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Stratus Fear: Chrysler's Best-Kept Performance Secret

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Yes, with the new generation of Chrysler minivans, and the replacement of the Plymouth Acclaim, Dodge Spirit, and Chrysler LeBaron sedans with the new JA-body Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, and, soon, the Plymouth Breeze, the last vestiges of the K-car are but a fast-fading memory. Now, that's not to say the Ks were to be maligned. O'contraire, they, for all practical purposes, kept Mother Mopar alive through the 1980s. You can make book on this: If it weren't for the K-car, they'd be no new MP Hemi blocks, crate engines, or world-beating B-1 Pro Stockers. Sure, the K-car spawned so many spinoffs it'd make your head spin. Highlights? Plenty. Number one on the hit parade would have to be those all-conquering S-body minivans. Then, who won't miss Daytona Shelbys? Or Shadow CSXs? Spirit R/Ts, too, were one kickass mass of sedan. Okay, point taken. While probably 90% of Chrysler's 1980-1994 passcar sales were K-based, if you have to base your fleet on one car, like, make it a good one, will ya? And they did.

 But now it's 1995, and technology has passed by the Ks, no matter how special they once were. The PL Neons are clearly the class act of econoboxes, and the LH family sedans lead the heavy hauler troops, especially when you factor in rock-for-the-buck. In that fast-lane area of midsize maulers, though, Chrysler was clearly ceding ground to everybody, especially the Japanese.

 Until now. With the new JA sedans, Chrysler has once again blown away everything the world has thrown at it, and then some. With virtually every automotive journal screaming raves about the Cirrus, that's hardly news. Funny part is, the equally fresh FoMoCo twins, Contour/Mystique, were supposed to own this class. After all, the blue-oval guys outspent Chrysler (on development and engineering) by a huge factor. But, repeating history once again, brains beats bucks. (You'd think for all those billions, Henry's boys could have at least thought of a way to give their car a useable back seat.)

 There's one area, though, where many of the Cirrus' competitors may have a real advantage: the engine. The Cirrus is saddled with a Mitsubishi-built 60-degree V-6, displacing 2.5 liters, and only one cam sitting atop each head. Unfortunately, this is not exactly the world's most sophisticated mill. Worse yet, it's the only powerplant available in the Cirrus, at least 'til the new Mopar made 2.7L all-aluminum V-6 bows in a few years.

 You've probably guessed by now: we have something up our sleeves. You're right-it's Chrysler's secret weapon-a homegrown, DOHC multi-valve 4, displacing 2.4 liters, with every high-tech trick the boys at the Tech Center could think up. With balance shafts, a main-cap girdle, and trick damper weights, it is as smooth as anything on the road, plus it winds quietly right up to the red line-no 2.2 thrasher sounds here. Coupled with an updated version, now hopefully bug-free, of the famous (infamous?) slip-oh!-four Kokomo electronic transaxle, you've got a powertrain that out-Hondas the Accord.

 Although several parts are shared with the now-famous 2.0L SOHC and DOHC Neon mills, there are enough new parts to qualify this design as "fresh." Since the 2.0 Neon mill is the base engine in the stripper Stratus and Breeze, and the majority of the rest of the JA cars will, unfortunately, probably be sold with the 2.5 V-6, you might be wondering why (or how) Chrysler would (could) spend the millions to develop this engine for such a limited market. Answer: it's the base engine in the new minivans, and its Stratus application was a fortunate happenstance, requiring little more than an intake manifold redesign. On paper, the 2.4 is down almost 20HP from the 2.5, but our acceleration figures tell a different story. Basically, acceleration-wise it's a wash, but the 2.4-powered cars have a much more nearly balanced weight distribution, improving handling, and, probably, compensating for the HP disadvantage, be it real or imagined.

No matter how good a powertrain is, if the rest of the car's a dud, it will never grab the world by the spherical elements. Luckily, the balance of the Stratus not only gets the job done, it's a class leader. Example: take the suspension. Chrysler could have sleazed out and dropped in a K-based MacPherson strut front suspension, and trailing-beam rear end. It would have been okay, too, but, for the JA, "ok" was clearly not the target. So an all-new, short-'n'-longarm configuration was dialed in at both ends of the car. Result? After a full day in the car at a road-race circuit, we're here to tell you this baby has no vices. Point it-it responds, like, right now.

True, the Mopars of old (prime example: our One-Lap Valiant) could certainly handle, and handle well, especially with modern rubber, but they're centuries behind in NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness.) In fact, once we replaced our test Stratus' Michelin 195-70-SR14 all-season rubber with some killer Goodyear Eagle GS-CS 205-50-ZR15s, on 7" wheels, we had a car that nobody on the track could touch in the corners. No Porsches. No Beemers. No Vettes. Not even an NSX. Impressive. Amazing! Of course, no matter how great your suspension is, it's nothing without a stable chassis platform. To that end, JAs are built on a super-taut unibody, whose rigidity is no doubt enhanced by having what amount to built-in "frame connectors" tieing together both ends of the platform.

 Even the stock brakes were up to the task. When called upon to haul the Stratus down from the computer-limited 112MPH top end, they were always there. No fade. No pulling. No theatrics. Why haven't brakes always been like this? And, just like in our Valiant, we never missed discs on the rear.

No discussion of a new car would be complete without a discussion of price. With the median new car now going out the door at over twenty large, the Stratus, with a base Moroney-label number under 14 thou, qualifies as a "low priced" ride. Aha, you think, the price sounds right, but figure 5 or 6 grand more to make the thing livable. Wrong! Even our 2.4L/4-speed trans, windows, and locks-equipped test car carried less than $2K worth of options. If it were to be ours, we'd save $600+ by blowing off the windows and locks, and spending the money on antilock brakes. (We'd also like to spring for 15" cast wheels and the stiffer suspension, but these are included only on the ES model, which can't be had with the 2.4! A true Catch-22.)

At any rate, A.C. (with rear ducts!) tilt, cruise, dual bags, speed control, fold-down rear seat, rear defroster, and even delay wipers are standard! As befits a world-class vehicle, our "base model" test car was full of neat-o little "surprise" goodies: cup holders, even a "juice box" for the rear seat. Trip odo, dual power mirrors, twin stalks for all wiper and lighting functions, height and rake adjustable driver's seat, height adjustable shoulder belts, 1-panel and console readouts for gear selection, and a "cancel" (with memory save) feature for the speed control are a few of the highlights. The HVAC system came in for its share of tweaking, too, with the slickest feature being the ability to select either fresh or hood, save the radiator cap and PCV valve-but it's still a red-blooded, bornin-the-U.S.A. Mopar. More importantly, it runs like one.

The interior of the Stratus proved a quiet and comfortable place to spend a week. The seats were firm and supportive without being confining, the instruments crystal-clear, and the cargo area huge, able to swallow 4 mounted tires, tools, a floor jack, and miscellaneous luggage just by folding down the rear bench.

All right, the K-car king may be dead, but his son has matters well in hand.

Allpar Stratus-Breeze-Cirrus Page | Stratusphere

For more by Rick Ehrenberg, click here!

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