Curbside Classic: 1999 Chrysler Cirrus LXi – Remember When Chrysler Showed Hope?

These days, it’s rather hard to imagine a time when Chrysler’s future looked bright and optimistic. It’s even more difficult to imagine a time when Chrysler had a competitive entry in a crucial vehicle segment. I say this all because just take a quick look at Chrysler’s current lineup.

In case Chrysler hasn’t been high on your radar the past few years (for it surely hasn’t been on mine) the once-premium full-line brand’s product portfolio has been reduced to just two vehicles: the Pacifica minivan and the 300 full-size sedan — both of which occupy shrinking segments. To put things into perspective, 2018 Chrysler brand sales in the U.S. were their lowest in over 20 years at 165,964 units, a figure nearly half that of the 324,846 units Chrysler sold in 2015, that number nearly half of the 649,293 vehicles that Chrysler sold in 2005.

Chrysler, for much of recent history, has been an automotive brand that’s struggled to find its place more than most brands, frequently faced with an ever-questionable prestige image, badge-engineered Dodge (and once Plymouth) vehicles cannibalizing its sales, and a starved product range. This was of course still the case in the 1990s, but even so, the future looked brighter and more optimistic for Chrysler as a brand in the mid-1990s when our subject car was released.

The same could be said about the Chrysler Corporation as a whole, as for most of the 1990s, particularly 1992-1998, the automaker was on a roll with one hit after another as it rebuilt its entire brand lineups from the ground up. After the departure of chairman Lee Iacocca and over a decade of similar looking and similar feeling boxy, staid K-car based vehicles that accounted for mostly everything besides Dodge pickups and Jeeps, Chrysler put a heavy emphasis on production vehicles with concept car-inspired design and style, above other improvements.

Among the most important of them was the midsize JA platform cars, sold as the Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, and Plymouth Breeze. Replacing the final well-past-their-freshness-date final K-based AA-bodies, the JA were nothing short of a revolutionary change in showrooms and the midsize sedan segment.

It’s an understatement to say the Cirrus was “all-new” versus its predecessor, as apart from transmissions and likely a few nuts and bolts, it shared nothing with the LeBaron, which looked like the box it came in.

The JA platform upon which it rode was all-new, created specifically for the Cirrus and its Stratus, and later, Breeze siblings. A lengthy 108-inch wheelbase (4.5 inches longer than the AA-body), increased torsional rigidity by a whopping 65-percent, and an advanced double-wishbone front/multilink rear suspension with short/long arm suspension members instead of MacPherson front/solid axle rear with struts all made for a more composed and comfortable ride, better handling, and decreased NVH over its predecessor.

Between its longer wheelbase, wider body, and cab-forward styling the Cirrus also offered enhanced interior volume, increased cargo capacity, and more overall glass area for greater visibility and an airier cabin.

Inside, the Cirrus’ interior design was consistent with that of the exterior, projecting a far greater sense of modernity and style in the expressive yet efficient ’90s aura. Cirrus interior also greeted passengers with more supportive front buckets, a more ergonomic single-piece dashboard, a full-length front floor console, and greater amount of available features.

From a mechanical standpoint, the Cirrus boasted an aforementioned suspension system that was far more advance than its archaic predecessor’s and among one of the most advanced in its class as a midsize family sedan. Engine-wise, the Chrysler initially came standard with Mitsubishi-sourced 2.5-liter SOHC V6 making 164 horsepower and 163 lb-ft torque with 4 valves per cylinder yielding slightly better acceleration and fuel economy versus the LeBaron’s Mitsubishi 3.0-liter V6 with 141 horsepower and 172 lb-ft torque and 2 valves per cylinder. A 2.0-liter inline-4 was available in 1997 and 2000.

Naturally, the Cirrus wasn’t perfect by any means. Interior plastics were still on the cheaper side, seating position was still low on the floor, performance wasn’t anything notable, and reliability and build quality were well… Chrysler. Needless to say, the Chrysler Cirrus couldn’t match class leaders like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in refinement. Nonetheless, the Cirrus was for its time an appealing midsize sedan offering a lot of value and style for the money, and most importantly, genuine hope for Chrysler.

Since then, things have become, well… less hopeful. The Daimler-Chrysler abusive marriage didn’t do Chrysler a whole lot of long-term benefit, especially when it came to anything other than full-size cars. Chrysler’ struggle, as an automaker but especially as a brand, has been real. Honestly, as of 2019 its future looks truly bleak.

Hopefully things turn around, but as of 2019 that’s a rather sizable hope. It is doubtful that we will ever see Chrysler’s future so optimistic as it was in the mid-1990s with cars like this Cirrus building a lineup of appealing, attractive, and attention-grabbing vehicles.

Photographed in Hanson, Massachusetts – February 2014

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