Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By William C Montgomery

Before Magnum became a Hemi-powered station wagon (or a mustachioed P.I.) the term referred to elongated bullet casings with extra gun powder. Before the Caliber became synonymous with cheap, underpowered, poor-handling cars, it was the measure of a bullet’s diameter. Once again, The Dodge Boys have raided the Shooter’s Bible, naming their new entry level SUV after Nitro Express elephant gun cartridges (double entendre to NOX fuel a bonus). Does the Nitro deliver the rhino stopping power of Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, or represent another damp squib for DCX?

The aggressive cross-hair gun sight grill affixed to the nose of the Nitro (as well as all other recent Dodge offerings) is a direct hit. It says, “I’m an American.” Not a PC, sandal wearing, granola eating, citizen-of-the-world type; an American of the self-reliant “don’t tread on me” variety. While once distinctive brands like BMW and Mercedes have abandoned their trademark facades in favor of an aero-Japanese look, the Nitro wears its identity with pride. If this flag waving red meat state demeanor appeals, there is no rival.

The Nitro rolls out of the same Toledo, Ohio assembly plant as the Jeep Liberty, using the same underpinnings and sharing some major components. Nevertheless, this is no badge-engineered con job– at least on the face of it. The Nitro’s designers have banished any features or shapes suggestive of the vehicle's Jeep heritage. Instead, the CAD-CAM crowd drew their inspiration from comic books, mimicking automobiles driven by villains like Big Boy Caprice, Lips Manlis and Pruneface. We’re talking high-sided slab doors, bulging fenders, large wheels and a chopped roof. Add some running boards and Tommy guns and the Dick Tracy look would be complete.

Unfortunately, the design guys cut some corners, literally. Faux air vents just behind the front wheels desecrate the sides of the Nitro. Land Rover homage aside, I reckon nothing says CHEAP or POSER like impotent plastic appliqu├ęs. I have nothing against vents per se, provided they work. If not, take them off and figure out some authentic way to break the tedium of the breadbox shape. You have been told.

Sit in the Nitro’s overstuffed front seat and recline. Gaze unblinking at the mouse fur ceiling until your eyes dry out and your vision gently blurs. Now the dash looks great! Three tasteful ovals encircle the gauges; well-positioned controls and handsome aluminum trim frame the center console. Blink and clear-eyed scrutiny reveals a cut-rate misfire: right design, wrong materials. Low-grade brittle plastic adorns every button while a mishmash of textures suffuses interior surfaces. The Nitro’s interior says “rental car” almost as clearly as the exterior of the Ford Taurus.

The Dodge Nitro offers plenty of leg and shoulder room for four full-sized pistonheads daring to enter the no-luxury zone. The SLT and R/T models include a novel “Load ‘N Go” system: a cargo floor that slides 18” out the lift gate door to accommodate large objects weighing up to 400lbs. It’s a must for Mafia hit men and die-hard Home Depot patrons.

Despite optional four-wheel drive, the Nitro’s got no off-road game. The Nitro rides closer to the ground than its Jeep cousin, and it’s wider, longer and heavier than its sister-under-the-skin. And boy, does it feel it. Over boosted steering conspires with a loose suspension to deliver glass-like smoothness at 15mph, even through pockmarked parking lots. Unfortunately, these same characteristics make for poor tracking, numb steering and boat-like dynamics at all other speeds, on anything approach a "normal" road. In short, the Nitro handles like an Olde School SUV– without any of the much-maligned war horses’ compensating off-road capabilities.

The Nitro STX and SLT’s holster Jeep’s 210hp 3.7-liter V6. Dubbed the “Magnum” by Dodge marketeers, the powerplant’s mated to either an archaic Dodge four-speed autobox (as tested) or a six-speed manual. Dodge claims a 0-60mph time of nine seconds– which feels just about as slow as it sounds. Rainy conditions hampered my driving test, but the wet gave me plenty of opportunity to investigate the Nitro’s traction control. Conclusion: Bull's eye! It works.

Dodge promises that its R/T model, due by year's end, will deliver the knock down power pistonheads crave. A 255hp aluminum block 4.0-liter V6, 5-speed transmission and sport tuned suspension will “fling” the Nitro from zero to 60mph in… 8.3 seconds. That’s hardly what I’d call KABLAM! In fact, the Nitro lacks the muscle of its munitions namesake, promised by its wikkid looks. The model's squish-mobile performance is more like the feeble pssst of a piss-ant paintball pellet.

Despite its shortcomings, the Nitro is a stylistic antidote to domesticated CUV’s. It counters the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V with a small SUV that NASCAR dads will be proud to drive. If you can get past the lousy interior, there are worse places to drop $23k and change. If that sounds like I’m damning the Nitro with faint praise, well, that's because I am.


By Adrian Imonti

The Big 2.5 have always struggled with vehicles of the four-cylinder persuasion. A series of broken nameplates dating back to Omni, Vega, and Pinto highlights Detroit’s longstanding fear and loathing of Thinking Small. Now the 0.5 is attempting to renew its ardor with the Caliber, branding it a “world car” and exporting it to Europe. Unfortunately, the Caliber shows that bad Detroit habits are hard to break, firing blanks in this latest battle of the econobox wars.

The Caliber goes to enormous lengths to distance itself from the smiley-faced four-door that preceded it. Dodge’s designers replaced the Neon’s batted-eyelash visage with their trademark crosshair grille, giving the youngster a mini-me Durango look. The shared lineage continues with the sedan’s steeply raked windshield and pronounced wheel wells, also strongly derivative of El Durangito.

The Caliber’s tail is angular and stout, in the great Volvo XC90 tradition. The Dodge’s protruding taillights and loading lip are strangely reminiscent of its sibling, the Jeep Compass. The roofline tapers back behind the C-pillar above side-rear windows and a roof spoiler, offering more than a passing nod to the Lexus RX.

All these influences are appealing in theory, laughable in fact. Despite the “anything but cute” advertising spin, the Caliber’s faux-bravado pastiche contradicts its maker’s intentions. The SUV-lite’s oversized bits are akin to puppy paws waiting for the attached dog to grow up. The resulting angry compressed truck exterior seems, well, silly.

The Caliber’s cabin is standard issue Chysler: slightly quirky but mostly dull. Perhaps the $16k market demographic has a high tolerance for cheap plastics and oversized gauges, but how did DCX decide that gray is the new black? Choosing between “slate gray” and “pebble beige” is like deciding whether or not to cut the crusts off a piece of white toast. The Caliber SXT Sport attempts to lighten this fug of mediocrity with a red or blue dash bezel and seat inserts (also available on R/T). It's about as sporty as a baseball cap on a bank clerk.

On the positive side, the Caliber’s seats were plenty comfortable. Four days and several hundred miles behind the wheel required no emergency trips to the chiropractor. The Cailber's audio system offers a wikkid flip-out MP3 holder in the center console. And the ChillZone glove box/cooler is a clever idea that shows just how far our culture has evolved on the drinking and driving front.

Chillzone in Caliber, heated/cooled cup holders in the Sebring, a dining table in the Caravan… what is it with Dodge and Chrysler and eating/drinking in their cars? Instead of building vehicles with a high fun factor, they’d rather sell consumers mobile dinettes. They should borrow a bit of finesse from BMW, with a bit less BMI.

The Caliber serves up three engine choices: a 1.8-liter 148hp base unit, a 2.0-liter 158 hp mill, and an allegedly performance-oriented 2.4 liter 172 hp “powerplant.” (Readers with a European address may partake of a VW-sourced turbodiesel.) Our CVT-equipped 2.0-liter tester sounded chronically unhappy with the business of driving. Even modest bouts of acceleration produced cruel and unusual noises. The brutal din may account for the transmission’s hesitation — perhaps it doesn’t want to offend Caliber drivers’ ears.

The Caliber’s handling matches its discontented drivetrain. Despite an independent rear suspension, the car displays all the grace of a sumo wrestler on figure skates. At the risk of inflicting metaphor overload, the tiller provides less feedback than a bumper car, with precisely none of the fun. And when it’s time for the “fun” to stop, the base model’s rear drums sound the death knell for pre-disc technology; though hopefully not for the car’s occupants.

To be fair, the Caliber’s suspension does a reasonable job maintaining its composure on city streets, back roads and Interstates. The car’s handling at two-tenths is competent enough for the typical commute or mall safari. Nonetheless, the front-wheel drive Caliber exhibits the sort of numbness and ride-handling compromises that the transplants cured more than a decade ago. And the poor outward visibility is disgraceful: an insurance deductible ready to happen.

Taken as a whole (as required), the Caliber does nothing particularly well– unless the ability to schlep chilly drinks takes top priority. If DCX’ ultimate goal was to convince our NATO allies that downsized Yank tanks can be fun and refined, they’ve failed on both fronts.

A top notch refresh of the Caliber’s rental fodder predecessor would have been a better way for the automaker to get back into the small car game. In any case, The Dodge Boys should revisit the Caliber soon, before they lose all credibility in the four-cylinder sweepstakes.


By William C Montgomery

Riding in a golf cart to the nether regions of a dealership lot, an aging salesman explained his selling strategy. “Chryslers appeal to either male or female buyers,” he declared through nicotine-stained teeth. “Take the Compass. That’s for the ladies. The Wrangler? Boys’ toy.” As our EV reaches the 2008 Avenger, it's clear that the latest entry in The Dodge Boys' lineup is no purple Barbie Sport Convertible. But does The Avenger deliver the goods, or is “he” an impotent superhero look alike?

First, let’s be clear about from whence cometh this car: the Dodge Avenger is a reskinned Chrysler Sebring, just as the Dodge Charger is a reskinned Chrysler 300. It’s a cheap and cheerful way to give Dodge dealers something to sell that isn’t the late, unlamented Stratus, or the slow-selling Dakota, or Ye Olde Durango. Something that’ll keep the UAW’s factories humming– at least until someone else takes over.

Compared to the Sebring’s disjointed styling– afflicted as it is by a clash of Art Deco motif and Analytic Cubism — the Avenger is, um, handsome. Dodge’s crosshair grille looks far more rugged than the Sebring’s muzzle, and more elegant than the stubby, pug-faced Dodge Caliber. The Avenger’s chin spoiler and front bumper form a Charlie Sheen-like square jaw. Quad LDH optics offer the intensity and sensitivity of Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, while the angular windshield and clean roofline project the nobility of Johnny Depp’s brow.

While we’re beating the celebrity metaphor to a bloody pulp, the Avenger’s rear quarter panels broaden around the wheels like Fabio’s muscular shoulders and five-spoke “Ultra Bright” aluminum wheels flash like Matthew McConaughey’s pearly whites.

Two flaws mar this otherwise stunning example of automotive manhood: cheap looking triangular black inserts that fill the aft corners of the rear windows and a useless wing adorning the rear deck, an aesthetic faux pas that suits The Avenger like an ill fitted toupee on a fifty-something athlete.

Actually, I’m just being picky. The Avenger offers a distinctive design– especially compared to the boring (e.g. Honda Accord) and outright ugly (e.g. Toyota Camry) sedans that dominate the class.

A quick survey of the interior confirms the Avenger’s true identity: an automotive Himbo. It’s attractive on the outside, vacuous on the inside. The Avenger’s interior designers attempted tasteful sophistication, refraining from button overload and utilizing classic shapes. But, once again, the quality of The Chrysler’s Group’s rock hard plastics is both inexplicable and inexcusable. Even Kia uses finer materials.

The “chrome” piece that frames the gear selector is easily removed from its track. It’s a brittle piece of plastic with a chrome finish laminated to the top. This is the exact same kind of short-lived chromed plastic that GM used for the door locks in my mother’s 1969 Buick Skylark. I’d expect similar longevity from this and the rest of the dreadful Mopar parts blighting the Avenger.

On the positive side, you get a Chillzone Beverage Cooler, heated and cooled cupholders and (for the hopelessly flatulent) “odor-resistant fabric upholstery.”

My SXT tester sheltered a 2.7-liter 24-valve V6 mated to a four-speed automatic cogswapper. This so-called “powerplant” slots between the rental grade 2.4-liter 4-cylinder World Engine and the RT’s torque steer special: a 235hp 3.5-liter V6. Dodge (and my new chain smoking best friend) expects this drivetrain will be US customers’ mill of choice. The 2.7 produces 189hp and delivers 19/27 mpg (as per updated EPA standards). How great is that?

Not very. The V6 Avenger delivers neither driving excitement nor outstanding fuel economy. At pedestrian speeds, the Avenger's ride is market compliant. At anything above a parking lot pace, the Avenger lacks the chassis poise and steering feel to reward anything remotely resembling a spirited maneuver. As indicated above, the Avenger channels all its meager power through the front wheels. (Optional AWD sends some torque to the rear wheels when needed.)

Push this dreary driving street rod towards the extremes and the 17” wheels (an upgrade from the SE’s 16’s) and chassis loses its composure like a paranoid schizophrenic at a UFO convention. If you love tire-squealing understeer slides– and what ignorant enthusiast doesn’t– the Avenger is a dream come true. Unfortunately, the drum and disk binders are a bit of a nightmare. They’re initially resistant to the idea of serious stopping, and lack feel once they get with the program.

At the 2007 Dallas Auto Show, Dodge’s PR shills stood by an Avenger painted in Inferno Red Crystal Pearl and extolled the model’s many virtues. They compared it to all its rivals– except the Camry and Accord. At the risk of seeming sexist, the Avenger’s inability to compete with the class leaders must leave Chrysler hoping (against hope) there are some male buyers who believe beauty is only skin deep.


2009 Dodge Ram 1500

By Samir Syed

The American pickup truck wars have become a series of increasingly pitched battles. Even as the pickup market tanks, the main players have regrouped, refreshed and rejoined the fight. As we await the new Dodge Ram pickup, a major candidate for the "I coulda been a contender" award, questions must be asked. Does the current Ram have what it takes to hold the fort against the [ostensibly] reliable Toyota Tundra, the built-like-a-rock Chevy Silverado and the tough luxury Ford F-150? What battles will the new Dodge Ram have to win?

Dodge last refreshed the Ram's design back in '02. At the time, The Dodge Boys' sheetmetal sculptors did little more than give the existing design a huge shot of whatever made Barry Bonds into such a serious slugger. The resulting big rig ‘tude was a huge hit. Protruding tail-lights, endless chrome, two levels of hood bulges and a Freightliner snout gave the pickup what the Germans call "uberholprestige," or what Good Old Boys call "Get the **** out of my way."

While there's nothing particularly wrong with the Ram's current design– provided you eat nails for breakfast– one wonders how long Dodge can play the machismo card in a world increasing filled with PC hybrids and CUVs (castrated utility vehicles). Even if Dodge stays on message, how much louder can they shout? Other than flaring the bed's flat flanks with Audi Quattro wheel arches or fitting the Ram's roof with standard air horns and running lights, there's not much room for "improvement."

Inside, there's PLENTY of room for improvement. The Ram's expansive center stack is bogged down by the same nasty plastic and generic interior cues plaguing all Chrysler-family models– right down to that irritating radio with its counter-intuitive controls.

Comfort also takes a back seat– or not. The Quad Cab's rear seats' obvious malevolence towards the human form provides surreptitious encouragement for a Mega Cab upgrade. The front seats aren't much better; the thinly padded chairs are no friend to anyone who's spent the day loading and emptying the cargo bed.

Thankfully, the Quad Cab's forward compartment is large enough for a brace of small gladiators to engage in relatively unfettered combat. The center armrest is the crown jewel of the Ram's cabin (just ask Toyota). This feature, beloved of laptop-toting foremen, is unbelievably accommodating. Lids down, both my ThinkPad and widescreen Dell fit in the space at the same time. As Paris Hilton would say (if she were the dual-laptop type), that's hot.

Last year, Dodge redesigned the Ram's frame and suspension to improve the pickup's class-following ride and handling. Clearly, much work remains to be done. While the F-150 turns road imperfections into a delicate lumbar massage, the Ram sends all shocks straight through to its passengers, unfiltered. Unless the Ram is fully loaded with passengers and cargo, the bed jumps around like children trapped in what the English call a bouncy castle.

Still, the Ram's got soul where it matters. The SLT trim holsters the company's trusty 4.7-liter V8. With this mighty motor, the Ram leaps long lines of traffic in a single bound, or, alternatively, tows small garages without complaint. The highway is the Ram's happy place; whether fully loaded or as empty as Congress' promises of energy independence, the pickup doesn't break a sweat at 70 mph. And speaking of sucking-up natural resources from foreign climes, I clocked 11 mpg in mixed driving, towing and hauling nothing heavier than thin air.

Sadly, the Ram's five-speed transmission (fifth is for overdrive) isn't up to the task of channeling 300 ft.-lbs. of twist. Upshifts are as abrupt as the downshifts are fashionably late. After lurching into second gear a few times, I found myself checking the transfer case switch to see if I hadn't somehow dropped into 4WD-Lo.

When push comes to shove, the current Ram trails all its competitors in nearly every category. It burns more fuel, isn't nearly as comfortable and doesn't drive as well. So why does it still sell so well? Because the Ram's cachet has nothing to do with handling, utility, longevity or efficiency.

Every time I passed another Ram, the driver would nod, admitting membership in the cult of the Ram. Dodge's pickup is the poseur truck par excellence, right down to its [where the Hell do I find] E85 [and why in God's name would I want to get less mpg] badge on the tailgate.

If I cared about my spinal cord, I'd get an F-150. If I wanted my truck to last 362,000 miles, I'd get a Silverado. If I wanted to haul ass in a rolling pantomime of bling and bravado (and occasionally tow a boat), there's no question I'd get a Ram. In short, the Dodge Ram is the Cadillac Escalade of pick-ups. Word.


By Justin Berkowitz

If you time-traveled back to 1964 and told a muscle car buyer that his ride would be a respected classic 40 years hence, he’d call you crazier than Khrushchev. Muscle cars were fun on the cheap. You got what you didn’t pay for: nonexistent handling, pathetic drum brakes, two and three speed automatic transmissions and efficiency measured in gallons per mile (which was no biggie at the time). Thirty years later, Chrysler and Dodge are leading the charge down muscle car memory lane. Until the Chevrolet Camaro appears, the Dodge Charger SRT8 Super Bee could well be the post-modern muscle car mascot. Which is what, exactly?

No question: brash is a big part of the definition. Even from a hundred yards, no one will ever mistake the Super Bee for a Honda Accord. If the base Charger’s styling is “in your face,” the nuclear yellow Super Bee is down your throat. The headlights are nasty-looking, the hood scoop sucks souls, and the twenty inch wheels are Hummer compatible. While a great many enthusiasts will hail the Bee’s extra-extroversion as welcome break from today’s automotive appliances, most people will hate the look of this car.

Then again, most of these knee-jerk detractors drive brownish-silverish-greyish Camrys. If you’re not one of them, the odds are excellent that you really like the Super Bee's stance, style and detailing. The matte-finish decals on the hood and rear side fenders are a resolutely retro touch. But retro what? They looked cheap on the original, and they look cheap here. I like them for their nod to history; but by that same reasoning the Renault Dauphine is “cool.”

Sitting in the Super Bee is like partying at a Rubbermaid factory– in China. The entirety of the car’s dash and door panels are made from some kind of nasty ass black polymer that wouldn’t look out of place in a hospital waiting room, or any other space where bodily fluids must be regularly removed. Everything on view looks OK in an entirely yeomanly built-to-a-price kinda way– which is a throwback too far for this retro-rocker.

Good news: people buying the Dodge Super Bee probably won’t care any more about the car’s low-grade interior than they do about CO2 emissions warming/cooling the planet. The seats say it all: they’re leather and suede, extremely wide and very supportive. WYSIWYG: the chairs are perfectly built for generously proportioned empty nesters who like to drive like their hair’s on fire.

So fire-up the Super Bee’s honking 6.1-liter Hemi and a baby seal dies somewhere. Milliseconds later even the dimmest driver realizes that the Bee– like the other SRT8 iterations– is nothing but an engine and a paint job. And a hell of an engine it is. Four hundred and twenty five horses are enough to propel this brick shithouse to 60mph in five seconds. As momentum equals mass times velocity, accelerating that quickly in a 4200 lb car is an astonishing experience. The engine is suitably loud, and every slam on the gas (gently depressing the go-pedal is like using the rhythm method with Marissa Miller) yields ferocious thrust.

In terms of changing direction (a silly concept but there it is), the Super Bee’s steering is better weighted than the helm in the lesser R/T Charger. But the combination of double-wide tires and massive torque means that driving the Super Bee requires less finesse than throwing a water balloon at the side of a barn. In fact, Dodge couldn’t left off the steering wheel entirely; directional change is just as easily accomplished with your right foot as with the decapitated turtle that passes for a tiller.

It’s a stupid way to negotiate a turn, but it’s a gen-u-ine Dukes of Hazard-style hoot– provided you drive with the aforementioned pate conflagration in mind. At slower speeds, burbling through the ‘burbs, driving the Super Bee is such a pedestrian endeavor you might as well walk. You know; providing you could still get laid by women who call you by a shortened version of your first and middle names combined.

Returning to our original question, the Super Bee is a modern car only to the extent that it’s presently being built. It follows the old formula of sticking a huge and powerful engine into a hum-drum big car. Of course, we’ve got better safety these days. Only Super Bee side curtain airbags are optional and most of those ones already built don’t got 'em, leaving drivers with two– count ‘em two– airbags.

Impact protection or no, Dodge won’t have too much trouble selling Super Bees; collectors and muscle car fans with firsthand knowledge of the era will snap them up as a second chance to buy what they couldn’t afford back in the day. In that sense, we who followed should be glad cars like the Super Bee exist. But unless tail out powerslides are your staple diet, at $46k, its best admired from afar.


By Michael Karesh

My initial reaction to the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan: “What were you guys thinking?” The new minivan’s boxy, big-nosed exterior flies in the face of two decades of design evolution. The equally artless interior is awash in plastic that looks as hard as it feels and feels as hard as it looks. But then, while driving one, it hit me: Chrysler is targeting men. Not metrosexuals. Not pistonheads. They’re looking to lure manly men: the kind of guys who buy pickup trucks (real pickups, not the ones with fancy trimmings). Aesthetically as well as functionally, the new Grand Caravan is the work truck of minivans.

To the human subconscious, the oval shape of the old Grand Caravan suggested the profile of a woman with child, the archetype of motherhood. Well, that’s what a Chrysler market research exec once told me. Suffice it to say, the new model is without child. The sides are much more upright. A large, distinctly separate front clip steps outside of the minivan monobox. Not that the new profile is truly new. Full-size vans have always been boxy. And consider who drives them: blue collar workmen, guys who labor with their hands for a living. And yes, the new Grand Caravan is available in white.

Inside, the Grand Caravan has all the style of a pre-urban cowboy pickup cab. Do the interior trim panels fill the gaps between the various control panels? Do they hold up when whacked with your gear? Mission accomplished. By the same logic (plus cost-cutting), you’ll find none of that soft-touch polymer business inside the Grand Caravan. That kind of plastic is more susceptible to wear and tear (i.e. it’s for wussies). Real Men (RM) go for the hard stuff. They’ll find acres of it here, resisting child and climate-related decomposition through the next ice age.

RM will also appreciate the new Grand Caravan’s driving position; the instrument panel is much higher than in other minivans, keeping the relatively horizontal hood within view. The forward vista suggests “truck” not “minivan.”

The new Grand Caravan provides three second-row seating solutions. (All trim levels have the stowable third-row split bench and commodious underfloor storage bins.) Cheapskates get a two-person bench. Next up the ladder: the “Stow ‘n Go” buckets introduced on the 2005 model. RM may appreciate how these quickly stow beneath the floor for spur of the moment mission changes, but they remain undersized for adults.

Manly men amongst manly men doing manly things must opt for the new “Swivel ‘n Go” seats. While great for kids, the rotating chairs put the second and third row too close for adults who don’t care to rub inner thighs with other adults. It’s a shame, as the stowable table packaged with these seats make a passable poker table. And the swiveling seats’ provide much larger backrests and cushions.

Unfortunately, turnabout isn’t fair play. The swivelers don’t stow. For big hauls—which usually require a completely flat floor– these seats must be removed; even Jack Bauer wouldn’t find them easy to lift. RM will have to decide what’s more important: Home Depot runs on the fly or protecting their buds’ personal space.

The new Grand Caravan isn’t what anyone would call exciting to drive. While the segment-exclusive six-speed manually-shiftable automatic extracts gutsier low-speed acceleration from the OHV 3.8-liter V6 than previous, at highway speeds, the old workhorse’s performance is merely adequate.

For high-speed pursuits, the SOHC 24-valve 4.0-liter V6 is the engine of choice. Neither powerplant makes sophisticated noises when pushed, but RM enjoy a little low-tech NASCAR-style engine roar. The moderately firm steering serves to accurately point the van in the intended direction. Though the rear axle remains a live one, the rear suspension does a much more passable job of absorbing bumps and dips than the last model’s set-up.

A few other minivans (e.g. Honda Odyssey) feel sportier. But the difference is one of degree, not kind. None can serve as a substitute for a sport wagon, much less a sports car. Some do a decent job of imitating a luxury car. But if that’s your mission, you want the faux-wooded (but no softer to the touch), faux-sueded Chrysler Town & Country Limited.

As a machine for getting a van-load of people or cargo from Point A to Point B, the new Grand Caravan performs to MIL-SPEC, even with the 3.8. And it contains as many gadgets as any car 007 ever drove. So when you see those slab sides, that boxy nose and all that hard plastic, don’t think, “Mommy on Bored.” Instead, consider that the men who hunt Jack Bauer drive vans. Why not you, Mr. Father of Three in an SUV?


By P.J. McCombs

Pity the poor engineers charged with turning Dodge’s “anything-but-cute,” anything-but-clever Caliber into a proper hot hatch. Transforming the Caliber into a desirable piece of sporting kit seems about as likely as landing Michael Jackson a job as a mall Santa. But here it is, for 2008: the Caliber SRT4. So Dodge’s gone and done the deed anyway. Or have they?

The boffins at SRT faced two fundamental problems whilst squeezing blood from this particular turnip. One is the Caliber’s tall-sitting, proto-SUV stature; it totally, like, wants to be a Ram when it grows up. While the SRT4’s grates, scoops and hulking fender flares all convey the requisite Dodge “attitude,” they turn the already-campy Caliber into, well, a rolling hormone. It’s just right for 13-year-old motorists with $22,995 burning holes in their pockets.

Speaking of not sitting quite right, that’s fundamental flaw number two: stepping into the SRT4 feels like commandeering a bite-sized tank, a sensation as well-suited to a sport-compact as diarrhea is to dating. You sit high off the floor, peering over a tall half-acre of dash through a mail-slot windshield. Military-grade plastic fills your peripheral vision. Ever tried to autocross with A-pillars the size of ham shanks? Cones will tremble at the sound of your name.

Now, lest you think I’m being unfair, all sport-compacts inherit interiors from their pedestrian brethren— for better or worse. But the SRT4’s hand-me-down cabin is as “or worse” as it gets. At the helm, you face bulgy, blocky slabs of sheeny plasti-granite, Tonka-style; fits and surface grains befit the toymaker, too. Look over your shoulder for a particularly good view of the stuff. There’s precious little glass to get in the way.

So, exterior and interior, we’re 0 for 2. Here are two better figures: 285 and 265, the respective hp and torque specs for the SRT4’s turbocharged, intercooled 2.4-liter four. That’s serious stuff for a cheap ride. And fun. Hit it, and you’ll smoke 60 in 5.8 ear-pinning seconds, after two torrential floods of whooshing, gasping, rasping torque. Throttle response fairly sparkles; turbo lag is next to nonexistent.

Twisting this big-lunged Four to the 6,250 rpm penthouse requires an attentive and assertive pair of hands: one to keep the meaty, firmly-weighted steering wheel cocked to the left, countering the SRT4’s fierce torque-steer weave, and another to the notch the six-speed stick through its short, chunky track. That’s right: despite being mounted on a jutting diagonal shelf, the SRT4’s shifter is a treat to stir. Put that in your Si and smoke it.

Arrive at a corner, and all of this snorting and stirring means you’ve likely gone in deeper than you anticipated. Deeper in trouble? Not if the curve in question is a shallow one. Nudge the hefty wheel off-center, and the SRT4 bites like its looks say it ought to; its sticky 225/45R-19 tires keep the Caliber’s 3,248 lb carcass firmly planted to the pavement. Go ahead, drop the throttle, brush the brake. That rear end ain’t goin’ nowhere.

But if you’re stuffing the SRT4 into a rinky-dink hairpin, well, llllet’s get ready to fumble! Here, the nose-heavy SRT4 scrubs harder than Molly Maids. Its front tires grind and judder gracelessly, kicking hard at your hands. Worse, as you’re scrambling to supply more steering lock, you may well find that you’re fresh out. It seems those fashionably massive wheels can’t turn very far. Yep, this Dodge’s got an attitude, all right: understeer.

No matter. Ignore any snickering Miata pilots in the vicinity, and waste the next straight with a stonking swell of torque. But what’s this? As the rush comes, the wheel pulses in your hands, a subtle side-to-side stutter. Is the ABS system on the fritz? Nope. That’s just Dodge’s discount stand-in for a limited-slip diff: the brakes are set up to nibble away at an uppity front wheel, shifting the power back and forth. It’s less annoying than it sounds. But not by much.

All in all, I’ve got to hand it to the loose screws at SRT. They’ve done far more than perfume a pig; they’ve turned the crummy Caliber into a torquey albeit porky buzzbox that’s a kick in the pants to drive. The painfully obvious catch: it’s still a Caliber. It clunks. It rattles. You can’t see out of it. The high chair exaggerates every turn-induced tip and teeter. And deep down, under all its Ginsu-sharp plastic moldings, the poor thing still wants to be a truck.

Which is why enthusiasts no longer in their teens will skip straight to the MazdaSpeed3, Volkswagen GTI or MINI Cooper S– sport-compacts that are not only less intrinsically conflicted, but aren’t much (if any) slower or more expensive. Ah, well. You played a good hand, SRT. Let’s just hope that, next time, the suits upstairs are playing with a full deck.



By Michael Karesh

Back in 2004, Chrysler thought it had a segment-busting winner with the Pacifica. Neither car, minivan, nor SUV, the luxurious large "crossover" was supposed to play a key role in Chrysler's planned move upscale. Buyers lined-up none deep for Chrysler's bloated station wagon. The automaker was forced to de-content, discount and discontinue the disastrous distraction. Stunned by the Pacfica-shaped sales sinkhole, it took Chrysler another five years to field another three-row crossover. The 2009 Dodge Journey is in many ways the anti-Pacifica. Will it be any more successful?

With its chiseled lines and pillbox-on-wheels proportions, people noticed the Pacifica (even if most didn't like what they saw). In comparison, the Journey's boxy– but not boxy enough to make a statement– exterior is totally, completely, utterly forgettable. Even with flared fenders, the Journey has no curb appeal whatsoever. In fact, the Journey's so unrelentingly bland that it manages to appear much smaller than it actually is.

The Pacifica's Mercedes-lite interior was the most upscale to ever grace a modern Chrysler. You'll find no such luxury cues inside the new Dodge Journey (fake chrome highlights don't count). Yes, there's a bit of style, with a high-contrast color scheme and a few artfully curving surfaces. And the instrument panel upper is finger sink soft. But all the bits attached to it, including the protruding center stack, are straight from the bargain basement. It looks, feels and smells cheap.

Chastened by the Pacifica's failure, Chrysler prioritized function over form. Innovative storage compartments fill every nook and cranny of the Journey's cabin: under the front passenger seat, under the floor in the second row, under the cargo floor, inside the doors, pretty much everywhere you look. For larger cargo, every seat save the driver's folds flat.

But budget cutting must have ravaged the human factors department; the driving position is an ergonomic abomination. The steering wheel rim obstructs the temperature gauge and the right half of the tach, and the optional rearview monitor is positioned at knee level. Get the nav, though, and the screen moves to the top of the center stack; apparently the legal department remains intact.

Consistent with the current ChryCo style, the seats could not be more lacking in contour. The second-row split bench (Captains need not apply) bi-folds to clear a narrow path to the third row. Unfortunately, third row accommodations are tighter than… well, you know what I mean. If any soul should dare trespass thereabouts, arguments are guaranteed. The second row is only roomy enough for adults when ratcheted all the way back- which eliminates any (as in any) third row leg room.

The Dodge Journey is offered with your choice of two powerplants: a 173-horse 2.4-liter four hitched to a four-speed automatic or a 235-horse 3.5-liter V6 connected to a six-speed slushbox. (Only the latter is available with all-wheel drive.) Motorvating two tons of crossover, the Journey's V6 provides sufficient acceleration but few thrills- unless you're turned on by mild torque steer. The 4.0-liter powerplant from the minivans would have made things more interesting, but that doesn't seem to be the theme here.

That said, you can order the Dodge Journey with a (woo-hoo!) performance suspension and 19-inch alloys. Our test Journey had the touring suspension and 17s. Thus shod, the Journey feels very much like a 7/8-scale minivan. The amount of body lean is acceptable for a three-row family-hauler, and the chassis is sufficiently poised to keep the driver out of trouble.

Not that the driver will seek trouble. The somewhat heavy steering feels exceptionally numb. And speaking of Novocain, the Journey's driving experience is the only aspect of the vehicle that's more forgettable than the exterior styling. The upside: bumps and other road imperfections are nicely absorbed. The performance suspension won't fix the steering, but it could well deprive the Journey of this single dynamic strength.

And then there's quality control…

The V6 had a quarter-inch of water in the front passenger floorboard (promptly extracted via shop vac). The source was soon revealed, as a gurgle could periodically be heard from the perimeter of the sunroof and water rained down from the overhead console throughout the test drive. Get this: it wasn't raining outside the car at the time; it had rained the previous day.

The Dodge Journey is everything the Pacifica was not; it's forgettable, functional and designed to sell for a low price. But Chrysler has failed to realize that today's CUV buyers aren't looking for one thing or the other. They don't want form at the expense of function or function at the expense of form. They want both, AND comfort AND reliability. Plenty of other crossovers deliver all four. The Dodge Journey is destined to be no more visible in the sales charts than it is on the road.


By Mike Solowiow

I drink Espolon tequila. It's not a matter of taste, smoothness or snobbery. Veteran drinkers– like car buyers– know it's always better to buy top shelf hooch to minimize the inevitable after-effects. Get drunk on the cheap and you pay the price (the old "I have to get better so I can die" routine). By the same token, buy a Dodge Durango and it will burn all the way down to the pit of your automotive soul, leaving you with a hangover that will last years. Where's the fun in that?

The Dodge Boys freshened the Durango for the 2008 model year. The SUV displays Chrysler's new "corporate look," shared with the Journey and Caravan. The snout loses the pronounced grills that towered over the Durango's headlights. Instead, the designers injected a shot of botox into the SUVs eyebrows, giving the Durango a slightly surprised look from the front. Meanwhile, the bumper got a shot of collagen, adding droopy-lipped, Angelina Jolie-wannabe flair.

The rest of the Durango's sheetmetal is androgynous, blending in perfectly with the growing "no there there" sub-developments strewn across the U.S. The only interesting bit comes at the rear, where the Durango's taillights look like a quad-pair of B-1 Bomber afterburners. It's a cool touch on an otherwise completely forgettable exterior.

Grab the oversized chrome door handles, feel them jiggle a bit and yank. The Durango's door pops open like an old can of Pringles, complete with stale sour cream and onion smell. Hard shiny plastic assaults your vision in every direction. The center stack is covered in a shiny "wood" that looks more ersatz than Contact brand shelf paper. The salesman said Chrysler had to use craptastic plastic to keep the costs down, so Chrysler could continue to build the Durango in the U.S. Let me say this about that: they're closing the plant in 2009.

The Durango's chairs are strangely narrow for its target market. The Limited's window sticker claims they're covered in "real leather." Who knew? Thank Lord Xenu for the designers putting micro-fiber suede inserts into the seats to keep the erstwhile cow hide from consuming everything like kudzu.

On the positive side, I discovered several clever and useful details. Flip the cheap second row of seats forward to reveal the cheap-but-useful-for-two-adults third row. The climate control proved extremely powerful, despite the fact that the salesman needed five minutes to figure it out.

The Durango Limited comes with a 335hp, 5.7-liter HEMI engine. Mashing the gas brings to mind the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Thanks to a rubbery suspension, the 4900lbs. truck bucks like an enraged bovine. And then there's the screaming, as the panicked Durango driver saws at an anesthetized helm trying to avoid solid objects.

Still, once you acclimatize yourself to the feather-light helm, interstate merging and two-lane blacktop overtaking are a breeze. The five-speed automatic always seems to find the right ratio, and lets the HEMI power away, with only a hint of road noise and cooling fan roar penetrating the stout door seals.

It would be nice to dismiss the Durango's horrific ride quality as a byproduct of the SUVs' massive towing ability (8500lbs). But I can't. The Durango's heavy-duty shocks and dampers recall the 1970's era Wagoneer; the more recent Chrysler product creaks, groans, and shimmies over nearly everything save smooth Chrysler Proving Ground roads.

Abrupt maneuvers upset the chassis more than Simon Cowell on American Idol. Piloting a Durango in anything other than a straight line, you're always aware of that the vehicle's mass has a mind of its own. That's provided there isn't any aerodynamic disturbance; during crosswinds, the Durango's nose wanders across lanes without much warning.

Sensibly enough (considering America's litigious nature), Dodge built the Durango with full-on safety equipment. All Durangos possess more airbags than a stuntman convention, Electronic Stability Protection (ESP), anti-lock brakes and dual-note electric horns (to remind small cars to get out of the way). The dealer told me ESP senses when the Durango is rolling, and then locks-up a wheel to slam the truck back on the pavement. Film at 11.

Driving the Dodge Durango is enough to drive an American car/truck lover to drink. To see such a mediocre and pitiful product coming from a company that's built some of the most quintessentially American cars breaks my heart and tears at my soul. With a fresher exterior re-freshening, a better interior, some chassis development and a smidgen of steering feel, the Durango could have become a great truck– instead of a dodgy, uninspired, characterless hulk.

Clearly, the beancounters at Chrysler don't have the time, inclination or cash to refine the Durango into a top shelf product. And so it remains the six buck bottle of Cuervo of SUVs.