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The sport's gone from this wagon

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IF you do any research on the new Dodge Caliber, you'll run into a curious example of duck speak, a kind of echo-chamber thinking to the effect that the Neon — the Schmoo-styled compact sedan that the Caliber replaces after more than a decade in production — was somehow awful and out of date, a low-functioning relative that Dodge would just as soon cut from the family album with an X-acto knife.

In fact, when Dodge introduced the Caliber at the Detroit auto show in January, it hired Zen sneer-master David Spade to dis the outgoing Neon, which sold more than 2 million units worldwide. Of the Caliber he said, "Dude, anything looks better when you compare it to the Neon."


FOR THE RECORD:
Caliber review: A review of the Dodge Caliber R/T in last week's section stated that the vehicle shares a platform with the Jeep Liberty. The Caliber shares a platform with the Jeep Patriot and, as noted, the Jeep Compass. —


Dude, really? Because from the seat of my finely calibrated pants, the old Neon would absolutely crush the new Caliber, a car that does for driving fun what Ryan Seacrest does for international monetary theory.

Let's compare, shall we, the 2005 Neon SRT-4 to this week's test car, the top-shelf 2007 Caliber R/T. Comparably priced at about $20,000, the Neon SRT-4 was powered by a 2.4-liter, 230-hp turbocharged four-cylinder; the Caliber's naturally aspirated 2.4-liter puts out 172 horsepower. The Neon weighed 2,900 pounds; the Caliber, an all-wheel-drive "sport wagon" — both terms are used advisedly — tilts the scales at 3,308 pounds. The Neon bolted from a cold-dead stop to 60 mph in a wig-twisting six seconds; the Caliber R/T leaves the line, stops off for lunch and a high colonic, checks its e-mail, then finally arrives at 60 mph in a stupendously boring 10-plus seconds, which means it can be dusted by your average UPS truck. The Neon had awesome brakes, snubbed-down suspension and perfect steering. The Caliber doesn't, thrice over.

Some — particularly in the Dodge marketing department — might argue this is an unfair comparison. The SRT-4 was a full-tilt, low-volume factory tuner and the Caliber R/T isn't. It's also true that Dodge has announced it will offer an SRT-4 version of the Caliber with a 300-hp turbocharged engine. But I don't care if they put winged Pegasus under the hood, the Caliber — a chunky, mallet-faced tall wagon — is never going to be as fun to drive as the Neon, which over the years put many amateur road-racing titles in the corporate trophy case.

I hesitate to reconstruct conversations at which I wasn't present, but it seems at least plausible someone at Dodge got the idea that by bad-mouthing the Neon, they could create the aura of conventional wisdom. Of course the Caliber is better than the Neon. You remember how lame the Neon was, don't you? Don't you? Look here into my spirally pinwheel. You're getting sleepy….

The Caliber is built in Belvidere, Ill., in an assembly plant that will also produce the Caliber's siblings, the Jeep Compass and the Jeep Liberty, thus giving DaimlerChrysler's bean counters three crossover wagons for the amortized development costs of one.

The Caliber comes with three trim levels (SE, SXT and the R/T, with all-wheel drive) and a suite of three new engines, all twin-cam four-cylinders with variable-valve timing. A 1.8-liter, 148-hp motor is standard issue on the SE and SXT; a 2.0-liter, 158-hp mill is optional on the SXT. The SE has a base price of $13,985, for which you get a seat and a steering wheel. The top-o'-the-line R/T comes with the aforementioned 2.4liter, 172-hp mill (165 pound-feet of torque) and a continuously variable transmission/transaxle as standard equipment.

And here the trouble begins. A CVT works like an automatic transmission but instead of having fixed gear ratios, the transmission — by constantly varying the gear "pitch" of the belt-driven system — maintains an optimum gear ratio between the engine and wheels for improved fuel economy. It's also supposed to optimize engine torque.

The problem with the R/T's unit is reaction time. Squeeze the throttle and the rpm start rising, but the car doesn't go any faster. Only … slowly … does … the CVT's computer adjust the gear pitch to catch up with the increased demand and the vehicle start to accelerate. It feels exactly like a manual transmission with a shot clutch. If you need passing or onramp speed, you have to push the accelerator past an 80% detent in the pedal's travel. The engine starts howling like an Everglades fan boat and, after a second or so, the transmission electronically responds, jumping the belt to a higher ratio.

In the R/T you have the option to change gears manually in sequential-shift mode, but it's not much help performance-wise.

The dawdling, clutch-slipping CVT is not at all helped by the R/T's curb weight, which takes any horsepower that manages to survive and strangles it in its crib.

You might blame the extra weight of the AWD system; the two-wheel drive SXT with the 1.8-liter engine weighs 261 pounds less. Later this year, Dodge will offer the R/T with a manual transmission, two-wheel-drive and stability control. If you must have one of these things, that's the configuration I'd recommend.

I'll spare you the blow by blow on the chassis dynamics. The R/T comes shod in very promising 18-inch wheels and tires, which are — given the capacities of the suspension — mostly for cosmetic purposes (and they do look great). The R/T has kind of a crazed steering feel, rather numb and wandering, requiring lots of adjustments in midcorners. For as much rubber as it wears, the thing pushes like a plow and — thanks to its tall-wagon center-of-gravity — rolls like the Atocha in a Caribbean gale. The soft-sprung suspension does, however, provide decent ride quality.

Actually, there's a lot happening in the Caliber that I could like, if it weren't for the driving. I like the way it looks, with the bruised-knuckle machismo of the Durango and Magnum station wagon. The interior is roomy and comfortable. Thanks to the split fold-down rear seats, the cabin is reasonably versatile. In full trim, it's got lots of neat features, including a flip-out iPod holder in the center armrest and auxiliary jack in the stereo. For $495 young disturbers of the peace can opt for the MusicGate Power Sound System, which includes a set of speakers that fold down from the open lift gate — only please stay out of my neighborhood.

There's even a chilled glove box, for those who like their, um, gloves chilled?

Then again, there's the painfully indifferent interior trim quality. The trim cutouts around the various moldings don't match up. The interior door panels flex. The whole thing looks like a trade-show presentation from the Rubbermaid Corp.

The Neon, as I recall, was pretty rough around the edges too when it first came out. Then over the years it was massaged and developed and refined, until it became the pretty decent sport-compact that DaimlerChrysler killed with a contemptuous wave of the ax. The Caliber is new. All that remains is for it to be improved.


Contact automotive critic Dan Neil at dan.neil@latimes.com.*

(INFOBOX BELOW)

2007 Dodge Caliber R/T

Base price: $19,985

Price, as tested: $21,450

Powertrain: 2.4-liter, dual overhead cam, inline four-cylinder with variable valve timing; continuously variable transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 172 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 165 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm

Curb weight: 3,308 pounds

0-60 mph: 10.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 103.7 inches

Overall length: 173.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Not exactly ballistic

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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