The West Coast is where trends get hatched. So look out for women with pink hair, party stores with drive-through espresso windows and the recasting of the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus as stylish family cars. to the critical
family-sedan segment. Everyone knows Ford Motor Co. has the Taurus, Toyota Motor Co. has the Camry, and Honda Motor Co. has the Accord. But which DaimlerChrysler sedan ends up on the family shopping list? Even company executives admit in the past
that could be a confusing list, including Intrepid, Concorde, Cirrus (which Sebring is replacing in 2001) and Stratus. For the new model year, however, DaimlerChrysler wants the all-new Sebring and Stratus four-doors to assume the mantle of family cars,
albeit with some panache. "The redesign is all about family," said John Tak, product planning manager. "This is about meeting the best - the Camry and Accord. Those buyers told us `we love the style of the Intrepid, but it's too big.' They didn't
think anything delivered style in the mid-size sedan price range." Jeffrey Godshall, senior design manager, said the 2001 sedans were restyled with a curvaceous roof line to give them a distinctive, coupe-like look. He describes Sebring/Stratus
as having a "diving wedge look" that gives them a dynamic stance. New wheel arches (think of them as eyebrows over the wheels) add definition. Curiously, the styling of the new mid-size cars seems fairly conservative for an automaker considered a fashion
leader in other segments. Camry and Accord buyers may crave style, but owners of the old Cirrus and Stratus had other gripes. They said previous models were too noisy, resale value was unimpressive and the old 2.5-liter engine was weak,
especially in mid-range passing. Tak said consumers will see improvements in noise reduction and engine power on the 2001 models. The new sedans have stiffer bodies, new suspensions and better ride and handling. As a result, the company expects
at least a 10-percent increase in resale value on the 2001 Sebring and Stratus, Tak said. To see how much Sebring had changed, we jumped into a loaded 2001 LXi model equipped with the 2.7-liter V-6 engine - a new option that replaces last year's
2.5-liter V-6 - and took a 90-mile ride through the winding roads north of Seattle. The new engine, rated at 200 horsepower, is up 32 hp and 22 pounds-feet of torque. The standard powerplant on the sedans is a revised twin-cam 2.4-liter
four-cylinder that makes 150 hp. Fuel economy is 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. Buyers should note the new Sebring will appeal to those who desire a more controlled ride and lighter steering feel. The Stratus requires more
steering effort and has a sportier feel. Both are helped by the fact that the company got rid of the old 14-inch tires and wheels and replaced them with either 15- or 16-inch versions, thus improving both handling and ride
comfort. Our test vehicle had a base price of $20,830. With options like a sunroof, CD changer and the new $350 side curtains that inflate and protect both front- and rear-seat outboard passengers in a crash, the sticker price rose to
$24,145. Later, we drove the previous model for comparison purposes and concurred that some notable improvements were made to the 2001 models, especially in terms of engine power with the 2.7 liter. While the new cars seemed somewhat quieter in
terms of engine noise, we noted some wind noise at highway speeds in the `01 Sebring LXi. One of the most striking changes to the new Sebring sedan is a revamped instrument panel that seems more suitable to conservative Toyota. Gone is the
swoopy, exuberant look of the old instrument panel, to be replaced by a plainer, linear look. Keeping families in mind, we discovered some minor disappointments on our test Sebring. It had a power driver's seat, but a manual passenger's seat.
though there are dual cupholders in the rear, there is no heating/air conditioning vent. And while there's a map pocket on the rear of the front passenger's seat, there isn't one on the driver's seat. The trunk could also use some kind of grab handle to
make it easier to close. The rear seat provided plenty of headroom, but three good-size adults might feel cramped. The new 60/40 split rear seat is a nice idea; previously, the whole seat-back flipped down and was slightly unwieldy.
Returning from our drive back to stylish downtown Seattle, we passed several women who had taken hair color to a new level - adding dramatic purple tips to the ends. We weren't sold on that particular fashion statement. But we're definitely warming up
to the idea of Sebring/Stratus as a decent family-sedan choice in 2001.