SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Potential buyers outside North America were the determining factor in making the 2007 Dodge Caliber a hatchback.
The Caliber is the first Dodge vehicle designed and engineered for a world market. The five-door Caliber replaces the Neon sedan and will be sold in 98 countries.
"We knew in the very beginning we wanted to do a global vehicle," said Judy Wheeler, director of Dodge car marketing and front-wheel-drive product planning, during a Jan. 23 press event here. "The next step was determining what buyers in Europe, Australia and Japan wanted. It definitely leads you to a sports tourer or hatchback."
The basics: Mitsubishi Motors started development of the platform and was joined by Chrysler as a co-developer. The Chrysler group adapted the platform to vehicles that will be sold by Dodge and Jeep. The Chrysler group altered such things as wheelbase, track and overall length, said Larry Lyons, vice president, front-wheel-drive product team.
In Chrysler parlance, the automaker developed the "top hats" (bodies, interiors) that sit on the platform, creating the 2007 Caliber hatchback and the 2007 Jeep Compass and Patriot crossovers. Right-hand-drive models also will be built.
The Caliber offers a four-cylinder gasoline engine family co-engineered by Hyundai Motor Co., Mitsubishi and DaimlerChrysler. But unlike other compacts that may offer one or two gasoline engines, the Caliber offers four. A Volkswagen turbodiesel engine is offered outside North America.
"We had to because of (the needs of) all the different countries," Wheeler said. "The World Engine project with Hyundai and Mitsubishi allowed us to do multiple engines and still do it at a reasonable price." The 2007 Caliber is available with a continuously variable transmission; no conventional automatic is offered. The CVT, supplied by Jatco, offers a fuel-economy improvement of 6 to 8 percent over the automatic transmission that was offered in the Dodge Neon, said Matt Liddane, Caliber chief engineer.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard. The optional all-wheel-drive system can send up to 60 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels.
Notable features: The Caliber's interior and exterior styling, safety features, body stiffness and NVH are light years ahead of the Neon.
"If you look at the sculpture of the sheet metal, we really pushed the envelope as far as stampings go," said Mark Trostle, senior manager of interior and exterior design, for the Caliber. "We challenged our engineers to try to get something that is really expressive. It is not just another conventional, simple, easy-sheet-metal car. There is a lot of expression in the shapes."
There is a lot of jewelry in the headlamp, for example.
"We have two different finishes of chrome - things that you don't typically see in a vehicle in this segment," Trostle said. "It looks expensive; it looks very refined."
Wheeler said brainstorming sessions were conducted to create clever interior innovations for the car's target buyers, people in their 20s.
Standard Caliber features include illuminated cupholder rings, a flip-up holder in the center console for a cell phone or MP3 player, a center armrest that moves forward 3 inches to accommodate a shorter driver and a removable cargo floor that can be washed.
Options include a rechargeable flashlight that is attached to the dome light. Optional rear speakers swing down from the liftgate and can be positioned rearward to provide music at a picnic. Dodge calls the speaker system MusicGate.
MusicGate "was by far the highest-rated feature from a research standpoint, other than Stow 'n Go, that we have ever taken out to research," Wheeler said. The speaker system will sticker for $400 to $495 depending on audio system.
Another innovative feature is what Dodge calls the Chill Zone. Incorporated in the glove box is a rack that can hold four 20-ounce bottles of water. An air vent that is connected to the air-conditioning system blows cold air over the bottles. The feature is standard with the air-conditioning system.
As for safety, the Caliber comes with standard front and side-curtain airbags. Seat-mounted airbags, stability control and a tire-pressure monitoring system are optional.
What Dodge says: "The one thing that we heard again and again from 20-somethings is they don't want a vanilla vehicle," Wheeler said. "They want something that is cool and exciting."
Compromises and shortcomings: The base Caliber SE is 385 pounds heavier than the 2005 Neon. The Caliber is taller and wider than the Neon. While the World Engine family is quiet and smooth, some drivers might favor a little more torque for quicker acceleration.
Nuts and bolts: Key competitors include the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix. The vehicle is assembled at Chrysler's Belvidere, Ill., plant.
Calibers are trickling into dealerships. By the end of March, every Dodge dealer should have a few in stock, Wheeler said. Advertising will begin in the last week of March, during the NCAA basketball playoffs,
unless a sufficient number of cars have not been shipped. In that case, Dodge will use new ads for the Charger and the Magnum.
The skinny: Few tears will be shed for the demise of the Neon. The Caliber is a solid, spacious hatchback that offers refinement and innovative features generally not found in vehicles in this price class.
You may e-mail Rick Kranz at [email protected]