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Published: 02/08/2002 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
Those who read car magazines (and dare we say, our site) just for the pleasure of it likely know that the Stratus R/T Coupe is the badge-engineered fraternal twin of the Mitsubishi Eclipse GT. And if you read our 2001-2002 Sport Coupe Comparison Test, you also know that we didn't think too much of the Eclipse. Does that mean the Stratus is doomed to a negative review filled with as many clever rhetorical lines as the author can find in the thesaurus? Not necessarily.
While the Eclipse formerly lured young sports car buyers with a turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive only to find itself watered down into the overweight V6-powered coupe of today Dodge coupe buyers have known no such thrills (unless you count the Daytona and Shadow turbos that died out in the early 1990s, or the earlier Eclipse facsimiles: the 1990-1994 Plymouth Laser and 1990-1998 Eagle Talon). In recent times, the Dodge brand has offered only the Mitsubishi Galant-based Avenger (1995-2000). It was an aggressive name, but with an unrefined 163-horsepower V6 coupled to a four-speed automatic as its fastest powertrain, there was nothing aggressive about the Avenger's performance.
With the passing of Eagle and Plymouth, Dodge became eligible for a re-branded Eclipse in its own name, and so when the redesigned Stratus sedan arrived in 2001, a coupe came with it. Stratus is a fitting name for this coupe it's not an effervescent sports car, but it is an affordable two-door companion to the sedan. The Stratus is not as exact a copy of the Eclipse as the Talon and Laser were, and like the Avenger, it shares parts with the Galant (all three are built at the same plant in Normal, Ill.). Compared with the Eclipse, the Dodge is 15.5 inches longer, 1.4 inches wider and 2.1 inches taller. And it rides on a longer wheelbase (identical in length to the Galant's) 103.7 inches versus the Eclipse's 100.8 inches. The added dimensions apparently resulted in a larger turning radius 42.3 feet for the RT model versus 40 even for the Eclipse GT which is pretty much gigantic for a midsize coupe (even the full-size Dodge Intrepid turns a tighter circle). All of these numbers apply to the Chrysler Sebring Coupe, which is essentially a more expensive Stratus.
The Stratus Coupe lineup includes two engines and three trim levels. Buyers who aren't concerned about performance can select the base SE or the value-packaged SXT coupe, both of which come with a 147-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission (drops hp to 142). Want more power? Get the SE V6, which adds the Eclipse GT's 3.0-liter V6, which produces 198 hp at 5,500 rpm and 205 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm, and an automatic transmission. If you want a sportier, more generously equipped coupe, consider the R/T, which adds 2 extra hp for a total of 200 and allows the choice of a manual that gives you access to ABS and leather upholstery as stand-alone options. (Automatic R/Ts also get traction control with their ABS.)
The decision between a four-cylinder SE and an R/T needn't involve a "sensible versus extravagant" binary, as there's only a $2,400 difference between their base MSRPs. For this extra sum, you get the V6, a sport suspension, rear disc brakes, 17-inch wheels wrapped in 215/50R17 rubber, a seven-speaker Infinity sound system with a four-disc in-dash changer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, foglights and keyless entry with an alarm system. Our test car was an Ice Silver R/T with a manual transmission; options included ABS, leather seating surfaces, a power driver seat, a sunroof and brightly polished aluminum wheels. Additionally, Dodge allows R/T buyers to substitute a single CD player and cassette deck for the four-disc changer at no extra cost so our vehicle had no changer. The only things missing were side airbags, which aren't available for the Stratus (you can get them via an expensive option package for the Eclipse GT).
Though it lacks a turbocharger or even variable valve timing, Mitsubishi's single overhead cam 3.0-liter V6 is the best thing about the Stratus R/T Coupe. It's not astoundingly fast, as our 7.4-second 0-to-60-mph and 15.7-second (at 90 mph) quarter-mile times attest (check out the Performance Worksheet for more numbers), but it has a long, flat torque band and a guttural snarl that should satisfy most people who test-drive the car. Bear in mind, however, that most similarly priced sport coupes and muscle cars (not to mention the Nissan Altima family sedan) can beat the 3,200-pound Stratus R/T to 60 mph. Of course, only a few of us lose sleep over performance specs, and this Dodge is very easy to drive in the city and always has plenty of power for passing on the freeway. The engine does tend to drone at highway speeds, but with a cruising rpm of about 3,000, it never wails unless it's driven like a sports car. Fuel economy is average for a V6-powered car; the R/T has a 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway rating with a manual transmission (20/28 with the automatic), and we managed 24 mpg during the test car's week-long stay. Premium fuel is recommended for maximum performance.
The five-speed manual is generally a good match for the R/T's V6 with such a broad spread of torque, engineers were able to keep the gearing tall, such that you don't have to shift very often. Want to push the car on a twisting two-lane road? Put it in third and leave it there if you like. Obviously, another benefit of tall (or low) gearing is increased fuel economy. However, less aggressive gearing does mean slower acceleration, and our road test coordinator noted that the Dodge felt a bit bogged down in first gear during 0-to-60 runs. And when we drove the coupe in the suburbs, we noted that takeoffs from stoplights weren't quite as easy as 205 lb-ft would suggest. The short, hand-sized shifter is at just the right height on the center console, and it moves crisply through the gates. The clutch engages with the expected amount of progression, and ideal spacing between the pedals makes it easy to match revs when downshifting.
Ordinarily, Dodge's R/T badge (Road/Track) is used to identify the performance-oriented vehicles in its model lineups, and generally, these special cars come with a more powerful engine, a sport-tuned suspension and bigger wheels and tires. The Stratus R/T Coupe obviously doesn't have its own engine (since its V6 is available for the Stratus SE and the Sebring family), but it does have an upgraded suspension its mundane MacPherson strut front/multilink rear underpinnings get a more robust sway bar and lateral link bushings in the rear and firmer shock absorbers all-around and H-rated 215/50 Goodyear Eagle RS-A performance tires mounted on 17-inch wheels. This may sound rather exciting, but keep in mind that the Eclipse GT has basically the same hardware, less 150 pounds of curb weight, and no one here thought it did a very convincing impression of a sports car during the Sport Coupe Comparison Test.
But as both Dodge and Mitsubishi could argue, we're not dealing with sports cars here these are touring coupes. When defined this way, the Stratus Coupe can be rather enjoyable. On the highway, it rides comfortably as the softly sprung suspension absorbs all but the largest ruts. When we took the coupe into the canyons, it felt heavy and soft, yet predictable. Cut the steering wheel, allow the body to settle, and eventually, the Stratus will track confidently through a turn. So manageable was the coupe that our road test coordinator hustled it through the slalom at an average speed of 67.6 mph. How good is this? It beats everything in the Sport Coupe Comparison, including the Celica GT-S, and most of the cars we've ever tested, a BMW M3 among them. Part of the credit is due to the grip of 17-inch tires, though these Goodyears aren't the most adhesive performance tires on the market (and they make plenty of noise).
Numbers are of little consequence when you're out on the road, though, and alongside similarly priced competitors, the Stratus R/T leaves us wanting. As we wound along two-lane roads, its chassis transmitted a decent amount of road information through the driver seat, but it also felt floppy and unsettled much of the time; we suspect that the R/T's 3,200-pound curb weight is much to blame. What's more, the bigger antiroll bars and sport-tuned shock absorbers aren't enough to keep unwanted body movement in check on the curves. And although the steering responded quickly to driver input, a car with sporty pretensions needs a heavier, more communicative setup and a smaller turning radius. Mainly, it's the suggestive R/T badge that bothers us; if Dodge were willing to call this coupe the ES that it is, we could drop these complaints.
Like the rest of the handling package, the brakes were competent but not exceptional. The pedal progression was just right, and the car stopped confidently during everyday driving. At our testing facility, the coupe's best 60-to-0-mph braking distance was 124.9 feet average for this class and it was accompanied by ABS system noise, steering wheel shudder and noise from the tires as they lost and regained grip.
Although its profile suggests its Eclipse heritage, the Stratus Coupe politely (and some may say thankfully) forgoes Mitsubishi's geo-mechanical treatment in favor of more traditional LH-car styling. Like the Stratus Sedan, the coupe's tapered hood and rounded decklid embody the Dodge Intrepid. Never mind that its cowl is too high and its windshield too small to provide the ergonomic benefits of cab-forward design, it's merely trying to look the part of a dutiful purebred Chrysler. The optional polished aluminum wheels complement the coupe's smooth body and afford the impression of a well-dressed touring coupe rather than a feisty sport coupe in sum, quite befitting of the Dodge's personality.
Step inside the cabin, and traditional Dodge buyers might be disappointed. We certainly were. Except for a ram imprint on the steering wheel, a Chrysler-issue stereo faceplate and an extra seatbelt in the backseat, the Stratus Coupe interior is an exact copy of the Eclipse interior. And that means uninspired, store-brand design elements, cheap plastics with discordant textures and drab colors. From the inside, this Dodge could be any number of cars from the last two decades. There's not even a set of legible white-faced gauges to make the R/T feel special or preserve familial ties to the Neon and Intrepid.
The wide, American-style front seats offer reasonable levels of comfort and support for the money, but editors had several complaints about them. Only the driver seat offers height adjustment, and that is if you opted for the leather group, six-way power adjustment. Even with the seat bottom at its maximum height, most drivers felt they were sitting too low for optimum visibility. And even with the seatback adjusted to a fully upright position, one editor noted with displeasure that he was still reclining. Also, most people will find the dual-position driver-seat lumbar adjustment useless; either you have no lumbar, or you flip the lever and are rewarded with a super lumbar log against your lower back.
Unlike most cockpit setups, the tilt-adjustable steering wheel protrudes far from the dash one long-legged editor was enamored with its design, as she was able to track the seat back as far as she liked without worrying that she wouldn't be able to reach the wheel. Editors of shorter stature bristled at this design, as the steering wheel was all but nuzzling their chins as they drove.
If you're considering both the Stratus Coupe and the Eclipse, the ability to put live human beings in the backseat of the Dodge may be the deciding factor. Yes, this is where the extra length, width and height of the Stratus pay off. We're talking 4 more inches of legroom (34), almost 5 more inches of hip room (49.5), about an inch more headroom (36) and about half an inch more shoulder room (52.4). Plus, with three seatbelts back there (as opposed to two in the Eclipse), you can legally carry three kiddos when the need arises. However, though it's easy enough for an adult-size individual to get into the backseat, it's still not a comfortable place to ride due to a short bench, hard plastic on the front seatbacks and non-existent toe room.
Realizing that our Stratus R/T had leather upholstery, you might have imagined a black, fragrant hide emblazoned with red R/T badges. But if you've looked at the photo gallery, you know that wasn't the case at all. Rather, the seating surfaces are covered in anonymous, brittle gray skins; designers tried to create an upscale effect by using gathered panels, but their efforts were lost on our staff. Worse, this seems to be a cover for skimpy animal hide allocation elsewhere the sides and backs of the seats are swathed in vinyl and plastic, and as one editor pointed out, there are no cushiony leather inserts on the door panels (customarily included in optional leather packages).
Most of the interior controls are easy to use, but none of them could be considered ergonomic masterpieces, and apparently, "bottom line" economics trumped all efforts to integrate the controls into a cohesive design package. As such, we have Mitsubishi-issue climate controls three simple dials and a couple of buttons; they're simple but a bit small and plasticky, too. It seems that Dodge wasn't fond of the Mitsubishi stereo faceplate, as it has been replaced with a familiar Chrysler faceplate. Check out the stereo review for the full story on this system, which includes seven Infinity speakers. Oddly, Dodge designers chose to leave Mitsubishi's top-of-the-dash stereo display intact, but instead of using it as intended or even as a clock, the ungainly hump in the hard plastic dash is now an oversized temperature and compass display. The author of this road test likes to obsess over little facts like this and thus found the constant updates enjoyable, but other saner editors deemed the display hump a waste of space.
Elsewhere, editors criticized the sunroof that doesn't open or close automatically, the power window buttons that offer an auto-down feature only for the driver window and are not illuminated at night, and most annoying of all, the extremely elusive overhead lights. After five minutes of fumbling around fruitlessly in the dark car, the author pulled out the owner's manual and learned that two buttons on the bottom of the rearview mirror controlled the lights. The three steering wheel stalks (lights, wipers and cruise) escaped our censure, as they feel as solid and operate as fluidly as any other stalk set from any other Japanese manufacturer.
Storage in the cabin is better than average among coupes, chiefly because of a deep, square-shaped center console and a faux velveteen-lined shelf under the center stack. Besides that, you get two small door pockets and a decent-sized glovebox. Surprisingly, the Stratus Coupe includes both front and rear cupholders; the ones in the front are of course difficult to use with a manual transmission. The 16.3-cubic-foot trunk capacity is quite generous for a coupe (only the Pontiac Grand Am and Chevrolet Monte Carlo come close), though you'll have to hoist your luggage over the high liftover (caused by the coupe's tall decklid). Our test car's large grocery net effectively confined a week's worth of consumables. For larger items, you can take advantage of the 60/40-split folding rear seats and a large pass-through.
Throughout our week with the Stratus Coupe, we observed no rattles and squeaks, leading us to believe that it had been assembled with care. Inside the cabin, we noted that neither the sunroof cover nor the steering column housing fit properly, and we also noticed excess flash on some of the plastic parts. On the exterior, we found a few more problems, including a misaligned hood and trunklid, inconsistent quarter-panel fits, poorly fitting rocker panels, paint bubbles and exposed screws on the reverse lights. While exterior build quality could definitely improve, we doubt that the cabin will disintegrate anytime soon.
In spite of our lengthy list of complaints about the Stratus R/T Coupe, we feel that it's really a solid car for the money, especially if you like the idea of buying an American nameplate without taking on all the challenges of Big Three quality control. And none of the other similarly priced V6 coupes Chevy Monte Carlo, Honda Accord, Mercury Cougar, Pontiac Grand Am and Toyota Camry Solara can match the Dodge's combination of performance and value (unless you can pick up a heavily discounted Camry Solara SE V6 with a manual gearbox).
You'll notice that we're leaving similarly priced performance cars out of this discussion entirely, and that's because serious drivers will find that there's little more than a longer options list backing this R/T badge. Everyone else will find a relaxed, mild-to-moderately entertaining coupe with V6 power and an easily digestible out-the-door price.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The Infinity system in this Dodge Stratus, such as it is, represents a fair value for a car in this price range. It's a good system that really puts out the sound. Unfortunately, it also has some glaring deficiencies, so we knocked down the score somewhat.
The system begins with a standard Chrysler head unit in the center of the dash. The head unit is a mixed bag of pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it offers both cassette and CD, has an excellent topography for solid ergonomic feel and boasts a bright display, which makes it easy to see in different lighting conditions. There are other niceties, too, such as a small three-band equalizer built into the faceplate (treble, mid and bass) and a round, ridged volume knob for easy volume control. On the negative side of the ledger, this head unit is more bare bones than most in its segment. For example, many systems in this price range now come with automatic volume control (AVC), which automatically raises and lowers the volume to compensate for road and wind noise; the Stratus does not. Additionally, Chrysler continues to use its funky two-stage station presetting design, which is the worst in the industry.
Things get a lot better on the speaker side of the equation. The back deck hosts a pair of hefty 6-by-9 full-range drivers, which really put out the sound. These are complemented by a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass in the doors (remember, this is only a two-door vehicle). Completing the speaker array, a pair of tweeters, ensconced in their own custom-made enclosures, grace the A-pillar area. And last but certainly not least, an impressive center channel speaker occupies the top of the dashboard, firing upward into the glass.
Performance: The speakers are what make this system, which should come as no surprise, since Infinity has a long history of excellence in the speaker biz. What we found most impressive was the front array of tweeters, which are superbly aimed, combined with the center-fill speaker on top of the dash, very unusual in a car in this price range; these together produce one of the best soundstages we've heard in this segment in some time. Depth and width of sound mesh to give the listener a very life-like listening experience. The frequency range is also well managed, with airy highs, detailed mids and a good thumping bass when the system gets pushed. On the downside, the electronics in this car aren't up to task. Especially irksome is the lack of any apparent volume-limiting in the amplifier stage; the system begins to poop out at about two-thirds volume, producing nothing above that setting but garbled distortion and amplifier clipping. Not only is this horrible to listen to, but a distorted signal path ultimately leads to blown speakers, especially for those bass-hounds who can't seem to get enough bottom end.
Best Feature: Center-fill speaker on top of the dash.
Worst Feature: Weak amplifier stage; distorted signal.
Conclusion: Basically, the Stratus system has great sound (attribute this to the Infinity speakers) and lousy electronics. We would suggest adding a small (40 watts x 4) aftermarket amplifier to really make it kick. We liked the speakers. Adding more power to this system would likely make it sing. Scott Memmer
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
As everyone else probably noted, one of the first things that struck me about the Stratus R/T was the suspension calibration it was softer than expected for a car wearing 17-inch tires, a "sport" suspension and R/T badges. We all expected tighter underpinnings from a vehicle with this market placement and those initials as part of its name.
That said, the car was still enjoyable to drive briskly, as long as it wasn't pushed too hard in the corners. The bulk of this car's fun quotient comes from running up through the gears of the manual tranny, feeling the eager rush of that torquey V6.
Run through the twisties at 7/10s of the car's limit and the handling seems fine. Steering response is fairly quick, if lacking in road feel, and body roll is acceptable. Press on further, however, and the chassis starts to feel unsettled not as buttoned-down as a Celica GTS, for example giving the impression that there's not as much all-out capability here as promised.
Most folks looking for a sporty coupe would probably be perfectly happy with the Stratus R/T. Chances are good that they'll never push the car as hard as automotive road test editors and the Stratus' good looks, peppy performance and decent handling and ride may win them over. But true driving enthusiasts (such as this motley crew) who demand standout performance from a sport coupe would be better served elsewhere.
Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed says:
When evaluating a car, I like to declare my biases right up front. I'm always on the lookout for a bargain and there are elements of the Stratus that might make it attractive to young buyers. First, its current TMV is very close to invoice price. Now, subtract the $1,500 manufacturer's incentive. This means you could drive a sporty V6 for under $20,000. That's less than the Acura RSX with the four-cylinder engine. And for me, the driving pleasure comes from the torquey V6; once you hit third gear, you can drive all day. And when you do work the gears, the action is smooth, and the shifter fits in your hand like a Rawlings baseball.
OK, so it's a bargain. So what? What else does the car have to recommend it? Like my colleagues, I found the suspension to be a bit soft. However, in most driving situations, it didn't detract from the overall driving experience it was still a kick to throw it into a tight curve. At least the response was predictable.
The biggest drawback to this car was the interior the dash appears bulbous, formed from hard, black plastic. I also didn't care for the way the gray leather seats were gathered leaving bunched material around the seams. My reaction to the exterior was much better. The lines were pleasing, and the overall effect was clean and stylish.
While this coupe wouldn't be right for many enthusiasts, my instinct is that it will find a market with younger buyers who dig the power and don't demand precise handling. Not only that, but if incentives and low-interest financing continues, the Stratus could be easy on the wallet.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I try not to have preconceived notions when driving cars. But it was hard to avoid them for the Stratus R/T. Here is a car that uses the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Galant as a basis. The Eclipse is not one of my favorite cars. Actually, as sport coupes go, it's one of my least favorites. Added to this is my distaste for Dodge's dilution of what R/T stands for. It used to be real horsepower gains and suspension mods. Now it seems it's just a few off-the-shelf parts and spiffy decals.
After driving the Stratus R/T, I liked it more than I thought I would, though it still doesn't rank highly. The exterior shape is a bonus; it's much better than the Eclipse. I also like the torque from the V6. What I don't like is the imprecise suspension, overly light steering and an awful interior.
Since the Mercury Cougar is being discontinued, the only domestic competition to the Stratus is from General Motors. Comparing the Stratus to a Grand Am, the Stratus might be worthy. But I can't see picking this car over an Acura RSX or a VW GTI. Both cars offer a more involving drive for a similar price. And if you want something comfortable but still with a stylish two-door format, I would recommend a Toyota Camry Solara.
"I just reached 3,300 miles on my Indy Red five-speed and I...have a big issue with the driver's seat position in relation to the pedals. The gas pedal is too close to the seat compared to the brake and clutch pedals. Because of this, I'm unable to fully extend my right leg even though the seat is in an ideal position for left leg extension for the clutch. This doesn't make it! This car is on our 10-year plan and it must be changed. I've been surfing various websites in search of new pedals with the hope that I can solve this problem. Besides, the stock gas pedal is too narrow for proper heal-toe shifting. I'm still amazed that I have seen so few of these 'well packaged for the dollar' cars on the streets of Tampa Bay. This car really catches people's attention." vette89, "Dodge Stratus Coupe," #327 of 360, Aug. 17, 2001
"Ride, for a sporty coupe is phenomenal. Heck it's the kind of ride I expected from a very good entry-lux sedan. And the handling is pretty much uncompromised. Because of the slightly stiffer springs, Stratus R/T handles slightly better than its [Sebring] LXi cousin. Turning radius, to me, seems almost exactly the same as the previous generation; big..." sp01, "Dodge Stratus Coupe," #335 of 360, Sept. 17, 2001
"I have noticed that, as a general rule-of-thumb, new R/T owners are pleased or even ecstatic with their purchases. This includes myself. My 2001 R/T is running strong at 8,900 miles. With the exception of a few minor niggling annoyances (all covered under warranty, thankfully), the car has been fantastic! For everyone 'on the fence' about choosing between the R/T and a comparable vehicle: save yourself the hassle, and take the Stratus! You won't be disappointed." phatpatrt, "Dodge Stratus Coupe," #350 of 360, Nov. 12, 2001
"I'm not a very aggressive driver, the only times I drive fast [are] when I beat Honda accords. And I'm pretty easy on the brakes too. I have about 12K on it and the brakes have been squealing for some time now. It only does it whenever I stop slowly, for example, parking the car, or in driveways. It is so annoying. There is no way that my driving did that to the brakes. I checked them out and they looked just fine. My dashboard rattles at times. Other than that, I really love this car a lot. I barely see any other R/Ts in the street, which makes us Stratus drivers unique. Unlike those Accord coupes that are seen in every corner. I drove my friend's Accord V6. It did feel smoother but it felt like driving a regular family sized sedan. And it doesn't feel sporty like the R/T. I wanna know if anyone [has] been having trouble with loud brakes. The brake discs look so tiny too." gugelmin, "Dodge Stratus Coupe," #338 of 360, Oct. 10, 2001
"I have almost 5,000 miles on my R/T, and for the most part I love the car as much as anyone. Overall, it's a great ride, and I've only had relatively minor issues with the interior. Recently however, I've been getting this awful sound in the backseat somewhere and really the only way I can best describe it as something like popcorn popping. I'm pretty sure it's a loose panel, possibly the one [or both, as in either side of the car] between the rear windshield and the small driver-side window. Looking at it all I can see is that the seams on either end of it aren't tight, but I can't replicate the sound when I'm not driving over bumps. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bumps when one drives and therefore the sound gets very bad at times. I know this has been a somewhat vague description but if anyone has any insights into what the problem might be, it would be most appreciated. The idiots at the service center twice said they fixed the problem (I think one time they removed the whole backseat), and twice I got back in and it was clear as day. Granted it's a new car for them to be working on, but completely misdiagnosing the problem (twice) and then telling me it's fixed (twice) is inexcusable on their part." shaps, "Dodge Stratus Coupe," #346 of 360, Oct. 29, 2001
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