High style, low price. by Michelle Krebs
In the mid-size car game, the perennial challenge is to create a sedan capable of competing with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Chrysler Corporation faced that very question and decided a variation on the mid-size theme was in order. The Dodge Stratus, along with its siblings, the Chrysler Cirrus and Plymouth Breeze, is something of a hybrid in terms of size and price. The three models cover the range from the value-oriented Breeze to the sporty, mid-priced Stratus to the more luxurious Cirrus.
By straddling the size and price range, the Stratus actually takes on more competitors. Beyond the Accord and Camry, the Stratus faces off with the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, the Saturn sedan, Mazda 626, Nissan's Altima and Maxima and the new Chevrolet Malibu.
That's a lot of competition, but even so, the Stratus has carved out a spot for itself in this crowded segment of the market with a package that focuses not only on price and size but on ride, handling, comfort and performance, as well as eye-catching looks.
Typical of recent Chrysler design strategy, the Stratus, Cirrus and Breeze are a little bigger than their direct competitors at the small end of the mid-size segment, as well as slightly roomier yet competitively priced. The Stratus has a roominess-to-price ratio that has earned positive ratings on a number of best-buy and best-value lists.
And of course, it represents another design home run for its parent company. We think these are the best-looking cars in their class, bar none.
The Stratus wears a low beltline and expansive glass similar to a Honda. Of course, the Stratus bears Chrysler's signature cab-forward design, which pushes the wheels to the far corners of the car, leaving little overhang in the front and rear. That's how its unique dimensions, aggressive stance and roomy interior are achieved.
The Stratus comes in two trim levels, the base model (from $15,495, including destination) and the ES (from $17,180), with a wide selection of features available on both, plus three engine and two transmission choices. Our tester was a top-of-the-line ES with a V-6 engine.
Introduced as an all-new model in May 1995, the Stratus gets improvements for 1997 aimed at reducing interior noise and enhancing the vibes from the audio system through better radio, cassette and CD players. New features for 1997 include a full center console with storage, a coin holder, rear cupholders and an armrest. Two new exterior colors, Dark Chestnut and Deep Amethyst, have also been added to the palette.
The Inside Story
While the outside of the Stratus looks closer to a small car than a mid-size, looks prove deceiving once inside. The interior is extremely roomy and airy. The Stratus can comfortably accommodate four passengers with very good leg and headroom in front, and outstanding space in the rear. Like most cars in this size class, it's rated for five passengers, but, also like most, three's a crowd in the back seat.
The seats are quite comfortable and provide ample support even during long journeys. An integrated child seat for the back is available as an option, a convenient feature that results in the little one always being properly restrained, whereas child safety seats are often installed improperly.
The Stratus has full instrumentation, attractively marked and nicely illuminated after dark. Its controls are easy to reach and easy to read. The addition of the standard full center console, which had been optional before, is a significant improvement.
Not only can the Stratus carry four adults in comfort, it can carry their belongings as well. The trunk, easy to load with its low liftover and wide opening, is very large for a small mid-size car. Cargo-carrying capacity can be expanded by folding down the rear seat. Items like skis and surfboards can be placed in the trunk and slid into the rear seat by a lockable passthrough.
A release latch for the pass-through to the trunk has been added inside the trunk so when you're loading long items, you don't have to walk around and open the car doors in order to unlock the pass-through. (Chrysler designers came upon this clever new feature while watching Christmas shoppers try to load their wares in mall parking lots.)
Safety features include dual airbags, side-guard door beams and front seat height adjustable shoulder belts. Keyless remote entry is available, as is an optional personal security package. Anti-lock braking is optional on the basic Stratus, standard on the ES.
Ride & Drive
The standard engine in all Stratus models is the same 132-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder that powers the Neon twins. It's mated to a smooth five-speed manual transmission, the only Stratus engine so equipped.
Optional engines include a 150-hp 2.4-liter four and a 168-hp V-6, supplied by Mitsubishi. The 2.4-liter engine is paired with a fully-adaptive electronically controlled four-speed automatic, but the ES V-6 gets Chrysler's four-speed AutoStick automatic.
AutoStick is a transmission control system introduced initially on the larger, more expensive Eagle Vision TSi in early 1996, and became available as standard equipment on the Stratus ES V-6 midway through the 1996 model year.
AutoStick lets the driver switch between automatic and clutchless manual transmission modes, allowing greater control and driver interaction. When you feel like shifting for yourself, you set the transmission in the manual mode and simply flip the gear lever from side to side to achieve up or downshifts. Put it back into auto mode, and it functions just like any other automatic.
Our ES tester was equipped with this clever device, and we think it's an ideal compromise for a household in which one person wants a manual transmission and the other wants an automatic. And it certainly blends well with the car's sporty character.
This transmission also has some other benefits that go beyond a regular automatic transmission. On slippery surfaces, AutoStick can be shifted into first, second or third gear to minimize wheelspin. Going downhill, AutoStick can be downshifted early to allow the engine to take some of the load off the brakes. Going uphill or on winding roads, Autostick can hold a gear longer to achieve optimum power, eliminating hunting for the right gear. The AutoStick-equipped Stratus can also be downshifted just before a passing maneuver, to increase engine rpm for better no-lag acceleration.
The Stratus is a fun car to drive. With its modified double-wishbone suspension, it provides precise steering, firm and responsive handling, and feels quite stable in corners and around curves.
We found the V-6 engine to be peppy, but still noisier than it should be for true driving enjoyment and still not quite up to the performance levels of some other V-6 engines in this class -- the Ford Contour, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry come to mind.
In keeping with its image, the Dodge Division has made the Stratus a fun-to-drive car. With a variety of powertrain combinations, the Stratus provides a wide range of choice for buyers, from the base model to the sporty AutoStick V-6 ES.
At the same time, the Stratus is packed with creature features and has superior roominess and comfort to make the ride, as well as the drive, pleasant.
And the Stratus is less expensive than many of its key competitors.
Stir in best-in-class styling, and you've got a recipe that's hard to beat.
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