R/T is a big performance coupe without a big price.

by Bob Plunkett

Base Price (MSRP) $17,810
As Tested (MSRP) $21,955

A totally new vehicle for 2001, the Dodge Stratus coupe features sleek styling with an aggressive personality. This mid-size two-door coupe replaces the Dodge Avenger, which is no longer available. However, the Stratus benefits from a stiff new platform and larger engines, including a 200-horsepower V6.

Behind its smooth exterior shell, the Dodge Stratus coupe provides a generous interior with genuine legroom in the rear seat, a rare quality for a two-door performance coupe.

Another rare trait for a performance coupe: Prices for the Dodge Stratus begin below $18,000.

Model Lineup

Two trim levels are available for the Stratus coupe, SE and R/T.

Stratus SE ($17,810) comes equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, and a choice between five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic ($825).

Stratus R/T ($20,705) comes standard with a 3.0-liter single-cam V6, which delivers 200 horsepower. The V6 mates either to the standard five-speed manual or a four-speed AutoStick automatic ($825); AutoStick provides no-clutch shifter control.

Dodge makes the V6 available as an option for the Stratus SE ($800 for package 28B), which can keep the price tag for a V6-powered coupe below $20,000. Active safety equipment includes ABS ($565), available with the manual transmission, and ABS with Traction Control ($740), available with the automatic.

Standard equipment on the Stratus SE includes air conditioning and power windows, mirrors and door locks. The V6-powered R/T adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium sound system with cassette deck and CD player.

Walkaround

The Stratus coupe shares its name with the new Dodge Stratus four-door sedan. Though similar in appearance, the Stratus coupe and Stratus sedan ride on different chassis. The Stratus coupe is more closely related to the new Chrysler Sebring coupe and Mitsubishi Eclipse; all three share engines, chassis and suspension designs, and are built at a joint-venture assembly plant between Bloomington and Normal, Illinois.

The Stratus coupe's styling shows the effects of wind tunnel testing. The slick shape slices through the air with a clean sweep from nose to tail over the arched structure. Taut skin stretching across the broad and long package looks as smooth as flowing water. Interrupting the fluidity are flat side panels that seem to come from the NASCAR school of car design, with muscular shoulders bulging in back to suggest strength and action. The gracefully arched profile and dramatic windshield rake reflect styling cues from Dodge's flagship sedan, the Intrepid, while the stubby prow with body-colored grille in cross-hair pattern conveys a latent image of the racy Viper. Shapely curving rear pillars slide down into rolled rear flanks that become the muscular shoulders. In back the tail incorporates a spoiler lip bowed over bold corner lamps and the thick mass of a monotone bumper.

Safety systems in Stratus begin with the rigid structure that wraps around the passenger compartment. Four-wheel disc brakes with optional ABS and passive measures such as three-point seatbelts for all five seat positions and dual-stage frontal airbags improve safety further.

Interior Features

Generous passenger space comes from the coupe's architectural design, extending the windshield forward, abbreviating space for the engine, and increasing the length and width of the cabin. High-back bucket seats come standard in cloth fabric; R/T gets premium cloth. Optional leather seats are cushy and comfortable and offer six-way power adjustments; they come with the R/T's Leather Interior Group ($1045), which includes a HomeLink garage door system nicely integrated into the visors. Those visors are wider than the sharply raked windshield and are articulated on the end to allow them to bend around the A-pillar-not the ideal solution.

Unlike some sports coupes, Stratus has a chassis long enough to leave room in the backseat for adult riders. The rear bench seats three with folding seatbacks split 60/40 for access to the trunk. We crawled into the rear seat and found that long legs fit neatly -- even comfortably -- behind the driver's seat. Further, we could extract ourselves easily from that space because the front seat slides forward sufficiently to permit a quick exit. Few coupes provide such rear seat leg space, although Toyota's Solara beats it by more than an inch.

Trunk space is the best in this class, exceeding Japanese coupes by 3 cubic feet and the Ford Mustang by more than 5 cubic feet. It easily accommodated two medium-sized recycling bins.

But it's what's up front that counts for a sporty coupe. Tachometer and other instruments are tucked beneath a sporty bowed cowl with deep binnacles designed to shield the gauges from sunlight. Sculptured pods on either side of the center console create separate cockpit spaces for the driver and front passenger. From the driver's seat you can easily reach the shift lever and the window and lock switches mounted on the door. The handbrake lever is on spindly side.

Above the console is a central stack of audio and climate systems. The ventilation system uses basic rotary dials with plastic vents that feel a bit flimsy. Stereo controls are small, with sliders for bass and treble that can be difficult to operate on a bumpy highway. A display at the top of the dash provides compass heading and outside temperature readings-useful information on trips and when out and about.

The Stratus provides excellent outward visibility for the driver with broad, tall expanses of glass, and relatively narrow windshield pillars.

Driving Impressions

With its confident road manners, the Stratus creates a feeling of mechanical hardware working in harmony. Its ride quality is smooth, yet stiff enough to make the Sebring feel nimble in curves. It's quick to respond to steering input, deftly changing lanes.

Suspension components are the same for both SE and R/T editions, but the wheels and tires differ. SE has 16-inch wheels with P205/55HR16 tires; R/T uses 17-inch wheels with wider P215/50HR17 tires. The larger tires feel more aggressive when turning, and ultimately improve the coupe's agility.

Those suspension components include front MacPherson struts with lower A-arms. Shock tower bracing increases chassis rigidity. In back, upper A-arms combine with lower lateral and semi-trailing links and coil springs. Anti-roll bars, which reduce body lean in corners, are standard. Hard driving reveals the new front suspension design results in less precision when charging through a hard turn, but it provides better straight-line stability and a smoother ride quality. The tires offer good grip, but generate a hissing sound at highway speeds.

Stratus SE is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a single overhead cam, four valves per cylinder and sequential multi-point fuel injection. Output reaches to 147 horsepower (with a manual transmission, 142 with an automatic). That's good enough to beat the base engine in the Toyota Solara, and comes close to matching the power of Honda's Accord. The four-cylinder engine feels energetic through all the gears, but it works hard to do so. To maximize the power you must run the revs high, and it gets a bit noisy in the upper rev range.

Brisk acceleration performance is a big part of the attraction of the Stratus R/T. Its 3.0-liter single-cam V6 develops 200 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 205 foot-pounds of torque at just 4500 rpm. That's as much or more power than other V6 competitors. Nail the throttle and the R/T goes, whether starting from the gate or overtaking a slower car. When cruising, the engine produces a sporty exhaust note pleasing to enthusiasts. Overall, the Stratus R/T character is somewhere between a pony car (Camaro, Mustang) and a more refined Japanese coupe.

The standard five-speed manual is a short-throw stick that moves effortlessly fore and aft, with smooth clutch engagement and easy up-shifts. The optional four-speed automatic contains an adaptive controller tied to a computer that quickly learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit the driving style. Take it easy and this one interprets that style by shifting gently at relatively low engine speed. Stomp it and it stays in gear longer for better acceleration performance. Tackle a long downhill descent and it drops down a gear to add engine braking. With the AutoStick, you can slide the automatic shift lever into manual mode for shift-it-yourself entertainment without having to pump a clutch pedal.

The R/T comes with four-wheel disc brakes that bring it to a quick stop. Slam on the brakes and optional ABS steps in to prevent wheel lockup, helping you maintain steering control in an emergency braking maneuver. SE coupe comes with rear drum brakes, and ABS is not an option. Traction control, available on R/T automatics, is useful to reduce front wheel spin when accelerating on wet pavement.

Final Word

Dodge Stratus coupe disguises a spacious passenger compartment behind a sleek facade.

The sporty Stratus R/T delivers V6 performance yet holds the bottom line to a reasonable number.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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