2012 Dodge Caliber

AdChoices

Review: 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4

This 2008 review is representative of model years 2007 to 2012.
By Larry E. Hall of MSN Autos
Rating: 7.2

Bottom Line:

A somewhat disappointing replacement for the ton-of-fun-to-drive Neon SRT4. Still, the SRT group knows how to rev emotions as well as engines and deliver a low cost boy-racer car that also happens to have a lot of cargo space.
Pros:
  • Big horsepower bang for the dollar
  • Nice short-throw shifter
  • Cargo area flexibility
Cons:
  • Off-the-chart torque steer
  • Ornery clutch
  • Porky, needs to shed pounds

The Dodge Caliber SRT4 is the highly anticipated successor to the Neon-based SRT4 sedan, which ended production in 2005. The Caliber SRT4 follows the same formula: racy styling and a turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine in an affordable, front-wheel-drive compact.

To call the SRT4 (Street & Racing Technology, 4-cylinder) a Caliber is underplaying its modifications, since the two vehicles share few components aside from the core structure. Think of it as an inexpensive, factory-built route to the world of sport compact street racers, competing with the likes of the MAZDASPEED3 and Volkswagen GTI.

Honed Lines
If the regular Caliber looks friendly, the SRT4 looks mean. A new fascia below the Dodge crosshair grille acts as an air dam and has a wide center opening that provides airflow to the radiator, with large brake ducts and fog lights on either side. The hood has a scoop that directs cooling air toward the engine and a pair of extractors that exhaust hot air.

In profile, the exaggerated wheelwells are filled with 19-inch Goodyear tires mounted on five-spoke cast aluminum wheels, while custom side sills provide an "aero" look. In back there's a functional high-mounted spoiler and obligatory coffee-can-sized exhaust tip.

The car's interior retains this racy character. Sport bucket seats with thigh and torso bolsters feature red stitching and the SRT logo sewn into the upper backrest. The design of the leather-wrapped, four-spoke steering wheel allows the driver an easy view of the instrument cluster, while the shift lever falls easily to hand, mounted "rally-style" on the dash.

The instrument panel has black on white "tunneled" gauges backlit with a blue electroluminescent light. A huge tachometer gets center stage, and an Auto Meter gauge to the left of the steering wheel keeps track of turbo-boost. Hard-core enthusiasts are likely to opt for the Reconfigurable Display and its "performance pages," which add zero-to-60 times, eighth-and quarter-mile times and speeds, braking distance and g-force readings to the trip computer functions.

Power to the People
The real soul of the SRT4 is in the engine bay. Turbocharged and intercooled, the 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder mill produces 285 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque. A Getrag six-speed manual transmission puts all that power to the pavement through the front wheels. Though no limited-slip differential is offered, the traction-control system uses the brakes to try and reduce wheelspin and torque steer.

In practice, small twitches of the throttle foot translate to big forward motion and monstrous torque steer, as I found out at Putnam Park Raceway, 35 miles west of Indianapolis. The clutch is heavy, but after learning how to modulate it and the gas pedal (and by shifting out of first gear before the rev-limiter kicks in), torque steer becomes manageable.

Four laps around the 10-turn road course gave a decent feel of how the SRT4 handles. Beneath its sheet metal, the souped-up hatch conceals SRT suspension tweaking with performance-tuned shocks and springs, plus heavy-duty sway bars. The suspension is lowered an inch in front and nearly an inch the rear.

The SRT4 isn't what I would call a precision-handling car. However, the suspension exhibits excellent body control with surprisingly little body roll and the ride is correspondingly firm — though never uncomfortable. There isn't much real feedback from the steering, but it is quite responsive.

On the drive back to Indianapolis on a variety of road surfaces the ride wasn't too unsettling, and the only intrusions of outside noise into the cabin came from the tires at speeds above 60 mph, plus some faint wind noise. My single irritation with the car came from working the stiff clutch during a creep-and-crawl session on the Interstate near downtown.

Just a few years back, small cars were traveling around on 13-inch wheels — the SRT4 has 13.5-inch front brake rotors! Combined with 11.9-inchers in the rear, according to SRT engineers this little screamer can halt from 60 mph in less than 125 feet.

Optioned Out
The SRT4's standard equipment list is quite long and includes air conditioning and an air conditioned glove box; cruise control; a tilt steering column; keyless entry; power door locks, windows and outside mirrors; and an AM/FM/CD audio system.

You can add more than $7,500 worth of options including premium audio, navigation and DVD entertainment systems, a sunroof and polished wheels. Dodge estimates 40 percent of buyers will buy the SRT4 in base trim and add their own finishing touches. There's also more potential under the hood, so look for SRT performance add-ons.

A full complement of standard safety features includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control and first- and second-row side-curtain airbags. At only $22,995, the Caliber SRT4 is a performance and value standout. Styled and tuned for the enthusiast on a budget, the Caliber SRT4 can be autocrossed on a Saturday morning and still haul a bunch of stuff home from a "big box" store that afternoon.

Larry E. Hall is editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance automotive journalist based in Olympia, Wash. He has an intense interest in future automotive technology.

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BB04 - 8/30/2014 3:14:59 AM