2003 Dodge Stratus Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Muscle car flavor in an affordable mid-size package.
Dodge Stratus is available as a four-door sedan or a two-door coupe. Sedan and coupe are significantly different in character because they are built on entirely different platforms and use different engines.
The coupe has been completely redesigned for 2003, giving it a sportier, more aggressive look. Last year, the coupe looked very similar to the sedan, but its bold new lines distinguish it further. Also, Dodge has made some improvements to the Stratus coupe for 2003 aimed at reducing noise, vibration and harshness.
Redesigned and re-engineered for 2001 for better ride, handling, and performance, Stratus sedan comes into 2003 relatively unchanged.
The sedan is sporty and fun to drive, though it lacks the refinement of the newest midsize cars, such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The coupe is also fun to drive, and it feels tighter and more refined than the sedan, particularly on rough roads. Stratus sedans generally seem to have nicer interior trim than the Stratus coupes. Neither version offers exemplary rear-seat accommodations and are best for owners who put children, and only occasionally adults, back there.
Sedan and coupe are available with V6 or four-cylinder engines. New SXT packages for both coupe and sedan are value-priced and feature popular equipment.
Stratus sedan comes in four trim levels, SE, SXT, ES, and R/T. Stratus Coupe comes in three trim levels, SE, STX, and R/T.
Sedan SE ($17,980) is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams, generating 150 horsepower. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission available. SE is modestly equipped with air conditioning, power brakes and power steering, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM cassette stereo with four speakers, power locks and power windows with one-touch auto-down for the driver's window. It comes with 15-inch steel wheels and 205/65TR15 tires.
Sedan SXT ($19,045) offers a good value, adding a CD changer, body-color door handles, illuminated entry, keyless entry, power mirrors, and 16-inch aluminum wheels with 205/60TR16 tires.
Sedan ES ($21,490) comes standard with the 2.7-liter twin-cam V6 rated 200 horsepower, automatic transmission, chromed aluminum wheels, and a sport-tuned suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars and firm-feel power steering. ES gets a higher level of trim, including an eight-way power driver's seat, premium cloth bucket seats, an interior light package, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a mini trip computer.
Anti-lock brakes ($565) are optional on SE, SXT, and SE.
Sedan R/T ($21,850) mates the V6 with a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional for no additional charge. ABS comes standard on the R/T, along with a performance-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels with P215/50TR17 all-season performance tires, and performance-tuned steering. R/T also comes with a premium stereo and is distinguished by its trunklid spoiler, wide bodyside molding and a body-color grille.
Coupe SE ($20,725) comes with a single overhead-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual. Air conditioning, power windows (with driver's auto-down), power mirrors, and power door locks are standard.
Coupe SXT ($19,365) offers more value, adding keyless entry with two transmitters, 16-inch wheels, and trunklid spoiler. SXT is also available with an automatic transmission.
Coupe R/T ($21,850) comes with a 3.0-liter single-cam V6 rated 200 horsepower and a five-speed manual. It's available with a four-speed automatic gearbox ($825) and can be ordered with AutoStick ($165), which allows automatic or semi-manual shifting. R/T comes with four-wheel disc brakes, while SE and SXT get rear drum brakes. ABS ($565) is available for R/T and can be ordered as a package with traction control ($740).
Side-impact airbags ($390) are an option for all Stratus models.
Dodge Stratus coupe has been redesigned for 2003. The 2003 coupe looks sportier, less rounded than the 2002 model, and less like the Stratus sedan. Almost all of the coupe's exterior has been updated. Grille, headlamps, fog lamps and front fascia are all new. The grille is moved farther up and it's trimmed with chrome throats. The rear fascia is new and includes new tail lamps. New side sill moldings dress up the sides, and the hood and trunk lid have been redesigned. Wheels on all models have been redesigned.
The coupe now looks the sportier of the two, but both coupe and sedan offer a sportier appearance than most other mid-size cars.
The sedan's windshield describes a graceful arch that extends into an abbreviated tail. That arching profile echoes design cues from other Dodge sedans, while the stubby prow and body-colored, cross-hair grille suggests the Viper. Rounded front corners carry multi-lens headlamps set above round fog-light openings.
Stratus sedan was given a five-star safety rated by NHTSA for both driver and front passenger in a frontal impact and for rollover resistance. Stratus sedan has also achieved 'Good' ratings from IIHS on 40-mph frontal offset performance. The V6 sedan engine has been upgraded to Flexible Fuel Vehicle status for 2003.
The Stratus sedan shares platforms with the Chrysler Sebring sedan and is built in Michigan, while the Stratus coupe shares its basic architectural structure with the Mitsubishi Eclipse and is built in Illinois.
Coupe or sedan, the Stratus interior is designed as a cockpit. Stratus models offer a sportier ambience than the interiors of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and other mid-size cars, but the rear-seat accommodations are not as comfortable.
Stratus coupes get an updated interior for 2003, most of which represents an improvement. Coupe SE seats are covered in a new Spade/Saratoga fabric. Coupe R/T offers choice of the Spade/Saratoga fabric or new perforated leather. An all-new instrument panel with white gauges offers a sporty appearance. A new center console is nicely designed for improved convenience, offering a pair of cup holders, but the plastic looks cheap. Handy when trying to find your way are new reading lamps and a new auto-dimming mirror with integral compass and temperature display. HomeLink is now available, which can open garage doors and turn on house lights with the press of a button. Coupes come with rudimentary HVAC (heating and air-conditioning) controls that look like they came from a compact. The coupe's handbrake lever is spindly. Some models offer a new, silvery dash trim for the center dash and door panels that would be better used for a bass-fishing lure. R/T coupe has nice brushed-aluminum trim. R/T also comes with radio controls on the steering wheel.
Sedans come with comfortable seats, but they lack side support, not good for hard driving. R/Ts get power controls for the seats that are straightforward and easy to operate, while the other models come standard with manually adjustable seats. R/T's cloth seats are supportive and comfortable, but don't look great. The sporty leather option looks nicer. The sedan's shifter and hand brake lever feel beefy, a big improvement over the coupe's. The cloth door trim adds little to the interior appeal.
The sedans get a nicer dash than the coupes. The center of the dash features a compass and outside temperature readout between a pair of vents. The available six-disc CD player is a separate unit, located down below the HVAC and stereo controls that is recessed and awkward to reach. It's best to load it up when parked. Buttons for switching disks are awkward to reach, but are big and easily identified.
The sedan's rear seats are not the best in the class. Getting in and out of the rear seats is tight. Once back there, it's uncomfortable. There's little room for adult feet and you sit low in the seat. Worse, the rear seats lack support on the outside edges of the seat bottoms, making you feel like you're falling to the outside. And there's no center armrest. Overall, the back is best for child safety seats and young people who don't notice things like comfort. The rear bench does seat three, however, and the Alcantera inserts in the rear of leather R/T models look nice.
Rear seats feature folding seatbacks split 60/40 for access to the trunk.
The cockpit theme of the Stratus models is reinforced by round analog instruments tucked beneath an arched cowl. Different models rim the instruments with bezels of various colors. Although the dashboard is flat and linear, there's a wrap-around feel to the cockpit.
From the driver's seat you can easily reach window and lock switches mounted on the door. Thanks to the broad and tall expanses of window glass and relatively narrow windshield pillars, the Stratus provides excellent outward visibility for the driver, enhancing safety.
Passive safety measures include three-point seatbelts for all five seat positions and dual-stage frontal airbags. We recommend opting for the side-impact airbags and anti-lock brakes. Traction control is also a good idea for this powerful front-wheel-drive car.
Dodge Stratus is fun to drive, a description that applies to V6 and four-cylinder models. Though equipped with front-wheel drive, it feels more like a muscle car when compared with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or Volkswagen Passat.
The V6 engine delivers spirited acceleration performance. Slam the throttle down and it responds quickly to overtake slower cars. The 2.7-liter V6 used in the sedans features dual overhead cams to generate 200 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 167 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Yet it earns an EPA-rated 20/28 mpg city/hwy and runs on regular-grade gasoline. R/T sedans growl under acceleration, a benefit of their sport-tuned exhaust.
The electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is quiet and efficient. Gear ratios have been calibrated to produce quick acceleration performance and responsive shifting in stop-and-go commuting. The R/T's five-speed manual is clunky, but fun to shift in a muscle car sort of way.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that comes standard on Stratus sedans feels energetic through all the gears, but to maximize the power you'll need to rev it up. It's a noisy engine compared with the latest designs from Japan. The 2.4-liter engine that comes on sedans features double overhead cams. It generates 150 hp at 5200 rpm and 167 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm and is rated 21/30 mpg.
Coupes come powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft that generates 147 hp at 5500 rpm and 158 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 rpm. It's rated 21/28 mpg, not quite as good as the sedan. I drove a 2003 Coupe SXT at Chrysler's proving grounds. The coupe's four-cylinder engine sounded sporty and I did not feel like I was missing out by not having the V6.
The coupe comes with a larger 3.0-liter V6, but it uses single cams to generate brisk acceleration performance. The coupe's V6 is rated 200 hp at 5500 rpm and 205 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 rpm.
The coupe SXT we drove handled well on Chrysler's handling course. It was fun to drive and offered a sporty experience. The coupe we drove seemed relatively quiet on nasty, rough roads. Dodge has made improvements to the coupe for 2003 designed to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. The coupe's suspension seemed to manage bumps better than the sedan's suspension and there was less cowl shake (the tendency of the dash to vibrate on rough roads).
R/T sedan seems most in its element on a winding road with your foot to the floor. Pedals are placed well in models with the manual gearbox, making it easy to heal and toe when braking and downshifting at the same time. The R/T sedan's chassis does not feel as rigid as other cars in this class. Handling is not as crisp, it doesn't feel as tight, and transient response is a bit ponderous. It goes where you want it, but it sometimes uses up more road in the process. Still, it's fun. It's easy to rotate the car on its suspension by lifting off throttle in the middle of a corner, making for sporty handling response.
Brakes on the Stratus work reasonably well, though there is some nose dive.
Dodge Stratus is sporty and fun to drive. Throaty V6 engines deliver strong acceleration performance and a cockpit-like interior adds to the muscle-car sports appeal.
Coupes are a bit more refined than the sedan models, but these cars do not offer the levels of refinement found in the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Also, rear-seat accommodations lack comfort.
Dodge Stratus offers more aggressive pricing than the Japanese brands, however, and you're more likely to find a good deal.
Coupe SE ($20,725); Coupe SXT ($19,365); Coupe R/T ($21,865); Sedan SE ($17,980); Sedan SXT ($19,045); Sedan ES ($21,490); R/T ($21,850).
Sterling Heights, Michigan; Bloomington/Normal, Illinois.
Options As Tested
side-impact airbags ($390); ABS Plus ($565); leather seating and trim ($600); in-dash 6-disc CD changer ($300).
Dodge Stratus R/T sedan ($21,850).
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