Great Expectations: Can a Yankee Hot Hatch Run With the Foreign Sport Compacts?
Plant your right foot to the floor and call up all the Dodge Caliber SRT-4’s torque, limited to 214 pound-feet in first gear. The carbon-fiber-pattern leather steering-wheel rim lists in your hands left, then right, like you’re piloting the SS Minnow. Or a Saab turbo. At least there’s no excessive squat, so the nose is steady as you shift to second for 245 pound-feet, and then through third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, where you get all 265 pound-feet. Equal-length halfshafts and the lowered ride height, as detailed in Frank Markus’s sidebar, aren’t enough to scare away the torque-steering jitters on a road-racing circuit, either. At Indiana’s Putnam Park, the SRT-4’s steering squirms through the esses and tighter turns the first time out. The second time, more speed and confidence squish the front wheels into understeering submission. Traction control adds some speed scrubbing through a couple of the tightest turns.
From the moment Dodge revealed the new SRT-4’s specs some time ago, the big question was: Why no all-wheel drive? The answer starts with those remedies in said sidebar and concludes with the SRT-4 finding the even torquier front-drive Mazdaspeed3 as its chief competitor. Like the ‘Speed3, its price leaves ber sport-compacts Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX STI to enthusiasts with rich parents or software-writing jobs. The new SRT-4 comes in at a reasonable $22,995 with a few available options, like sunroof, 13-speaker, 322-watt “Kicker” sound system, and “Reconfigurable Display,” which shows the driver 0-to-60 time, eighth- and quarter-mile acceleration, and speed, braking distance, and g-forces. Like the Mazdaspeed3 and the base WRX, the Caliber SRT-4 is another bang-for-buck bargain. What’s a little (or a lot of) torque steer?
Street and Racing Technology’s claimed 0-to-60-mph time of six seconds flat probably is conservative, although that torque-management in the first two gears prevents any neck snapping. As in a WRX, accelerating out of a second-gear turn requires waiting for the boost to build. SRT’s six-second estimate matches our recorded time for the Mazdaspeed3, and it’s 0.4 second slower than the old and the new WRX. SRT also boasts 0-to-60-to-0 mph in about 19 seconds and an autobahnesque top speed of 155 mph, reasonable given the way the little Caliber can pick up steam on Putnam Park’s long straight. The SRT-4 also tops the lighter, less-powerful 2008 WRX’s EPA fuel mileage, 21/26 mpg versus 19/24 mpg. That’s the great thing about this segment; you can be smug about fuel economy and emissions while having fun.
Fun is to be had thanks to the turbocharging and intercooling of the 2.4-liter DOHC global four, shared among Chrysler, Daimler, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai. Besides adding Mitsubishi’s TD04 turbo, SRT has a polished intake manifold and a forged crankshaft, connecting-rod oil squirters for stouter reliability, and a stainless-steel exhaust. Like the standard engine, it has variable valve timing for intake and exhaust.
SRT also adds a dual-mass flywheel for better noise/vibration/harshness characteristics. The new Getrag six-speed gearbox has dual-cone synchros for first through fourth gears, and the throws are an inch shorter. That’s compared with a base Caliber’s five-speed, which feels good only in comparison with the Caliber’s continuously variable transmission. The Getrag six-speed feels slick and precise, but the throws are long next to those of a Miata or Civic Si.
With twin-tube ZF Sachs shocks and 28mm front and 18mm rear anti-roll bars and Hondalike minimalist sound dampening, the Caliber SRT-4 gives you a tactile connection to the road. You can-almost-feel the yellow lines in the middle of the two-lane, but the suspension stops short of harsh crashing over poor pavement.
On the track, there’s moderate roll, but the body remains controllable even if the steering doesn’t help. Highly bolstered seats keep you in place, but the pedals are too far apart for any heel-and-toe action. You want to be skinny and have wide feet to drive this car.
SRT is particularly proud of the brakes, with big, 13.5-inch front discs and 12-inch rear discs, and calipers from the Charger/Magnum. They’re good for a 60-to-0-mph pedal stomp of less than 125 feet, SRT says.
Kid-racer fashion accessories include a real hood scoop for outer-cooling, an 11-row intercooler that you can see through the crosshair grille, brake ducts integrated next to the foglamps, a front air-dam, 225/45-19 Goodyear F1s on handsome five-spoke polished wheels, “aero panel” rocker extensions “for design balance,” and what chief engineer Herb Helbig calls a “big-ass spoiler” above the rear window to eliminate turbulence and reduce aerodynamic lift. Happy to say, “big-ass rear wings” don’t fit on hatchbacks so well, and anyway, none of this is over the top within the context of the base Caliber’s polarizing styling.
Inside, you get the grippy seats, carbon-fiber-imprint leather on the shifter boot as well as the wheel, and a boost gauge on the left corner of the dash, where you’ll seldom check it. Trendy boost gauges halfway up the A-pillar in the line of sight suddenly make a lot of sense. More important, SRT also has moved the rev counter to the middle of the instrument panel, where it belongs, relegating the speedo to a smaller gauge on its right.
If nothing else, the Caliber SRT-4 will put the last nail in the coffin of that old shibboleth about cash-strapped enthusiasts having to find fun in driving a slow car fast. This car’s numerous flaws can be rationalized as part of its bohemian charm. Now it’s more fun to drive a flawed, unpolished, fast car fast. All you have to do is put up with a handful of torque-steer.
taming the tiller
Big power plus front-drive portends nasty torque steer, but astute engineering can reduce it. Suspension and half-shaft geometry is the first line of attack. The ideal setup would feature equal-length shafts (which all Calibers have) mounted level with or below the front-wheel centerline to minimize the angle of the constant-velocity joints-especially when the front end rises during acceleration. Toward that effect, the SRT-4’s ride height is lowered 28 mm in front, 22 mm in back, and the inboard ends of the halfshafts are lowered another 11 mm by rotating the transmission gearset relative to the engine (thanks to a unique case). To reduce the amount the front-end lifts under acceleration, a new suspension crossmember lowers the forward pivots of the lower control arms and new knuckles reposition the ball-joints, all of which lowers the front roll center by 60 mm, reducing acceleration-lift by 25 percent. There’s no mechanical limited-slip differential, in part because the most affordable designs can cause dramatic left-right torque shifts that can amplify the perception of torque steer at the steering wheel. Instead, traction-control brake intervention equalizes front wheel-speeds. What more could be done? Immobilizing the engine with ultra-rigid mounts is great for torque steer, but terrible for noise and vibration. Routing half or more of the drive torque to the rear wheels relieves torque steer, but the AWD Caliber’s CVT can’t handle SRT torque and its distant platform cousin Evo’s AWD system is too expensive in parts and manufacturing (fitting the big electronic front diff moves the engine forward and the transmission aft) to sell profitably at the SRT-4’s target price point.
|2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4|
|Vehicle Layout||Front engine, FWD 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|Engine||2.4L/285-hp/265-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|Curb Weight||3200 lb (mfr)|
|Length x Width x Height||173.8 x 68.8 x 59.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA City/HWY Econ||21/26 mpg|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.84 lb/mile (est)|
|On Sale In U.S.||Currently|