THERE IS no season of peace on the New Jersey Turnpike. I foundout as much on a Christmas trip to New York. The only tangible evidenceof goodwill was the car I drove, the 1995 Chrysler Cirrus LX sedan.Everything else was madness.There was, for example, the curious scene of a driver in aMitsubishi Eclipse sports coupe tailgating an 18-wheel truck. Had thetruck stopped suddenly, the Mitsubishi driver's holiday would've beenless than merry.And there were statutory speeders aplenty, I among them. NewJersey Turnpike officials insist on a 55 mph speed limit. Most peoplerun at about 65-75 mph. My complaint is with the goofball speeders, theclowns who consistently run at about 90 mph, even in construction zones!Finally, there were scores of people who apparently believe thatthe left lane is a rest stop, forcing faster traffic into the dangerousballet of passing from the right lane.An advertisement outside a turnpike rest station summed up theactual spirit of the season. "It's a jungle out there," the sign said.Background: Sanity has a price. In the case of the all-new ChryslerCirrus, it starts at $17,435. But the car is worth it: Thefront-wheel-drive Cirrus offers almost everything desired in a mid-sizefamily car, including good styling. Folks have grown tired of"practical" cars that are practically depressing -- ugly, unimaginative,utilitarian things that turn each trip into a chore.The Cirrus, by comparison, has some sass and class -- aprominent, in-your-face front end that makes the car stylisticallydifferent from anything else in its category; clean side panels; abeautiful rear end; and a roomy, five-passenger interior.Both the Cirrus and its companion Dodge Stratus are equipped withstandard dual-front air bags. The Cirrus, sold in LX and upscale LXidesign packages, also comes with standard anti-lock brakes. Those brakesare standard on the upscale Stratus ES.An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmissionis standard on both cars, as is a short/long arm (SLA) suspension systemthat enhances road handling and driver control. Tight cornering isrelatively easy in these cars.The standard Cirrus engine is a Mitsubishi-designed and built2.5-liter, 24-valve, single overhead cam V-6 rated 164 horsepower at5,900 rpm. Maximum torque is 163 pound-feet at 4,350 rpm.The Stratus has three available engines -- a 2-liter, 16-valve,single overhead cam, 134 horsepower four-cylinder; a 2.4-liter,16-valve, double overhead cam, 138-horsepower four-cylinder; and theMitsubishi V-6.Complaints: The four-speed automatic transmission in the Cirrus andStratus is not the best available in a mid-size car. It's a compromisefour-speed in which the "drive" and "overdrive" gears behave as one,making it shift more like a three-speed. This arrangement works well athighway speeds; but it's a grumpy, gear-hunting pain in slower urbantraffic.Also, the nighttime, instrument-pan el glare on the windshield andfront side windows is a bit distracting.Praise: Overall excellent design and engineering, especially in thesuspension work. Excellent workmanship in the tested Cirrus LX.Head-turning quotient: The tested Cirrus LX proves that Ozzie andHarriet still have a sex life. People loved the thing.Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride and handling. Zeroto 60 mph acceleration was acceptable, about 10 seconds. In-traffic,highway acceleration was excellent. But urban performance was marred bychoppy shifts in that "four-speed" automatic transmission.Excellent braking. Standard brakes include front discs/rear drumswith anti-lock backup.Mileage: In the tested Cirrus LX, about 23 miles per gallon(16-gallon tank, estimated 360-mile range on usable volume of regularunleaded), running mostly highway with four occupants and a trunkload(15.7 cubic feet) of cargo.Sound system: Optional eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and ompactdisc. Chrysler Infinity system. Bodacious boogie.Price: Base price on the Cirrus LX is $17,435. Dealer invoice onbase model is $15,987. Price as tested is $19,179, including $1,209 inoptions and a $535 destination charge.Purse-strings note: Competitively priced. Excellent value. Comparewith Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry,Oldsmobile 88, Chevrolet Lumina (all-new 1995 model), Nissan Altima,Mazda 626, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable and Volkswagen's Jetta III andPassat.
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