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Stratus Fear: Chrysler's Best-Kept Performance Secret

By Richard Ehrenberg. Copyright © 1995
Richard Ehrenberg and Harris Publications. Photos by Richard
"Eastman" Ehrenberg. Used by permission. For more
muscle car action, read Mopar Action!

IMPORTANT. This article was written in 1995.

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 practi
Red White Colorfulness Pattern Line
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

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

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.

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