2012 Dodge Caliber Wagon - FROM $17,380
Despite some unique features, the versatile 2012 Dodge Caliber is compromised by lethargic performance. There are better hatchbacks to choose from.
What's New for 2012
The 2012 Dodge Caliber returns with a simplified model lineup and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that's been recalibrated for better performance and quieter operation.
The 2012 Dodge Caliber starts with a unique proposition, which is that a small sedan can be more like a practical utility vehicle and less like a bland transportation module. It's a good idea, but the Caliber doesn't execute the concept well enough to match up against the competition in this crowded segment of small cars.
On paper, this compact four-door hatchback gets all the basics right, with a reasonably fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine and a practical interior filled with a nice array of standard features. The problem is, the Caliber feels lackluster on the road. This is less a matter of sportiness -- nothing says a small car must be sporty -- but instead, a general lack of refinement to the mechanical package.
The passenger cabin is another letdown. This is a practical hatchback configuration, and the combination of split-folding rear seats and easily accessible cargo space is a real asset in a small car, plus there are clever details like a built-in beverage cooler and available speakers that flip down from an opened tailgate to provide a soundtrack to picnics or sporting events. Unfortunately, the fit and finish of the interior still seems like a step behind the competition, even though improvements have been made since this model's introduction.
Overall, we think there are many cars in this category that offer more in terms of function, performance and quality. Notable among these are the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit, or more similar sized hatchbacks like the Ford Focus, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf. You can do better than the 2012 Dodge Caliber.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Dodge Caliber is a compact four-door hatchback that's offered in three trim levels: SE, SXT and SXT Plus.
The entry-level SE's standard features list includes 15-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, cloth upholstery, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, full power accessories, keyless entry, cruise control, a tilt-only steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a tilt-only steering wheel, a rear cargo area cover, Bluetooth phone connectivity and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.
Step up to the SXT and you get 17-inch alloy wheels (optional on SE), a firmer suspension, foglights, a chrome grille and body-color outside mirrors, a four-way power driver seat (manual height adjustment), fold-flat front passenger seat, a reclining rear seatback and a removable cargo area flashlight.
The top-of-the-line SXT Plus adds 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires, a sport-tuned suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and sportier trim details inside and out, including upgraded cloth upholstery. The SXT Plus can be equipped with a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics premium sound system that brings with it a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.
The SXT and SXT Plus are eligible for a number of options. The Driver Convenience group (SXT/SXT Plus only) includes heated front seats, a compass and a tire-pressure-monitoring message display. The Security group adds antilock brakes, an engine oil cooler, trailer-towing wiring harness, an alarm, a remote ignition (CVT-equipped models only), front-seat side airbags and hill start assist (manual transmission models only). Other options include a touchscreen sound system interface, a navigation system and a sunroof.
Powertrains and Performance
The front-wheel-drive 2012 Dodge Caliber is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 158 horsepower and 141 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the SE and SXT Plus. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is optional on those trims and standard on the SXT.
Fuel economy is decent across the board, though mileage isn't quite as good as you might expect with the CVT. The 2.0-liter engine returns EPA estimates of 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined with the manual transmission, and 23/27/24 mpg with the CVT.
Standard safety features for the 2012 Dodge Caliber include a driver-side knee airbag, side curtain airbags, active front head restraints and antilock brakes (front discs/rear drums on the SE and SXT; four-wheel discs for the SXT Plus and the SXT with Security Group). Stability control isn't even offered on the SE, but it's standard on the SXT and SXT Plus. Front-seat side airbags are only available as an option on the SXT and SXT Plus as part of the Security group.
In government crash tests, a Caliber with front side airbags earned an overall rating of just three stars (out of five), including four stars for overall frontal protection and three stars for overall side protection. Results were mixed in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, with a top "Good" rating in the frontal-offset crash test, a next-to-lowest "Marginal" rating in the side-impact test and a second-best "Acceptable" rating in the roof-strength test.
Interior Design and Special Features
Despite a makeover two years ago that added some soft-touch materials in key areas, the Caliber's interior is still made up of large swaths of hard plastic that's subpar for even this segment of inexpensive compacts. Head- and legroom are fine up front, but the high, SUV-style seating position feels somewhat unnatural to us in a small car. The reclining rear seatbacks on the top two trim levels are a definite plus. At the same time, rear seat utility is compromised by cupholders that jut rearward from the center console between the front seats and make the center seating position in the rear virtually useless.
The layout of the driving controls and gauges is good. Practical features like the convenient beverage cooler built into the glovebox and the handy rechargeable flashlight in the cargo area are nice touches not available elsewhere.
Cargo room is decent enough, with 18.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. Fold those seatbacks down and cargo capacity grows to 47.4 cubic feet. This is pretty good, but other hatchbacks hold much more, especially the cavernous Honda Fit.
The 2012 Dodge Caliber is better to use than to drive. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood produces decent horsepower, but acceleration is leisurely at best, while the CVT dulls the response from the powertrain even further and produces a droning engine note during acceleration. The suspension action feels a bit harsh and there's more body motion than we would prefer. It all adds to an overall impression that the car lacks the kind of refinement it should have, even in this segment where a low price is a key attribute.