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Amazing, isn't it? A company consistently creates a dreary series of mediocre, brick-shaped cars, and the next thing you know, that same company up and seizes the mantle of design leadership for the entire domestic automobile industry.
Every time Chrysler steps up to the plate these days, the ball seems to go over the fence. And it seems wholly probable that the new Cirrus is going to keep the hitting streak alive. It's got the right stuff.
This goes well beyond looks, of course. As a '90s car buyer, you're recognized by business analysts as having more savvy than ever before. You're informed on safety, you know value and you have high expectations for reliability and durability.
But even so, it helps a lot if that new car also happens to look good, right? Of course.
Well, you don't need us to tell you that this all-new car looks even better than good. Along with its twin, the Dodge Stratus, the Cirrus stole the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and our test drive travels made it plain that it's one of the very few midsize sedans with enough visual horsepower to earn second and third glances from passersby.
Styling may not be everything in this enlightened automotive age, but it's still an excellent starting point.
The Cirrus falls more or less into the middle of the midsize range, a little bigger than the Honda Accord but smaller than the Ford Taurus. It's a tad shorter and lower than the Toyota Camry, but it's also wider, with about a 5-in. advantage in wheelbase.
A long wheelbase and wide track are key elements in Chrysler's cab-forward design technique, which moves the wheels out toward the corner of the car to create more space inside. This approach isn't really exclusive to Chrysler - Honda, for example, uses a similar technique - but it's undeniably effective.
Besides the usual positive effect of a long wheelbase on ride quality, keeping more of the car's mass centered between the front- and rear-wheel centerlines pays off in more balanced handling.
High-chassis rigidity is another key element in responsive handling, and Chrysler has made a virtual religion of this in its recent cars. The big LH cars - Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, Chrysler Concorde - set new chassis-rigidity standards when they came along a couple years back, and Chrysler claims that the Cirrus is even better in this regard.
Chrysler has also applied some of the lessons learned with the LH sedans to its Cirrus manufacturing process. As a result, the Cirrus has fewer parts than its competitors, and production tolerances are tighter than the initial LH standards.
Judging by our test car, this attention to detail is paying off. Besides its purposeful good looks - low, wide and elegantly aggressive - our Cirrus was well assembled and nicely finished, inside and out.
For 1995, at least, the Cirrus will be offered with only one engine - a smooth 2.5-liter V6 supplied by Mitsubishi - and one transmission, an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic.
The Cirrus comes in two flavors: the basic LX, with an attractive array of comfort and convenience goodies, and the posh LXi, which we tested.
Cirrus pricing starts just a wink under $18,000, including destination charges. The basic Stratus should be less expensive, probably under $16,000, and a Plymouth version will join the family for the 1996 model year.
The Cirrus is just as attractive inside as out, with smooth, organic curves to its nicely integrated dashboard design and better-than-average control location.
Major instruments are grouped under a curved cowling, which helps keep reflections off the glass panel. The cowling is elevated slightly above the rest of the dash, just enough to make it easy to check the instruments at a glance without intruding on the driver's forward sightlines.
At night, this display be-comes especially attractive, with warm red and gold lights.
The climate controls, located at the bottom center of the dash, use rotary switches - a little easier to operate than slides, especially if you're wearing gloves; the audio controls are just above them. The latter could benefit from slightly larger switches and push buttons, but they're bigger than some.
Power-window switches and side-mirror adjusters are set into the angled portion of the driver's armrest, and both are user-friendly.
The center console contains a pair of cupholders just ahead of the shift lever - a little awkward to get to, and they would interfere with the ashtray if there was one. If you want an ashtray in your Cirrus, it's a special-order item, a phenomenon we expect to see in other new cars as we march further into the no-smoking era.
The center console also has a built-in coin bin, a little tricky to use because of its proximity to the hand brake, but welcome nonetheless. There are storage pockets in the door panels, as well as a lockable glove box.
Interior roominess has been a key design priority in recent Chrysler designs, and there's plenty of it here, particularly in back, with more legroom than either the Accord or Camry. There's also good elbow room, thanks to this car's relatively wide dimensions, and decent headroom, even though the roofline is relatively low.
Our LXi's leather seats were nicely contoured and well-padded. They're not quite as supportive as, say, the Ford Contour bolstered buckets, but they're sportier than the Accord or Camry seats, with a good range of adjust-ability. The bottom cushions could be a bit longer - some drivers mentioned a shortage of thigh support - but we think most folks will find them comfortable.
The Cirrus trunk has a couple of odd angles inside, but it's good sized, and the trunk lid swings up high - almost at a right angle - to make it easier to reach the cargo area.
Even with the slightly stiffer touring suspension, the handling of our Cirrus wasn't in the same razor-precise league as the Contour - but few cars are.
Its responses to sudden moves with the steering wheel are prompt and decisive - there's no mushiness, no hesitation. Body roll is well controlled, and there's virtually no front-end dive under hard braking.
The Cirrus provides a strong sense of confidence and control on winding roads, as well as excellent straight-line stability on the freeway. And its ride quality is generally smooth and quiet. There's the occasional sense of stiffness on sharp bumps, but that's the trade you make for firm control.
Engine performance is generally good, but perhaps not quite as peppy as the car's styling. The V6 engine has more than enough power to hold its own in urban traffic wars, and it's smooth on the interstates.
It begins to feel as though it's running out of breath, though, when the driver kicks the transmission down to second gear for a hurry-up pass on a two-lane highway. We also detected a subtle, high-pitched whine from the drivetrain when we were cruising between 62 and 65 mph.
As replacements for the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim, the Cirrus and Stratus take Chrysler's midsize offerings from 10 years behind the times to slightly ahead.
They're considerably more expensive, but they provide a good deal more in the way of standard equipment, including anti-lock brakes, while offering far better handling and excellent interior space.
It looks as if Chrysler has cleared the bases again. Maybe the other guys should find a way to move the fences back. Just a bit.