Dodge's tagline now reads "Different." For all us ignoramuses, they even spell it out for us: "D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T." Somehow, this calls to mind a commercial of yore for Nuprin, in which a black-and-white figure holds a tiny yellow capsule; the voice-over states "Little. Yellow. Different. Better." Better, of course, is implied, since difference for difference's sake can sometimes backfire; how many times were you thrilled to hear your blind date described as "Uh, well, he's, uh, different"?
Debuting in 1995, the Stratus was supposed to snuggle in nicely between the compact Neon and the larger Intrepid. And, with a certain amount of hubris, Dodge hoped that it would be different enough to garner attention away from other excellent entrants in the glutted family sedan market. A lofty goal, to be sure the Toyota Camry/Honda Accord would not readily relinquish their title of being the best-selling cars in America. With little to offer (other than a spacious cabin and rakish good looks) to lure shoppers of family cars, however, the Stratus proved to be only a moderate hit, with most of them ignominiously ending up in rental car fleets.
For the 2001 model year, the Stratus lineup benefits from a new platform and is composed of a sedan and coupe that have little in common but a nameplate; the coupe shares underpinnings with the Mitsubishi Eclipse. The coupes are, in fact, engineered by Mitsubishi and manufactured in Illinois. The sedan, on the other hand, was designed by Chrysler and assembled in Michigan, alongside its twin, the Chrysler Sebring sedan.
Dodge wants its iteration of the affordable family sedan to differ from competitors in that it appeals to the buyer who'd fancy a little pizzazz with an otherwise functional vehicle. To that end, Dodge has made available a 2.7-liter V6 engine with a 200-horsepower and 192 foot-pound torque output, which is respectively 32 and 22 more than the previous 2.5-liter V6 powerplant, and made refinements to ride and handling characteristics. We snagged a Stratus SE sedan to see if they've succeeded.
Its exterior is indeed different. Short front and rear overhangs contribute to a sporty, aggressive stance, and the signature crosshair grille and the headlamps (which Dodge claims is inspired by the brutish Viper) give the Stratus its masculine Dodge characteristics. Its silhouette betrays its lineage from the Intrepid "squished whale" school of design, with its cab-forward design and flowing, sloping lines. While some of us lauded its "differentness" and aerodynamic appearance, others thought it overwrought. It's certainly a departure from the standard, boxy shapes that usually define a family sedan, and it has its own quirky appeal.
Those cars, most notably similarly priced Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys and Chevrolet Malibus, are powered by engines with less horsepower output than the powerplant of the Stratus (150, 136 and 170, respectively). Our Dodge was equipped with a 200-horsepower V6 engine (an $800 option on the SE model) that allowed the car to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds. Crisp gearshifts from the four-speed automatic helped matters plenty in on-road driving. The churlish growl emitted from the powerplant in the upper rpm ranges is quite different from your refined, silent Japanese engines, but we thought it viscerally satisfying. Others may find it, combined with the somewhat excessive tire rumble coming from the Goodyear Eagle P205/65TR15 tires, to be intrusive. If you step up to the ES trim, you'll get an automanual transmission, which allows manual selection of gears, but we found the regular tranny to be perfectly adequate in most driving situations.
Dodge claims that Stratus is the sportier of the Stratus/Sebring twins, with a 13 percent reduction in body twist and 33 percent reduction in chassis bending over the old car it replaces. Verily, the family sedan had the unexpected bonus of giving satisfactory performance during a downhill twisty run on our favorite canyon road, its chassis remaining surprisingly tight and composed during spirited driving. Credit the suspension system, which has a standard multilink setup in the rear and unequal-length control arms in the front, which are arguably better at keeping the tires planted to the road than the struts utilized by most of the other cars in the midsize family sedan category.
However, during regular street driving, most drivers found it to be wallowy after traversing road anomalies, as it porpoised awhile after hitting a series of expansion joints. It also transmits road bumps with more harshness into the cabin than your typical family sedan, and those ferrying easily irritable passengers may want to veer toward the more softly sprung Chrysler Sebring.
Fun on curvy roads was further complemented by a quick-acting steering rack with nice weighting off-center. However, the rack provided no feel or communication from the road, but then again, neither do most other family sedans. Although a moderate amount of torque steer invaded point-and-shoot accuracy, it didn't make its presence unduly felt.
The brake pedal, on the other hand, offered good feedback and was easy to modulate. Stopping power is supplied via a four-wheel disc setup, again a pleasant surprise at a price point which usually offers cars with rear drums. Our test model was equipped with the optional ABS, which aided in achieving a stopping distance of 130 feet, average for this type of vehicle. While hard braking was accompanied by an excessive amount of nosedive, the vehicle remained fairly stable.
Interior fit and finish, was, to the eye, very well executed. However, all of our drivers noted squeaks and rattles emanating from an unidentifiable source in the dash. It would all be well and fine, except that our test vehicle had a mere 1,500 miles on the odometer. "Typical American build quality," groused our drivers, saying that it, more than anything, marred the experience of driving what is otherwise a perfectly decent car. On the exterior, wide panel gaps detracted from a buttoned-down look, especially from the hood to the grille, although variances in the width of the panels throughout the car were relatively minor.
From the driver seat, we appreciated nice touches like the handsome white-faced gauges, but most were turned off by the excessive use of fake plastic wood that we lovingly refer to as "plood." Covering the seats is a comfortable velour, as comforting and cushy as a hug from Oprah. The power front seats, a $380 option, allowed for various-sized editors to be content, and we found them to be comfortable for long-distance drives. From the front seats, a well-known Dodge complaint surfaced, namely the excessively thick A-pillar that creates a sizeable blind spot. Furthermore, with side mirrors that are on the smallish side, we really had to make an effort not to sideswipe the cars around us.
Once we reminded ourselves that this is an economy-priced family car, the interior became much more appealing. The climate is set via three easy-to-use rotary knobs, and the stereo is your run-of-the-mill Chrysler radio and tape deck setup with no CD player, eliciting familiar grumbles of having to push the "set" button before you can preset the radio, and teensy balance and fade controls. Otherwise, the interior will appeal to the ascetic, with a minimum of fuss and muss.
Rear-seat passengers will find their accommodations meager, with no seat back pockets or anything akin to storage space save for a couple of cupholders, but at least they'll have plenty of space in which to writhe, with 38.1 inches of legroom. Shoulder space is a bit tight, however, so the flat, bench-like seat will be more comfortable for two than three. Headroom and toe space is also on the tight side, at least for full-sized adults.
Opening up the trunk reveals 15.7 cubic feet of storage space. Very generous, but loading your luggage will be impeded by the high sill and narrow opening. The 60/40 split seats can be folded, but doing so won't create a flat floor expect to have to maneuver your bulky items to make them fit. Pleasurably unexpected in a car of this class were gas-strut-type hinges that won't crush your fragile items.
While the Stratus is not segment-defining, Dodge has created a highly likeable alternative to the mega-powers who control the family sedan segment. The Stratus may lack the refinement and manners of its imported competitors (although some of our editors who are disquieted by Japanese precision found its "American" quirks comforting, you know, kind of like how The Fonz preferred down-home Pinky Tuscadero to a hoity-toity society girl), but its brisk engine, standard and optional goodies and raffish styling should have most buyers pleasantly surprised at this low-cost package. It's roomier and more powerful than its American brethren, and thousands less than comparatively equipped Japanese sedans. Plus, we're hearing of generous rebates and incentives, which would further lower the price.
Hey, it is different. And better.
Road Test Summary
For the 2001 model year, the Stratus lineup benefits from a new platform.
Power to the front wheels is supplied by a 200-horsepower V6 engine (an $800 option on the SE model) that provides 0-to-60 acceleration runs in 8.4 seconds.
The ride is harsher than that of most family sedans and wallowy over bumps, but it handles itself well on twisty roads.
The driving experience is pleasing, with responsive steering, quick gearshifts and well-modulated brakes.
One of our only complaints was an incessant squeak from the dash that bespeaks poor build quality. Visually, however, there seemed to be no problems.
Although it's not excellent at one thing or another, the Stratus provides more interior space and horsepower than its American competitors, and it's much cheaper than comparably equipped Japanese sedans.
If you don't mind a slight lack of refinement, and you want to save a few thousand dollars, you'd be well served to look into the Dodge Stratus.
Smooth and with decent power, the best run was done with a light launch. The transmission stalls at 2,000 rpms, but we used 1,500 to launch on the faster runs. It shifts from first to second at 5,800 and second to third at 6,400. A Chrysler standard on the latest vehicles we have tested from them, the automatic shifts for itself even in manual mode and we ended up at the end of a run while the gear selector was in first, but the transmission was in third. So much for human intervention to the shifting process.
Brake performance, according to the numbers generated, is on par with other vehicle in its class, but does so with some fanfare. The system has only fair stability and moderate tire noise that is intrusive. The tire noise is louder than the ABS system noise, making the system fairly quiet in operation.
Skidpad not available for testing.
The Stratus handled the slalom with solid performance. The chassis, after taking an initial set, allows the suspension to stick quite well for confident handling through the cones. Neil G. Chirico
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Painted refrigerator white and sporting the least convincing chromed plastic wheelcovers this side of a Kmart blue-light special, our Stratus screamed Budget Rent-A-Car. Inside, dull gray cloth seats were planted on dull gray carpets and faced a dull gray dashboard spiced up a little with white-faced gauges and surprisingly liberal use of fake wood. I didn't relish the ride home.
Forty miles later, I had deduced that the Stratus SE is Dodge's version of a Buick Century. Contributing more than its fair share to this opinion was the poorly sorted suspension, which allows more body motion than it ought to over dips and transmits too much impact harshness over bumps. Still, it controlled roll nicely (ride-biased Goodyear Eagle LS tires hamper handling more than the underpinnings) and managed undulating pavement with confidence.
I detected an irritating creak in the dash of our test vehicle, and an incessant buzz from what was likely a loose screw. The buzz could be fixed, no doubt, but the creak, which announced itself any time the structure of the car was taxed by road anomalies, would be more difficult to track down. Our car was new, with just 1,500 miles on the odo when I drove it.
Big, comfy, fast and simple, with fake wood all over the dash and early evidence of sloppy workmanship. Yep, this is the quintessential American sedan. And I liked it.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Chrysler may have lost billions of dollars last year, but it's not because of any lack of good products. This new Stratus is proof that Chrysler still builds good-looking, nicely engineered cars that can hold their own in their respective categories.
The styling, while not exactly head-turning, is tasteful and sharp enough to differentiate it from the otherwise faceless midsize sedan competition. Inside, the Stratus boasts an interior free of the usual dashboard clutter that pollutes the interiors of so many American cars. The materials are average, but the panels are straight and tight. Some say it's boring; I call it simple.
Step on the gas, and the Stratus rewards you with a Camry-like drivetrain that delivers both power and refinement. Now if they can just make it sound like a Camry, they would be on to something. The suspension is just tight enough to make it seem sporty, but Maximas have nothing to fear. Transmission shifts were crisp and on time, and the brakes return plenty of feel to the driver.
The Stratus continues to be a solid midsize family sedan that offers all the features you could ask for at a very reasonable price. Even with side airbags, ABS and a host of other creature comforts, this sharp sedan still comes in at thousands less than its imported rivals.
Executive Editor Karl Brauer says:
Certain vehicles convey a nebulous, but undeniable, sense that you are driving something special from the first moment you get behind their wheel. BMWs and Hondas, though vastly different in how they feel, are two perfect examples of cars that somehow "feel" special. The new Dodge Stratus felt similarly special as soon as I started it up and engaged the transmission. The favorably weighted steering wheel, the easy-to-read white-faced gauges and the simple climate controls immediately conveyed a sense of high quality and superb design. Then I hit the brakes, causing the vehicle's weight to shift forward and -- screech -- a loud creak rose from the driver-side dash area, bounced off the windshield glass, and pierced the otherwise quiet cabin.
"Bummer," I thought while trying to focus on something else. But it didn't work. Despite the car's willing engine, comfy seat and compliant ride, I couldn't get away from that awful sound, likely because it recurred every time I accelerated, applied the brakes or traversed a medium-sized bump. Throughout the remainder of my drive, the Stratus continued to impress me with its clean exterior design, excellent visibility and responsive transmission. But at 1,500 miles, it already sounded like a used car, with the aforementioned creak backed up by a strange, low-frequency pulse coming from under the center console whenever I coasted to a stop. Without these two noises, I might have been won over by Dodge's new sedan. As it was, I just kept thinking about how "special" I feel while driving our less expensive Ford Focus long-term car. Once again, "bummer."
Town Hall Commentary
"I have just purchased a loaded 2001 Stratus ES. The engine is strong. The style of the car is awesome compared to the older body style. My parents have an older Cirrus and have had some leaking tranny problems but that's about it. Reading a lot of these postings really made me think twice about buying the car. But, I have read some reviews about the car and have read nothing but good things. So far, I love the car and have got a lot of comments on it. The color is Inferno Red with a deep pearl coat; it also has the chrome wheels and leather interior. The Infinity Premium stereo with CD changer and 120-watt amplifier is outstanding. I say go for it." cdibbiedoo, "Dodge Stratus," #30 of 51, Jan. 3, 2001
"2001 Stratus Sedan SE with 2.7-liter V6: Finally running without any noticeable problems!!! Total tally: Car back to the dealer a total of 12 times; replaced front left strut; replaced two front tires (Michelin MX4 205's); rotated tires two times; rebalanced wheels two times; tightened/adjusted??? front-end two times; pending reordered front calipers (rusting/leaking???); pending repaint inside of doors (summer) Folks, this car had seven miles on it when I leased it in January 2001 it now has 1,300 miles on it. What a nightmare." fastline, "Dodge Stratus," #52 of 58, March 16, 2001
2001 Chrysler Sebring Sedan owners "Originally, I considered a Stratus ES but decided I liked the Sebring better. I'd gone the faux sporty route before and thought I'd opt for more luxury this time. I found the Sebring classier inside and out especially those instruments! I also considered the Volvo S60. It's surprisingly close to the Sebring LXi in power, weight, and size. Both are stylish; although, I decided beforehand that I prefer the Sebring. The main differences as far as I'm concerned are snob appeal (the S60 is undeniably more upscale) and price. With roughly the same equipment, the S60 2.4T was a full $10K more. I decided I didn't want to spend that much on a car, especially since I'd learned that parts can take a while to arrive from Sweden. So the Sebring it was. We've had it for over two months now, and we're very pleased all around, and that includes the buying experience. We've put almost 3,000 miles on the car, and there have been zero problems of any sort. The only complaints I can muster are that it's a tad noisier inside than the Camry (but about the same as the Volvo), and the exterior panel fit isn't as precise as either the Camry or the Volvo. But these are really non-issues, especially at around $24K out the door, loaded." vlis, "2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan," #132 of 146, Feb. 26, 2001
"After too long a wait, our '01 Sebring LXi sedan has finally arrived. Inferno Red with all the options. We love it so far, although we have only had it a week. Great power and response and an Autostick for play. It's like a 7/8 scale 300M (we also have a '99 300M). A few niggles: Moonroof retracts outside over back. Outside mirrors retain lots of water after washing. Lousy, cheap prop rod for hood. It's going in Saturday for four winter tires and wheels; Buffalo area, you know." 90miata, "2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan," #99 of 146, Nov. 17, 2000
"After comparing and shopping I thought I had my choices narrowed down. I was leaning toward a Bonneville primarily due to the 3800 series drivetrain. It has been a proven winner for years in terms of reliability. And thats something I need. My work requires me to log 30-35,000 driving miles a year. My faithful Grand Cherokee with 200,000 faithful ABSOLUTELY TROUBLE FREE MILES had earned its retirement. With the price of fuel, improved economy was near the top of my list. I happened upon the Sebring Sedan at the Detroit Auto Show, while looking for the Jeep Liberty.... I was very impressed with the quality styling and interior execution of the LXi. After wandering over to Pontiac, I looked at the poorly executed interior shrugged my shoulders and returned to Chrysler. The next day I took a test drive and was very impressed with the performance. I was originally skeptical that the small displacement engine in a vehicle this size could have the performance I desire and require for the long highway miles I travel. When the Five-Star dealer and I sat down to talk numbers, they bent over backwards to make the deal fit as close as possible the parameters I asked for. The end result was my purchasing a very fine automobile for an extremely fine price with outstanding amenities. I have purchased more cars then I can remember. This is the ONLY time I have been treated with respect and had no games played on me. They were up-front on all aspects, and I will, without a doubt, return. All in all, it was the most pleasant car purchase in my life. I've had the car now (2001 LXi) for 5,000 miles, and it has been a great road car. Performance and comfort all in a very classy package. My mileage is 70 percent highway/30 percent city and the car is averaging in the mid to upper 20s for mpg. I got all the major equipment options, including a full size spare with matching rim and side impact bags. The price included Chrysler's Platinum Warranty (100,000 miles, no deductible), teflon sealer for exterior and interior and ...all scheduled service (every 5,000 miles) for 60,000 miles. The price out the door was $26K and change. Most other cars without the warranties, much less the routine service, start there...I finished there. As far as reliability is concerned, my wife had a Plymouth Acclaim [with a V6] for years. A car many disparaged yet it out lasted all the Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans of our neighbors and family. All with no problems until we traded it in after having put 175,000 miles on it WITH NO repairs other then routine wear items, belts, hoses etc.... My wife's current Grand Cherokee has 75K trouble free miles on it. So I expect nothing less...."xmann, "2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan," #114 of 146, Feb. 18, 2001