There is not a tougher segment of the automobile business than the affordable family sedan. From Camry to Saturn, Accord to Taurus, Altima to Malibu, manufacturers are locked into bruising market fights to grab significant numbers of buyers who have from $15,000-$22,000 to spend on a new car. Profit margins are thin in this arena, when compared to sport-utility vehicles and minivans. Yet potential sales are huge: Toyota, Honda and Ford will sell nearly a million Camrys, Accords and Taurus sedans this year. Though not at the top of the heap, Chrysler is out there pitching for those middle-class dollars with its Plymouth Breeze, Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus. It's a three-prong strategy in which Chrysler takes essentially the same platform and offers it in basic (Breeze), sport (Stratus) and luxury (Cirrus) flavors. Consider the Dodge Stratus ES: Based on interior room, equipment, performance and price, it's quite an attractive alternative to the ubiquitous Taurus, Camry and Accord. Start with styling and interior room, two elements that are linked in the Chrysler philosophy. Stratus (and its siblings) use cab-forward design that Chrysler touts heavily. Simply put, cab forward means the front and rear wheels are pushed out as far as possible, leaving more room between the axles for the cockpit. With perhaps the exception of the Taurus, the cab-forward design makes the Stratus one of the most attractive family sedans on the road. It certainly gets high marks for not being mistaken for every other sedan on the road. The exterior design translated into a very roomy interior, with a significant amount of rear-seat leg room. This is especially true when compared to leg room in Ford's Contour, which is close in price to Stratus. Nonetheless, three-across seating is strictly an in-a-pinch proposition, which is also the case in a lot of competitors. There is a standard full-length front center console, a pass-through from the rear seat to the large trunk, coin holder and rear-seat cup holders. The front seats are firm and provide good lower-back support. There is a good manual adjustment lever that raises and lowers the seat -- a nice touch that should be on all cars, regardless of price. The instrument panel provides full gauges, and the stereo and air-conditioning controls are well positioned in the center of the dash. Power comes from one of three available engines: a two-liter four with 132 horsepower, a 2.4-liter four that produces 150 horsepower, and a 2.5-liter V-6 rated at 168 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is available with the standard two-liter four, while the 2.4-liter four is available only with a four-speed automatic. With the V-6, Dodge installs a four-speed automatic with Chrysler's sporty AutoStick system. Like the Porsche Tiptronic, AutoStick has two modes -- regular automatic operation and a clutchless manual shift. In the manual mode, AutoStick oper ates similarly to a motorcycle gearbox: Tip the shift lever from side to side to go up or down in the gears. Combined with the punchy V-6, the AutoStick can make a family sedan feel much more like a sports car. Acceleration is very zippy -- 60 mph comes up in just eight seconds -- and the AutoStick allows for first-, second-, or third-gear starts on slippery surfaces. One puzzling design flaw exists, however. The shift action involves moving the lever from side-to-side. The natural motion would be up and down, which would seem to be an easy fix for Dodge to make. Brakes on the test car, a Stratus equipped with front discs, rear drums and an anti-lock system, seemed a bit spongy, which runs counter to the car's sporty nature. Discs on all four wheels would be a great improvement. Nonetheless, the Stratus is a car that is easy to like -- a lot. The fit and finish is very good, interior noise levels are low, and materials used on the interior provide a richer look han the price tag would suggest. A base Stratus starts at about $15,500, and an ES model kicks off at a little over $17,000. Fully equipped with the V-6, AutoStick, compact-disc player and a host of other options, a Stratus will list at only about $20,000. That's well within the affordable sedan ballpark, and the Stratus provides style and features not found on many competitors.
Base list price: $16,785 Price as tested: $19,745 Major options: Candy-apple red metallic paint Engine: 2.5-liter V-6. Horsepower: 168. Transmission: Four-speed automatic, AutoStick system. Weight: 2,955 pounds. 0-to-60 mph: 8.0 seconds. Truck capacity: 15.7 cubic feet. Mileage: 22-27 mpg. Safety: Dual front air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact door beams. Competition: Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima.
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