The folks at Chrysler Corporation are having fun, and their cars reflect that.

Take the Chrysler Cirrus, for example. Instead of building a stodgy four-door to attract buyers to the mid-size segment, Chrysler created a snappy sedan with eye-catching styling and the kind of energetic personality usually only found in imports. As a bonus, the car was given a spacious interior without increasing overall size.

The Cirrus, as well as its siblings, the Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze, show precisely how Chrysler engineers and stylists think creatively when faced with a clean sheet of paper.

While this is the third model year for the Cirrus, it continues basically unchanged. The continuous tweaks involve refinements such as adding an LED-lighted PRNDL indicator in the console, increasing the flow to rear-seat heat ducts and making an under-dash CD changer optional.

Although two engines are offered, our test car was equipped with the Mitsubishi-supplied 2.5-liter V6, the engine most likely to be specified by folks who chose the upscale Cirrus over the Stratus and Breeze. The smoothness of the V6, plus more power, give it the edge over the 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which is the other engine choice.

With 168 horsepower, the V6 gives the Cirrus enough power to satisfy those who might be accustomed to imports or bigger, more powerful domestic cars. This engine's slightly soft mid-range power requires a purposeful poke on the throttle to get spirited acceleration, but it is up to the task when so asked.

On the open road it covers miles effortlessly and is rated at a more-than-respectable 29 mpg.

Even though the Cirrus is rated as a mid-size, its interior is big, owing to the fact that Chrysler's touted "cab-forward" design slides the windshield and dash forward as much as possible to allow maximum space between the wheels for passengers.

The Cirrus' wheelbase is a longish 108 inches, just a half-inch shy of the Ford Taurus, yet its overall length is 11 inches less. The back seat is exceptionally big for a car in this class. Legroom accomodates six-footers and trunk space has not been sacrificed, either.

Drivers are greeted by a simple instrument cluster, handy controls that work smoothly and firm front bucket seats. The few pieces of simulated wood trim that highlight the interior don't look too realistic, but otherwise the decorating scheme is understated and pleasant. Our white test car had tan cloth seats accentuated with dark brown diagonal stripes, and the overall look was youthful without being garish.

The heavily articulated seat cushions provide good support and look inviting as well.

An integrated child seat is optional, and the car I drove was so equipped. The one drawback to this item is that the back seat no longer folds down to expand the trunk's capacity, but for people with a child that is not a significant price to pay.

A new addition for 1997 is the availabi lity of a six-disc CD changer mounted under the dash in front of the console. This clever solution to hours of music is much better than running around to the trunk to load a new disc into your cartridge. Sound quality, too, was excellent.

As a competitor to the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Pontiac Grand Am, the Cirrus brings unique styling, a big back seat and a reasonable price.


The base price of our Cirrus LX was $18,160, and its options included: the Gold Package of accents on wheels, emblems and badges; integrated child seat; premium AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD changer; and theft alarm.

Standard equipment included power windows, power locks with keyless remote, cruise control, tilt wheel, anti-lock brakes, power steering and air conditioning.

The sticker price was $20,745.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. The powertrain is covered for the same length of time.

Vehicles for The Star's week- ng test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: Cirrus is a big on the inside and small on the outside. It rides well, handles crisply and has styling that differentiates it from others on the market, all at a price that won't break your wallet.

Counterpoint: The instrument panel's plastic surface looks hard, and it would be nice if the automatic transmission had a button on the shift lever to shift out of overdrive.


ENGINE: 2.5-liter, V6


WHEELBASE: 108 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,076 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $18,160


MPG RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.