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Two ignored Dodges quietly roll away

December 24, 2011

Two of the most heavily "Daimler-ized" vehicles in Chrysler Group's product portfolio rolled off their respective assembly lines for the final time this month.

Of the production deaths of the Dodge Nitro SUV and the compact hatchback Dodge Caliber, allow me to paraphrase a familiar saw:

"Don't let the door hit you in the hatchback on the way out."

Even though they were assembled two states apart, in Ohio and Illinois, respectively, and were different in size and segment, the Nitro and Caliber shared more than just a brand. Both seemed to be a compendium of spare plastic parts, never really finding a sales niche compared with their respective linemates and derided as uncompetitive by reviewers and executives alike.

Don't get me wrong: In their time, and under Chrysler's former German overlords-slash-owners, both the Nitro and Caliber filled their intended purpose -- to push total volume of each plant above the level deemed necessary to boost productivity. Both were also aimed squarely at women, seeking to boost what in 2006 was Dodge's atrocious brand attraction among female buyers.

The problem was that these poster children for Daimler rebadging didn't really work on their own merits and didn't receive the updating they desperately needed, leaving dealers to try and sell product that had limited purpose.

The Nitro, built at Chrysler's Toledo North Assembly plant, actually debuted ahead of its linemate, the Jeep Liberty, and on the occasional month over its five-year run, even outsold the Jeep.

But while the Liberty continued to evolve and even improve as an SUV, the Nitro languished with an underpowered engine and an uncompetitive four-wheel-drive system. Ralph Gilles, now head of Chrysler Group's new SRT brand, tried to intervene by "re-contenting" the de-contented Nitro during the 2010 model year, but by then it may have been too late.

Monthly sales of the Nitro reached their zenith in March 2007, at 7,532 units, but fell to a miserable low of 1,115 units in July 2009. Chrysler sold 1,661 Nitros last month.

A similar scenario played out with the Caliber, which shared its powertrain and production with the Jeep Patriot and Compass in Belvidere, Ill. Like the Nitro, the Caliber appeared in showrooms before its two Jeep linemates in 2006 and initially received an enthusiastic welcome.

As time marched on, the Caliber began to show its age and didn't receive a product intervention from Chrysler, which was already working on its replacement: the 2013 Dodge Dart, which debuts next month at the Detroit auto show.

The Caliber's monthly sales swing was even more dramatic than the Nitro's. In May 2008, Chrysler sold 12,856 units of the Caliber, but sales fell to just 412 units in November 2009. Chrysler sold 1,202 Calibers last month.

Few will shed tears over the departure of the Caliber and Nitro from Chrysler's portfolio, especially considering that the automaker will soon have better replacements to offer in their place.

Until then, it's best to simply say auf wiedersehen to these two Dodges while we wait to wish benvenuto to their respective Italian-inspired replacements.

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Chrysler ends production of Dodge Caliber



Chrysler Group LLC, on Saturday announced that the company has ended production of the much-maligned Dodge Caliber compact vehicle.

Introduced in the spring of 2006 as a 2007 model year vehicle, Caliber was built to replace the Neon, but it was never a success. Consumer Reports ranked the Caliber SXT at the bottom of its list of small hatchbacks and wagons in the 2011 annual car issue.

The 2012 Dodge Caliber may be a decent commuter car, but test drivers agree that it’s overshadowed by rivals that offer better quality and performance at about the same price.

The problems start under the hood. The Caliber’s engine is underpowered and noisy, a problem that’s exacerbated by an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) that reviewers don’t like.

When Italy’s Fiat SpA took over the automaker as part of a 2009 bailout brokered by the Obama administration, CEO Sergio Marchionne made replacing the Caliber a top priority. And now, looks like its successor, the all-new Dodge Dart, will be unveiled next month.

The new Dart, a 2013 model, will be the first Chrysler vehicle based on a Fiat architecture, in this case the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

“The Dart is going to be a huge step forward in performance and in styling,” Jackson added.

“The Caliber was heavier than the dimensions would indicate. It didn’t have great acceleration or handling. The interiors were not good. These are all going to be much improved in the Dart.”

Power will comes from a choice of three engines: a “Tigershark” 16-valve 2.0-liter engine, a 16-valve 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo engine (similar to what’s found in the Fiat 500), and the “Tigershark” 2.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder.

At the the end … the big question is - will the Dart sell as well as the original Dart? Between 1960 and 1976, Chrysler sold more than 4.3 million Darts. The high water mark was 1970, when nearly 300,000 Darts were sold.

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2010 Dodge Caliber R/T

Dodge Caliber History


01/04/2012

The Dodge Caliber was, it seems, born with an identity crisis. As a replacement for the perky Neon sedan, it looked a bit gawky and slab-sided. And as a five-door mid-size hatchback with a hint of crossover ute, it never succeeded in delighting inside. Its cabin instead was a letdown, with flimsy plastic surfaces, dull, hard plastics, and an uninspired look throughout--even if the Caliber's interior was pretty roomy compared to other compact cars--and entirely competitive in that respect against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Kia Soul.

The story never got much better with respect to performance. With 1.8-liter, 2.0-liter, or 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines, the Caliber generally has decent pep with the base five-speed manual gearbox, but the CVT automatic that this model is saddled with in most variants can make even the largest engine feel a bit sluggish. In all cases, engine noise is an issue compared to other affordable compact cars, and while the Caliber steers and maneuvers well, its handling is uninspired, with a jittery ride and a tendency to hop and wallow in hard corners. In 2010, Chrysler made some improvements to the Caliber's interior materials and bolstered its noise isolation, but even with those the Caliber still felt near the back of its class in refinement.

The Dodge Caliber first went on sale in the spring of 2006 as a 2007 model. Turbocharged SRT-4 versions were introduced a couple of years later, and with 285 horsepower, they promised quite the thrill potential. But instead, this vehicle wasn't prepared to take advantage of the power, and it ended up feeling like a poorly executed tuner car.

For 2010, the 1.8-liter was replaced by a 2.0-liter four that has become the standard engine across the line, and the R/T and SRT-4 models have been dropped as well. In place of the old SE, SXT, SXT Sport, R/T and SRT-4 lineup, Dodge subbed in names like Express, Heat, Mainstreet, Uptown, and Rush. The other models were differentiated primarily on the basis of equipment and appearance, with the entry-level Express and Heat getting the five-speed manual transmission standard. The base Express featured a full complement of electronic entertainment, including Uconnect voice command system, iPod control and Sirius Satellite radio, but features a plainer interior and smaller 15-inch steel wheels standard. The Rush, in addition to the larger engine and other extras, got a 6.5-inch touch-screen display, Musicgate articulating speakers, and a 9-speaker Boston Acoustic sound system with subwoofer. Four-wheel disc brakes, a tachometer, and a more aggressive exterior treatment all help to distinguish the Rush from its four counterparts both behind the wheel and on the street.

For 2012, Dodge dropped those trims, replacing them with Caliber SE, SXT, and SXT Plus, but very little else changed. With the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart eagerly anticipated--and likely returning closer to the packaging and fuel-efficiency of the Neon--production of the Caliber ended only part of the way through the model year.

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