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  • 2013 Dodge Dart

    Chrysler unveils Fiat-based compact with classic nameplate

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Dodge Dart

    Chrysler announced yesterday that it’s expanding the company’s small car offerings in North America with an all-new Dart compact sedan, to be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. The new Dart takes its name from Dodge’s midsized model of the late 1960s and early 70s, whose variants included some rather sedate four-door cars, but also the track-happy GTS.

    The new Dart follows on the heels of the Fiat 500: the Italian automaker’s first North American model in several decades. Based on the Alfa Romeo Guilietta, the 2013 Dart comes with a choice of three engines: the same 1.4-liter Fiat block which powers the 500, and two new four-cylinder blocks with 2 and 2.4-liter displacement respectively. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Dodge Caravan Mainstreet

    Minivan is a best value for active families

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

    In this challenging economic environment, families trying to maximize their  budgets should re-familiarize themselves with minivans. Few other vehicles with a seven-passenger capacity can match their value-pricing or fuel economy. The Dodge Caravan Mainstreet which I drove this past week is a case in point.

    Base price for the Mainstreet with fold-in-floor seating is $25,995, not including the $835 destination charge. The Mainstreet is not a base-level vehicle: convenience features include tri-zone climate control, remote keyless entry, a six-speaker MP3 compatible audio system, 12-volt power points front and rear, and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Dodge and Chrysler Roll-Out

    Reinvigorated brands introduce all-new Charger, Durango and Chrysler 200

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Dodge Charger

    Almost twelve months to the day after its merger with Fiat, Chrysler emerges as a leaner, meaner and more profitable machine. For 2011, Dodge rolls out an all-new Charger mid-sized sedan and Durango sport-utility vehicle, while the 2011 Chrysler 200 replaces the outgoing Sebring.

    In addition, the Dodge Journey, Grand Caravan and Challenger get mid-cycle facelifts, as does the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. At a recent northern California media event, execs stressed the far-reaching effects of the new corporate environment, which impacts everything from the way designers and engineers develop new product to the brand umbrellas. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Dodge Challenger SE

    Sports coupe with retro styling and a fuel-efficient V-6

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Dodge Challenger

    2010 Dodge Challenger

    Back in the day, there was no sheetmetal greater than that born in Detroit. The 2010 Dodge Challenger pays homage to the classic Mopar with retro styling, and the high-performance R/T and SRT8 models.

    The SE is a more affordable version for buyers who don’t want the hemi V-8 engines. Priced from $22,735, the Challenger SE gets power from a 3.5-liter V-6, and five-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection. Average fuel economy is 20 miles-per-gallon, according to EPA estimates.

    A Rallye package adds dual hood and rear decklid stripes, a chrome fuel filler cap, eighteen-inch wheels and a rear spoiler.

    Other options on the test car include a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, audio upgrade, satellite radio, power sunroof, navigation and Bluetooth interface, bringing the total price to $31,175. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Dodge Caravan SXT

    Minivan is a living room on wheels for active families

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Dodge Grand Caravan

    2010 Dodge Grand Caravan

    The minivan seems poised for a resurgence. The do-everything car Chrysler invented twenty five years ago is finding new fans in young, active families who appreciate its versatility. Because a minivan’s exterior is more aerodynamic than the typical, two-box sport-utility vehicle, it tends to get better fuel economy, reducing the cost of ownership.

    Chrysler has dominated the ALV awards in the minivan category since introducing the current models two years ago. Athletes are impressed by Chrysler’s combination of excellent road manners and unique interior options.

    The newest of these is called Swivel ‘n Go seating. Second-row seats swivel to face the third row. A pop-up table in between turns the back of the minivan into a family room. The seats meet all federal safety regulations in both front and rear-facing positions, and the table meets similar standards once deployed.

    A rear DVD player, satellite television and a 115-volt outlet for plugging in games give kids a myriad of entertainment options. Built-in child booster seats are a stand-alone option.

    This week, I spent time behind the wheel of the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. The SXT is more upscale of two Dodge minivans. Three rows of seating hold up to seven passengers. Power comes from a 4-liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission.

    Base price is $26,730, not including an $820 delivery charge. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Ram 3500 Laramie Crew Cab

    Heavy-duty pickup truck goes the distance

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Ram 3500

    2010 Ram 3500

    I’ll admit it: the thought of driving a truck that’s fourteen feet long and weighs three and a half tons makes me a little nervous. The Ram 3500 heavy-duty pickup is not a truck for everyone. But buyers needing its off-road and towing capabilities will be surprised at how easy and fun the new Ram is to drive.

    The test truck is the Laramie crew cab: an upscale grade with seating for up to five passengers. Base price is $49,945, not including a $950 delivery charge. Options on the test truck include leather trim ($500), special paint ($225), automatic transmission ($1575), a power sunroof ($850), upgraded audio and navigation system with satellite radio ($800), a rearview camera ($200), and a back seat entertainment system ($1695).

    Power comes from a 6.7-liter Cummins turbo-diesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission. In addition to having an abundance of low-end torque, the engine gets pretty good gas mileage, thanks to its exhaust-driven blower. I averaged 17.3 miles-per-gallon on my 150-mile drive, which included a significant elevation gain. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Modern-day muscle car takes no prisoners

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    The Dodge Challenger is not a car for everyone. Based on the classic Mopar of the 1970s, the Challenger is a large, brash, noisy hunk of Detroit iron. The front end has the demeanor of a defensive tackle: a wide, grinning grille with beady round headlamps, flared fenders and huge tires. The large hood scoop takes a periscope to see over. The 376-horsepower hemi engine is very big, very loud, and has enough low end torque to strip pavement off the highway.

    The Challenger reminds me of the cars I grew up with more than anything else on the road today. I love its pistol grip shift lever, chrome gas cap and dual exhausts. I love the fact that it stands out in a crowd. In a world of cars designed by committee, the Challenger’s bold design is a breath of fresh air.

    Options on the test car upgrade the standard 18-inch rims to 20-inch chrome wheels, and add the R/T hood-to-fender stripes. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Dodge Nitro SLT 4X4

    Mid-sized sport-utility vehicle is an athlete’s tool box

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Dodge Nitro SLT

    2009 Dodge Nitro SLT

    Two years ago, the Dodge Nitro won our ALV of the year award in the best value, off-road category. Jurors were impressed with the sport-utility vehicle’s combination of off-road capability and cargo features, including a sliding load floor that holds up to 400 pounds.

    For 2009, Dodge refines the Nitro with some chassis enhancements, and additional convenience features. A four-speed automatic transmission is now standard on all models with the base 3.7-liter engine. Stiffer rear axle shafts, a re-tuned suspension and steering components improve the car’s handling. Revised brake calipers and a re-tuned booster produce better braking response.

    The Nitro’s roster of convenience features now includes standard floor mats, a rear dome lamp, and automatic door unlock when the driver shifts into park. Express-down front windows are standard equipment on the upscale SLT and R/T models. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Dodge Avenger R/T

    Mid-sized sport sedan appeals to active lifestyles

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Dodge Avenger R/T

    2009 Dodge Avenger R/T

    Two years ago, the Avenger replaced the Stratus as Dodge’s mid-sized entry. Mid-sized sedans are the auto industry’s bread and butter: they account for a third of all new car sales. 

    Having said that, it’s no surprise that the segment includes some best sellers:  the Toyota Camry and  Nissan  Altima among them.  While annual sales of 1.9 million units sounds like a big number, gaining market share within the mid-sized segment is a formidable challenge.

    Dodge’s strategy is to play up its strengths: stand-out styling and exceptional interior packaging. From its crosshair grille to the fat rear spoiler, the Avenger is not a face to get lost in the crowd. Unique comfort and convenience features such heated and cooled cupholders, stain-resistant fabric, Mygig infotainment system and rear seat DVD set the Avenger apart from the crowd.

    While sedans lag behind crossovers and sport-utility vehicles in terms of cargo capability, a rear pass-through and available fold-flat front passenger seat give the Avenger the type of versatility buyers with active lifestyles look for. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Dodge Caliber SXT

    Compact crossover vehicle with big functionality

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Dodge Caliber

    2009 Dodge Caliber

    Rising fuel costs and tightening pursestrings may be the Dodge Caliber’s ticket to fame. The compact crossover vehicle combines many interior features found in larger trucks with better fuel economy and value pricing.

    The Caliber is available in three grades, and a choice of three four-cylinder engines with either a five-speed manual or automatic transmission.

    Rear seats are easy to fold flat and extend the cargo floor, making the Caliber bicycle friendly. An optional MusicGate feature adds an extra set of speakers in back: the speakers flip down from the liftgate, providing open-air music for a tailgate party. An optional flashlight that stows in the headliner comes in handy during a roadside emergency.

    Designers culled features from Dodge minivans to transform the Caliber’s interior into a mobile recreation room: chilled cupholders, a 115-volt inverter, 12-volt powerpoints, a two-part glove box, satellite radio and a MP3 plug-in.

    This year Dodge adds an available hard drive for downloading music and photos, as well as navigation with real-time traffic updates.

    Car-like ride and handling

    The test car is the SXT grade with a continuously variable automatic transmission and four-wheel independent suspension. Average fuel economy is twenty-four miles-per gallon. Four-wheel disc brakes and four-channel antilock braking, previously part of an option package, are now standard equipment.

    The two-liter engine has plenty of power for the average commuter’s needs. It won’t race down the dragstrip in under twelve seconds, but there’s enough low-end torque for merging onto the highway, and adequate power on the top end to pass cars on the highway.

    A standard timing chain doesn’t produce any noticeable noise. Chains or more durable than timing belts: they don’t require replacement during the average lifespan of the vehicle, saving the owner a big chunk of money.

    The fully independent suspension provides a car-like ride, yet keeps the chassis remarkably flat in the corners. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Caliber handled a decreasing radius cloverleaf ramp at speed.

    On-center feel is adequate, though not exceptional. Engineers kept steering wheel play to a minimum, even at low speeds. A thirty-five foot turning radius makes it easy to do the occasional U-turn.

    The front pillar is rather thick, and protrudes out into the driver’s line of vision: it’s quite noticeable when cornering to the left, or watching for oncoming traffic. Visibility to the sides and rear is good, despite the car’s thick rear pillar.

    A standard rear wiper keeps the back glass clear in rain and snow.

    Brakes are firm and linear without being grabby. The upgrade to four-wheel discs will help drivers in wet weather climates: they work better in rain and snow than drums, and are easier to service.

    Well-equipped interior

    Chrysler designers excel at interior packaging. The Caliber’s high roofline makes it feel like a bigger car than it actually is.

    Up front, standard cloth seats have manual adjustments. The seats are firm enough to provide adequate lower lumbar support. Standard heated seats make travel more comfortable for people who live in cold climates. A sliding armrest allows drivers of all sizes to find a comfortable position.

    White face gauges are easy to read. An ambient temperature display in the odometer is handy for drivers who like to play outdoors. Standard stain-repellent fabric appeals parents with small children, or athletes coming home from the trails.

    Temperature and audio controls on the center stack are reachable from either front seating position. The standard audio system is MP3 compatible. The standard audio system comes pre-wired for satellite radio: Chrysler throws in a year of free service to Sirius/XM.

    A premium sound package on the test car upgrades the audio to a Boston nine-speaker system with steering wheel mounted audio controls. It also adds the MusicGate: two speakers that flip down from the liftgate to broadcast music outside the car.

    A chilled cupholder in the center console keeps drinks cold. All of the cupholders in the car are big enough for water bottles.

    The center console bin is large enough to hold a stack of compact disks. A 115-volt inverter on the front of the bin allows the front passenger to plug in a computer or video games.

    A two-piece glovebox  has a huge lower bin: big enough to hold a small purse. A shelf inside stows the owner’s manual and other important paperwork. The upper bin is smaller, but has enough room for small books, maps, or electronic devices.

    Legroom in the second row outboard seats should be adequate for the average adult, although taller men may feel cramped. Cupholders behind the center console and a floor tunnel eliminate all legroom in the middle. There is plenty of head and shoulder room.

    Configurable cargo area

    A strap on the outside of seat cushions releases the seatbacks and folds them flat to extend the cargo floor. With the second-row seats folded down, the Caliber easily meets our bicycle-friendly standards.

    A standard tonneau cover hides items in back from prying eyes. The cover is removable for larger cargo. The Caliber’s undersize spare tire is located under the cargo floor.

    Standard safety

    Standard safety features on the SXT grade include antilock brakes, front and side curtain airbags.

    Electronic stability program and daytime running lamps are part of a security package that also adds a trailer wiring harness and engine oil cooler.

    Chrysler builds the Caliber at its Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant.

    Likes: The front-wheel drive Caliber is a versatile, fuel-efficient crossover vehicle with a well-designed interior and configurable cargo area that easily meets our bicycle friendly standards.

    Dislike: Electronic stability program is only available as part of an option package.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Dodge
    Model: Caliber SXT
    Year: 2009
    Base price: $17,600
    As tested: $21,465
    Horsepower: 158 Hp @ 6400 rpm
    Torque: 141 lbs.-ft. @ 5000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Fuel economy: 23/27 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include a $630 destination charge.