The Dodge Stratus slots into the highly popular compact segment with attractive styling, a big interior and, for this year, crisper handling. While the Stratus and Cirrus are slated to be replaced with new models in the 2001 model year, the current car continues to be honed. The double-wishbone suspension was retuned this year to enhance responsiveness, resulting in sharper responses that put it on solid footing relative to many of its competitors. Even though the changes are rather subtle, overall balance has been improved and the steering has a better "on-center" feel. The front-wheel-drive Stratus is offered with a wide range of engines, beginning with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder that cranks out 132 horsepower. This (SOHC) unit is the same as the one in the Neon and it is only offered with a five-speed manual transmission. It starts at $15,990 including freight. Next up the line is the 2.4-liter, (DOHC) four-cylinder that puts out 150 horsepower. It is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The third engine choice is a 2.5-liter, SOHC V6 that has 168 horsepower and an AutoStick automatic transmission. This combination is standard on the sporty ES model, which is the model driven for this report. It's base price was $19,494. The smooth and strong V6 engine is the ideal complement to the automatic transmission, and the AutoStick feature, standard on every V6, gives drivers the chance to shift for themselves if they desire. It is engaged by sliding the gear lever all the way to the back of the shift pattern, then moving the lever from side to side for upshifts and downshifts. When the car comes to a stop, the transmission automatically shifts to first gear. After that the driver moves the lever for each upshift. In snowy weather it is possible to start off in either second or third gear to limit the possibility of wheelspin. While the manual/automatic transmission is pretty much a novelty that will go unused after the first few days, it's nice to have it for those times when you want to do some spirited driving. The Stratus, as well as its Chrysler Cirrus and Plymouth Breeze stable mates, has a lot of interior room considering the overall size of the vehicle, thanks to Chrysler's cab-forward design. The 108-inch wheelbase is longer than most cars in the compact class because the wheels have been moved out closer to the corners of the vehicle. Pulling the base of the windshield forward over the engine left more space for up to five passengers. As a result, legroom in the back seat is considerably greater than one would expect for a car with an overall length of 186 inches. Trunk room, too, is generous but can be expanded courtesy of the split-folding rear seat. Dodge press materials indicate that other changes for 1999 include new graphics for the instrument cluster, different seat and door panel fabric and reduced interior noise and vibration. The gauge faces on the ES are white with blac k numerals. Below the center section of the dash, and in front of the gear lever, sit two large cupholders that are a bit out of the way. Our test car was equipped with the eight-way adjustable power driver's seat, leather upholstery, keyless entry and a cargo net. This $1,280 option made the interior even more inviting and comfortable. The Stratus front seats have excellent lateral and lumbar support. Price The base price of our Stratus ES test car was $19,495. Options included leather seats, remote keyless entry, eight-way power driver's seat, cargo net and premium AM/FM stereo. The sticker price was $20,335. Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles. Point: The Stratus offers athletic styling, a spacious interior and good handling in a compact package. The V6 engine with AutoStick is the most enjoyable engine option because it gives the driver the choice of shifting manually depending on conditions. Counterpoint: The cupholders are low and forward, in front of the gear lever, where they can be hard to access. SPECIFICATIONS:
ENGINE: 2.5-liter, V6
CONFIGURATION: Front-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 108 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,067 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $19,495
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $20,335
MPG RATING: 19 city, 27 hwy.
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