiffs can afford to shine. Thank you.

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