This is Chrysler country. From the funky rhythms of Woodward Avenue to the neighborhood joints on Jefferson, from the soul food served at the Ja.Da Restaurant to the French cuisine at the Harlequin Cafe, from the splendid exhibits at the imposing Museum of African History to the performing arts center anchored by Orchestra Hall.

If you want to understand Chrysler -- or "Chrysler's," as folks call it here -- you've got to understand this town.

It is hip, flip and mostly black -- and Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Asian -- and white at the borders. You don't come here unless you know how to dance, and you don't dance here unless you know somethin' 'bout style.

Take Chrysler's 1998 Dodge Intrepid ES sedan. Folks see you in this car and they figure you know how to boogie. It's pure Detroit, from its high, flippant rear to its swooped front end. But it's made across the Detroit River at Chrysler's Bramalea Assembly Plant in Ontario.

That's okay, though, especially if you're a member of the Canadian AutoWorkers union. Besides, place of assembly doesn't detract from the Intrepid's urban spirit. You get nods in this car.

You're cruisin' down Woodward, and some dude rolls down his window and shouts: "Hey, man, your ride's got a nice butt!" He wasn't trying to be funny. The Intrepid -- introduced in 1995 and completely redesigned for 1998 -- does have a nice butt. It's one of the first things you notice about the car, which is why Chrysler put the jewel-like "Intrepid" nameplate smack dab in the middle of the car's behind.

The Dodge Intrepid is the sporty version of the Chrysler Concorde, a near-luxury sedan that passionately embraces suburbia. You'll find mock wood-grain trim pieces -- which many Detroit auto execs equate with "elegance" -- in the Concorde. You won't find that stuff in the Intrepid ES, which purports to be more of a driver's car with its black-on-white gauges and its AutoStick gearshift lever.

Autostick is a fantasy device. Itallows the driver to pretend he's shifting the transmission manually by bringing the lever to the bottom of the gear gate, and then moving it right or left to select high or low gears. It's a style thing. But if you're more into driving than profiling, you just put the transmission in "drive" and go about your business.

It matters little that your business is miles away -- assuming that neither road construction nor a crash has caused a traffic jam on I-75 (the Chrysler Freeway), I-94 or any of the other major highways serving this town. The Intrepid ES has a sweet engine -- a 3.2-liter, 24-valve, single-overhead-cam V-6 that produces 220 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 222 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The base Dodge Intrepid has a 2.7-liter, 200-horsepower version of that engine. Both engines also are available in the Concorde models.

Both the Intrepid and the Concorde are front-wheel-drive sedans that seat five people. But though their basic structures and mechanicals ar e identical, they are completely different in personality and feel.

The Concorde is Grosse Pointe Park, a nearby, upper-middle-income suburb. The Intrepid is inner-city Detroit. It's sort of poetic: cars with identical platforms from the same source, but with completely different souls -- much like the people who call this town home.

1998 Dodge Intrepid ES

Complaints: Though the tested Intrepid ES was put together perfectly, I had the distinct impression that something was missing. It's this: consistent quality. Chrysler uses a few cheap-feel plastic parts in the interior, such as the housing around the center console, that are out of place with the overall beauty and sensuality of the car.

Praise: One fine-looking body. One heck of a nice ride.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Aces for ride and acceleration. But handling suffers a bit in curves, where that bodacious back end tends to wiggle.

Head-turning quotient: Political correctnes be damned. "Nice butt!"

Safety: Good braking. Kudos to new antilock/traction-control system that reduces pedal shudder in panic stops. Larger, brighter headlamps illuminate wider area and reduce eyestrain in night driving; dual front air bags; higher-strength steel in center pillars to boost side-impact crash protection; and larger front and rear brake discs to improve stopping.

Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon. Fuel tank holds 17 gallons of unleaded regular gasoline. Estimated range is 399 miles on usable volume.

Cargo capacity: 18.4 cubic feet.

Sound system: Superb! Chrysler Infinity System, AM-FM stereo radio and cassette with compact disc.

Price: Base price on the tested 1998 Intrepid ES is $22,465. Dealer invoice price on the base model is $20,524.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Chrysler Concorde, Chevrolet Lumina, Toyota Avalon, Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis, and perhaps the Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, and Oldsmobile Eighty Eight.