Something Rotten in Denmark: Chrysler Stratus

Cab-Forward was the design buzz-word of the mid-’90s. It didn’t age well.

Chrysler Cirrus. In 1995 these cars had the power to thrill. Image: carfigures

This sideways view of the JA-Series was originally published on DTW in December 2014.

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 once nominated on Car & Driver’s 10 best list. I was not aware of this at the time. The second reason I am drawn to it is because it was the first car I was ever paid to review[1]. I wrote 1,000 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 a 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. That is 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).

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

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

Bearing in mind the outstanding mediocrity of these vehicles, the fact the cab-forward (JA platform) Dodge/Chryslers/Plymouths were average came as a huge surprise. That is 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 when it was reported in the UK. These days you would hardly know the US existed if you only read the UK automotive press.


1998 Chrysler Stratus rear interior

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.

Here we are now and the example shown in these images of 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 poor 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.

I think that even at this very low price you would 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.

How to sell a car’s charms

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 similar money.

As I mentioned elsewhere, 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 vehicles that Europe and Japan were turning out. I’ll keep my €1500, thanks.

[1] And last.

Editor’s note: For some reason best known to themselves it appears that the Stratus, which was a Dodge in the US market, was rebadged Chrysler for European palates. In its home market, the Chrysler version went by Cirrus, while the Plymouth rejoiced under the Breeze moniker.

Author: richard herriott

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

32 thoughts on “Something Rotten in Denmark: Chrysler Stratus”

  1. Good morning, Richard. I drove the Chrysler Stratus 2.5 when it was new. Same as you, I can’t remember a single thing about it. The interior was grey, same as the interior photos in this article, or at least I think so.

    The link in the article opens a DTW article and not the car for sale. I looked at a Stratus for sale here in the Netherlands. Most of them are convertibles. The only V6 saloon I can find here has done just over 152,000 kilometers. There are photos of the service manual in the add I found and the car needs to see a garage every 8,000 kilometers. Sounds like you’ll be seeing your dealer a lot. The asking price is € 4,299. I will hold on to my money as well.

    1. Good morning, Freerk, and thanks for the heads-up on our minor editorial SNAFU, now corrected. The car featured by Richard back in 2014 is long gone and I’d be amazed if it is still on four wheels eight years later.

      I think I can understand the appeal of this design. It is very much in the flowing, curvilinear ‘organic’ style that became so fashionable in the 1990s and looks, if you’ll excuse the pun, rather forward-looking after the boxy, rectilinear cars of the previous decade. I am rather less critical of it than Richard, but can see what he means about coarse detailing. The one-piece door skins incorporating thick window frames shout ‘budget car’ to me and the radii are indeed too large, giving the car a somewhat flaccid look.

      The dealer’s photos suggest that he didn’t think much of the Stratus either, being all rather ineptly and/or carelessly taken. He seems to have had a rather eclectic collection of cars for sale, but mainly Chrysler group models. The yellow Fiat Punto convertible is an interesting curio.

    2. My bad, I didn’t realize the link was from 2014 😉 That Stratus is probably recycled into something else by now indeed. I think the Chrysler Stratus I drove was purple.

  2. miles off the pace compared to what Buick and Ford were offering for similar money

    Surely you are joking. The Contour had its own distinct issues trying to be what it was in 1995 for North American consumption. Those suburb driving dynamics were a non-starter because it had a useless rear seat, and for the class it was supposedly targeting, it wasn’t priced competitively either. Buick? Pray do tell what vehicle you are referring. N-body Skylarks were haphazardly assembled plasticky junk with a weird beak. The A-body Century had most of the bugs worked out but was an antique that had no significant mechanical revisions that dated back to 1982 (!). The four door Regal was an under baked W-body in its sixth year that even in 1990 left one scratching their head where the supposed $7 billion dollars in development costs actually went, and was in a more expensive price segment even if the cloud cars were roomier (few things were). As a complete package, these were the best family mid-sized cars us Americans were making at the time. This is more of a condemnation of what we weren’t doing then in the industry as it is a statement of the cloud car’s superiority; the bar for what constituted a good American car in 1995 was set pathetically low, and that never really meaningfully changed either. For the most part, American manufacturers don’t even do “cars” anymore.

    1. At the time I drove the Intrepid, I owned a 92′ Civic Vti. Although not finished exactly to the same standard, the Intrepid was a reasonably decent place to sit. Plenty of room and nothing particularly offensive.

  3. The coupe and convertible versions were not on the JA platform, rather they were derived from the Mitsubishi Galant, and built in the Diamond Star Motors factory (now owned by Rivian).

    Regarding the hard-earned reputation of the Dodge Stratus, please enjoy this relevant comedy sketch from 1998:

    1. Chapeau, gooddog, how on earth did you remember or find that sketch?

    2. Hi Daniel, likely the very same way you found the sketch where Father Ted fixes his Rover 200 Series.

  4. Around 1997, on a trip to California, I rented a Dodge Intrepid for a week.
    The Intrepid was the Stratus bigger brother, built on the LH platform. As such, although stemming from the same “design language” the result was more harmonious. In my view, the cab forward theme being more successful in a longer platform.
    The car in itself was pretty unremarkable. Despite having a 200hp V6, it never felt particularly sprightly.
    However, it probably had a good ride. On one day we did San Diego – San Francisco, almost non-stop, and didn’t felt too bad when arriving.

    1. I rented one of those as well, and drove it around California and made my passengers feel ill because I was trying to drive like a road tester. It had super torque steer.

    2. That’s similar to the Chrysler Vision, isn’t it? There was one in my area when these cars were new, but it has disappeared ages ago.

    3. Here’s the 1998 Intrepid mentioned by pj, which looks very distinctive:

      I agree that the style works better in this more extreme form. I wonder how much it compromised the accommodation, particularly in terms of headroom?

      It seems that the Americans invented the four-door coupé before European manufactures came up with the idea in the early ’00s.

      Or, did the British get there first?

  5. The Stratus doesn´t look bad, despite the big nose/grille, but it always struck me the size difference between front and rear doors. I think the cab forward concept works better in the Intrepid/ Vision, too.

    Right now I have in my hands the December 1994 issue of Car and Driver. They test the Stratus (well, Cirrus) V6 against the Contour (Mondeo…) SE V6 and the Accord. The Stratus wins, being “the new benchmark” and “making everything else in its class an old car”. To me that sounds like the typical “the newest is always the best” statement that car magazines usually proclaims. The second position Accord is a humble 2.2 130 bhp four cylinder because Japanese cars were getting a bit expensive in the mid ´90s, and, in the metallic beige colour of the test car, it looks a bit boring. The Contour is the most fun to drive but the magazine complains tha the rear seat space is something of a joke.
    Back in 1994 if I would had the chance to choose I would had taken the Contour, but now I suppose the Accord would be in better condition (if rust allows). And the Stratus…

  6. That concept car has odd proportions, at the rear (and 3-spoke alloys, which always seem to get sneered at).

    I guess cab-forward design, if done properly, would maximize interior space within a given length..

    What publication did you write for, Richard?

    1. Hello Charles: I will rephrase the questions as what was the publication in which my one and only car review article appeared? The answer was Irish Car & Driver (I think, it was a long time ago now). I must have a copy somewhere. I don´t remember the paycheck – nothing big, I assure you.

    2. Hi Richard, you didn’t write under a nom de plume, by any chance? Archie Vicar, perhaps? 😁

    3. Archie Vicar? I can´t say I did. The more I look back at the episode the more absurd it seems: 800 words of a beginning and end to a commercial car reviewing career. I really do a have a knack for repelling commercial success. Archie Vicar at least enjoyed a long career serving all the now-closed newspapers and magazines in the UK and beyond.

  7. As I recall, the beginnings of the Stratus can be traced back to a new car design for the struggling Kenosha, Wisconsin based American Motors Corporation. The car would eventually be known as the Eagle Premier. However, before the car could be released for production, Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987. The parent company realized this new design could become Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth models as well. So the car was introduced in all 4 versions for the 1993 model year.

    Wikipedia has this comment on the beginnings of the cab forward design: “this design goes back to 1986, when designer Kevin Verduyn completed the initial exterior design of a new aerodynamic concept sedan called Navajo. The design never passed the clay model stage. It was also at this time that the Chrysler Corporation purchased bankrupt Italian sports car manufacturer Lamborghini. The Navajo’s exterior design was reworked and became the Lamborghini Portofino, released as a concept at the 1987 Frankfurt Auto Show. The Portofino was heralded as a design triumph, setting in motion Chrysler’s decision to produce a production sedan with the Portofino’s revolutionary exterior design, called “cab forward”. The cab forward design was characterized by the long, low slung windshield, and relatively short overhangs. The wheels were effectively pushed to the corners of the car, creating a much larger passenger cabin than the contemporaries of the time”.

  8. Cab forward? Wheels pushed to the corners? Short overhangs? Marketing fluff, or perhaps the desire not to offend advertisers, makes automotive journalists blind.

    1. If you look at the car the general location of everything is much the same. My old XM was cab forward meaning a huge, useless wedge of air over the deep dashboard. Cab forward didn´t make room for passengers. They were still in the same relation to the front bulkhead as ever. The journalists gasping about cab-forward really were frothing about very little indeed. Ah, hindsight!

  9. Is this the car by chance that Tom Cruise is driving while singing along to Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty in that scene in the film Jerry Maguire?

    1. That´s another funny coincidence. When I was working in California I met a person who worked in the film business. I ended up with a replica of Jerry Maguire´s business card which I carried in my wallet for some years afterwards (without seeing the flick).

  10. Durability of these is subject to the Mopar Quality Lottery. Its’ continued existence in the condition it’s in shows it as one of the good ones, and there was a pattern to it at least with the 2.4 four having a better reputation than the 2.0 shared with the Neon (and its’ weak head gaskets) and the V6. It was also the most popular, especially later in the run as they sold more and more on price – iirc the 2.o in the JA-body was manual only, making it a nonstarter for fleet buyers, and the auto and 2.4 were a bundled option.

    The four was also the one to have since its’ battery was in the usual spot while the V6, like the larger V6-only Intrepid, had it mounted low just behind the right side front bumper. You had to take off the right front wheel and inner fender liner to swap it out (mercifully, remote posts were provided for jump starting).

  11. Richard

    A rental car is not going to be representative. Wrong specification. Likely abused and likely not really cared for properly because no-one “owned it”.

    As for making the passenger sea-sick… You did that? Why?

    1. I could point out the rental car was very new with low miles. And why did I make my passengers sick? I thought I was a car-reviwer or Steve McQueen and wasn´t being very empathetic.

  12. Richard

    In that case you’d have been better off with an SRT-4.

    US models tend to have lots of variants with very different specification. While the base cars (intended for Ma and Pa Kettle) have soft suspensions in order to provide the smooth ride many North Americans seem to enjoy, there are often variants which are quite different (SRT-4 being an example). In some cases you can select the options on an individual basis to make the car suit your preferences right at the dealership. For example, you can have “Heavy Duty Suspension” on its own while avoiding stripes, skirts, spoilers and loud exhaust. You can have air-conditioning while ignoring sun-roof and “premium” sound system. You can even delete the air-conditioning should you want (not recommended).

    In regards to the Stratos, SRT-4 would have leant itself more to your driving style. Perhaps the passenger would fare a little better or maybe leave them back at the hotel.

    1. Thanks – but I was a rental customer in town for a limited spell so ordering the right version didn´t really stack up as an option. We had a nice day driving around anyway.

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