The technical term is mid-cycle freshening.

That means with the next-generation Stratus not due to arrive until the 2006 model year, it's time for Dodge to use cosmetics to touch up age marks on the old model.

And that means new front fascia and grille treatment as well as some equipment upgrades to make Stratus a bit more appealing as it awaits eventual replacement.

We tested the '04 Dodge Stratus SXT sedan, which, along with its cousin Chrysler Sebring (Transportation, June 29), will undergo a remake for '06 when it switches to a new platform developed by Mitsubishi.

To cut costs, Chrysler called upon Mitsubishi, in which it owns a controlling interest, to develop the platform to be shared by the next-generation Dodge Neon (expect a name change) and Mitsubishi Lancer for '05.

A stretch of that platform will be shared by the Stratus and Sebring sedans for '06 as well as the Mitsubishi Galant and Eclipse shortly after that. The jury is still out as to whether that stretched platform also will be used for the next-generation Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring coupes, however.

But back to the present.

Stratus was altered just enough to give it a slightly different look while maintaining its sporty appearance. Dodge, after all, is Chrysler Group's performance division.

Along with a new front end, chrome wheels have been replaced by painted aluminum wheels. Again, this was a cosmetic job, not the surgery scheduled for '06.

Other changes are less visible, such as for the first time teaming traction control with the optional ($695) anti-lock brakes. When you opt for ABS/traction control for '04, you get four-wheel disc brakes, an upgrade from front discs/rear drums in any non-ABS model.

Another change is audible and guaranteed to force you to buckle up: BeltAlert, a series of never-ending, rattle-your-gray-matter chimes that serve less as a reminder to reach for the belts and fasten them for your safety than simply to stop those chimes from driving you to . . . oops, sorry.

Chrysler employs BeltAlert, Ford employs BeltMinder, both of which are annoying, but do the trick.

Optional ($390) side air-bag curtains that serve front and rear-seat occupants are a companion safety feature to the standard dual front air cushions.

Some side air-bag systems protect only the upper torso, while others offer upper-torso and head protection. Stratus side curtains do the latter, a system rated more effective in protecting occupants.

Only a week ago the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a study that concluded that side air bags with head and upper-torso protection can reduce the risk of fatalities in side collisions by 50 percent from cars with no side protection.

Based on its study, the institute said it hopes more automakers make side bags or curtains that offer head protection standard rather than option al, especially because side-impact collisions are responsible for more than 9,000 fatalities annually.

For 2004, an estimated 47 percent of vehicles will offer some type of side air-bag system as standard or optional, an increase from an estimated 40 percent in 2003.

How many consumers opt to spend their money for side bags or curtains rather than an audio upgrade to CD player plus cassette, for example, is not known.

But based on industry feedback, you have to suspect that among youth on a budget, at least, the CD player/cassette often gets the call. That's why the insurance institute would like to see head-protecting side bags/curtains mandated as standard.

But we digress.

The Stratus SXT tested came with a 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower, 16-valve 4-cylinder with 4-speed automatic. While alert enough to move from the light without stumbling, this four-banger isn't designed for quick starts as it is infrequent stops at the fuel pump. Optimum fuel economy takes precedence over optimum performance, as noted by a 22 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway rating.

Stratus is a sporty-looking economy car.

If you want sporty looks and a little more power, you need to move up to the optional ($1,270) 2.7-liter, 200-h.p., 24-valve V-6.

You really don't sacrifice that much mileage; the V-6 is rated at 21 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway. And though you lose a little in fuel economy, you make up for it in part with quieter operation because the industry has yet to develop a 4-cylinder engine that doesn't tend to growl just a bit when you kick the pedal.

The suspension, however, is a bit soft and tuned for high-mileage cruising rather than high-performance maneuvering regardless of which engine you choose.

Base price of the Stratus SXT tested is $19,390. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM radio with CD player, rear-window defroster, keyless entry, speed control, tilt steering, split/folding rear seats, front and rear tinted solar glass and 16-inch all-season radial tires.

Besides ABS/traction control and the side air bags, you can add a power driver's seat for $380 and a power sunroof for $805. Upgrading the audio system with a cassette player adds $100 and converting one of the dual cupholders into an ashtray runs $30, unless, of course, you use a cup in the holder for that and save $30.

You can save a little money on Stratus for the next few days. Through Tuesday, Dodge is offering a $2,000 rebate or zero-percent financing for 36 months, 0.9 percent for 48 months or 1.9 percent for 60 months on the '04 Stratus; or a $3,000 rebate or zero percent financing for up to 60 months or 1.9 percent financing for 72 months on '03 Stratus sedans.

HHR update: Chevrolet said it has set its sights on a target price of about $23,000 and annual sales of at least 100,000 HHRs (Cars, Aug. 14), the compact car/truck crossover that it will add to the lineup for the '06 model year.

HHR, which borrows styling cues from the '49 Chevy Suburban sport-utility, is built on the same platform as the '05 Chevrolet Cobalt replacement for the Cavalier.

No final word, but Chevy says the 4-cylinder engine that will power HHR will be capable of delivering from 140 to 220 h.p., which suggests perhaps a base model and a performance upgrade like Chrysler does with its PT Cruiser. The front-drive HHR will be similar in size to the Cruiser.


2004 Dodge Stratus SXT

Wheelbase: 108 inches

Length: 190.7 inches

Engine: 2.4-liter, 150-h.p., 16-valve 4-cylinder

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 22 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $19,390

Price as tested: $20,795. I ncludes $695 for brakes with traction control; $200 for inferno red pearl paint; $380 for eight-way power driver's side seat; $100 for audio upgrade to AM/FM cassette with CD player; and $30 for smoker's group (ashtray). Add $625 for freight.

Pluses: Sporty appearance with minor cosmetic upgrade on basically a high-mileage economy car. Rather roomy cabin. Respectable price with only minimum options needed for a pleasant package of amenities. Traction control now teamed with ABS.

Minuses: Keep in mind it will be replaced for '06 with an new model developed with Mitsubishi. $30 for an ashtray?