It was late 1996 and I was ready to dispose of my troublesome 1987 Bonneville. But with what?
Well, after my experience with the Bonneville, GM products were very much not on my list. I still wanted to buy American if I could, though. Fords were still not an option for me. Years of programming as a GM kid left me with a knee-jerk reaction to Ford as being “the enemy.” Looking back, it was silly of me, but that was how I felt. I couldn’t see myself in any Ford product.
I didn’t have strong feelings about Chrysler Corporation, though. To some extent I admired their recent comeback. In the post-Iacocca years, they were certainly firing on all cylinders. The LH cars and the JA-platform “cloud” cars (Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, and Plymouth Breeze) were a far cry from the endless stream origami-folded K-based cars from the decade prior. There had been stylistic signs of life like the LeBaron coupe and GTS, but the new products were startlingly new and different.
More importantly, the mid-sized “cloud” cars seemed truly competitive with their foreign counterparts. Now in the third year since introduction I was pretty confident that any new-model teething pains had been worked out.
It didn’t hurt that they were very attractive. In particular, the top-trim Chrysler Cirrus LXi in Forest Green (almost a British Racing Green) with the tan leather interior from the advertisements hit me in all the right places. The body-color grille and general absence of chrome said “sports sedan” and not “luxury cruiser.”
One of my older sisters had fine experiences with her Plymouth Voyager(s), and in particular with a Chrysler/Plymouth dealer a few towns over, so I made it my first stop. I test drove a Cirrus LXi with the 2.5 liter V6 and it got out of its own way very nicely. At 168 horsepower it was actually a bit more powerful than the 2.6 liter V6 in my old Bonneville.
It’s hard to describe when a car just feels right. Despite it being unfamiliar to me, the Cirrus fit like a glove. Maybe it was because, philosophically it was filling the same market niche as the Bonneville in a smaller package. The seats were comfortable and the controls were placed logically. The cab-forward design made the car very spacious, including an enormous trunk. The price was right (this dealer did not play games and got right down to it) and soon the car was mine. I think that the family reference didn’t hurt either (I’m sure he wanted to sell my sister more minivans for years to come).
My time with the Cirrus was uneventful, at least in terms of the car. During my ownership I met my future wife. (Coincidence?) She remembers the car fondly, largely because it was the car we used most during our dating and engagement. During that time, I also left my employer of nine years (I long since transitioned from programming to PCs and networks) to take a much more lucrative position with a regional IT consulting company. This meant a lot more time behind the wheel driving to customer sites, but I didn’t mind. For three years the car was a trouble-free, fun to drive and comfortable.
It all came to an abrupt end in February of 2000. Snow was still on the grounds but warmer weather was melting it into a particularly thick morning fog. As I got ready to turn left from my side street onto the main road I didn’t see anything coming from either direction. Then I hit the gas and slammed right into the side of an old F-150 that had been approaching from the left. The airbags deployed as the Cirrus struck the truck behind the Ford’s passenger door. As I hit the brakes in alarm the Cirrus pivoted and side of the car whacked the side of the truck bed with a loud crash. Shards of glass flew everywhere.
The truck had a small dent in the side and was able to move away under its own power. The Cirrus was totaled, of course. The truck driver and his passenger were uninjured and refused medical attention. I had a small scratch on my forehead from the airbag deployment. That was it.
I took some pictures of the Cirrus at the tow lot later that day. What they don’t show is the claw hammer that was hanging out of the side passenger window, or the rolls of nail-gun nails that smashed through the window from the back of the truck into my back seat. If things had gone slightly differently the hammer and nails would have been flying at my head.
I had dodged a bullet, in more ways than one. My only guess was that the truck was driving in the fog without his headlights on, which is why I couldn’t see him. It didn’t matter. It was my fault, and that’s what the ticket and police report said. However, my insurance company had good news for me. The driver of the truck was driving on a suspended license and his passenger didn’t want to give his name to the police. He settled for $1000 and probably didn’t even bother to get his truck fixed.
Now I was in the market for a new car. As much as I thought about buying something different to me, I truly liked the Cirrus and thought I’d use the insurance money as a down payment on a new one. My fiancée and I headed down to the Chrysler dealer to check out the 2000 Cirrus, but the dealer had something else to show us…