2002 Dodge Stratus Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Value with style.Sport-coupe styling with four-door practicality.
Swaggering, sleek and muscular, the Dodge Stratus recalls a bygone era of big coupes, hulking, family-size coupes, that absolutely demanded your attention. Dodge's own Charger comes to mind. Arrogant and powerful, they were the toys and status symbols of the young and successful, some 30 years ago.
Stratus brings that excitement back, in a modern, efficient, and aerodynamic package, still with a family-size back seat, and all for starting price under $18,000.
Stratus was all-new last year (2001), when it replaced the similarly themed Dodge Avenger. Compared to the Avenger, however, the Stratus Coupe features a stiffer platform and larger engines, including a 200-horsepower V6. Changes to Stratus for 2002 are minimal, consisting mostly of upgrades to sound systems and other optional equipment. Sleek as a coupe, but roomy like a sedan, the mid-size, four-door Stratus sedan was totally redesigned and re-engineered last year for better ride, handling, and performance. Its improved road manners now boost Stratus squarely into the same league as the most popular imports, including the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
But for sheer style, the Stratus struts more individual personality than any 10 Pacific Rim products put together.
For 2002, Dodge has reinforced the individualistic image of the Stratus with a sporty R/T sedan, powered by a 200-horsepower V6 and riding on a lowered suspension and 17-inch Vertex alloy wheels.
Two trim levels are available for the Stratus Coupe, SE and R/T.
Stratus SE ($17,920) comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, and the choice between a five-speed manual and (for $825) a four-speed automatic transmission. Air conditioning plus power windows, mirrors and door locks are all standard on the SE.
Stratus R/T ($20,940) comes with a 3.0-liter single-cam V6, which delivers 200 horsepower. The V6 also mates either to the standard five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox (again, $825). For $165 more, automatic R/T buyers can choose the AutoStick feature, which allows either automatic operation or no-clutch manual shifting.
Dodge makes the V6 available as an option for the Stratus SE, either as a stand-alone option ($850) or included in one of two Quick Order packages. One of these, Option 24A ($1,710), adds the V6, four-wheel-disc brakes and automatic transmission; that adds up to a very nice V6-powered coupe for less than $20,000.
The V6-powered R/T adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium sound system with cassette deck, CD player, and seven Infinity speakers. Optional anti-lock brakes (ABS) cost $565 with a manual transmission, or $740 with an automatic, as in the latter case they come packaged with traction control.
Safety systems in Stratus begin with the rigid structure that wraps around the passenger compartment. Add to that dual-stage front airbags, three-point seatbelts for all five seating positions and four-wheel disc brakes with optional (on R/T only) ABS and traction control.
Dodge also makes a Stratus Sedan, but offers it in different trim levels, with different engine and equipment options. (See separate nctd.com report.) Stratus Coupe and Stratus Sedan ride on different chassis. The Stratus Coupe is more closely related to the new Chrysler Sebring Coupe and Mitsubishi Eclipse; all three share engines, chassis and suspension designs, and are built at a joint-venture assembly plant between Bloomington and Normal, Illinois. The basic Stratus SE sedan ($17,400) is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams, generating 150 horsepower. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission available. SE is modestly equipped with air conditioning, power brakes and power steering, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM cassette stereo with four speakers, and power windows and locks.
Stratus SE Plus ($18,845) adds amenities such as cruise control, power mirrors, power seats, a CD player and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
Stratus ES ($20,660) moves up to a 2.7-liter dual-cam V6 rated 200 horsepower, plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and firm-feel power steering, sport suspension, lower-profile tires, a premium sound system, and other niceties.
The V6 may be added to the Stratus SE or SE Plus for $850.
Several safety systems are listed as options for all three models, including ABS ($565) and side-impact airbags ($390).
The new Stratus sedan R/T ($21,400) mates the 2.7-liter V6 with a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional, with or without Dodge's slick AutoStick manual override. ABS comes standard on the R/T, along with a performance-tuned suspension and P215/50HR17 Michelin Pilot all-season tires. The combination of V6 power and a real stick shift is growing increasingly rare in this class; kudos to Dodge for not forgetting the enthusiast driver.
Dodge also builds a Stratus coupe, in SE and R/T trim. But while it shares a family resemblance with the sedan, the coupe is a very different car mechanically. (See full review of the Stratus coupe at NewCarTestDrive.com.).
The slick shape of the Stratus Coupe demonstrates the benefits of wind-tunnel testing, as its arched structure slices through the air with a clean sweep from nose to tail. Its taut skin stretches across its long, broad form as smoothly as flowing water. Flat side panels seem to come from the NASCAR school of design, along with muscular shoulders suggesting strength and action.
The graceful profile and dramatic windshield rake reflect Dodge's flagship sedan, the Intrepid. Yet its stubby prow and body-colored, cross-hair grille reveal a relationship with the racy Dodge Viper. At the rear, shapely pillars slide down into rolled flanks, and a neat tail spoiler curves over bold corner lamps and the thick mass of a monochrome bumper. Dodge has applied the taut dimensions and fluid lines of a slick two-door coupe to the surprisingly space-efficient Stratus sedan.
The Stratus sedan shares many of the design cues of the Stratus coupe, even though the two cars are built on entirely different platforms. The Dodge Stratus sedan is built on a Chrysler platform, while the Stratus coupe is rides on a Mitsubishi platform.
The windshield of the Stratus sedan describes a graceful arch that extends over its sensuously shaped doors. It merges thin rear roof pillars into an abbreviated tail. That arching profile echoes design cues from other Dodge sedans, while the stubby prow and body-colored, cross-hair grille suggests the Viper. Rounded front corners carry multi-lens headlamps set above round fog-light openings.
Shapely rear pillars slide down into the sedan's flanks to form shoulders around the high tail. A rear spoiler lip arches over large corner lamps and the thick mass of a monochrome bumper.
The architectural design of the four-door Stratus carves out generous space for riders by extending the windshield forward, increasing the length and width of the cabin, and abbreviating space for the engine. A highly rigid structure encases the passenger compartment, contributing to safety. Stratus enjoys a double-five-star safety rating from the Federal government.
Generous passenger space comes from the Coupe's architectural design, which extends the windshield forward, abbreviates space for the engine, and increases the length and width of the cabin.
High-back bucket seats come standard, although they are trimmed in different fabrics for the SE and R/T. For an additional $1,045, the R/T can be ordered with cushy and comfortable leather; the package also includes six-way power and a HomeLink garage door system nicely integrated into the visors. The visors themselves are wider than the sharply raked windshield and are articulated on the end to allow them to bend around the A-pillar, which is not the ideal solution.
The tachometer and other instruments are tucked into deep binnacles beneath a bowed cowl designed to shield them from sunlight. Sculptured pods on either side of the center console create separate cockpit spaces for the driver and front passenger. From the driver's seat, you can easily reach the shift lever, or the window and lock switches mounted on the door. The handbrake lever is on the spindly side.
Above the console is a central stack of audio and climate controls. The ventilation system uses basic rotary dials with plastic vents that feel a bit flimsy. Stereo controls are small, with sliders for bass and treble that can be difficult to operate on a bumpy highway. A display at the top of the dash provides compass heading and outside temperature readings, useful information when out and about.
The Stratus provides excellent outward visibility for the driver with broad, tall expanses of glass, and relatively narrow windshield pillars.
Unlike some sport coupes, Stratus has a room in the back seat for adult riders. The rear bench seats three, and the seat back is split 60/40 for access to the trunk. We crawled into the rear seat and found that our long legs fit neatly, even comfortably, behind the driver's seat. The front seat slides forward far enough to permit quick entry or reasonably graceful extraction. Few coupes provide as much rear seat leg space, although Toyota's Solara beats the Stratus by more than an inch.
Trunk space is the best in its class, exceeding most Japanese coupes by three cubic feet and the Ford Mustang by more than five cubic feet. We easily parked two medium-sized recycling bins in the trunk of our test car. In spite of its sporty appearance, the Dodge Stratus offers a roomy interior. High-back bucket seats come upholstered in cloth or optional leather. The rear bench seats three, with folding seatbacks split 60/40 for access to the trunk.
Round analog instruments, tucked beneath an arched cowl and rimmed with black bezels, employ bold black-on-white graphics. Although the dashboard is flat and linear, there's a wrap-around feel to the cockpit.
From the driver's seat you can easily reach window and lock switches mounted on the door, or the center console housing the transmission shift lever and a padded armrest. Above the console, stacked controls for audio and climate systems include large rotary dials in a simple scheme.
Thanks to the broad and tall expanses of window glass and relatively narrow windshield pillars, the Stratus provides excellent outward visibility for the driver, enhancing safety.
Passive safety measures include three-point seatbelts for all five seat positions and dual-stage frontal airbags. Side-impact airbags are available as a $390 option.
With its confident road manners, Stratus creates a feeling of hardware working in harmony. Its ride quality is smooth, yet firm enough to feel nimble in curves. The car is quick to respond to steering inputs, deftly changing lanes.
The R/T suspension is tuned stiffer still, and rides on wider tires. The SE has 16-inch wheels with P205/60HR16 tires; R/T uses 17-inch wheels with P215/50HR17 rubber. The larger tires feel more aggressive when turning, and ultimately improve the coupe's agility.
Still, the basic suspension layout is same for both models, and includes MacPherson struts up front with lower A-arms. Shock tower bracing increases chassis rigidity. In back, upper A-arms combine with lower lateral and semi-trailing links and coil springs. Anti-roll bars, which reduce body lean in corners, are standard. Straight-line stability and highway ride are particularly good, although we think the old Avenger might have felt a little more confident when charging hard through a turn. The tires offer good grip, but generate a hissing sound at highway speeds.
Stratus SE is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and sequential multi-point fuel injection. Output reaches 147 horsepower with a manual transmission, and 142 with an automatic. That's good enough to beat the base engine in the Toyota Solara, and comes close to matching the power of Honda's Accord. The four-cylinder engine feels energetic through all the gears, but it also works pretty hard. To maximize the power you must run the revs high, and it gets a bit noisy in the upper-rpm range.
On the other hand, the 3.0-liter single-cam V6 (standard in R/T, and part of a $1710 package in SE) delivers brisk acceleration. It develops 200 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 205 foot-pounds of torque at just 4500 rpm. That's as much or more power than other V6 competitors. Nail the throttle and the R/T goes, whether starting from the gate or overtaking a slower car. When cruising, the V6 produces a sporty exhaust note pleasing to enthusiasts. Overall, the character of the Stratus R/T lies somewhere between that of a pony car (Camaro, Mustang) and a more refined Japanese coupe.
The standard five-speed manual is a short-throw stick that moves effortlessly fore and aft, with smooth clutch engagement and easy up-shifts. The optional four-speed automatic contains an adaptive controller tied to a computer that quickly learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit their driving style. Take it easy, and the transmission shifts gently at relatively low engine speed. Stomp it and it stays in gear longer for better acceleration. Tackle a long downhill descent and it drops down a gear to add engine braking. With the AutoStick, you can slide the automatic shift lever into manual mode for shift-it-yourself entertainment without having to pump a clutch pedal.
The R/T and 3.0-liter SE both come with four-wheel disc brakes that bring them to a quick stop. Slam on the brakes and optional ABS steps in to prevent wheel lockup, helping you maintain steering control in an emergency braking maneuver. The four-cylinder SE coupe comes with rear drum brakes, and ABS is not an option. Traction control, available on R/T automatics, is useful to reduce front wheel spin when accelerating on wet pavement. The Dodge Stratus sedan is easy to control with precise handling and a firm, smooth ride. With rack-and-pinion power steering, it turns in crisply and feels nimble on winding roads.
The V6 engine delivers spirited acceleration performance. It responds quickly for merging onto crowded freeway. Punch it at highway speeds, and it quickly overtakes slower cars for safe passing. With its aluminum block, dual overhead cams and multi-valve technology, the 2.7-liter V6 delivers 200 horsepower but still earns respectable fuel economy (EPA-rated for 20/28 mpg city/hwy). And it runs on regular-grade gasoline.
The electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is quiet and efficient. Gear ratios have been calibrated to produce quick acceleration performance and responsive shifting in stop-and-go commuting.
Stratus SE with its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine musters less power than the V6, but feels energetic through all the gears. It's a noisy engine, however, and to maximize the power you'll need to rev it up.
Instinctively, the four-cylinder engine may sound like a bargain, but the primary difference is in the initial purchase price, which only differs by about $850. Fuel economy numbers differ by only 1 mile per gallon. Therefore, we recommend the V6 option.
This car feels very stable and is not easily upset by bumps, like dropping the right wheels off the pavement on an irregular shoulder. This and its smooth ride quality are benefits of its fully independent suspension with a double wishbones in front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Anti-roll bars come standard (front only on SE, front and rear on ES and R/T) to reduce body lean in corners. In addition to its stiffer springs, the ES has 16-inch rather than 15-inch wheels. The larger tires feel more stable when turning, and ultimately improve the car's agility.
Four-wheel-disc brakes with optional ABS provide sure stopping power.
Dodge Stratus Coupe disguises a spacious passenger compartment behind a sleek facade. It offers style, practicality, and value. The sporty Stratus R/T adds V6 performance yet still holds the bottom line to a reasonable number. Dodge Stratus comes as an attractive sedan with sleek styling that makes this four-door look more like a coupe. The sporty design is backed up by competent road manners and crisp acceleration performance from the available V6 engine.
This sportiness comes with practicality. Inside, the Stratus sedan is spacious and comfortable. Best of all, it's reasonably priced.
SE ($17,920); R/T ($20,940). SE ($17,400); SE Plus ($18,845); ES ($20,660); R/T ($21,400).
Normal, Illinois. Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Options As Tested
ABS ($565); power sunroof ($695). side-impact airbags ($390); leather seating and trim ($600); ABS Plus ($565).
Stratus R/T ($20,940). Stratus ES ($20,660).
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