Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV captures look of custom street racers

2009, Dodge, Caliber SRT4 CUV

CHELSEA, Mich. -- Crank that four-spoke steering wheel quickly to the left, then hard to the right, now left again to scoot through snaky chicane curves on a blacktop track at Chrysler's vast vehicle test facility in Chelsea, Mich.

On the straight stretch that follows, you can put your foot into the dimpled aluminum accelerator pedal and ply the short stick of a six-speed manual gearbox by Getrag, but watch out: This turbo-charged sporty car from Dodge runs up to high speed as fast as you can shift it.

It's so swift, in fact, that Dodge considers the performance of this one akin to the Viper SRT10 supercar, Charger SRT8 sports sedan and Challenger SRT8 sports coupe.

Yet our test vehicle is not a racy roadster, slinky coupe or sporty sedan. Rather, it's a five-door hatchback-styled crossover utility vehicle (CUV) sized for the compact class and riding on a car's chassis with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction format.

The initials of SRT -- signifying "Street and Racing Technology" -- mark high-performance vehicles for Dodge, while the digit tacked at the tail on the moniker indicates the number of cylinders in the car's engine.

With Viper SRT10 that means ten big cylinders at work or for Challenger SRT8 it's a V8 with eight cylinders, and for Caliber SRT4 the number signifies only four cylinders.

However, that four-pack plant in Caliber SRT4 is not the tepid plant which shows up in a typical compact.

There's a turbo-charger and inter-cooler attached to a dual-cam 2.4-liter four-in-line with aluminum engine block and cylinder heads rigged for high output and dual VVT (variable valve timing) on tap.

It's rated up to 285 hp at 6000 rpm plus 265 lb-ft of torque available between 2000 and 6000 rpm.

Stopwatch times for a romp from zero to 60 in the Caliber SRT4 snag around six seconds.

It blows past the quarter-mile post in just 14 seconds and carries an official top speed of 155 mph.

Now tie this car's performance figures to its competitive price points to reach the sweetest spot, as Dodge sets the MSRP for Caliber SRT4 around $22,500.

That makes it one of the quickest production cars in the North American market priced below $25,000.

Think of it as a factory-sanctioned and affordable route into the world of street racers customized off compact-class FWD cars.

Core elements of Caliber SRT4 trace to the Caliber CUV, which seems like both a sporty touring car and a gear-hauling hatchback-style wagon.

Tightly tuned suspension upgrades and super-stopper brakes apply, plus 19-inch cast-aluminum wheels and Goodyear P225/45R19 W-rated tires.

The independent suspension elements for Caliber SRT4 consist of MacPherson struts forward and a multi-link arrangement in the rear with lateral links top and bottom.

Damping fore and aft stems from ZF Sachs twin-tube dampers, and a unique rear sway bar checks body roll motion during tight-turn cornering maneuvers.

Disc brakes on the SRT4 employ big vented rotors front and rear.

Further, there are electronically controlled safety devices in place such as ABS (anti-lock brake system), ASTC (all-speed traction control) and ESP (electronic stability program), which acts to correct lateral vehicle skidding.

And the Dodge SRT engineers who devised these electronic controls say they applied unique calibrations to the ABS and ESP to preserve directional stability for the vehicle without locking up the wheels.

Body styling on Caliber SRT4 appears aggressive with special aero-style add-ons applied, plus a tail spoiler.

It looks cool too -- so sleek with the arching roofline of a rakish coupe despite a pair of doors hanging off each side, a powerful in-your-face prow and the crisp tail of a hatchback wagon.

The chiseled body features a stepped-hood bulge behind a horse-collar grille thrust forward. SRT4 front additions include functional brake cooling ducts, a larger grille opening and a functional air scoop on the hood.

In back, SRT4's fascia contains lower vertical strakes designed to let underbody air flow off the tail of the vehicle, which contributes more stability at speed.

Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and wheels on the four corners are big, conveying an impression of strength and power.

Despite the classification as a compact car, Caliber has a passenger compartment of generous scale with seats for five and ample space in the tail section for stowing gear.

Layout of the cabin consists of a pair of buckets up front and followed by a bench broad enough for three but with indents for two.

Seatbacks on the second row split in 60/40 sections and fold down to extend the floor of the rear cargo bay, which has 48 cubic feet of room with rear seats flat or 18.5 cubic feet with seatbacks raised.

And the deck of the cargo bay is covered in washable and removable vinyl to make cleaning easy.

SRT upgrades to the cabin include sport buckets with big lateral bolsters and sticky fabric inserts to hold your body in place during hard driving maneuvers.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel carries a pattern on the top section which resembles carbon-fiber.

Instruments on the dashboard include white-faced analog gauges housed in three chrome-rimmed binnacles. A tachometer stands in the center spot, the 180-mph speedometer mounts on the right and twin gauges (coolant temperature and fuel level) go to the left. Then an electronic turbo boost gauge parks on the left side of the IP, while an electronic display reveals performance data like 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration times, and longitudinal and lateral G-force measures.

Clever concepts make life comfortable inside Caliber SRT4, such as Chill Zone, a bin positioned below the dashboard to cool four 20-oz. bottles or cans.

Some fun options also apply, like the high-performance audio kit with 322-watt amplifier, 200-watt subwoofer and 13 speakers, or twin audio speakers which mount on the tailgate and swing down to face rearward for a tailgate party.

By Bob Plunkett

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Images of the 2009, Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV

2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV front view
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV front view
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV interior
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV interior
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV gauge display
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV gauge display
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV rear shot
2009 Dodge Caliber SRT4 CUV rear shot