Chrysler's counterattack of the killer sedans is nearing completion--with domestic and imported foes a little bloodied, their sales visibly bent. The first salvo was fired two years ago by the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision. Sales of this radically redesigned trio of quick, slinky, high value, mid-size four-doors brought Chrysler back from a financial standing usually measured in chapters. Last year, the European styling and flat handling of Chrysler's New Yorker and flashier LHS gave domestic builders of full-size, $30,000 luxury sedans something new and extravagant to complain about. This year, the roomy Dodge and Plymouth Neons, with accents on performance, handling and maximum equipment for the buck, began loosening the lock of Honda, Saturn and Ford on the subcompact set. Now Chrysler is ready to mop up the gravy--the market segment just below mid-size, that rich niche representing 37% of new car sales. And with its 1995 Cirrus--a roomy, virile, dramatically styled small sedan with V-6 power, anti-lock brakes and dual air bags for less than $18,000--Chrysler may soon have Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Infiniti G20,Pontiac Grand Am and Mazda 626 reaching for the sky. It's all a matter of more for less. Japanese car prices are rising. Quality of domestic cars is ascending and each year brings further proof of reliability. Suddenly, the reward of economic nationalism is no longer an ordinary-looking car of ineluctable depreciation that spends most weekends at Tuneup Masters. Cirrus' fiercest competition, however, could be a car that won't be on the road until fall: the 1995 Ford Contour, another tight, nice-handling new breeder also delivering V-6 power, automatic transmission, dual air bags and optimum value for about $18,000 and change. Both represent the continuing redirection of domestic builders toward smaller cars that are satisfying, qualityproducts and great fun to drive. Once content with just matching the Asian competition, Chrysler and Ford now are baring their teeth and overtaking it. So look for a Chrysler Cirrus-Ford Contour joust that in terms of bringing home big marbles, should duplicate the long standing Jeep Grand Cherokee-Ford Explorer punch-up. Like all sedans in Chrysler's long, steady return to contention, the Cirrus is a cab-forward design. That means a deep, raked windshield with a low cowl. Also wheels moved closer to corners of the car for the stability of a longer wheel base, and the more balanced look of shorter front and rear overhangs. In Cirrus, cab-forward creates a hood that is wider than longer. That leaves so little room up front, the battery is mounted inside the left front fender. Battery changes are possible by turning the front wheel to full lock. Cab-forward also allows interior room for heads, legs and shoulders to be that of a mid-size car, while e xternal dimensions are kept closer to those of a compact car. In the real world of cramps and crushed knees, however, it all translates to airy front seating behind a huge windshield with planetarium visibility. The back seat is a small coliseum providing ample room for six-footers even with front seats slid to the rear. Easily best in class. * Yet where Cirrus butts foreheads directly with Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Mazda is in little touches and Chrysler's fixation with engineering thoroughness. Which is how Japan once led the way. This car is tightly assembled from pieces that create a whole stronger and more compatible than a jigsaw puzzle. The suspension--springs and tubular shocks, unequal length upper and lower control arms--is overbuilt, which means the harder you toss the car, the better it likes it. Anti-lock disc brakes wouldn't fade if an elephant were doing the stomping. All of which gives a driver an enormous sense of security behin the wheel. Those thinking touches? A tab inside the trunk that releases the rear seat back for long loads. An optional ashtray--a round butt bucket that fits in a console cup holder for those whose addictions are nicotine before caffeine. And in keeping with its evolving image, Chrysler has dumped a Pentagon logo so reminiscent of the joint chiefs of nuclear war. Its replacement is a 60-year-old blue-and-gold Chrysler seal that's all wreaths, ribbons and retrospective charm. Cirrus enters showroom service in October and will be powered by one engine, a 2.5-liter, 164-horsepower V-6. The base LX model comes fully stuffed from air bags and automatic transmission, to power steering and air conditioning. About the only extras on the LXi--at a coy $19,900--are leather seats, theft alarm, bigger wheels and tires, premium sound and a power driver's seat. In January, the car will form another cloud formation as Dodge Stratus with a choice of three powertrains: A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder from Chrysler's Neon mated to a five-speed manual; a 2.4-literfour with automatic, and the 2.5 V-6 with automatic. Plymouth will sell its cloudy version of the Cirrus-Stratus series next year. * Cirri are pretty cars of advanced styling, particularly the little ducktails molded into the rear decks. Those who can overlook Chrysler's propensity for delivering upholstery and linings in any color as long as it's mouse gray will see interiors as equally pleasing with flashes of walnut. There's also a recurring ovoid theme to ventilation ports and the instrument cluster, with window and side mirror controls conveniently at hand in the door rest. Although a relatively small displacement V-6, the engine pulls quite well and runs quickly if allowed to build momentum. It also becomes a buzzy noisemaker if asked to do anything dramatic and in a hurry. Suspension noise in our LX and LXi test cars--all pre-production models--was quite audible. This could be tuned out before assembly lines roll. The four-speed automatics were also inclined to surge and hunt. This might be a tougher fix. So much for the sedans. In coming months, Chrysler directs its counteroffensive against coupes. First with the Dodge Avenger, then the Chrysler Sebring, with both falling in performance, size and price between ancient and modern, imported and domestic: Ford's Thunderbird and Honda's Prelude. So watch out. Take cover. Innnncoming. 1995 Chrysler Cirrus LXi The Good: Roomy cab-forward design. Tightly engineered, all the safety stuff. High value, middling investment. The Bad: Noises from engine and suspension. The Ugly: Mood of the competition. Cost Base, and as tested, $19,990 (includes automatic transmission, two air bags, air conditioning, leather upholstery, premium sound system, power doors and windows, anti-lock brakes and power steering.) Engine 2.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 developing 164 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-drive, near mid-size sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 10.2 seconds. Top speed, not tested. Fuel economy, manufacturer's estimate, city and highway, 20 and 28 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,145 pounds.
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