During the last three decades, we’ve never really faced a shortage of sport compacts available in the U.S. market. That’s largely due to the admirable efforts of a single company taking charge of the segment and consistently meeting expectations. If there ever has been a domestic automaker we can rely on for its development of exhilarating pocket rockets, it has always been Dodge.
While other U.S. automakers were rooted in a fierce pony car battle, Dodge took a different approach when it came to building performance cars. Surprisingly, it chose not to follow the traditional rear-wheel drive, V8 configuration that had been a proven recipe for success since the dawn of the muscle car era (though rest assured, it did that too). Instead, I can only imagine that a room full of Mopar engineers must have banned together and said, “What the heck, let’s try the opposite!”
Power was shifted to the front wheels, and the cylinder count was cut in half. Despite what the engineers at Ford and Chevrolet must have thought at the time, Dodge wasn’t crazy. With increased fuel-efficiency standards and higher fuel costs, it was time to think about performance objectively.
In the 1980s, Dodge rolled out the compact Charger, Shadow sport coupes, and Omni hatchback. With the addition of a turbocharger, these four-cylinder mills were suddenly as powerful as their V8 counterparts — if not more due to suffocating emissions regulations. The cost to insure Dodge’s fleet of turbocharged pocket rockets was substantially less, and the engines themselves were much lighter and more fuel-efficient.
Despite the stubborn group of purists who only accepted performance cars that followed the tried and true methods of the past, the vast majority of consumers liked the direction Dodge was headed.
Dodge rode its newfound wave of popularity into the 1990s with even more potent compact offerings like the Spirit R/T and Daytona IROC R/T. But it wasn’t until after the millennium that Dodge finally perfected its pocket rocket formula with the 2008 Caliber SRT4.
Though not quite as small as the wildly popular Neon SRT-4, the Caliber was certainly more stylish with its aggressive body kit and 19-inch five-spoke alloys. And with a 285-horsepower turbocharged “Warhawk” four-cylinder and Getrag six-speed manual, it was an absolute terror on the streets as well.
That’s largely due to the engine’s max torque being available at only 2,000 RPM. Lay into the throttle, and the Mitsubishi TD04 small-scroll turbocharger builds boost quickly. According to a road test review from Car and Driver, 60 miles per hour comes rushing by in only 5.9 seconds and the quarter mile is completed in 14.4 seconds at 103 miles per hour. On an extended straight stretch, the Caliber is also capable of exceeding 160 miles per hour if you’re local airport ever decides to host a top speed run.
At 3,233 pounds, the Caliber is a tad on the heavy side for Dodge’s usual line of sub-3,000-pound sport compacts. But it made up for it with excellent handling and braking. Exclusive ZF Sachs dampers, 1-inch lowering springs, and a larger rear sway bar transformed the Caliber from an economy hatchback to an autocross wizard in SRT trim. Steering is precise, and enormous 13.4-inch vented front rotors and dual-piston calipers provide fade-free braking around the cones.
While the Caliber SRT4 appeared to be yet another potent sport compact offering from the Mopar brand, it wasn’t the sales success that the company had hoped for despite admirable performance and styling. Less than 1,000 models were sold during its two-year production run — a pitiful result compared to the 25,000-plus Neon SRT4s that sold from 2003 to 2005.
It’s been several years now since the Caliber SRT4 was discontinued, and no definitive plans have been made for its successor. There are rumblings that Dodge might be planning a high-performance Dart GLH, but that’s only speculation at this point. Considering Dodge’s long-standing track record of excellence in the segment, hopefully the Caliber SRT4 isn’t the final pocket-rocket we see from the Mopar brand.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.