The midsize sedan segment is a tough place to do battle. Not only are there lots of choices, but the choices are almost all universally good cars. Choosing the right one for you often comes down to an emotional decision: which car gets your juices flowing the most.

The Dodge Stratus hopes to entice buyers with a lean and sporty look. It is the first cousin to the Chrysler Sebring, with whom it shares its mechanical bits and basic body structure. A key difference is that the Stratus has the familiar Dodge cross-hair grille and a slightly more youthful character.

The Stratus distinguishes itself from the rest of the midsize pack with crisp styling and a surprisingly roomy cabin. A variety of models are available. The test car was an SE Plus, and its base price was $18,595. However, there's an SXT sedan that starts with the basic SE and adds 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and an AM/FM/CD player. Its base price is $17,995. Additional models include the upscale ES and performance-oriented R/T.

Although the base engine is a 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower four-cylinder that should give yeoman service, folks looking for a bit more emotion will choose the 200-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 like the one in the test car. This little V-6 has dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and a sparkling personality. It revs willingly and makes decent power at both low and high engine speeds. It was coupled to an automatic transmission. The Autostick that allows the driver to shift gears manually is available on the R/T.

As mentioned, the Stratus' cabin is commendably spacious, due in large measure to the fact that it rides on a 108-inch wheelbase. Wheels are pushed out toward the corners of the vehicle to help maximize the space available for people and luggage. The test car was equipped with the sport suspension that comes with the V-6 engine, but I would prefer a little tighter ride.

The instrument panel has white-faced gauges and woodgrain trim that adds a feeling of warmth to the interior even if it is obviously not real wood. Cupholders are built into the front section of the console, but their location limits the size cup or bottle they can hold. Cloth-covered seats are comfortable and roomy. The split-folding back seat opens up cargo space for bikes, skis or camping gear.

Multistage front airbags are standard, as are seat belt pretensioners and four-wheel disc brakes. Anti-lock brakes are optional. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the Stratus a five-star rating for both driver and passenger in a front impact.

Side airbags, including a side window curtain bag, are available for $390, and they would be worth every cent in case of an accident.

The base price of the test car was $18,595. Options included an eight-way power seat, battery heater and engine block heater, security alarm, anti-lock disc brakes, side curtain airbags, power sunroof, premium stereo wi th AM/FM/CD player, full-size spare tire and the 2.7-liter V-6 engine.

The sticker price was $23,305.

Three years or 36,000 miles. Chrysler just announced the adoption of a seven-year, 70,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

Point: The Stratus sedan offers athletic styling and a spacious interior. The optional 2.7-liter V-6 boosts its energy output like a can of Red Bull.

Counterpoint: Cupholders can't hold tall water bottles and the suspension is a tad soft.

Engine: 2.7-liter, 200-hp V-6
Transmission: Autostick
Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 108 inches
Curb weight: 3,200 lbs.
Base price: $18,595
As driven: $23,305
Mpg rating: 20 city, 28 hwy.
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