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The Dodge Stratus coupe, in the second half of its second generation, is more sophisticated than it was - and far more sophisticated than the original Mitsubishi Eclipse, on which it is based. Our test model had a 3 liter V6 which pumps out 200 horsepower (the same figure as the 2.7 liter Chrysler engine powering the Dodge Stratus sedan), bringing the generously sized coupe to 60 mph in about one second less than the four-cylinder Dodge Neon, or about 7 seconds. An automatic slows down the Stratus, but it's still quick.
The Stratus Coupe is totally unrelated to the Stratus Sedan and Convertible; those are both Chrysler designs, using Chrysler powertrains, while the Stratus Coupe is a modified Mitsubishi Eclipse, built in Illinois by Mitsubishi. In the future, the two lines will be merged together completely, so the people who assign names at Chrysler were either visionaries or lucky. We're guessing the latter.
Those who are used to buying Dodges actually made by Dodge will find little they are familiar with inside. Variants of the 3.0 engine have powered many older Chrysler vehicles, from minivans to Daytonas; the stereo was taken from the corporate box; and the gearshift knob is also used on the Neon. Other than that, this is a Mitsubishi from the engine to the key fob.
In 2003, the interior was nicely redone, eliminating some of the brasher, sillier elements and making the vehicle as a whole seem more pleasant and well-designed. The instrument panel is clear and easy to read, with black on white gauges and pleasant grey cutouts; amber backlighting makes it look even better at night than during the day. We were puzzled by the gauge placement, with a large space between the speedometer and tachometer, before remembering that the automatics probably had their PRNDL (gear indicators) there.
The 2003 redesign actually addressed many of our gripes, including the odd cruise control, so think twice before buying a bargain-priced 2002 model.
Handling is very good, with no noticeable torque steer. We did have an R/T, which comes with a handling package, which we recommend to those who are willing to sacrifice a little ride quality for a lot of turning quality. Bumps and bad road surfaces are taken in stride, with a mix of ride and comfort that is enviable and, a few years ago, would have been unbelievable. The Stratus' suspension balance is ahead of most other coupes in this range.
The engine is strong, with enough torque for instant acceleration at highway speeds, but not so much as to make starting and shifting difficult - none of the Camaro V8 "oops, I burned the tires!" issues, but also no need to downshift to pass. Acceleration is fast enough to be thrilling, and, if you get the five-speed, you can beat most cars out there.
The clutch is easy to operate well, though most of the action happens within a fairly small band. The shifter is smooth and works well. Reverse is easy to engage.
The interior is nicely done, with map pockets on both front doors, cupholders, a covered center console with its own power outlet, a padded "stuff" area, and a little sunglass bay. Vents are circular and easy to close, and move a lot of air quietly and quickly. The controls are all logical, with a separate, convenient cruise control stalk also used in Toyotas. The stereo is strong and clear, and also easy to operate, with sliders for bass and treble and knobs for balance and fade. The mirror includes a compass and thermometer, as well as garage door openers and a map light (this mirror is part of a $1,200 option package which also includes leather seats and a power driver's seat). Interior lighting is not the Stratus' strong point, though.
Rear leg room is more abundant than in most coupes, and the front seats slide forward to clear a path into the back seat. This comes in handy if you install a child seat, which is not hard to do.
Unlike real Chrysler cars, the climate control system makes perfect sense, and it was easy to figure out how to turn on and shut off the air conditioning. The side demisters were very effective, and worked quickly.
The high trunk and coupe styling tended to block the rear and rear-side view, making backing up something of an adventure.
The trunk is quite large, and the cargo net came in handy given the amount of space and the ability to corner at high speeds.
There is no coin tray, though there are some places where you could put coins and call it a coin tray. Chrysler cup holder engineers did not visit the cabin.
We found that the front spoiler tended to drag on the ground when we went into some parking lots. Also, though the frameless windows seemed to work better than those on the Neon (to be fair, our car was new and the windows hadn't had time to go out of alignment), there was no drip rail; when it rains, you'd better keep the door closed.
The base price for the Stratus R/T (as opposed to the base Stratus coupe) is about $22,000, but given the state of rebates, we suspect you'll get at least $3,000 off, plus whatever bargains you make with the dealer. Ours listed for $26,000, including the leather group, antilock brakes - at $565 we strongly recommend them - sunroof, side airbags, and 17 " wheels, which at $750 we don't recommend. For $26,000, you can probably do better, but $22,000 minus $2,000 in rebates is quite reasonable for this practical coupe. You can do worse; we'd much rather have a Stratus coupe than, say, an Acura RSX or Toyota Celica.
The Dodge Stratus, and its sibling the Chrysler Sebring, would startle drivers of the original Mitsubishi Eclipse. The brash, youthful exuberance has been replaced by a more mature, solid vehicle, with space for four people and their luggage. The Stratus has a quality feel to it, from the solid thunk of the doors to the pleasant tactile qualities of the controls.
Parents reluctant to give up their stylish coupes may find the Stratus ideal, since it has family-sized room and good child seat anchors, without giving up power, handling, or style.
On the whole, the more we drove the Stratus R/T, the more we liked it. Though we could not get used to the price, you can probably find very good deals on the Stratus and its stablemate, the Chrysler Sebring, since they do not seem to have found favor with the general public - largely, we suspect, because of the confusion over their names (the Stratus Coupe's original name was the Avenger). Take advantage of that and get yourself a surprisingly practical, but still fun, Dodge Stratus R/T coupe.
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