Dodge introduced the fresh, radically styled
Stratus in 1994 as a 1995 model. Its companion car was the Chrysler Cirrus, another cloud
formation. As Chrysler is higher in the corporate hierarchy than Dodge, so the Cirrus
cloud flies higher in the atmosphere. But in any case, the Stratus is a perfectly good
vehicle, but because it competes in the hot midsize sedan market against the likes of the
Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, it is easy to overlook.
The Stratus was completely redesigned for the 2001 model year, and
its unusual styling was tamed somewhat. It remains an attractive, low-slung four-door
sedan, equipped with the features many people desire.
The Stratus comes in four model lines: SXT, SE, ES, and R/T. On
their own, these letters don't mean much, and conjure up no images of animals or
geographical locations. The SE is the standard model, while the ES is a little sportier
and better equipped. The SXT was introduced for 2002, and is the least expensive,
value-oriented model. The R/T, like my test car, is the sportiest of the lot, with a
standard manual transmission and numerous other performance and appearance upgrades.
My R/T arrived in Inferno Red Tinted Pearl Coat (a $200 option),
which made it look like a giant Red Hot cinnamon candy. It wore massive headlamp units up
front with a low Dodge gun sight grille sunk into the Inferno Red bumper. The tail sported
a jaunty wing and a chrome-tipped exhaust tucked under the other Inferno Red bumper. The
wheels, full 17-inchers, looked like giant starfish, and their wide-open design showed off
the car's four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock.
Inside, the Stratus R/T offers leather on the seats, steering wheel,
and shift knob for $600, a very reasonable figure, and my tester had them in dark slate
gray. The entire interior was dressed in unrelieved dark slate gray except for the pseudo
carbon fiber trim on the deep dash. The door panels looked like they were made of one
piece of plastic, and appeared softer than they really are. The cup holders in the full
front console hold a Grande Starbucks cup perfectly.
This top Stratus contained air conditioning, power locks that engage
automatically as speed increases, cruise control, power windows, and a host of other
conveniences. The Stratus has earned top honors for crash safety from the Government, with
a five-star rating for both the driver and front passenger. The standard front airbags are
Next Generation, Multistage, which means they inflate more gradually and only under
specific circumstances, which minimizes the chances of injury from the airbag during a
crash. My car had optional side airbags ($390) as well.
The Stratus comes with either a four-cylinder or six-cylinder
engine, depending on model. The economy-oriented SXT gets a 2.4-liter four that puts out
150 horsepower. The other three models come with a 2.7-liter V6, which generates 200
horsepower. This matches up pretty well with the 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder choices offered
by the Stratus' competitors. My V6 tester had EPA ratings of 20 city, 27 highway; I earned
22.9 for the week according to the trip computer in the dash.
The SXT, SE, and ES come with a standard four-speed automatic
transmission Only the R/T model gets the five-speed manual. I found this gearbox to be a
bit notchy, especially in the 3-2 downshift. One way to have it both ways (on the R/T
only) would be to order the optional AutoStick, which gives you an automatic that you can
shift sequentially without a clutch.
The Stratus is positioned as a good value in the midsize segment,
starting at just $18,475 for the SXT model. With a full roster of features like 16-inch
alloy wheels, automatic transmission, cruise control, keyless entry, power locks, power
windows, power mirrors, and a good stereo with CD, the SXT gives you a big car for small
car money. The SE starts at $19,875, the ES steps up to $22,115, and the R/T tops out at
My test car stickered just a few dollars short of $25,000 because of
the optional leather package, upgraded stereo, and side airbags I mentioned earlier, plus
a power sunroof ($695) and eight-way power driver's seat ($380). So, if you are seeking a
great midsize sedan, don't leave the Dodge Stratus off your road test list just because
its name is a bit foggy. It really is a nice car!