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SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyer's Guide

1996 Dodge Stratus/Plymouth Breeze

by JOHN HEILIG

SPECIFICATIONS (Stratus)

ENGINE: 2.5-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 168hp @5800 rpm/170 lb.ft. @ 4350 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Four-speed Automatic/Stick Shift
ECONOMY: 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, 23.1 mpg test
WHEELBASE: 108.0 in.
OVERALL LENGTH: 186.0 in.
OVERALL WIDTH: 71.7 in.
OVERALLHEIGHT: 51.9in.
CURB WEIGHT: 2,899 lbs.
FUEL CAPACITY: 19.0 gals.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY: 15.7 cu. ft.
TIRES: P195/65HR15
INSTRUMENTS: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level,
             water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT: Power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with cassette,
           dual air bags, ABS.
STICKER PRICK: $19,125

Here are two cars that are virtually identical but so different it's hard to believe they're built by the same manufacturer. The reason they're combined here is that we tested them back-to-back and the differences were more apparent than the similarities.

First, the Plymouth Breeze and Dodge Stratus, along with the other "cloud" car, the Chrysler Cirrus, are well-designed, solid mid-sized four-door sedans that will make everyone forget the K-Cars. They exhibit modern "cab forward" styling, have abundant interior room and stunning good looks. The differences are in the option list and the personal tastes of the buyers who may like one brands gee-gaws better than another's.

I first drove the Plymouth Breeze when I was in Indianapolis for the Indy 500 Hall of Fame Museum event prior to the race. This Breeze was powered by the standard four-cylinder engine and had a full load of accessories, including a cellular phone that was installed by the rental company (worked for me!). I loved the car. My tour through Indianapolis wasn't hindered by traffic since the event happened a week before the race, but we still had to maneuver through city streets and urban and suburban areas. The Breeze did its job well, and was comfortable for myself and passengers while still offering a great amount of luggage space.

The next Breeze visit wasn't as much fun. This car--a regular extended drive vehicle--was also powered by a four-cylinder engine, but it seemed to have far less power. Here was a more practical vehicle with better fuel economy (probably) than the rental car, but a bit less fun. The four-banger breeze carries a 2.0-liter engine that is rated at 132 horsepower. I had no stiff neck from outstanding acceleration, but we did achieve 24.2 mpg in combined driving in a basically brand-new vehicle.

Power reached the front wheels through a five-speed gearbox that was well-suited to the smaller engine. Fours are okay with mid-sized cars, but you gotta have a stick. I believe that an automatic would have made the Breeze far too sluggish for anything but highway driving. The manual shifter, on the other hand, took advantage of the flexibility of the engine and made the lower power acceptable.

We also had a simple AM/FM radio, wind-up windows, and minimum goodies in a car with a sticker price of around $16,500.

A week later I was in the Dodge Stratus, with a six-cylinder engine and an automatic. Despite the similarities with the Breeze (they were even the same color!), the Stratus was a completely different automobile. For one, the V-6 engine was rated at 158 horsepower and they were usable horses, even combined with the four-speed automatic stick shift.

My wife, who doesn't drive regular stick-shifts, took the Stratus out a couple of times and really liked the way the car handled. A co-worker also took the Stratus for a spin and his main comment was how impressed he was with the tightness of the car. The suspension was firm, but not stiff, and offered very good handling on the mountain roads without knocking your kidneys around.

The Automatic Stick-Shift transmission offered in the Stratus (a $1,500 option) gives an owner the option of driving the car like an automatic or like a manual. The shifter gate is like an inverted T. In "D," the shifter rests just above the crosspiece. When you want to shift the transmission, you drop it down into the crosspiece area. You upshift by tapping the lever to the right' downshift by tapping it to the left. And these "taps" are not hard hits. The shifter responds almost immediately, and there's a readout on the dash that tells you what gear you're in. The gearbox is a lot like the Porsche Tiptronic but is easier to use with the lever (Porsche also has steering wheel controls) and responds more quickly.

We felt it was worth the price. You can drive the Stratus like a sports car, shifting around the corners and jackrabbiting away from stoplights, but you can also drive it like a family sedan with the automatic. This is a great option for families where one of the members doesn't drive stick shift cars, like ours.

Our tester Stratus also had more options than the Breeze and came with a sticker of just under $20,000, still a bargain but a more expensive bargain.

With Chrysler Corporation's "weather cars" you can run the gamut of choices from basic transportation with style to full-blown pseudo sports car with four doors. I like options like that.

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