Test venue: Northants, Leicestershire and Lincs
Chrysler Group management’s decision to enter the UK and European markets with a new Caliber model will come as no surprise to people in the industry with the knowledge that the third arm of the Chrysler fold is actually the fifth largest manufacturer in the United States.
The company was founded by John and Horace Dodge in Detroit a little over 90 years ago and the brand has already graced these shores with the robust Viper sports car – launched in the UK in the summer of 1993 – and subsequent facelifts. World renowned Dodge models include the Charger and the Daytona.
But the company’s entry into the highly-competitive C-segment with three engine derivatives of the Caliber is a brave move. The sector is dominated by the likes of the Golf, Focus and Peugeot’s 307, but management in Milton Keynes are convinced that the Dodge – marketed with the ‘grab life by the horns’ motto - will offer something a little different to a target market of customers, predominantly male, around the age of 35.
Besides, the Caliber has been competitively priced to undercut the likes of the Volkswagen Golf by up to 25%, dependent upon trim levels and specification. “Dodge has a substantial seven per cent of the American market,” said Steve Gray, Marketing Director of the Chrysler Group UK. “Caliber is sold out in the United States and we are sure that this is not just a gamble, but a genuine niche in the C segment in the UK.”
Pricing is one thing, but the level of specification for the British models is impressive, with the automatic 2.0-litre CVT option being offered at the same price as the five-speed manual 1.8 version. Customers also have the option of a manual override with CVT versions and a six-speed manual transmission with the diesel engine.
Entry level on-the-road prices start at £11,495 for the 1.8 S model, rising to £15,430 for the 2.0-litre diesel Sport. Cars are offered in S, SE, SXT and SXT Sport trim options and hit the company’s 88 UK showrooms in mid-July. Each dealership is now being rebadged to include Dodge logos and decals.
Gray has promised an exciting UK television and Podcast advertising programme to increase brand awareness, although the company has kept first year sales targets to a realistic 4,000 units. Engine options include 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol units and a 2.0-litre diesel powerplant.
Gray admits that plans are in place for the range-topping SRT4 in 2007 - a 2.4-litre, 304 bhp, turbocharged version - with enough power to dwarf the performance of the highly-acclaimed Focus RS.
I was able to drive both a manual diesel and automatic CVT petrol model over a variety of roads in central England, from a base at the delightful Rushton Hall, near Desborough. The automatic would be my obvious choice, but the diesel engine delivers punchy performance and will reach the speed limit in less than nine seconds and take you on to a top speed of 125 mph.
“It’s anything but cute” is the advertising slogan and you will either love or hate the rather radical design of the Caliber. It’s muscular front gives it a presence on the road, but I can’t help but feeling that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be an SUV or a true four-wheel drive vehicle, a view shared by a couple of fellow hacks.
Interior space is ample, but the rather butch centre console styling takes some getting used to and the car does feel a little cumbersome on twisty country roads, where a sportier driver may prefer the improved agility of a Golf or a Focus. The Caliber will score a hit with potential customers who prefer something a little different for their money.
You can’t fault trim levels and the pricing of each of the models. If you can cope with the rather off-beat design and fancy something with an American heritage, which is not run of the mill for your 13 or so grand, then this is the car for you. Chrysler’s modest sales targets might well be surpassed with ease in the coming months.
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