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The original Dodge Stratus (Chrysler Cirrus) was one step up above the Neon - good, affordable transportation. In 2001, the character of the car changed completely, with great increases in refinement, price, and power, sporting an optional V6 boasting 200 horses. Then, in 2002, for the first time, Stratus V6 owners could step up to a five-speed manual transmission to squeeze the most out of those horses, with zero to sixty times dropping to about 7.5 seconds. The previous generation offered a manual transmission only with the base engine, a 132 horsepower 2.0 liter four.
Possibly stung by criticism that the Stratus did not reach Camry levels of fit and finish, Chrysler went whole hog on the second generation. It feels more solid than the Accord, Civic, Corolla, and Camry; and the quality feel extends not just to the doors and trunk but to every switch and button.
On the Stratus ES, the 2.7 liter Magnum V6, boasting 200 horsepower on regular gas, is quiet and smooth. The AutoStick transmission is, likewise, smooth and sure, whether it is downshifting or racing through the gears.
On the R/T, the engine is considerably more raucous, sounding more like a Camaro than a standard Stratus. The clutch could easily have been borrowed from a Camaro, for that matter - it has the same heavy feel, and drivers need to think about shifting smoothly more than they do on, say, a Neon.
On the SXT, the four-cylinder 2.4 liter engine, also used in the PT Cruiser, feels surprisingly quick and responsive. While full-out launches from idle are not as satisfying as they could be, in ordinary driving the 2.4 is more than enough engine, even coupled with the automatic transmission. On the highway, the 2.4 has good passing power. It makes a growly noise on acceleration which is neither rough nor unpleasant, and tends to move smoothly, with the exception of a lag in full-throttle sprints when the transmission shifts from first to second. The four-speed automatic seems to be a mind-reader, consistently in the correct gear and able to downshift at the drop of a hat to make the most of the engine. This is a surprisingly smooth and convenient automatic.
The high-line Stratus with wood trim resembles a miniature 300M. Those who really wanted an Intrepid or 300M, but found them too large, may be gratified to see that there is now a mid-sized version which feels more nimble around turns.
The interior of the ES is both spacious and well-appointed. Our ES had leather seats and trim, with well-placed, tasteful simulated woodgrain on the dashboard, white-faced gauges, and an generally elegant, sensible layout. Controls were all logical in form and function, and moved with a satisfying feel of quality. Even the turn signal flasher clicking sounded good. The ES and R/T come with an eight-way power driver's seat which was easy to use without paying much attention. That seat costs about $400 if you get the SE rather than the ES.
The R/T cheapens the interior somewhat, replacing the ES' woodgrain with cheap-looking plastic, but still ends up looking a bit better than the Accord. The SXT, likewise, uses a textured black plastic in place of the wood trim, which looks better than the faux-aluminum of the R/T but does not come near the elegance of the ES.
An optional (and recommended) trip computer in the center of the dashboard is easy to read, with Chrysler's usual two-button control to cycle through compass/temperature, gas mileage, miles remaining, and other statistics. Models without the trip computer have a padded tray between the middle vents.
The vent controls are easy to operate, even with gloves on, and the fan is moderately quiet but powerful. The combination air conditioner/vent control is somewhat old-fashioned, but easy to understand and use, though it doesn't allow cooling air going into the heat vents. We were impressed by the ability of the air conditioning on V6 models to keep up with hundred-degree weather - a feat which tends to elude Japanese vehicles. The SXT with 2.4 engine seemed to have considerably less a/c power on demand, though it was balanced against the lack of compressor drag on the engine.
Storage space is abundant on the ES, with a felt-lined sunglass/EZ-Pass holder in the center, as well as the covered console unit and lighted center-stack bin common to all Stratuses. A well-designed coin holder in the console is flawed only by the inability to hold more than two types of coins. Dual front cup holders are primitive - simple though deep cutouts in the plastic - while rear passengers' cupholders are built into the back of the center console. The doors have map pocket as well, and the glove compartment is large enough to be useful. The R/T loses some of that space to make way for the gearshift, but is still able to accommodate bits and pieces of stuff.
There is plenty of space for people in front and rear, with roughly the same interior space as a 2003 Camry. The trunk is capacious and able to swallow many suitcases, while the rear seats can fold down for larger items.
The stereo is unusually good, not just the optional model, but also the standard SXT unit. The optional stereo with optional speakers is one of the best stereos we have ever heard in a car. The bass was so strong that the car's lack of rattles is testament to its high-quality construction. That and the classy, trendy wheels should go over well with the younger buyers, if any of them are still willing to buy an American car.
The moonroof has a clever "express open" feature which lets you hit the open button once, and it opens the rest of the way by itself. To close it, you need to keep your finger on the button. The R/T has a separate button for the vent position.
One complaint with the old Stratus was its lack of power. The base model had a 2.0 liter Neon engine coupled with a five-speed manual, and actually went faster than the 2.5 liter Mitsubishi V6 version. No such disparities with the new Stratus; the 2.7 liter Dodge Magnum V-6, producing 200 horsepower, had no shortage of go-power. While zero to sixty times are middle of the pack for similar vehicles, on the highway the Magnum seemed to be more responsive than usual, quickly moving the car to greater speeds. One possible reason for this is the variable intake system, which provides a moderate supercharging effect. Chrysler has been playing with the length of their manifold runners for decades, and this seems to be the logical outcome. However, we must note that acceleration takes a little time to build - the engine doesn't provide full thrust until at least 3,000 rpm, especially with the air conditioner on. That gap is more noticeable on the manual, since the automatic downshifts quickly, smoothly, and without fuss to the best gear.
The R/T, with its manual transmission, gets to 60 in around seven and a half seconds, quite good but not up to the new Altima or, we suspect, the new Accord. On the lighter side, the engine has enough torque to deal with air conditioning and steep hills - a traditional weakness for Hondas.
The 2.4 liter model is competitive with four cylinder mid-sized sedans from Honda and Toyota.
The V6 engine is never obtrusively loud (the R/T intentionally makes go-fast noises during acceleration), and passes very little vibration to the passenger compartment. It sounds more Japanese than American (in the ES), with a slight whine as it revs up. Gas mileage, on regular, is in the mid-20s, giving us an overall average of 27 mpg in both vehicles - though the R/T fared worse in the city or under hard acceleration. Blame the good sound and vibration insulation for part of that, since the Stratus ends up weighing over 3,200 pounds.
One advantage of the Stratus, along with other Chrysler vehicles, is the availability of computer fault codes for troubleshooting. A few quick flicks of the key, and you can find out if the engine computer spotted any problems or failures, possibly saving a trip to the dealer only to find that your gas cap was on loose (as an example). Instructions and code lists are available on the Web, including here at Allpar. The owner's manual discusses how to do things like change the horn-chirp-on-lock and activate the automatic locks (and separate automatic unlocking, which cleverly waits until the driver's door is open) using similar tricks.
Handling on the ES, while good, is not outstanding, falling somewhere between typical Honda and typical Chevrolet or Toyota. We'd rate it above the Camry, below the Accord, in popular-Japanese-car terms. Not quite what we expected from the company that produced the Neon and 300M, but still quite competent, with a good solid feel. The R/T does far better, still insulating you from bumps, but providing more road feel and very good handling. The SXT may actually strike the best balance, able to whip around turns, while still making rough roads feel fine.
The base Stratus lists for $18,470, but we suspect you can get it for $15,000 even without too much effort. The 2003 Dodge Stratus R/T's base price is a bit over $20,700, but at the time of writing there were $2,500 rebate offers, and we suspect you can get one for under $17,000 with a bit of haggling - depending on demand. That includes air conditioning, four way power disc antilock brakes, rear defroster, power locks and windows, the V6, a remote keyless entry (without alarm), lighting package, excellent CD stereo, tachometer, aluminum wheels, and trip computer. It does not include the eight way power seat, though. The ES goes for under $22,000, making it quite a deal if you can buy it for $18,000, and still a good buy for $19,000. The warranty is very good - three years covering everything, seven years covering the powertrain.
Our SXT model retailed for $18,575 including destination, with $2,500 rebates, leaving a pre-haggle price of $16,075 - in the same region as a well equipped Corolla, Civic, Neon, or Focus. That included an automatic, rear defroster, power locks, mirrors, and windows, keyless entry, illuminated entry, speed control, intermittent wipers, air conditioning, CD stereo, power trunk release, and aluminum wheels.
The Stratus ES feels like a luxury car, but sells for roughly the same as an Accord or Camry once extensive rebates are taken into account. With a moderate makeover, it could easily pass for an Acura or Lincoln. On the other hand, the R/T, with its stiffer suspension and less well furnished interior, is simply a versatile mid-sized sedan that accelerates and handles like a sports car, but is civilized enough for the family. It may be outrun by an Altima V6, but it's still a good overall package for those with muscular legs who want a versatile, user-friendly sedan that can hold its own at the traffic light or around the curves. The SXT is a wonderfully balanced family or commuter car, with a great deal of comfort and room at a very good price. Its quality record to date has been good.
We were surprised by the Stratus. On the one hand, it was more expensive than we expected a Stratus to be. On the other hand, it had the feel of quality we would expect from a more expensive car. In some ways, it is a miniature Intrepid (complete with an Intrepid rear and Avenger nose). It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Stratus could, with a moderate makeover and OnStar, sell well as a Cadillac, for about six thousand dollars more. Likewise, if it was sold at this price by Honda or Toyota, it would fly from dealers' lots. We can only hope that Chrysler manages to salvage its battered reputation quickly, so more people can experience this bargain of a car.
The Stratus sedan is a very good value in any trim level, and we suspect that Chrysler's lack of good advertising will let you can haggle your dealer into selling you one for a bargain price. Check it out.
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