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First drive: Dodge Caliber - on sale July

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Review

With British car buyers still trying to get their heads round why Daewoos are now badged Chevrolet, and why the latest Cadillacs should be different to the woeful ones from the Nineties, another American brand is coming to the UK.

Dodge launches officially in July as part of the Chrysler group, and every one of its 86 dealers nationwide will be stocking the cars. Or rather ‘car’; there’s only one Dodge for the rest of this year. The Caliber is a small family hatchback, with chunky styling that’s designed to make it stand out from the crowd.

Because there’s no history for Dodge in Britain, there’s only three choices of engine/transmission.

Thankfully, retailers have been set low targets. Bosses at Chrysler won’t talk about exact sales figures, but say it’s only in the low thousands for the rest of 2006.

A sporty 300bhp flagship, the SRT4, will arrive early next year to give the car a boost, and other models, such as the Nitro SUV, will follow later on.

The attraction for many customers will be those dramatic exterior looks, and the simple fact that it’s not one of the mainstream sellers.

However, one of the key points for salesmen to promote will be the Caliber’s practical, well thought out interior. The cabin features a host of clever little features that make lots of sense.

For example, if you need to change a wheel at night, there’s a removable torch that’s permanently on charge. What’s more, it’s fitted into the rear ceiling lining, right where you need it if you are getting the spare out of the boot.

There’s also something called MusicGate, an optional speaker on the inside of the hatchback, which flips down so music can be heard outside the car at picnics.

Boot capacity is 523 litres with the rear seats up, rising to 1,360 when the 60/40 splitting bench is folded flat. For comparison, a five-door Ford Focus has only 1,247 litres. The front passenger seat goes completely horizontal, creating a level space. In theory you can get two mountain bikes, front wheels removed, into that area.

Nice touches include a double decker glovebox, which contains an air-conditioned section for storing chilled drinks, and the cup holders, which have an illuminated lip so it’s easier to replace drinks in the dark.

With the Caliber’s British showroom debut still some months away, exact specs have yet to be finalized. There aren’t even any performance or fuel economy figures yet.

However, early indications suggest two models, ST and SXT. The entry level will ride on 17in steel wheels and probably come with air-con, side curtain airbags, electric heated/folding door mirrors, single CD player, keyless go and the torch.

The SXT will add alloy rims, a chrome grille and body-coloured door handles. Inside will be cruise control and coloured dash/seat options. MusicGate is still being considered for the UK.

Dodge’s top brass have benchmarked the Caliber for price and spec against the Mazda3, not the segment-leading Focus, Astra or Golf.

It’s a smart decision, and gives an insight into where they might steal sales from. Company insiders hint that they believe the majority of people considering the big sellers will probably feel the Caliber is too ‘alternative’.

People looking at the Mazda, or perhaps Renault Mégane or Peugeot 307, are more likely conquests.

Behind the wheel

Riding 18cm off the ground, the Caliber is halfway between a standard car and a crossover SUV.

The 1.8-litre engine we tested is the weakest point; it’s adequate but tends to run out of steam as you push it up the rev range. There’s a lot of noise but not much action. In all other aspects, the car is good.

It’s certainly an improvement on the Neon saloon, Dodge’s last car in this segment and sold in Britain as a Chrysler. The steering has been well engineered and it’s nicely weighted and direct.

Drive into a corner at speed and the Caliber’s nose turns in sharply with little bodyroll. It’s not quite up to the standard set by the class-leaders, though.

Our test vehicle was on American suspension settings, which basically means it’s engineered to be very comfortable in a straight line. We’ve been assured this will be fine-tuned before July.

Strengths: ‘Dare to be different’ styling and a well-thought out cabin
Weaknesses: Limited model range, engine lacks pace when pushed
Opportunity: Lots of car for the money should attract buyers
Threat: Dynamically inferior to the class leaders
The USP: Appeals to buyers who want something that bit different
Price: £12,000-15,000 (est)
Engines 1.8-litre 148bhp petrol, 2.0-litre 158bhp petrol, 2.0-litre 136bhp diesel
Transmission: Five-speed manual with 1.8, sequential auto with 2.0, six-speed manual with diesel
Performance: No final figures yet
Efficiency: No final figures yet
Rivals: Mazda 3, Peugeot 307, Renault Megane

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