North American Int’l Auto ShowDETROIT – Chrysler Group’s Dodge brand could be playing Russian roulette by making its lone small-car offering, the ’07 Caliber, available only as a hatchback.

But Chrysler COO Eric Ridenour is confident the design will score a bull’s eye despite the U.S. market’s preference for sedans.

“To be successful sometimes mean being consistent with what the marketplace expects,” Ridenour tells Ward’s. “Sometimes being successful means to be willing to do something different.”

Chrysler unveils the Caliber, which replaces the Dodge Neon, at the North American International Auto Show. Its base price of $13,985, including destination charges, is $410 below that of the Neon.

This reflects the new car’s more cost-efficient assembly, which is driven by Chrysler’s intensified thrust to consolidate components. Fewer parts translate into streamlined assembly. (See related story: Caliber Cheaper to Build Than Neon )

The car will be built at Chrysler’s plant in Belividere, IL, site of a $415 million retooling effort in line with the auto maker’s expanding flexible manufacturing strategy. (See related story: LaSorda Sets Aggressive Manufacturing Goals for Chrysler )

Production of salable Caliber units began last week, confirms Frank Ewasyshyn, executive-vice president-manufacturing.

2007 Dodge Caliber

The Caliber features three powertrain choices, each of which is an example of Chrysler’s new 4-cyl. “world engine” design.

The engines are supplied by the Global Engine Mfg. Alliance (GEMA) in Dundee, MI., a joint venture between Chrysler, Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

Available in displacements of 1.8L, 2.0L and 2.3L, the engines generate 148 hp, 158 hp and 172 hp, respectively.

Ridenour is confident the Caliber will have appeal because it is notably different from the Omni and Horizon models of decades past. They and similar offerings soured Americans on hatchbacks.

“The hatchbacks of old (with) issues were the ones that had the very abbreviated rooflines, the very aggressive fastback-type rear,” Ridenour says. “ (Calibers) are much more full over the form.”

Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed agrees.

“It’s just a sort of invented stigma,” Creed tells Ward’s. “It seems to come from those hatchbacks, if you can even call them that, from the 1970s.”

The stigma, he adds, is “somewhat mythical. There are many imports that are hatchbacks that are doing very well right now,” he says.

“The Europeans have known for years it’s the right way to go. It’s the most flexible means of doing a car. We should get over it. I think the Caliber will help.”

Notably, the Caliber will be exported to Europe as the Dodge brand seeks to expand its presence in that market.

Creed says the Caliber’s height helps create more room, especially in the rear.

“If (the car) is taller, you can sit people like a dining chair,” he says. “You don’t have to have them reclined down. And therefore you’ve got more room in the interior.”

Interiors, Ridenour adds, is a “huge battleground” for auto makers today. And Creed says he challenged his design team to break new ground with the Caliber.

The car, he says, features a number of “USPs” – unique styling points.

Creed says he told his designers: “‘Clothe (Caliber) in something that distinguishes it from everything else, and then the same on the interior.

Now, find me features. Things that I can talk about. Things that other people don’t have. Nooks and crannies.’”

They came up with illuminated cupholders and “MusicGate” –articulating speakers built into the car’s hatch. (See related story: Sound Strategy Part of Dodge Caliber Launch )

Also available is “Chill Zone,” a cooled beverage storage bin designed to cradle up to four 20-oz. (0.6 L) bottles or cans.

Chrysler expects the Caliber will sell to 20-somethings, first-time new car buyers with a median income of $45,000. About 35% will be college graduates.

The Caliber also is expected to appeal to parents in their 40s that are seeking safe, affordable transportation for their children.

“Having been on ride-and-drives recently with undisguised Calibers up in the Auburn Hills (MI) area, the reaction has been tremendous,” Creed says. “They look fantastic on the road.”

emayne@primediabusiness.com