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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
The Galway-Cavendish Forest Rally is the fourth event on the Ontario Performance Rally circuit. A nine-kilometre stretch of wide gravel road that winds through thick forest to end in a limestone quarry, it's a challenging mix of changing elevations, sweeping curves, tight turns and blind drops. Exhilarating and visually stunning, it's a deceptively treacherous test for both car and driver.

I'd been invited to take part driving an official vehicle - a sort of pace car except that we would follow behind the last competitor and report any incidence or debris on the road. Basically, my job was to ferry Peterborough Motor Sports Cub president and official, Peter Gulliver, from one end of the road to the other, slightly slower than a competitor's pace (and without having to cough up the entry fee).

For this, Chrysler Canada had graciously (foolishly?) agreed to loan me an '07 Dodge Caliber AWD R/T. The Dodge brothers whipped up this neat little high-rise hatchback as a replacement for the entry-level Neon. My first impression was that someone had left the gate open behind a Ram pickup truck, and it had had its way with the neighbour's Mazda3 hatch. An interesting design, with a raked topline ending in a jaunty little turned up spoiler, carved, muscular fenders and hood-line and with more ground clearance than the average hatch/wagon.

I'd driven the Caliber SXT previously and although impressed with the level of comfort and utility, was underwhelmed by the amount of torque-steer and lack of power. However, the base price on these cars is $15,995 (Cdn.) which is $500 cheaper than the Neon it replaces. For $1,000 more, the SXT model comes with air conditioning, powerwindows, and the eerily gear-less CVT transmission. The R/T Caliber features on-demand AWD, CVT and a larger 2.4 litre engine, one of the new Global engines developed jointly with Hyundai and Mitsubishi. At $23,995, it's fully loaded with squishy leather seats, sunroof, and a Boston Acoustics sound system, complete with a trick set of speakers dubbed Music-gate that fold down from the liftgate.

I found it quick to accelerate from a standstill and quite responsive with tip-shift. This is one of the few auto stick-shifts that I've actually liked, and ended up using exclusively while driving this vehicle. Gear changes are programmed into the vehicle's computer to simulate shifting. This is mostly to placate the driver who might be put off by the smooth, steady shiftless acceleration of the gearless transmission. However, in auto mode, the much lauded CVT reminds me of my truck tranny when the governor was shot - waiting for it to change was like waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. The revs climb much faster than the vehicle accelerates. The needle pretty much stops moving somewhere around the 120 km/h mark and the only way you're going to go any faster than that is by drafting a transport in a hurry.

The Caliber seems really well insulated (as well it should at 3,300 lbs. for the AWD) and handled the thick gravel, rock and washboard admirably. The engine is a bit on the buzzy side, though. Step on the loud pedal and you're rewarded with a... frog with a bullhorn? Oh well. It motored along happily at around 3500 rpm. And with the excellent Boston Acoustics sound cranked up, the engine's barely audible anyway. Despite being woefully undershod (beautiful chrome 18-inch rims were clad in utterly useless no-season radials) it clung to the roads quite well. The lack of tread was almost our undoing at one tight bend where we completely lost grip and spun out in a spectacular impromptu four-wheel drift. Riding in the back seat was five-time Canadian Rally Champion Dan Sprongl whose only reaction was to remark drily that I'd "gotten a little behind on my steering."

Ploughing through the gravel in tight turns, the oversteer became more noticeable during aggressive driving, but for highway and around town driving, the steering is good, although on the heavy side. Comfortable leather seats could have some side bolstering, particularly when cornering. The high seating position is a great vantage point for visibility, but as far as performance driving goes, left me feeling a bit perched. However, my passenger, Peter, loved the comfort and easy accessibility. He also loved that the Caliber had plenty of room to accommodate great volumes of official paperwork, a cubby hole for the radio mike, a centre console equipped with 115-volt auxiliary power outlet for radio and siren controls, and a scrubbable hard surfaced cargo area for stowing signage and various other dedicated rally odds & ends. The glove-box/drinks cooler also earned big points over the course of the day.

Another bonus of the interior ergonomics, given the huge rolling dust clouds, was the completely closable vents. The R/T comes with sports-tuned shocks and springs and larger sway bars, although these are pencil-like in diameter. Still body roll is more than tolerable; after all, this isn't a performance car. On regular paved roads, it's quite balanced.

Soon to be released is a 300-hp performance version. The SRT-4 Caliber will be available with a six-speed manual transmission - and front-wheel drive only. Reportedly, Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles, who campaigned a Charger SRT-8 at the infamous Targa Newfoundland rally in 2005, will return this year with a much massaged version of the AWD Caliber. Our local motorsports club (with several Targa volunteers in its membership) regularly watches the after-rally video footage. I'll be watching the Chrysler team with interest, and secretly wondering if the Targa Caliber will be available for next year's Galway Cavendish.
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