I had some serious reservations after my first encounter with one of Chrysler's new LH mid-size family sedans. Last summer, Chrysler sent about 800 Eagle Vision and Dodge Intrepids to Central Florida for testing in rental car fleets. I grabbed an Eagle Vision and logged about 300 miles in one day. I was surprised at the roughness of the transmission and the loudness of the road noise. I found out later that the car I rented got into the rental fleet straight off the factory delivery truck. No one had bothered to give it the service that all new vehicles get after they are sold. None of the fluids were topped off, and the tires were as pliant as cement because they had 50 pounds of pressure, not the factory-recommended 30 pounds. After spending a week in a properly serviced LH sedan, a Dodge Intrepid ES, I am prepared not only to cancel those early reservations, but also to proclaim the new Intrepid the best mid-size built by an American automaker - an opinion that parallels that of the editors of Automobile magazine, who recently handed the Intrepid the publication's ''Car of The Year'' award. With its innovative ''cab forward'' styling, which moves the wheels to the outer edges of the car and increases interior space, Chrysler's LH sedans mark a significant change in the shape of automobiles, one that will probably be copied by other automakers. PERFORMANCE The standard model Dodge Intrepid comes with a 3.3-liter 153-horsepower V-6, but this week's test car, the high performance ES model, was outfitted with the optional Chrysler-built 214-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6. Like a Lexus, when you start the Intrepid's engine, you wonder if it is running - that's how smooth and quiet it is. Press the accelerator in the Intrepid ES and you will experience the same quick and refined response as you would in a BMW 535i or an Acura Legend. Unlike most front-wheel-drive cars, the Intrepid's engine sits normally - not sideways - in the engine bay. That means there is no torque steer, a pulling to the left or right under hard acceleration. Quick off the line and powerful throughout its 5,800 rpm rev range, the 24-valve single overhead cam 3.5-liter may rank as one of America's best engines. The Intrepid's all-new computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission is another high point. In the dark red test car, the shifts were ultra smooth. It's almost as if the Intrepid has only one gear. Unless the accelerator is floored, the driver is not likely to notice the shifts. Fuel economy in the test car fell a bit below EPA estimates, but I'll take the blame for that. I drove the test car very hard. I don't usually abuse test cars, but I had some questions about the Intrepid's mechanical integrity because of my experience with the Vision. Not anymore. The Intrepid smashed a home run every time I threw it a curve ball. I'm talking about doing such things as manually shifting the automatic transmission while the engine revved close to the limit, shifting into reverse before the car came to a complete stop, manually downshifting, and braking, turning and then accelerating suddenly. This Dodge can take a beating and keep its cool. HANDLING With the Intrepid ES, Chrysler engineers have created a vehicle that is as competent on the road as most mid-size imported sports sedans. But the Intrepid is priced more like a loaded Ford Taurus or a Honda Accord. If you pack into an Intrepid every option available - items such as traction control, leather seats, CD player and integrated child safety seats - you can't spend more than $23,400, according to Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines. The Intrepid ES comes with four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. These are not parts from other vehicles that Chrysler snatched off the corporate shelf. They've been desi ned specifically for the Intrepid and its LH brothers, the Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde. The Intrepid ES has a wide stance that gives the car a flat, solid and sure-footed feel. Road noise is still somewhat loud. The suspension system can be heard when driving over such things as potholes and speed bumps. If Chrysler engineers can find a way to silence the suspension system, the Intrepid ES can be America's Lexus ES 300. FIT AND FINISH The Intrepid is far and away the best-built sedan Chrysler has ever made. There were no manufacturing flaws of any kind in the test car. And it was loaded with user-friendly features and safety items. On the inside, the lighted switches have a high-quality European/Japanese style and feel to them. The dash comes across as a little busy with numerous curves, creases and seams. However, it is smartly laid out, and it sports a neatly styled set of analog gauges. The test car came with firm and comfortable cloth-covered bucket seats and a floor-mounted shifter. A minor improvement can be made in the seats. The headrests do not tilt, and they are practically useless. Also, the shifter needs a lighted gear indicator in the console. But nice touches abound. Rear-seat passengers have their own heating and air-conditioning vents. Doors open wide to allow easy entry and exit. There's more room than even the tallest passengers are likely to need. The environmentally friendly air-conditioning system is the best one you can buy in any car regardless of price. It seems powerful enough to cool a house. All Intrepids come with dual air bags, and the car's plastic fenders are ding, dent and rust resistant. In the past, Americans bought foreign cars in order to get a safe, dependable, high-quality vehicle at a lower price. The Intrepid changes all that. Today there is no car - foreign or domestic - that can match the performance, economy, safety features and room of the Intrepid for the same price. The Intrepid, Vision and Concorde are now the standard by which all mid-size cars, from Fords to BMWs, will be measured. Truett's tip: The Dodge Intrepid has everything it takes to be America's best-selling family sedan. The reign of the Ford Taurus and the Honda Accord may be about to end.
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