Something Rotten in Denmark: 1998 Chrysler Stratus

The Chrysler Stratus: all the bad qualities of American cars, Japanese cars and European cars rolled into one unappetising shape. In 1995 these cars had the power to thrill.

How to sell a car´s charms
How to sell a car´s charms

This car has two claims to our attention today. The first is that in the cold light of day, it is hard to believe this car and its almost identical stable-mates were nominated on Car & Driver’s 10 best list. I wasn’t aware of this at the time. The second reason I’m drawn to it is because it was the first car I was ever paid to review**. I wrote 1000 words and saw the editor chop out 200 of them, more or less killing the nuances of the text stone dead. I wanted to write a travelogue evoking the huge distances of the great American desert and a car review at the same time. It was never going to work.

1992 Chrysler Cirrus conceptcar. Ever heard of bait and switch?
1992 Chrysler Cirrus conceptcar. Ever heard of bait and switch?

Around 1995 I was in the middle of my penultimate American sojourn and, inspired by Car magazine’s gushing articles about the design renaissance at Chrysler, I insisted on renting one of these when I had the chance. The version I drove had the 2.5 litre Mitsubishi V6 engine which was almost certainly less coarse than the four-cylinder unit found in this example.

And how it turned out.
And how it turned out.

That’s all I remember about the car. The rest is a set of memories based on some photos I took at the various places I stopped (Death Valley and the Navajo desert).

There as inverse correlation between car dealership and photographic competence. The problem here is that the camera has been overwhelmed by the light at the top of the image and so the dashboard is just a dark swirl.
There as inverse correlation between car dealership and photographic competence. The problem here is that the camera has been overwhelmed by the light at the top of the image and so the dashboard is just a dark swirl.

Why were the automotive press so thrilled with this underwhelming and coarsely detailed vehicle? Its predecessors were the wholly dismal Dodge Spirit and company, the re-skinned descendants of the Chrysler K-cars; I drove one of those too and I can remember only the colour, the weather and the exact brand of cigar I smoked that day (Montesino).

Memorable.
Memorable.

Bearing in mind the outstanding mediocrity of these vehicles, the fact the cab-forward Dodge/Chryslers/Plymouths were average came as a huge surprise. That’s why the press were amazed. And Tom Gale, who was head of Chrysler/Dodge styling did an incredible job of selling the non-existent advantages of “cab-forward” styling.

Car magazine and I loved this. It was as if cancer had been cured and world peace made permanent. These were the days when it was possible to treat the latest news in car design as if major breakthroughs were being made in society’s most pressing problems. It was also a time when I really liked American car design and when it was reported in the UK. These days you’d never know the US existed if you only read the UK automotive press.

1991 Dodge Spirit
1991 Dodge Spirit

Here we are now and Chrysler’s first not-very-bad car in two decades is on sale for €1,500. The dealer is keen to get rid of this vehicle. The ad informs us that the car will be sold with a full tank of petrol, which is worth about €60-80. And the car is not rusty and it has a “nice” interior, according to the two lines of text accompanying the ad. There is a rather bad photo of the dashboard and photos of only one side of the car. This is not compelling. Notice the rear seats have no central armrest.

1998 Chrysler Stratus rear interior

I think that even at this very low price you’d be wise to steer clear of this vehicle, both because of the car as designed and the state of the example we see here. The design has not worn well, especially in comparison to the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord and Opel Vectra of the same period. While the cab-forward look did become quite common, the coarse detailing favoured by Chrysler did not.

I would suggest all the radii are a bit too big, making the car look as if it is made of shiny, waxy polyethylene which has been painted. And this example has 282,000 km on the clock. You can’t see those but you will see the interior fabric which is in the awkward transition period between being dated and having nostalgic charm. The car is about to enter the breakdown phase. Two decades and nearly 300,000 km is a lot to ask of a Detroit car from this period.

Mostly though this car serves as an example of the willingness of the automotive press to get dragged into the swirls of hyperbole generated by designers. Sure, it was better than the Dodge Spirit but not better than anything the Japanese were selling and miles off the pace compared to what Buick and Ford were offering for the same money.

As I mentioned elsewhere here, these American cars of the recent past provide nothing characteristically good to appeal to us. They merely seem like bad copies of the rather bland vehicle that Europe and Japan were turning out. I’ll keep my €1500, thanks.

**And last.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “Something Rotten in Denmark: 1998 Chrysler Stratus”

  1. Nice to see you here.
    At the time this design direction really seemed important. All cab-forward did was make for a huge dashboard top. The h-point didn’t move relative to the front wheels’ axle line.
    While the design looks banal now, in the ere before the Internet any photos of US cars had a huge fascination. Car magazine ran an article about these cars and obscured each one by having a caricature American stand in the way. How droll.

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