Dodge, one of America’s most fabled automotive brands and part of the Chrysler stable, isn’t a stranger to South African motorists. Having been introduced to what was then a booming motor industry a few years ago, sales of the good-looking Yankee cars showed great promise for the newcomer to our overcrowded market.

With sentimental ties to the gigantic Ram ‘pickup truck’ and the ludicrous Viper supercar, brand values and awareness were great and it’s been a pleasure sharing our roads with models such as the Nitro and Journey. And this, the Dodge Caliber, has easily been the company’s best performer, with more than 55 000 having been sold since introduction.

Just one problem though – it’s American. And that, for anyone with even a modicum of motoring common sense, is a big problem. Build quality has never been anywhere near the top of an American auto maker’s priority list, and if you take a look at the Caliber that was introduced to SA back in 2006, you’d have been eager to melt the garish plastic-strewn interior down and make yourself some kiddie’s garden furniture and perhaps a few lunch boxes.

That all changed recently, when Dodge introduced the facelifted Caliber to us motoring enthusiasts. And when I say facelifted, I really won’t pick you out if you can’t tell the difference between the new and the old model. On the outside, the only changes have been a redesign of the 18” wheels, which now look absolutely brilliant, and the addition of chrome accents on the doors. That’s it. And it’s not a problem, because the Caliber is still a good looking car, and it loves playing the deceiving game. It looks like a tough off-roader, with high ground clearance, fat tyres and a rugged design, but it is essentially a tall 5-door hatchback with front-wheel-drive and no more off -road ability than a toaster. You can park it on a pavement, though.

Where the big change has been implemented is in the interior. And when I popped round to my local Dodge dealer to compare old and new, my eyes were opened, and I mean I was stunned. The pre-facelift interior was horrible to look at, not well laid out and the plastics were just appalling.

The difference between the new and the old interior is as great as the difference in cup sizes between Pam Anderson and a 12-year-old school girl! Yes, the plastics are still there and yes they are still cheap, but they have lathered on so much leather in the cabin that you don’t even notice the cost-cutting, nor are you bothered. Honestly, how often do you reach out and actually caress your upper-dashboard?

Let me give you an idea of what you get as standard in this, the Caliber SXT: a full leather interior with electric and heated front seats; cruise control, steering-wheel audio buttons and climate control; a multistage trip computer with a neat direction-of-travel indicator as well as a personalisation menu; integrated Bluetooth coupled to voice recognition, a touch screen interface with built-in hard drive (30 GB), multi-disc CD changer, USB and AUX-in compatibility and a superb Boston Acoustics audio system; generous interior space with very nice finishing touches like illuminated cup holders and a “Chill Zone” air-conditioned cubby hole, and a capacious boot which has a removable and self-charging “flashlight” built into the overhead cabin light to top it all.

One of these standard features which deserves some extra attention has to be the sound system. A total of nine speakers including a subwoofer do a sterling job of pleasing your ears, and I have never before experienced such brilliant sound in a car from a factory-fitted system. Even at full blast, distortion is nowhere to be found and you can pleasantly enjoy a back massage simply from the seat vibrating along with the music’s bass line. And then, if you feel like having a party in a parking lot, you can open the boot and unclip a pair of those great speakers which then hang down and project your favourite ABBA tune to whoever is willing (or forced) to listen. It’s a terribly “common” idea but hell, it’s awesome!

The only two options are a powered tilt/slide sunroof and satellite navigation. The navigation system is a joy to use and does a great job of getting you where you need to be. Coupled to the same voice recognition system as the telephony, setting your destination even while on the move is a breeze, though I’m sure a good dose of “training” would help the American lass in the dashboard understand your pronunciation a bit better; I had to use the “spell a street name” function all the time.

Furthermore, voice-activated phonebook dialling from any Bluetooth-enabled mobile is literally as simple as pairing your phone to the car, because that’s all I needed to do to take advantage of the system’s excellent functionality. I did enjoy a giggle when making calls because the list of available options like “call” or “redial” includes “[say] breakdown-service”.

And the best bit is how the car manages the audio system when “speaking” to you – making use of only the front-right dashboard speaker and a separate volume level to let the driver know what’s potting, thus not depriving the other occupants of their Idols moment.

Engine-wise the Caliber SXT is decently powered by a 125 kW 2.4-litre 4 cylinder petrol engine, and without licking arse it’s really not bad! It’s not by any means a performance engine, and it gets a bit wheezy at higher rpm, but low-to-mid-range torque is ample (peaking at 220Nm) and for the purpose for which this car was intended, spot on. It’s not difficult to drive and the comfort is more than acceptable, and reasonable claimed fuel consumption of 7.7 litres per 100 km is not bad, though the brand-new test unit I drove was much heavier than that, and less than 500km on a full 53-litre thankful was rather depressing. No doubt though that this figure would improve significantly after a few thousand kilometres of driving.

Handling dynamics are a bit on the unnerving side, and the fat tyres tend to choose their own direction of travel at times, following grooves and undulations in the tarmac, especially from rest with the taps wide open. The steering rack also feels loose when cornering over bumpy surfaces, but one has to look at this car’s target market and realise that this is rather irrelevant. And if I have to nit-pick, I’d ask the designers why oh why they couldn’t just fit auto-lights, wipers and one-touch indicators along with all the other nice-to-haves they already added to the car?

At the end of the day and especially in these difficult times, it’s all about price. And price is where this car looks at its competition, pulls a middle finger and spins away with a naughty smile on its face, because for R270 300 you get everything I have mentioned above, and more (standard price excluding the extras is R246 900)! It simply astounds me, how much (or little, rather) this car costs, and so from a value-for-money perspective, you have to be mad not to consider one.

I was made to look a fool by this Dodge, thinking it would be horrible to drive, sit in and be seen in, but my goodness was I wrong, and pleasantly so. Not only am I smiling after the Caliber, my ears are bleeding, too.

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  1. not to Dodge
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