From the November 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
The basic recipe has been a Chrysler cookbook favorite through several management regimes, foreign and domestic. It goes like this: Take one small basic-transportation appliance. Add boost. Cook to taste.
Chrysler’s tradition of pressure-cooker pocket rockets began in 1985 with the Dodge Omni GLH Turbo (it stood for “Goes Like Hell”), created at a time when the corporation was still edging back from the lip of an economic abyss and had little in the way of engine resources. The solution was turbocharging, a cheap route to extracting big power from small displacements.
Fast-forward to now, and the much-anticipated resurrection of the Dodge SRT4, known in this incarnation as the Caliber SRT4—just in case there might be some confusion with the previous Neon-based SRT4.
Standards have changed since the GLH. For example, it is no longer acceptable for the car to try to snatch the steering wheel from the driver’s hands. Our GLH road test [May 1985] warned the world that if an unwary driver should “apply full throttle in first or second gear with the front wheels cocked a bit to port or starboard, the GLH Turbo is going to go where it’s pointed—into that ditch, up that snowbank, or around that tree.” It’s called torque steer, a phenomenon that is still not uncommon in small front-drive cars with lots of power. With 285 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, the hot Caliber clearly fits that description. We’re happy to report that the SRT guys have largely tamed that particular demon, at least compared with a couple other cars in this class.
HIGHS: Torque galore, never-fade brakes, autocross steering, crisp shifting, grippy bucket seats.
However, we’re getting ahead of our narrative. What you really want to know is the hardware story, what the hardware adds up to in terms of performance, what it costs, and how all of this stacks up versus the other pocket-rocket players. So let’s address those power points in that order.
Mechanically and cosmetically, the not-so-blank canvas on which the SRT troops were invited to exercise their go-faster artistry represented a much bigger challenge than did the Neon. Tall (59.7 inches), brickish, and ungainly, the Caliber isn’t the kind of car that activates the salivary glands of street racers. But you play the cards you’re dealt, and considering the nature of the base car, the SRT achievement is impressive.
The first order of business was the suspension. Although there were no concerns with chassis rigidity—the front-shock-tower connecting brace common to so many factory hot-rod packages is conspicuous by its absence here—the team had to figure out how to make a big reduction in ride height and still retain acceptable ride and handling. There were two reasons for the lowering job. One—minor—was cosmetic. Getting the car a little closer to the ground, and filling the wheel wells with 7.5-by-19-inch cast aluminum wheels, makes it easier to sell the idea that this Caliber has attitude. Second, reducing the ride height—1.1 inches front, 0.8 inch rear—helped to reduce torque steer by making the half-shaft angles essentially flat between the differential and the wheels.
As you’d expect, the suspension has undergone a general stiffening, with ZF Sachs twin-tube dampers all around, higher spring rates fore-and-aft, and a stiffer (by 0.71 inch) rear anti-roll bar. Given the car’s speed potential, the SRT team decided it was best to be conservative with rear roll stiffness. However, for hard-core autocrossers, Mopar plans to offer a track kit with much higher spring rates and firmer dampers.
The brakes are formidable: 13.4-by-1.1-inch vented front rotors squeezed by twin-piston calipers and cooled by vents molded into the front fascia, 11.9-inch solid rear rotors, and standard anti-lock. Not only does this system provide fade-free braking, but the heavy-duty dimensions of the front rotors allowed the engineers to be aggressive with the so-called brake-lock differential. The brake-lock diff is an alternative to a conventional mechanical limited-slip differential and relies on the traction-control system. Operating on info from the ABS sensors, it limits wheelspin by squeezing the rotor of the wheel that has lost traction, which sends power to the opposite wheel. This is not a new strategy—Audi, BMW, and Mercedes use this technique—but the SRT4 system operates up to 85 mph, much higher than any other, according to Dodge. The system tends to chew the rotors pretty hard, but the SRT engineers figure their robust setup can handle it.
Braking power gets onto the pavement via 225/45R-19 tires (optional Goodyear Eagle F1s on our test car). Other elements of the chassis inventory include power rack-and-pinion steering, traction control, and stability control. The latter can’t be entirely shut down, although its threshold is high. But it does add to the challenge of achieving optimal drag-racing holeshots. More on that later.
First, let’s take a look under the hood, which is distinguished by one real hood scoop and two fake breather vents. The starting point for the SRT4 engine was the same 2.4-liter Chrysler/Hyundai/Mitsubishi DOHC 16-valve aluminum four you can get with a Caliber, except the regular Caliber version generates 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. This one, as you already know, generates a helluva lot more. Here’s how. The pistons are cast aluminum, running in iron liners, with forged con rods and trimetal bearings. SRT was confident the standard production forged-steel crank could take the extra heat and power. Oil squirters help keep the pistons cool, and an external cooler keeps temps of the Mobil 1 synthetic oil uniform.
At the top end, there’s variable valve timing on both cam banks, with bucket tappets punching the valves, which are made of Inconel (a high-temp alloy) on the exhaust side. And, of course, there’s that most essential of ingredients—boost, 12-psi max at sea level, but it can rise to 15 psi at high altitudes, provided by a Mitsubishi TD04 turbocharger via a big (11-row) Valeo air-to-air intercooler. Like the previous SRT4 engine, this 2.4 is a long-stroke design and not a high-revver. The power peaks are more like lofty plateaus. Max torque is available from 2000 to 5600 rpm, max horsepower is on tap from 5700 to 6400, and the small-scroll turbo spools up quickly.
LOWS: Body roll galore, wallows in hard cornering, disappointing stopping distances.
The engine feeds its output into a six-speed Getrag manual gearbox via a dual-mass flywheel. Like the gearbox in the garden-variety Caliber, it’s a cable shifter, but the throws are shorter and the engagements are far more decisive.
There are cosmetic elements to the SRT package, too, but we think you’d rather hear about the dynamic payoff first. Okay. Let’s start with the what’ll-she-do department. Getting an effective launch is tricky, something that’s true of most front-drive turbo cars. The SRT people predict zero-to-60 mph in a little over six seconds. We clocked 5.9. The quarter-mile ate up 14.4 seconds, showing a 103-mph trap speed. Top speed is officially listed as 155 mph, although one of the SRT development guys says he ran a prototype to as high as 161.
Regular readers will recall that the Neon-based SRT4 we tested in April 2004 posted better numbers: 5.3 seconds to 60, the quarter in 13.9 at 103. You’ll also recall that a Mazdaspeed 3 [Power Toys,” May 2007] ran to 60 mph in 5.4 and through the quarter in 14 flat at 101. We should note here that at 3233 pounds, the Caliber is 249 pounds heavier than that Neon-based SRT4 and 48 pounds heavier than the Mazdaspeed. Mass is never a plus for acceleration, nor does it help braking. The SRT4’s brakes don’t fade, but 175-foot stops from 70 mph can’t be called impressive.
Handling: It didn’t take many circuits at Putnam Park near Greencastle, Indiana, to convince us that the SRT4 isn’t happy on a racetrack. Understeer in this environment ranges from mulish to absolute, the limited suspension travel provokes some unpleasant wallowing, and the actions of the traction control produce some strange sensations, although the engineers insist it’s more effective than a conventional limited-slip diff, which they tried initially.
On public roads, the story improves. The car still doesn’t thrive on bumpy corners, but it inspires confidence nevertheless, with decent grip (0.84 g on the skidpad), sports-car steering, and surprisingly brisk responses in rapid transitions—surprisingly, because the SRT4 has a high center of gravity and hard cornering does entail a fair amount of body roll. But it hangs in there anyway.
The rest of the car: SRT cosmetic and aero enhancements include a deeper front air dam, rocker-panel extensions, a king-size spoiler extending over the rear hatch, a row of vertical diffuser strakes at the bottom of the rear end, and a four-inch echo-can exhaust tip.
Inside, there’s a set of excellent bucket seats with leather outers, red stitching, and grippy cloth centers providing plenty of lateral support, particularly for the torso; a leather-clad steering wheel; the obligatory aluminum pedal pads; and white-face SRT gauges. A nifty instrument option is the “performance pages” reconfigurable display that can give the driver acceleration times, lateral g, braking distance, and more.
THE VERDICT: Like a Camembert-and-sardine sandwich, it figures to be an acquired taste.
As with previous SRT hot rods, the latest rates as a performance bargain, with prices starting from $22,995. Amazingly, that’s similar to the base price for a Mazdaspeed 3. Coincidence? And which is preferable? Maybe we should get the two cars side by side and head-to-head? Ya think?
Theoretically, the SRT4 is my kind of machine—plenty of power, a good price, and a body style that can almost carry a couch. It’s got the goodies but, sadly, not the soul. There’s not enough friskiness in the chassis, too little joy to be had blipping the throttle, and a good amount of torque steer. I loved the Neon-based SRT4 and hoped the Caliber would be a hatchback version. It’s not, which goes to show that no amount of polishing can put a shine on the Caliber. —Larry Webster
Some hot cars get faster when they graduate to the next generation. Others, such as this Caliber SRT4, develop a refined maturity. This ’08 model has a tightness of construction and dynamic stability that are light-years beyond its rorty predecessor. But these virtues come with greater size and weight and the loss of that on-the-edge-of-control tossability that made the previous SRT4 occasionally irritating but always engaging. —Csaba Csere
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