Caliber: Locked and Loaded

In the C-segment, there are plenty of products built in other parts of the world and brought to the U.S. and stickered with some exceedingly low MSRPs. Chrysler is putting its flexible manufacturing and clever design capabilities to work and answering with the Caliber, a car built in the U.S. that starts below $14K.

It was in January 1994 that Chrysler said to the U.S. “Hi” with the Neon, what was then something of a quirky little sedan with a front face—headlamps as eyes and a front fascia that forms a smile—that seemed to provide a greeting. And now, it’s time to say goodbye, as the Belvidere Assembly Plant has been changed over to the successor, the ’07 Dodge Caliber. But this time, it isn’t simply a matter of the U.S. market, as the plans for the Caliber call for it to be something of a beach head as Dodge goes to Europe. The Caliber was designed from the start so that it can be readily built with left- or right-hand steering. Oh, and one more thing: It is a five-door hatch, a body style that has significant presence in Europe, so it’s not like the Chrysler Group is going to attempt to shoehorn something into a market where it wouldn’t appropriately fit.

In addition to which, there is another significant difference vis-à-vis the Caliber and the Neon. The Belvidere Assembly Plant once produced Neons and only Neons (remember when there were both Plymouth and Dodge versions of the car?). But given the flexibility of the manufacturing equipment ($419-million was spent at the northern Illinois plant) and a recognition that variety isn’t merely the spice of life but the secret sauce for car sales, Chrysler has publicly announced that the vehicle will have two other line mates. As Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda put it in a recent speech to the Economic Club of Chicago: “Belvidere will build three new vehicles that will fill key positions in our product lines. Those include the all-new Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass” and a third product to be announced sometime in ’06. (It is rumored to be the Jeep Patriot.) What this means, in effect, is that the capacity of the plant will be taken up by three vehicles, not one. Which means that the volume for any of the cars is likely to be less than the 200,000 that the Neon(s) once garnered.

Unlike the Neon, the Caliber is a far edgier execution. Dodge is probably best known in the market for its Ram trucks. Tough-looking. So the Caliber picks up on those cues and runs with them. There’s the cross-hair grille in the front flanked by headlamps that are atypically large for a car that size, and are said to be among the biggest of those found on any Chrysler Group vehicle—which is to say that given that this is the smallest car in the lineup, the prominent headlamps are truly evident. There are the strong shoulders of the front and rear fenders (compare, for example, the soft, rounded shapes of the fenders of the Chrysler PT Cruiser), fender forms that create a look that is far different than cars in the class, including the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, and Ford Focus, all cars that have this five-door hatch configuration (although it is worth noting that in marketing parlance used to label the Caliber the term “sports tourer” is used; chances are if this was a new product from GM or Ford it would be called a “crossover” vehicle as it has something of a car-meets-SUV appearance). And at the back, there are similarly over-sized tail lamps. Big, bold, in your face. Still, Greg Howell, a Chrysler designer who worked on the car, says that the design “is not as male as the Dodge Nitro,” a forthcoming vehicle that is the platform mate of the Jeep Liberty (another example of Chrysler Group’s multiple models from singular platforms). Speaking of the Caliber design, Howell notes that when they set to work in mid-2000 on penning the car, a notion was to create an appearance that simply wouldn’t look radical or futuristic for an ’07 vehicle, but that would actually still look fresh in, say, 2014, when the car might go out of production.

One of the interesting aspects of the Caliber is that it is the first Chrysler Group product to use the “World Engine” that was collaboratively developed by Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai (see Saving Gas, Saving the Day). Chrysler’s contribution to the development of the engine being produced by the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance (GEMA; Dundee, MI) included work on the cylinder port and intake manifold design, dual variable-valve timing, and the oil pump/balance shaft assembly. There are three available versions of the world engine for the Caliber:

  • 1.8-liter (148 hp; 125 lb-ft of torque)
  • 2.0-liter (158 hp; 141 lb-ft of torque)
  • 2.4-liter (172 hp; 165 lb-ft of torque)

The available transmissions include a five-speed manual and, more notably, as it is a first within the group, it is offering a continuously variable transmission (CVT) sourced from JATCO. Called the “CVT2,” it is said to be a second-generation design of the transmission. Compared with a conventional four-speed step-gear transmission it is claimed to provide a 6 to 8% fuel efficiency improvement, essentially because there is no torque converter slippage as is common with automatics. ABS comes along for the ride with the CVT2. There is even an optional AutoStick feature for the CVT, which is setup so as to provide the driver with the “feeling” of six stepped gears. The Caliber is also available with an on-demand all-wheel-drive system that is electromechanically controlled; up to 60% of the torque can be sent to the rear wheels if required.

As the Caliber is a car that is meant to be sold in markets outside of North America, there is another powertrain setup available for the car: a 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel that provides an estimated 134 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. And as Europeans like manual transmissions as well as diesels, a six-speed Aisin manual is available for that market. 

Although the vehicle is certainly economical—starting price is $13,985 (including $560 destination), which is $410 less than the Neon—there was no stinting on engineering the vehicle. Consider the structure. There is an extensive use of high-strength and hot-stamped steel in strategic areas (e.g., A- and B-pillars; roof reinforcement) so that there is strength without a weight penalty (by using four grades of high-strength steel for approximately 40% of the structure, it is estimated that the weight savings are on the order of some 44 lb.). There’s dual-phase advanced high-strength steel used for the front and rear rails, tunnel reinforcement, and floor cross members. Chrysler has been deploying hydroformed components on its trucks; with the Caliber it brings hydroforming to the compact car, with a hydroformed front closure and upper cross member. Although magnesium is not an economy material, the Caliber has a magnesium alloy cross-car beam.

Perhaps one of the more clever approaches that Chrysler is taking with the Caliber is making an array of interesting features available, such as a nine-speaker Boston Acoustic audio system (“MusicGate Power”) that has two of the speakers housed in the liftgate such that when the liftgate is opened the speakers can be indexed down so that they are facing outside the vehicle, which is said to be ideal for tailgating. There’s the “ChillZone,” a bin above the glove box into which four 20-oz. beverage containers can be fitted and into which conditioned air is circulated to keep them cool. Because this is a hatch and hatches tend to be used to convey stuff, the rear cargo area has a vinyl covering that can be removed and hosed. In other words, Chrysler isn’t taking the econobox approach with the Caliber, but actually offering a car that takes advantage of intellectual capital to provide a thoughtful edge in a competitive marketspace.