A "but" midway through a sentence can mean, "Get ready for a letdown." Now that you're forewarned: The sportiest member of Dodge's Stratus family, the R/T, has a winning combination of six-cylinder power, sporty handling and a reasonable price, but you can't have it with automatic transmission.
Other Stratuses are, of course, available with automatic and even with the R/T's engine. But, in opting for one of them, you'd forgo the performance features that distinguish the R/T. They include a lower, 3.77, final drive ratio for more torque and, therefore, quicker increases in speed without a downshift.
The R/T also has a specially tuned performance suspension and steering that has less power assist -- although the same ratio -- than those in other Stratuses. The R/T also comes with Michelin V-rated (149 mph) tires on 17-inch wheels rather than 16s.
Those tires could be a major contributor to the only serious drawback of this car: a fairly high level of road noise entering the cabin, especially over coarse pavement.
The 2002 is the R/T version of a Stratus sedan; there was an R/T version of the Stratus coupe last year. A basically different car, built in Illinois by Mitsubishi, the coupe shares mechanical features with the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Motor Trend said the coupe made it from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds in its tests. TV's Motor Week said an R/T sedan did it in 7.5 seconds in its tests.
The R/T sedan has a 2.7-liter Chrysler engine, rated at 200 hp. and 190 pounds feet of torque. It was first offered in Stratuses last year. Except for a dead spot just below 4,000 rpm, the tester's engine performed well and provided enough torque to reduce the need for downshifts in many cases when more speed was desired.
My R/T felt safe and secure no matter what driving challenges I threw at it. But there is a price to pay in ride comfort; it can get rough when the road isn't perfect. Test drive before you opt for this version.
The five-speed stick is a bit scratchy moving through the gears but not bad.
Otherwise, no significant complaints. The interior is acceptable, except for some cheap-looking plastic trim across the dashboard. And the CD player controls are so low behind the gearshift one almost has to crawl on the floor to read their markings.
My tester's optional driver's seat offered power adjustability that would seem to suit almost anyone. Major controls are logically placed and self-explanatory, with rotary knobs for the heater/ventilation/air-conditioning system.
There's a 12-volt power outlet below those CD player controls. The rear seatbacks fold down in a 60-40 arrangement to increase cargo room.
Stratuses were significantly changed for the 2001 model year. They begin at $18,380 with freight for a four-door sedan with a five-speed stick and a 2.4-liter, 150-hp. four-cylinder engine. They don't sell stripped versions of these cars.
Coupes, equipped the same way, begin at $18,965 with freight. At least until Sept. 3, Chrysler is offering a $3,000 rebate on coupes, with cut-rate financing as an alternative.
Automatic transmission, a four- speed, adds $825 in either model.
My R/T tester had a sticker price of $25,240 with freight and many options, the most expensive of which were leather upholstery ($600), a sunroof ($695) and one that I would recommend: side-impact air bags and curtain-type air bags, both for $390.
The Stratus earned a top rating from the federal government for the protection it affords passengers in frontal impacts - five stars out of five. But its side impact performance earned just three stars out of five.
The R/T has antilock brakes as standard equipment; ABS is optional in other Stratuses. In addition to its performance equipment, the R/T comes with its own aesthetic package, including a rear spoiler and body color body side moldings. Its body color grille is fitted with fog lamps.
The competition? Well, there are lots of compact sedans to choose from. But most have rather pedestrian four-cylinder engines. As a compact with a V-6 and an under-$20,000 starting price, the Stratus R/T is a member of an exclusive group. Two other competitors are the aged and unimpressive Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am.
Honda Accord? Nice car, but a six-cylinder sedan begins at more than $23,000 for 2002; the redesigned 2003 models soon to go on sale are apt to cost more.
BMW 3 series? Also great cars, but it takes at least $27,000 to get into a six-cylinder 325i sedan - and its engine, by the way, produces less horsepower and torque than the Stratus'.
The competitor I'd suggest you consider most carefully is the Volkswagen Jetta GLS with a 2.8-liter, six-cylinder engine rated at 200 hp. and 195 pounds feet of torque.
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