(first posted 9/20/2016) 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.
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.
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.
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 Compare this to cars such as the Mercury Sable or Buick Regal, and the Chrysler looked embarrassingly outdated by 1994.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Excellent write up Brendan. I think the cloud cars were a prologue to FCA’s troubles with the Dart and 200. In both instances the vehicles were initially competitive, but lacked a few key details that swayed customers toward the more established nameplates, ultimately relegating them to also ran status. Of course the flameout of the modern sedans occurred at a much faster rate, with the 200 lasting only a little over two years.
I agree with Brendan that the cloud cars were quite a departure visually. I wonder if the fact about how small the improvements really were lead to such a short shelf life for the model.
Let’s compare the 95 end of run Spirit to the 95 Stratus. The weight of the car was up from 2863 to 3150 pounds, a full 10%. Despite the 4.5 inch longer wheelbase, rear leg room was down. So was headroom. The engines had shrunk so the torque of the 2.5 V6 was down 8 foot pounds and more importantly peaked at 4350 rpm in the Stratus versus 2400 rpm on the Spirit, Even the EPA city number was down 5% on the new V6 despite the smaller engine and now standard 4 speed auto. The wright was so high that the 2.0 standard engine was only offered with a 5 speed in the Stratus. That made sense because again torque had dropped and now peaked at 5000 rpm instead of 2800 rpm on the Spirit. To recoup some of the money spent, Chrysler pushed trough a more than 10% price increase with fewer incentives on the new models.
Modern 90s designs fit easier with current cars. The styling was more international. This seemed a good idea if one believed there was a shot to convert premium paying import buyers. History proves this was not possible as they simply were not paying attention. They did not know what a Spirit was and did not know what a Status was. To build cars for them risk alienating buyers that you have. They don’t want price increases and 5000 rpm torque peaks, This car was harder to see out of. The cab forward only resulted in a dashboard stretch. It is important to realize what was being given up.
I rented a Breeze that combined the 2.0 liter Neon engine with an automatic transmission in 1996. It rode and handled brilliantly for an American car, and had decent front seats. The lack of power was almost comical though. What really undid these cars was lack of quality in mechanical integrity. They were pretty much the opposite of what Chrysler was making in the mid ’60s, with bad copies of competitors’ engineering solutions.
Very good assessment. I remembering driving them when working as a bellman at an upscale hotel back in the Clinton/early “W” era. These were fun to drive and the driver’s seat felt super comfortable. But, IMHO I loathed the rear side window rounded designs. Acceleration with an automatic was mediocre. What killed these cars besides their pygmy hippo side styling was of course Chrysler’s crap quality. Interestingly, these cars especially the Breeze were mainstays in the hood along with Mazda and Hyundai models back in the day. Though very short lived. As with the coyote ugly 1996 Taurus I was and still not a fan of plump oval rounded jellybean tubs. They are in my ugly book like most crossovers and SUV’s. Yep, I’m opinionated when it comes to cars.
A face only a 74 Matador could love.
These – together with the Neon – were a missed opportunity for Chrysler to set a foothold in the EU. For what they were, they sold in more numbers than you would have expected them to here in Austria and have not yet become totally extinct, which must say something for their reliability (which I believe was better than the Neon, which was also shoddily built). Had Chrysler offered a diesel/5sp combo in them right from the start sales I believe would have been much higher and might have allowed it to establish these and their successors as a viable alternative to the “Passat class” – sort of an American Skoda.
In Europe you still see a fair number of older Chryslers. You would think that they would be orphans from some long ago Lido or Eaton global strategy. They still seem to last as cheap urban beaters.
Great read, Brendan, on a car that really hasn’t registered on my radar – for a while, anyway. I remember thinking when the Cloud Cars were new that they seemed to have so much promise.
From a styling perspective, I think they looked good, but I felt Chrysler’s efforts with the smaller Neon and larger Concorde were cleaner. Of Chrysler’s cab-forward designs of the mid-90’s, I felt the JA wasn’t quite as strong as some of their other efforts.
The brief, wonderful moment when Chrysler was not only competitive; but was actually challenging the best in the competition.
Thank you Daimler-Benz. And “thank” is not the first word I really wanted to put in the sentence.
I still don’t understand what MB was doing with Chrysler at that time. As noted above, Chrysler was in fact selling cars in Europe at the time and with the right strategy could have been developed in the same way VW did with Skoda (or maybe Renault with Dacia) to offer a lower priced alternative further down on the corporate ladder.
I don’t think MB really knew what they were doing at that time. In those days, the mantra was “grow bigger or get swallowed”, and the Germans fell for that, hook, line and sinker. Audi was already part of Volkswagen, so BMW picked up MG/Rover, and Mercedes-Benz, not wanting to be left vulnerable went after the biggest car company that was available at the time . . . . . Chrysler.
It became painfully obvious that, once the purchase was done, the arrogant Germans didn’t think what they had bought was worth a damn, other than for production facilities. Even worse, once they bought it, the Germans didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with the company.
In fact, they seemingly had only one set plan: Ensure MB’s exclusivity by making sure that a Chrysler product never comes close to it in the marketplace. And if cheapening the cars made the Benz’s look better, than do it.
Actually Daimler Benz had a great respect for the Old Chrysler. I was a factory Trained Technician for Mercedes Benz in the late 70’s and the Early 80’s . They used a Chrysler Airtemp designed Climate control system in the Mercedes at the time. Even used the same parts and relabeled them as Mercedes Parts (Another story for another time). During my “Factory Training” I asked the Factory Rep Why they used Chrysler’s system instead of one of their own. I was told that Chrysler had Great engineers and designed a excellent system. Later on when DB bought Chrysler they were in a bind. Their thinking was that they would combine their companies and Chrysler management would run the business. They were shocked when the deal was consummated and Chrysler Management asked their new partners who are you going send over to run the business? They now had a “Tiger By the Tail” and they had no Idea what to do next. It turned out to be a costly mistake and they were relieved when they were able to extract themselves and go back to being DB, To quote the article in the May 15th 2007 Chicago Tribune By Jim Mateja, Tribune auto reporter “The nine-year, $36 billion “merger” of Chrysler and Daimler-Benz was dissolved Tuesday for a mere $7.4 billion.”……. ” It was simply an exercise in empire-building by Juergen Schrempp,” said Dave Healy, analyst with Burnham Securities, referring to the then-Daimler-Benz chairman and why the merger failed.”
“Basically Daimler has now paid Cerberus to take Chrysler off its hands,” Healy said.
But that’s precisely what I cannot understand. The example of what to do with Chrysler (in Europe) was already provided by VW with Skoda and Seat, and I see no reason why it would not have worked with Chrysler, which had at the time a range which was selling – not in huge quantities but still, better than all other US makes – over here and did NOT have Skoda’s Iron Curtain reputation (which here was no better than Yugo’s) when VW bought it.
FCA has finally caught up to this and is at last offering a cheap sedan and wagon to compete with Skoda, Seat, KIA and Dacia with the Turkish made Tipo (see pic) and, assuming reasonable reliability, it has every chance of success, as the pricing is competitive. I am aware that SUVs outsell sedans in the US but Toyota still sells enough sedans to make it worthwhile. I feel FCA has given up the ghost too soon rather than concentrate on making the cars reliable (as Hyundai did with its cars years ago). Sad.
Chrysler was, in 1997, a money machine. They could do no wrong. The new Rams were flying out of showrooms limited mostly by the capacity at Warren Truck Assembly, the new Wranglers had a waiting list, the restyled Cherokee was selling as fast as they built them, the recently-redone minivans were selling like hotcakes, the cloud cars and Neons were selling well, the aging Grand Cherokee was still selling well, with the new (1999) WJ in the pipeline. The new Dakota had debuted to good reviews, and the Durango was the industry’s worst-kept secret. Their styling studio was the envy of the industry.
More to the point, Chrysler was sitting on a giant pile of CASH! It took Mercedes about ten years to run Chrysler into the ground.
YOUR EXACTLY CORRECT, MERCEDES TOOK THEIR CASH AND LEFT THEM HIGH AND DRY.
I guess two wrongs “arrogant Germans” and arrogant Americans don’t make a car company, right?
These were impressive cars when they first came out, and following on the heels of the LH cars and the new Ram trucks, they helped make Chrysler the success that it was in the 90s.
I will quibble a teeny bit with your timeline, though. Iacocca retired in 1992, but not before he had brought in Bob Lutz and oversaw implementation of the platform team-approach to design that came with the AMC/Jeep purchase. Iacocca is associated with K cars like K.T. Keller was associated with the boxy pre-Forward Look styles at Chrysler. In fact, both of them were instrumental in setting the table for the next phase and approving the successful products that would be associated with those who followed them. In particular, the LH, new Ram and even these were all approved and underway before he left.
The great failings of these cars were (in my view) brought about by the penny-pinching interim caretaker Bob Eaton. All of these early 90s designs were good starts, and could have been better but for late-development cuts made to keep costs down. And once Daimler got their hands on the company in 1998, subsequent designs of the smaller cars would suffer terribly.
Ah, the Lutz/Iacocca fiasco that would be ironically similar to Iacocca’s issues with Hank the Deuce at Ford years before. Lutz was Chrysler’s Golden Boy who turned out to be a bit too golden for Iacocca’s taste, overshadowing his boss’ prowess at gauging the market and turning out hits, from Cab Forward to the semi-truck look of the pickup line to the Cloud Cars. I have no doubt that Lutz viewed Iacocca’s old-school affinity for brougham (which had long ago gone out of style) with disdain, and Iacocca similarly viewed his acquisition with acrimony, despite the success he was bringing to Chrysler.
Sadly, Iacocca’s jealousy of Lutz actually had a name when Iacocca finally ‘retired’ (i.e., forced out) and the search for his replacement was known as ABL: Anybody But Lutz. And that’s when the typical, GM finance guy Bob Eaton was brought in, quickly doing a Roger Smith-like, cost-cutting job at Chrysler, forcing a disastrous sale to Daimler, a downward spiral that would ultimately culminate with a sale to Fiat to keep the company somewhat alive. But it’s definitely not a Chrysler Corporation anywhere near what it was like during the Lutz years.
It’s just another one of those great, what-might-have-been scenarios had Lutz’ Chrysler success (which includes the Clouds) not made him persona non-grata by bruising Iacocca’s gigantic ego, and it had been Lutz, and not Eaton, who took over when Iacocca departed. Iacocca even later uncharacteristically admitted he had made a mistake by choosing Eaton instead of Lutz as his successor.
Yup, certainly a strange period. I know that Lutz has developed a reputation on the interwebs of being a problem, but he did seem to be able to bring the goods when he was at Chrysler. And, for that matter, I always thought that he was one of the few bright spots at GM when he went there. I certainly don’t think that he was perfect, and these cars did have some compromises designed into them even before Eaton arrived, but Eaton made things worse instead of better. I could see where Lutz might not have been the right guy at the top, but they could have done a lot better than Eaton.
I have also come around to the idea that Chrysler may have been too small to survive on its own (although another 5 years of the trajectory it had been following coupled with the trajectory GM was following, and you never know . . . ) but Chrysler at that stage of its success should have been in a much better position to be the king after the merger instead of the serf. Eaton was (to me) living proof that GM’s system had long ago stopped being able to turn out solid managers who could go elsewhere and thrive, as might have been the case 20 or 30 years earlier.
Yeah, Lutz didn’t exactly set the world on fire later at GM, championing stuff like the SSR, Solstice, and Holden Monaro-based GTO. Still would have been interesting to see what he’d have done as the head of Chrysler, post-Iacocca. Of course, he was the guy behind the Viper and Prowler, too.
IMO, Lutz eventually prompted massive improvements at GM. But GM was so petrified at that point it took two product cycles before you could see the results, and at that point GM was nose-diving into bankruptcy court. Around 06-08 GM product became competitive for the first time in a very long while, but it was too late.
Yes, I always somewhat inaccurately am predisposed to lump anything K-based into the Iacocca reign, and anything after the K as something that was nothing part of his involvement. Indeed his is quoted with maligning the LH cars even as he was still chairman, and likely had little power in making major decisions regarding K-car successors, but he did indeed oversee the introduction of his own successors, as well as some of Chrysler’s post-K-car products, before his retirement.
As for Lutz, I was once amused with his energetic spirit and attitude, particularly during his time at Chrysler. That is, until I read (or started to read, as I couldn’t bring myself to finish) his recent book “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business”.
Lutz’s conspiracy theories idiotic, and are not something I care to try and understand more.
I remember seeing my first Cirrus in one the Monterey Historics’ parking lots, brand new with dealer plates and black paint. Even with all the other eye candy spread around that particular hillside, we stopped to take a look and were very impressed with the styling and specifically recall admiring the new (retro) logo. We’d been reading about it in the various magazines for months.
Chrysler in those days in CA was riding a wave they hadn’t seen in a while, with the Intrepid etc of a few years prior and the Neon as well. Too bad it all went kind of went sour (again), the potential seemed to be there at the time. I eventually, years later, drove (rented) a second generation Stratus and that was a complete turd that seemed to barely fulfill the minimum requirements for the mission statement “Car”: Go, turn, stop.
I recall that the Breeze was added later and not introduced at the same time as the Cirrus and Stratus. I wonder if it was in the initial plan or really was an afterthought, Plymouth was already seemingly being starved of product at that time.
The Breeze differed from the others in that it came only as a 4 cylinder. If you wanted a V6, you needed to move up. However, I remember that the Breeze became one of Chrysler’s rare “red dots” in the Consumer Reports ratings as these cars got a few years old.
The second generation was, uh, lackluster. I was assigned a brand new ’04 Stratus at work in mid- to late- ’03. Despite being a fleet vehicle, it was equipped with the 2.7 liter V6 so power was never an issue.
As one who is able to detect high pitched noises with great ease, there was a shrill high-pitched scream in that car at speeds over 50 mph. For driving that car over 400 miles in a single day on multiple occasions, it was not pleasant.
Also, this was the first car I could remember driving in which I had to bend my head down to look up at signal lights. I’m not that tall.
Speaking of, people taller than me simply weren’t a good fit.
Also, a coworker had a four-cylinder ’04 Stratus and he said replacement of the water pump required a ludicrous amount of other parts to be removed. And, weren’t the batteries on these lurking down deep in the bowels of the engine compartment, under layers of other items?
I put 14,000 miles on that Stratus and did some horse trading to acquire a five year old Taurus. I momentarily felt bad for the hosing I gave that poor person.
I remember getting in an ‘all new’ 2001 Stratus at Auto Show, and bumping the roof with head. Got out right away and never cared for them.
When the next generation Sebring/Avenger came out for 2007-08, Chrysler sold the old car’s tooling to a Russian company and they flopped badly, lasting only a year.
Had rented ’96 Stratus and was impressed, but they kind of faded after initial fanfare.
Jason, I heard a shrill, high-pitched scream in my old Ford Laser. I was having trouble with the ignition system at the time, so I was convinced it was somehow related to the ignition black box being on the way out. But my next car had it too. Turned out to be the onset of tinnitus – so it was me, not the car.
Sure hope that wasn’t your problem.
That’s a good point as I do have pronounced tinnitus, although I’ve had it since childhood. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone and as you know it is a curse. This was the first car I had experienced it with and, sitting here thinking about it, likely the only one.
While I ragged on that poor car, it wasn’t all bad. Yet, it was like getting interrupted during the middle of a meal and never being able to finish it…you are left wanting.
We always had had Chryslers in the family going back to the 51 windsor and then the 62 New Yorker then the 66 Plymouth Belvedere. A while back my someone crashed into my Father’s beloved 89 Mercedes 190D. It was a minor hit to the right front fender but the insurance company totaled it and gave my Father 3 times what he paid for it. My Father Bought a 2nd gen Stratus with the 4cyl. He had it a few years then it became nothing but trouble. He was in his 80’s when he had it and he called it the “Desoto” harkening back to the Old Days, He used to have me drive him around when I would visit him and I hated it. He would be driving it when the engine would quit for no reason. The dealer wanted to charge him almost as much as he paid for it to diagnose and fix it. Being a smart as he was, he went and bought a OBDII scanner and diagnosed it himself and found the problem to be the crank sensor. You have to give him credit for being 85 and replacing a crank sensor on a Stratus. I finally talked him into buying a KIA Sephia. It never faulted and he gave it to my nephew 6 years ago when he hit 90 and he found out that insurance would cost him $50 a week in order to keep driving. That Sephia is still running strong. I used to love Mopar in the 60’s but that Mopar is no more.
“…it would appear that Chrysler merely rested on its laurels after that” — another instance of Detroit’s inability to keep up with Japan’s product cycle. Even so, they would’ve needed a real slam-dunk to tempt “Toyohonda” customers, in addition to credible quality-control.
The problem was as much in Stuttgart (which deliberately cheapened Chrysler products so they wouldn’t be seen as competitive with Mercedes in export markets) as in Detroit.
Though I wasn’t emphasizing QC, it’s hard to imagine M-B having anything further to recommend to a firm with a long-standing talent for cheapening.
My point was, Japan’s design process had a tempo no one in Detroit (let alone Europe) could keep up with.
Well, if that’s true, MB of that era was even more stupid than I thought. NO ONE in the export markets who bought MBs would have gone for any Mopar, no matter how good the quality was. The person who might have considered a Skoda, a Renault or anything similar would have. But even back then VW understood they needed to move away from Skoda’s dreary past and reputation, so that the cars were being continuously improved, and even Renault was starting to realize this. MB was truly imbecilic to miss the opportunity it had with the Chrysler range back then.
In 1992 or 93 I was in Zurich, and my host owned something like a Chrysler Daytona 4-speed. He was an engineer trying out American (Canadian?) auto tech to get away from the ubiquitous Euro offerings in the same price range.
He didn’t think it was a great car or a lemon either, he seemed sort of indifferent, perhaps wishing he had not bought a car with such a heavy clutch and 4-speed, so much more suited to stop light drag racing and cheap American gas than the narrow Swiss streets and dollar-a-drop European gasoline.
I’d never, ever look at one of these cars today. My son’s ex-girlfriend had a ’98 Breeze in plum. Durable and functional AS LONG AS the electrical system didn’t give any problems.
I don’t remember the electrical component…about $100 repair/replace on every other vehicle on earth. $600-800 on these cars due to the part being hard-wired into the ECM, which would have to be replaced and reprogrammed.
I remember one other CC post mentioned similar maladies with the minivans; IIRC, if the HVAC panel started to act up the AUDIO system would also have to be replaced with the HVAC module.
I love that shot of the whole 1996 lineup, all in the same color and same (or similar) trim. I’d like to see stuff like that from every manufacturer in every year,
I’ve seen it on the back of 1997 Ford brochures. Showing the Aerostar, Aspire, Probe and MN12 Thunderbird in their final year.
I owned a Burgundy 1997 Cirrus LX with the 2.5L V6. It was loaded, without the gold trim bits the LXi got. I loved that car. It was a real sleeper with good performance for the time. The police thought it was an old man’s car and the young kids in Civics were surprised more than once at a stop light. The only issues I remember having were with the ABS system and rust.
We lived in an apartment near a paper mill at the time, so every morning, I’d wake up to a yellow film on the car. I’m pretty sure that led to the significant rust on the edges of the doors and hood. I got rid of it around the time my first child was born. We traded it in on a 1999 Caravan, which ended up being the worst vehicle I have ever owned.
In late ’96, I was in the market to replace my aging ’83 Cutlass. The cloud cars were #3 on my list behind the Camry and Nissan Maxima. Well, never made it past the Toyota dealer. The 4 cylinder Camry was solid as a rock averaging 29-30 MPG on the Interstate.
Wonder what my experience would have been with a Cirrus or Stratus with a 4 cylinder and 4 speed automatic.
Maybe I passed on a Golden Period in the Pentastar history. Will never know!!
No, you wisely dodged a bullet.
The cloud cars were a surprising storm that brought more of the fresh air that was ’90s Chrysler.
The Cirrus sold three cars in my case. In 1995, it brought me into a Chrysler / Plymouth showroom for the first time ever. After spending some time in the Cirrus, I decided that it was a little small for me (coming out of a 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis). So, I checked out the LH cars. The Concorde seemed just right, and eventually I took one home. I enjoyed that car enough that I returned in ’99 for a Town & Country, and again in 2002 for a Dodge Durango.
This gives me pause to think about the importance of having competitive cars in several segments in a showroom. FCA giving up on mid-size sedans means that in 2017, it will not be able to find the 22 year younger version of me, and pull off another three similar sales.
Agree. This is a stupid short term decision which may show as savings in that years balance sheets but will come back to haunt FCA later. But being employed in an Italian corporation myself I’m very familiar with this sort of thing…
Agreed that FCA shouldn’t just write off the midsize segment altogether, but using your analogy today, the Cirrus would be a Jeep Cherokee. The sad truth is that the majority of car buyers (doesn’t matter their age, just that they don’t have many kids) are buying compact new CUVs.
Interesting point about the current relevancy of mid-size cars. CAFE and Commuters in mega-markets love sedans, and I think they still can be the gateway drug to a manufacturer’s larger and more profitable models as second vehicles in markets like Southern California, most of the West Coast really, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Boston, etc.
A few million people lapped up mid-size cars in the U.S. last year. If FCA hadn’t made such a mess, they’d be in the hunt for a couple hundred thousand units or more each year………
Exactly. I am amazed of manufacturers’ inability to learn from past mistakes by releasing half-baked models into the market. Ultimately, reliability is king and I have no doubt whatever that had the 200 the same kind of reliability record as early 50s Mopars had, sales would have been FAR better.
What with the useless headlights, the ProbleMatic transaxle, the spastic electrical system, and the we-coulda-cared-but-rilly-din’t-feel-like-it materials and build quality, why, what wasn’t to like!
…not to mention the 2.5 Mitsu V6 prone to sludging itself to death, the braindead battery location and the general pain-in-the-arseness of working on these cars, even with the large amount of practice they tended to put one through.
Owned a Cirrus V-6. Can confirm. Ever tried changing the distributor in one? It’s like purposely made to be difficult.
Mine threw a timing belt and I parted it out. Should’ve learned my lesson but bought a ’96 Concorde later. Got burned there too, but I foolishly tried to “keep fixing it” until it finally went beyond feasible repair cost.
When this style came out, I went ga-ga over them, so much so that I wanted one immediately!
Well, I waited a few years and we did buy a 1999 Dodge Stratus, but sold it just before the warranty ran out, never to buy another Chrysler product again.
FWIW, that gear selector has to be the absolute, most comfortable, most ergonomically designed shifter ever designed!
My sister just traded her bought-new 1996 Chrysler Cirrus a few months ago at 180,000 miles, mixed freeeay-city driving. She had none of the much-talked about transmission issues. At all. My 1995 Dodge Intrepid hasn’t, either. For us, and those we know with Chrysler 4-speeds starting 1993 or so, the transmission has been a non-issue.
My mother-in-law went car shopping in 1996 armed with my opinions and settled on a new Cirrus. The car served her well until she died when it was later shipped to southern Ontario to be used as a second car by her son and his wife. It was involved in one collision, put back on the road and ran great for a few more years before transmission issues sent it to the auto wreckers.
I remember driving it only once and thinking what a big improvement the car was over the previous generation Acclaim, Spirit models. My father had a 90 Acclaim and it was okay, but its K-car roots were apparent. Reliable with the Mitsu V6 but nothing exciting to drive.
These were nice looking cars when new. Sadly they seemed to quickly settle into cheaper beaters. Maybe because no one wanted to invest in keeping a car nice with the unreliable Ultradrive automatic.
That’s kind of what I’ve seen as well. Really pretty when new, especially the high-trim models with the nicer alloys. (and pre-facelift, that new grille didn’t help anything). But it seems they descended into beater-dom quickly, and are now mostly extinct. I did see a Stratus of this generation a few days ago, but man did it look rough.
I drove a Stratus in 1997 and it wrote the only car review for which I was paid. It appeared in an Irish car magazine. In hindsight while the cloud cars moved Chrysler on a good bit they were not the game changer the motoring press (and I) thought. This is my subsequent opinion: the worst of Eurojapanese styling and American design in one package.
Not bad cars from my experience, except for the 2.0 L Breeze. Can you spell it D..O..G?
Also, made lots of money changing tie rod ends on all four corners every 20,000 miles. Also loved the 2.7 engine, especially the 10 hour task to change the water pump.
Tie rod ends – worn out tie rod bushings is probably why my 2000 Cirrus LXi is such a squeaker. But Chrysler dealer James Hodge Motors said it was a $3500 repair, which I did not believe for a minute. Soon after, my hearing got worse in my left ear; you might say I learned to turn a deaf ear to the noise. It squeaks much worse in cold weather, something we don’t get so much of here in northeast Texas.
I am surprised to hear negative Cirrus experiences. Mine has been the best car I’ve ever owned, now going on 15 years since I bought it at 30k miles in late 2001. It has run through a few batteries, which are a chore to replace due to their location in the driver wheel well. It also developed a leak in the fuel injection pipework, which should have been an easy $300.00 fix, but the dealer James Hodge Motors screwed me – they charged for replacing the whole FI sub-system, then only replaced one small section of fuel line.
Then the mechanic drove my car into something and knocked off the driver side mirror, which they duct taped back in place, and then took three months to replace the mirror with a faded, scratched, and well-used junkyard part. Oh, and someone at James Hodges stole my Handicapped Parking placard while the car was in their bay for service. What a bunch of rats.
That’s J-a-m-e-s H-o-d-g-e Motors, in Paris. Texas. Buyer beware, seriously.
My old Cirrus LXi gets 24 mpg combined, and at 102,000 miles a bit of headlight rejuvenation is about all it needs. It does not have Bentley-grade sound deadening at highway speeds. When I get stuck behind a caravan of never-passers doing 55 in a 75, I hit passing gear and the Cirrrus LXi V6 accelerates 55-90 mph in a blink, and does it with a serious throaty exhaust growl worthy of a mini-muscle car.
Continuing the Mercedes-Benz “legend,” it seems nobody is willing to “credit” Daimler with any complicity in throwing away the gains made by Chrysler with the homegrown Cloud cars, by developing successors which were bland in styling and no advance…maybe even retrograde…in performance and driver comfort. Daimler’s full level of incompetence…or was it sabotage…were the next “successors” the JS-platform Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring. They were awkwardly blocky in styling and clearly outclassed in vehicle dynamics, NVH and engine/driveline. “Ve say this is what you get to sell. Seig HEIL!”
Daimler, at a time when only its truck division was making a profit, not only drained Chrysler of its cash, but ran off its talent…Castaing, Gale and others…replacing them with dull, grey yes-men doing the automotive equivalent of goose-stepping.
To be fair to Benz, Anglo-Saxons have long experience at that. P.G. Wodehouse called Yes Men “nodders,” after a stint with Hollywood studios during the ’20s or early ’30s. Maybe that’s what inspired a Monty Python sketch.
Some of our politicians were infamous for appearing on TV with ‘nodders’ in the background, slowly nodding their heads as if to add credence to what the pollie was saying. That was until someone pointed out they resembled kids’ bobble-headed toys. 😉
Daniel is right, these things were mechanical a holes. Terminal, frequent, and expensive ECM failures. I would rather take my chances with a Yugo.
Although It was a success in Brazil for a short time, it could approach to the best seller “executive sedan” of that time, the Opel based Chevrolet Vectra B. Chrysler tested the market acceptance in 1996 with a few units of the Cirrus and then started the official importation with some changes. Chrysler mixed the Cirrus nose with the Dodge Stratus interior and rear lights, releasing the chimera “Chrysler Stratus” in 1997. The low rate BRL-U$ helped a lot and Chrysler could even approach the best seller Opel based Chevrolet Vectra B in the “executive sedan” category. Unfortunately it last short. In the following years the BRL depreciation turned imported cars too expensive and Chrysler could never touch the heart and the wallet of the local buyers with the Sebring as it could do with Neon, Cirrus-Stratus and 300M again.
Unlike the solid, friendly, comfortable girl next door, Chrysler in the ’90s was the brassy beauty you just knew was going to burn you. You think of all the innovative designs they released during that period – Neon, Cirrus, LH, Viper, Caravan, Ram…they were on a roll big time. Each one of those caused a tremor in the market as I recall. If only they had the ability to reach Toyota-level reliability….
I’m not sure it was Daimler’s intention to strip and flip…I think they over-thought their abilities to meld the two companies and how the hell Chrysler fit in to their plans. Once they got over their heads, followed by massive downward market shifts in Europe for MB, the Chrysler bank made a great bedfellow. Reminds me of the disastrous Studebaker-Packard merger of the ’50s….ill-suited and lack of knowledge. Eaton made out ok of course; keep in mind as well that old MB mechanicals begat the 300 as well, so not a total loss.
As gorgeous as my brother’s Ram and Caravan were, both became mechanical nightmares. Opportunity missed.
There was no need to mold the two. All MB had to do is make sure Chrysler’s reliability improved and make smaller diesels available for the EU spec models. They had a lower level, sales generating brand on their hands and threw it all away. At the risk of repeating my self ad nauseam, for how you do this right, please see VW/Skoda or Renault/Dacia.
Funny, my wife had a ’99 that was pretty solid mechanically and didn’t have any ECM issues. Of course except for the placement of the oil filter on the bottom of the 2.4 engine where it could contact stuff and drain out. Not sure why “red light on” means “drive home anyhow”, but…
And then, on the new engine a few years later, the oil pickup fell out of the block and relocated itself to the bottom of the pan.
Our ’99 Stratus with the 2.0 4-cylinder engine was one of the best cars my wife and I have ever owned. We bought it used in 2004 with 48,000 miles on it, and just sold it last year to one of her colleagues, who’s still driving it today.
My daughter bought a used ’04 Sebring that was also an excellent vehicle for her.
I thought these were so attractive when they came out, and the styling has held up very well. Much better than their rotten successors.
There was a really interesting interview with the young designer who was the lead stylist in a magazine…I think Autoweek…at the time. I believe he used the inspiration of a crouching animal, or something, and the part I have always remembered about the piece is how he and a friend in design school would periodically take a long car trip from Detroit to NYC, just for the fun of it, for a day. They would start the journey with one question, which they called the New York Question, and would then discuss and debate answers to it the entire trip.
I am owner of a ’97 stratus with 62 thousand kilometers away, 2 liter engine manual trans. Excellent and reliable car. Beautiful and comfortable. Excellent road stability and fuel consumption. Very Economical. Power is sufficient because it is not heavy. I drive in Hungary American car because the Jenkys are always innovative and unique and made of qualitative materials! Car is 20 years old, but it’s like new. Stratus shape is eternal form.
Back in late November 2001 I stopped at a dealer’s used car lot to look at a replacement for my Honda Accord. I had enjoyed that Accord even with its four-speed manual, but not so much after I moved to a home 35 miles from work. My left knee wen bad from working the clutch in 70 daily miles of miserable stop-and-go Dallas ‘freeway’ traffic.
The dealer lot had a 2000 Cirrus LXi with just under 30k miles, right at two years old, silver with black leather and all the trimmings. It looked fine, it drove great with its strong V-6, good brakes, and good suspension. The final price after trade-in so reasonable that I bought the Cirrus that afternoon and drove it home. The used car salesman was the guy ‘up’ for walk-ins, and early on he asked me if I might be buying that day; I said yes, and he got me a great deal on a great car. I admit, though, that I called my angel wife and told her of my intentions to run us into debt (the Accord was paid for) and she as usual said do what you think is best dear…
I still drive that Cirrus LXi today, though it only gets driven 20-30 miles per week, except for the 180 mile round trip to a doctor in Plano every three months. It is the best car I have ever owned in terms of drivability, comfort, and reliability – except now it has lots of squeaks in the front suspension area. Local dealer James Hodges Chrysler ran of a figure of $3500 to fix, but that dealer later turned out to be less than honest. A mechanic drove my Cirrus into a pole and broke off the driver side mirror, then took three months to replace it with a crappy used one from a junkyard. Oh, and that same dealer who I paid to replace a sub-system of the fuel injection? The so-called mechanic took a shortcut and only replaced a section of fuel pipe instead of replacing the full sub-system unit like I paid for. James Hodges Dodge, go hang.
At 102K miles I have been thinking about a replacement for my 2000 Cirrus because it is getting pretty old. But I drive it so little, and it seems to have so much life left in it, and still gets 24 mpg combined, any replacement is just a thought exercise.
What I like: leather seats, all-power and air, and a strong passing gear from a powerful engine,which is a must since my only route to Dallas is a two lane blacktop with farm vehicle traffic, slow semis, and even slower country folk who think driving 50 (uphill) and 55 (downhill) on a posted 75 mph highway is just fine for them, so it should be for me too.
The interior is well laid out. The battery is in an oddball location – I have to remove the driver side front tire and wheel well shroud to change it. But for jump starting it has clearly marked Red Positive and Black Negative posts in plain sight under the hood.
I really like the pass-through fold-down rear seat back. I can get 10-foot lumber or fence poles to fit inside the car, a dozen or fewer pieces at a time. Just fold down the rear seat back and move the goods through the trunk, letting them come to rest astride the console armrest.
I really like the ease with which the bottom section of the rear seat can be removed and replaced. My poor old Hannah Belle dog has serious arthritis and hip area cartilage loss. She just can’t step up to the height of a regular back seat, and she is too big and heavy for a dog carrier. But with the Cirrus back seat removed and left in the garage, she can hobble onto the much lower rear floor when it comes time for a vet visit.
All in all, I think that 2000 Cirrus LXi will be with me for a long time to come, knock on wood. I have not seen any mid-to-low price car of any year, make, or model that offers the same features I value. I think of it as my poor man’s Bimmer, though I feel sure it will beat any BMW in its age and price class hands down, whether in a drag race or on a road course or in pure creature comfort.
I thought the original Chevrolet Volt looked somewhat like what the JA platform (specifically the Dodge Stratus), might have evolved into stylistically, if they remained in production into the 2010s.
Our daughter had one. I drove with our son from Miami to our home in Valley Cottage, NY, some 1300 miles in two days. What a horrible ride! This car was made for short trips for those who wanted a sporty look. Even our son’s back was aching after each day’s drive.