Curbside Classic: 1998 Chrysler Cirrus LXi – Head In The Clouds

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Automotive styling has gone to the moon and back over the past century, yet the overwhelming majority of the time, the changes in car styling from year-to-year are evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. However, every once in a while, something truly revolutionary takes place, and stylistically speaking, few transformations have been as radical as the 1995 Chrysler Cirrus.

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Part of a trio of midsize sedans, which also included the Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze (which arrived as somewhat of an afterthought in 1996), these vehicles were collectively referred to as “The Cloud Cars” for their meteorological names as well as their somewhat cloud-shaped profile. Their styling alone was dramatic for their time, but it’s nothing short of extreme when compared to the cars they replaced.

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Of course, I’m referring to the 1989-1995 AA-body Chrysler LeBaron/Dodge Spirit/Plymouth Acclaim that were among Chrysler’s final K-car derivatives. Unlike Ford and GM, whose bulk of midsize sedans evolved from very upright and boxy at the beginning of the 1980s, to more wedge-shaped by mid-to-late 1980s, to quite rounded styling by the early-to-mid 1990s or even earlier, Chrysler defiantly took its own route, almost taking a step backwards with the very boxy and upright AA-bodies.

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As expected, the top-spec LeBaron was the most baroque of all, adorned with all the gingerbread of an age gone by, including wire wheels, landau vinyl roofs, miles of chrome trim, and loose pillow seats in either Kimberly velvet or Corinthian leather. Compare this to cars such as the Mercury Sable or Buick Regal, and the Chrysler looked embarrassingly outdated by 1994.

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Yet with the ousting “retirement” of Lee Iacocca, Chrysler designers and engineers were more or less allowed to roam wild with radical concept car-inspired designs, new platforms, new engines, and a whole new openly communicative style of working on platform teams. The key outcome of these changes was that Chrysler’s cars went from among the most conservative and dated-looking designs on the market to some of the most expressive and contemporary.

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Following in the footsteps of the larger LH and smaller PL cars, Chrysler brought its midsize cars out of the stone age with the JA platform in late-1994. Fitting almost squarely between the 104-inch wheelbase PL and 113-inch wheelbase LH, the 108-inch wheelbase JA featured among the longest wheelbases in its class, despite an overall length that was shorter than most competitors, thanks to short overhangs (only 36.9 inches of the cars’ total length of 186.7 inches).

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Styling was somewhat evolutionary of Chrysler’s other “cab forward” designs, though the JA boasted the most dramatic look yet, with a sculpted front end, twin-post side mirrors, sharp lower body character line, chiseled beltline, and integrated rear spoiler. Based on the fuel grade alcohol-powered 1992 Cirrus concept car, the production version was naturally more realistic in appearance, though hardly a disappointment as typical the case of concept-inspired production vehicles.

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Mimicking the exterior, the interior design of the Cloud Cars featured a very free form design, with organic shapes and not a single sharp angle in sight. Door panels flowed into the dash, with the instrument cluster blending into the pod-like center console, emulating the popular driver-focused “cockpit” look of many sports cars.

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Regardless of nameplate or trim level, all of the Cloud Cars cars featured contoured bucket seats with a full-length center console and floor-located gear shifter. True to the goals of making the JA cars driver-oriented and appeal to the senses of Accord/Camry/Altima shoppers as well as some European import buyers, the availability of a bench seat and column shifter was zero.

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A fun-to-drive, driver-oriented focus didn’t mean that the Cloud Cars weren’t comfortable and roomy for passengers and their cargo, however. Versus the three aforementioned Japanese competitors for the 1997 model year, the Cirrus boasted greater rear legroom by some 3.5 inches, and greater cargo capacity by over 1.5 cubic feet.

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The Cirrus was naturally the most posh of the JA trio, presenting a contemporary take on Chrysler’s waterfall grille, chrome bumper inserts, and ritzier-looking wheels. Interior finishes were also more luxury-oriented, with upgraded fabrics and leathers, wood trim on the center console and door panels, and chrome interior door handles.

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From a mechanical standpoint, the Cirrus was built upon an all-new platform, boasting far superior performance and handling dynamics than its predecessors and most of its competitors. Featuring a four-wheel double wishbone suspension, the Cirrus used a short long arm setup in the front and a multi-link setup in the rear.

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Two engines were available for the U.S. model Cirrus: a new 2.4 liter version of the Neon’s 1.8L and 2.0L SOHC inline-4 making 150 horsepower and 168 lb-ft torque, and a Mitsubishi-sourced 2.5L DOHC V6 producing 168 horsepower and 170 lb-ft torque. The V6 initially debuted in the Mitsubishi Diamante, but the JA was its first such application in a Chrysler. A base 2.0L I4 was available only on Dodges and Plymouths.

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Dodges and Plymouths offered a 5-speed manual, but the sole transmission for the Chrysler Cirrus was a 4-speed Ultradrive automatic. Standard features in the Cirrus included anti-lock brakes, variable-assist power steering, dual front airbags, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, and HomeLink universal garage door opener. LXi models added upgrades such as standard leather upholstery, 8-way power adjustable drivers seat, upgraded touring suspension, and alloy wheels.

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It’s impressive to note that similar to the Neon, the Cloud Cars were developed on a tight budget of just $900 million — a figure much smaller than for similar sized cars from competitors, such as the Ford Contour’s $6 billion figure. Contemporary reviews of the Cirrus and its siblings were generally favorable, with praise directed towards their styling, roominess, and athletic handling. Although it did not sell to the same volume as the Stratus or even the Breeze, relative to other Chrysler-branded vehicles, sales of the Cirrus started out strong, but unfortunately trailed off in the ensuing years.

While the Cirrus did offer similar levels space compared to its Japanese rivals, a big selling point of American cars has always been size and space. Size-wise, the Cloud Cars were more near the middle of their class internally, but externally, they were on the smaller side. Compared to other American sedans, the Cloud Cars were somewhat oddly sized, being larger than cars such as the Contour/Mystique and N-bodies, yet smaller than the Taurus/Sable and W-bodies.

With gas prices low during the mid-to-late 1990s, the big car look was decidedly in vogue once again, and it was often the intermediate sized LH sedans that went head-to-head with the same mid-sized family cars the JAs competed against. With Chrysler dealers pushing leasing at this time (as I recall from first-hand experience), many buyers were probably tempted to go for the larger Concorde for $10 more per month.

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The Cloud Cars may have leapfrogged the competition back in 1995, but it would appear that Chrysler merely rested on its laurels after that. A few minor changes occurred over the years, such as the addition of a front center armrest in 1997, but apart from this were primarily limited to trim and detail changes. Never offering fairly common features including split-folding rear seats, a rear fold-down center armrest, automatic climate control, or power passenger’s seat, the first generation JA, and especially the upscale Cirrus, were becoming stale and losing their competitiveness by 2000, their sixth and final year.

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To make matters worse, Chrysler’s following efforts with midsize sedans were much weaker. As for the Cloud Cars, if there’s one thing to be said regarding their legacy, it’s that they changed the way we viewed a midsize Chrysler sedan, at least momentarily. No longer seen as a car created for rental agencies and octogenarians who subconsciously kept buying one Chrysler after another, the Cloud Cars were actually vehicles that many people wanted to drive. It’s a shame that the headway they made wasn’t further built upon. Oh well I guess.

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