Neither cuddly nor wuddly: When Dodge tried to expunge Neon cuteness with the Caliber

Neither cuddly nor wuddly When Chrysler tried to de cute ify with the Caliber

Attempting to murder the friendly image of the Neon with the allegedly hard-hittin’ Caliber

The Chrysler Neon came out during the short “Peace Dividend” era, between the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11, a time when Americans were feeling more optimistic and confident than in previous decades. With the Neon, Chrysler finally had a pure-Detroit front-drive compact that owed nothing to Mitsubishi or Simca, and its marketers gauged the mood of America’s car shoppers as positive, chests puffed out and strutting into the dealerships like ambassadors of the world’s only hyperpower. So, the ads for the Neon went cute.

Cute Neon Ad

The Neon sold pretty well, and it was a far superior car to wretched misery-boxes such as the Plymouth Sundance. Some grumbled at the cuteness in its marketing, but it fit the feelings of the era. Then came the Axis of Evil, and fear returned to center stage in the American outlook. In a scary world, with crazed terrorists abroad and masculinity-sappin’ political correctness at home, what do compact cars need? Anger! Brutality! Take cuteness out back and beat it to a pulp with a bumper jack! Knee-drop cuteness in the kidneys and make it do the Funky Chicken! Leave cuteness in a bloody heap crumpled in the mud, spitting teeth!

Enter the 2007 Dodge Caliber. This little hatchback wasn’t quite as purely American as its Neon predecessor, being based on a Mitsubishi/DaimlerChrysler platform and all, but it boasted a brutal, truckish grille, slab sides and tiny Brinks-truck-style windows that looked like something you’d want in the Battle of Fallujah. Here was a compact commuter that hits hard! The marketers of the Dodge division wanted to make sure that everyone understood that the shameful days of the cloying, happy Neon and its detestable cuteness were murdered.

The Caliber was, in fact, a pretty ordinary car, and its allegedly tough looks faded into the background about as quickly as had the novelty of the PT Cruiser’s retro appearance. I rented quite a few Calibers during the early days of traveling the country with the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court, and they were better than the punitively unpleasant (and equally faux-macho) Dodge Nitros.

Pig and Bear, a couple of Teletubbies-grade minimalist Cute-a-Lots in a two-dimensional, Neon-style happy landscape, decide they’d like to take a ride with Caliber. “How shall we get to the meadow, Caliber?” asked Bear. “Caliber?” Well, nobody gets cute with Caliber, and we can presume that Caliber promptly whipped out a brace of double-barreled .45s, cold blasted Pig and Bear straight to their domes, then dismembered their twitching corpses with a rusty hacksaw. Would the Neon have done that? Hell no!

A year later, the Caliber’s marketers figured that they’d better tout some of the car’s features, having nailed down the NOT AT ALL CUTE nature of their hatchback with previous ads, so this bro-tastic ad demonstrated that Caliber owners could play dishwater-strength ZZ Top covers on their clunky early iPods, drink cool water from the “Chill Zone”¬†and drive Rip van Winklish distances between fuel stops (actually, the enhanced beard growth was due to the excess testosterone induced by the Caliber’s murderously potent machismo).

How about a little urban cred for the Caliber? Zed’s Customs couldn’t find a single thing that could be pimphanced on the car, other than the addition of some fuzzy dice. The Caliber is gone from the showrooms now, replaced by the Dart, but we’ll be reminded of its nerve-rippingly tough spirit every time we see one on the street.

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