The performance edition of Dodge’s five-passenger coupe could be one of the more talented contestants on American Idol 2: it looks good, boogies on demand and hits all the right notes. It may not win the big prize, but you know Simon, Paula and company would invite it to Hollywood to compete. Who knows what Randy would do? He’s the wily, unpredictable one.The Stratus R/T Coupe certainly projects the confidence of a second-rounder, and even a little of its certainly mainstream appeal. The slightly more powerful new look comes thanks to all-new front and rear fascias, grille, headlamps, tail lamps, 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. 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.
Inside, our R/T had the optional leather interior group ($1,215) 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 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 group’s 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. Fit and finish was excellent, both inside and out.
The cabin has generous leg and shoulder room both front and back, but the low seating position and the fall-away curves of the car’s exterior isolate the driver from the car’s true size. We were surprised to have tapped a wall during a back-up parking maneuver.
2003 Dodge Stratus
The cabin thus provided a nice, neutral background for enjoying the smooth, low-toned burble provided by the R/T’s 200-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and the soulful crooning pouring from the stereo’s seven Infinity speakers. The drivetrain, sourced from Mitsubishi and used in its Eclipse/Spyder platform, won’t cause late Boomers to forget Mopar’s 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 5500 rpm, while the 205 lb-ft of torque reaches maturity at 4500 revs, providing a linear onset of power that’s readily available for passing maneuvers.
Dodge wisely mated the engine to Mitsu’s 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.
The engine nicely complements the R/T’s upgraded suspension package. Up front are independent, performance-tuned MacPherson struts, coil springs and a 0.67-inch-diameter stabilizer bar; in back is a multi-link platform with a beefed-up sway bar and lateral link bushings. Maneuvering is precise and fairly quick, although there’s a bit of a dead feel to the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. It’s a fine package for smooth roads, but a tad skittish on bumpier surfaces.
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 you’ve got to trade in the time and expense once spent in the aftermarket for friends and family. If any car could be considered a youthful role model, the Stratus R/T Coupe might be it.
2003 Dodge Stratus R/T Coupe
Price as tested: $25,965
Engine: 3.0-liter, SOHC 24-valve V-6, 200 hp
Drivetrain (as tested): Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 190.9 x 70.3 x 53.9
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Curb weight: 3206 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 21/29 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, supplemental side airbags, height-adjustable front seat belts, LATCH child seat anchor system, security alarm, immobilizer system, panic alarm
Major standard equipment: Power steering, sport suspension package, AM/FM/four-disc CD changer with seven Infinity speakers, speed control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, halogen headlights, power mirrors, fog lamps, trunklid spoiler, aluminum wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles (bumper-to-bumper); seven years/70,000 miles (drivetrain)
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