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The drive from Detroit to Indianapolis is without question one of the most mind-numbingly boring stretches of highway in the U.S—it’s like being forced to watch C-Span for five consecutive hours.

But sometimes, especially when evaluating a vehicle, boring can be good, because there’s literally nothing else to do than think about what you’re driving.

So the still functioning brain cells were working overtime to process thoughts on Dodge’s Caliber, which got us to Indy to attend the 90th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Our SXT model had the 2.0-liter engine mated to the optional continuously variable transmission, a combination which varies from thrashy and powerless to smooth and steady.

With two good-sized adults and our gear packed in its 18.5 cubic foot cargo area, the 3039-lb car whined and complained in passing situations; from a stoplight, the CVT would peg to redline and seemingly stay there ad infinitum as Caliber valiantly attempted to accelerate. During the majority of drive situations the CVT works fine, however, but if you’re in the market test the five-speed manual, which is standard in the SXT, or move up to the 2.4-liter engine option.

Once finally at freeway speeds (nearly 90 percent of the trip were highway miles, with gas mileage around 25 mpg on average), the Caliber is one impressive vehicle for its price. It motored along happily at 70 to 80 mph on the interstate, and the cabin was delightfully quiet for a budget-themed set of wheels.

Aside from the uneven transmission performance, the rest of the Caliber’s driving dynamics were more than acceptable. The steering was direct at freeway speeds, and it is certainly easy to maneuver in tight parking situations (though there are some minor blind spots inherent to the design). Brakes perform well enough, as does the general suspension layout. In basic driving situations, it performs well enough for what it is: a basic people hauler.

One thing about the suspension to note from the others who drove the same car: they found a real tendency for it to crash and bang over buckled-up pavement. No matter how quiet the cabin may be, that transferred inside.

Inside Dodge has included neat features such as a trick removable flashlight which doubles as the interior light, or the fold-flat 60-40 rear seats that rear-seat passengers can also adjust backward when in the up position. As for the front seats, they proved comfortable the entire trip.

Then there’s the “Chill Zone,” which is more like a Kinda-Cool Zone—it keeps drinks and the like cool, but don’t expect it to put frost on the can. There are also multiple other stowage areas and various outlets including an MP3 plug. Good stuff.

The interior package offered an excellent amount of utility and space, though it would have been crammed if we had three folks on the trip. Also less than thrilling was the look of the gray wall of interior materials. That said, it was well put together.

Exterior-wise, Caliber is polarizing, something that Dodge and Chrysler are making hay on in terms of design execution. The Caliber gets attention and multiple passersby were intrigued by its edged-out, angular look. But like the 300 sedan or the Dodge Charger, Chrysler is designing exteriors people are talking about, love it or hate it—just spell Caliber right. That right there is a recipe for success.

Caliber is clearly better than the Neon it replaces. It has enough neat features and a style to get it noticed, and it appears to have traction in the marketplace. After roughly 800 miles of seat time, we’re convinced Dodge has things moving in the right direction with its small-car effort.

BASE PRICE: $15,985
AS TESTED: $18,230
OUTPUT: 2.0-liter dohc I4; 158 hp @ 6400 rpm, 141 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
CURB WEIGHT: 3039lbs.
OPTIONS: 9-speaker premium sound group which includes 2 articulating liftgate speakers, 6 Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer, steering wheel mounted audio controls, leather wrapped steering wheel ($495); CVT which includes anti-lock front disc/rear drum brakes ($1,000); 2.0-liter dual VVT engine ($100); speed control ($250); 17” aluminum wheels ($400)
FUEL READINGS: 321.6 miles/12.421 gallons/$33.40 = 25.89 mpg; 278.3 miles/11.533 gallons/$33.55 = 24.130 mpg; 206.7 miles/8.091 gallons/$22.65 = 25.54 mpg

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