2003 Dodge Stratus R/T Coupe Road Test By Paul W. Cockerham
$20,000 - $25,000 Mid-sized Sports Coupe
Who should buy this car:
Grownups not quite ready to give up a stylish coupe, who want performance, pizzazz, and room for the kids in back.
Comparable models in this class:
Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Chrysler Sebring Coupe, Ford Mustang, Honda Accord Coupe, Oldsmobile Alero Coupe, Pontiac Grand Am Coupe, Toyota Camry Solara
These are good days at DaimlerChryslers American arm. Build quality has dramatically increased throughout the Dodge and Chrysler product lines in just the past few years, and our friends at Auburn Hills have gotten considerable mileage and profit from tweaking, packaging and extending the life cycles of their passenger car product platforms.
Witness the Dodge Stratus R/T Coupe. The ex-Avenger projects a confident new look thanks to all-new front and rear fascias, grille, headlamps, taillamps, fog lamps and side sill moldings, as well as new hood and trunk lid designs. Its stance is strong, the profile, sleek, with visual cues reminiscent of the old Dodge Challenger muscle cars. The doors close with a solid thunk. Our R/T Coupe was also dressed up with Deep Red Pearl Coat paint, a bright exhaust tip and optional 17 chromed aluminum wheels, providing a bit of showbiz glitter.
Our R/Ts interiorcompletely redone for this model yearhad the optional leather interior group ($1,215; the package includes power drivers seat controls and an auto-dimming rearview mirror equipped with thermometer and compass) in black. Nifty white gauges had faux carbon-fiber bezel accents. The low-back bucket seats were our only real beef with the car; surfaced with a perforated leather, they were slippery, low, narrow and lacking in thigh support. The mounting points for the front seat belt buckles seemed low as finding the buckles was often frustrating.
Belt buckles aside, the rest of the cabin was ergonomically correct, thanks to a new center console, Chrysler groups perfect environmental system controls, and stereo switchgear on the steering wheel. It was also a quiet environment, as Dodge engineers paid close attention to noise, vibration and harshness characteristics during vehicle development, adding more sound-deadening materials and utilizing a single-piece bodyside aperture. The cabin thus provided a nice, neutral background for enjoying the smooth, low-toned burble provided by the R/Ts 200-hp, 3.0-liter V6 and the soulful crooning pouring from the stereos seven Infinity speakers, which can be modulated with steering wheel controls. Fit and finish are excellent, both inside and out.
The interior is the biggest giveaway of the platforms heritage as a Mitsubishi Eclipse. (The Stratus R/T Coupe is actually built by Mitsubishi at its Illinois plant; the Stratus sedan and convertible are completely unrelated vehicles with Chrysler powertrains.) The baseball-stitched leather-covered shifter knob, for example, was identical to the one found in the Eclipse Spyder GT I had driven earlier in the year.
The cabin has generous leg and shoulder room both front and back, but the low seating position and the fall-away curves of the cars exterior isolate the driver from the cars true size. We were surprised to have tapped a wall during a back-up parking maneuver. There is plenty of leg room in back, and the front seats slide forward to make installing a baby seat in back an easy proposition. The trunk is also generous, and youll be grateful for the cargo net after youve discovered how much fun the Stratus R/T Coupe delivers while youre carving turns at speed.
The drivetrain, sourced from Mitsubishi and used in its Eclipse/Spyder platform, wont cause late Boomers to forget Mopars muscle-car glory days, but it is spunky enough for a Generation Y market not old enough to remember. The familiar cast-iron block/aluminum-head mill delivers 200 ponies at 5,500 rpm, while the 205 lb-ft of torque reaches maturity at 4,500 revs, providing a linear onset of power thats readily available for passing maneuvers. Dodge wisely mated the engine to Mitsus notchy, quick-shifting five-speed transaxle for the standard package this year; a four-speed AutoStick-equipped automatic is optional. The 3.33 first gear in our standard-fitted R/T wants some revving when you dump the clutch pedal, but we soon adapted to this quirk. Our mileage averaged 24.7 mpg during our week with the car, numbers that should prove kind to growing families.
The engine nicely complements the R/Ts upgraded suspension package. Up front are independent, performance-tuned MacPherson struts, coil springs and a 0.67-inch stabilizer bar; in back is a multilink platform with a beefed-up sway bar and lateral link bushings. Maneuvering is precise and fairly quick, although theres a bit of a dead feel to the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. Its a fine package for smooth roads, but a tad skittish on bumpier surfaces. Torque steer is almost non-existent, another fine characteristic carried over from the Eclipse.
This is a great value for ex-street racers who have grown up a bit, a well-integrated platform that provides an honorable solution if youve got to trade in the time and expense once spent in the aftermarket for friends and family. The Stratus R/T Coupe lets you behave responsibly yet have fun at the same time.