Every year, we drive Chrysler's beautifully engineered and thoughtfully constructed LH cars--the Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde--and every year, we wonder aloud: are you sure these sleekly stellar sedans were made by the same company that gave us the stodgy K car?
As it stands, the 1993-model-year introduction of the LH platform, with its breakthrough cab-forward design, was enough to really bail Chrysler out--after years of being relegated to the cellar of the domestic Big Three by its unimaginitive, plain-vanilla designs.
But on the strength of its LH cars--and the expanded luxury version, the LHS, Chrysler has shaken off the doldrums and re-emerged as a design leader, a position that's sure to be reinforced by the new LH cars, which will begin filtering into showrooms this fall.
The combination of dramatic styling and on-the-road agility--and more interior roominess than many competing cars--has wowed critics and car buyers alike, making the LH one of America's auto-biz success stories of the '90s.
Wisely, Chrysler continues to spread the LH wisdom around, offering an LH entry in three of its divisions: Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde take advantage of longtime customer loyalty to those two stalwart divisions, while the Eagle Vision does duty as an import fighter, trying to lure more cutting-edge, sport-minded buyers.
The Vision also serves as the testing ground for new technological advances, like last year when it was used to introduce the AutoStick system--an automatic transmission that can be shifted like a stick shift. The AutoStick proved popular enough that it's now also an option on the Intrepid.
The color of our Intrepid Sport test model is dubbed Bright Platinum Metallic--a $200 optional paint job--but looked more like light metallic grey to our eyes. The wide front air dam, wide-set foglights and squinty headlights give the Intrepid the look of a nocturnal predator. This is a car that definitely looks like it's on the prowl.
Prowling for what, we wonder? Perhaps it's eager to gobble up cars like the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which are territorial rivals even though the Intrepid is actually a full-size car.
By now, every auto journalist worth his or her weight in free coffee and Danish has thrown laurels at the feet of the Chrysler designers who came up with the cab-forward design. But let us add to those hosannas: In concert with the dramatically-swept windshield, the function of this design follows its sleek form--both in terms of exterior aerodynamics and interior space.
Adding to the Intrepid's heart-fluttering hint of bad-boy are the evocative monochrome body cladding, the eye-catching wraparound taillights, the black-tinted windshield trim, and black heated-mirror housings.
Trim levels include the base Intrepid and the Intrepid ES. Updates for the '97 include bolt-on wheel covers, an optional eight-way power driver's seat, and a new $1400 Sport option package that consists of a 3.5-liter 24-valve overhead-cam V6 engine, the AutoStick system, Sport badging, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, a digital message center and the eight-way driver's seat.
The base price of an Intrepid is $19,955, including destination. Our tester came equipped with the Sport package. After adding the $200 metallic paint job, $105 for a regional emissions test and the $550 destination--then subtracting the $600 Dodge discount--the final MSRP came to $21,060.
When the Intrepid was introduced, one car-buff magazine measured the interior space, from the base of the windshield to the base of its backlight, and found it was 14 inches longer than a Ford Crown Vic--a vehicle that's much larger and heavier.
Therein lies the beauty of the synergy between the cab-forward design and the long wheelbase. There's enough back seat legroom for Dick the Bruiser to pin the Sheik with a flying leg-scissor hold. Headroom is also copious, while the optional 50/50 split-bench front seat increases seating capacity from five to six--and with the Intrepid, that means six full-sized adults.
Standard equipment on the Intrepid consists of a 3.3-liter 161-hp V6 engine, four-speed automatic transmission, dual airbags, air conditioning, tinted glass, AM/FM/cassette, rear defroster, front bucket seats, dual vanity mirrors, body side protection, interior courtesy lamps, tilt steering and power windows/locks/mirrors.
All switches are easy to locate and operate, and dials are smartly laid out and well-illuminated. The sporty instruments have black-on-white graphics, with a touch of grey shading.
The eight-way power seat provides plenty of body-position configurations at the flip of a switch, and it reclines to near-horizontal to provide clearance for loading large or odd-shaped objects. Interior lighting is also generous.
And can we talk cupholders? The Intrepid sets the gold standard: the adjustable sides can be ratcheted in and out to hold cups of various girths--and keep them in place. We wish this design was universal.
Although the standard 3.3-liter engine would probably be sufficient for most drivers, the optional 3.5-liter powerplant puts out an additional 53 hp--a total of 214--for those who like a little more tiger in their tank. The extra power definitely makes the Intrepid more fun to drive--this is a sporty sedan, after all--and provides added muscle for must-pass scenarios.
The 3.5-liter V6 is especially robust when matched with the AutoStick. After dropping the shift lever into AutoStick, you're able to shift up and down by flicking the shift lever to the left to upshift and to the right to downshift.
It takes a bit of getting used to--especially since there's no clutch pedal to synchronize with the shift lever. But once we overcame the novelty and newness of sans-clutch shifting, we were impressed by how much more attuned we felt to the car's power. Of course, a five-speed manual shift on the floor would deliver even more spritely performance, but Chrylser doesn't offer a stick shift in its LH cars.
The 3.5-liter engine ran smoothly and quietly; at 50 mph, the tachometer held steady at a very civilized 1500 rpm, meaning the engine is doing its job without straining.
When turning into tight corners, the Intrepid's variable-assist power steering--working in conjunction with the fully independent Touring suspension--delivered crisp, precise handling with minimal body roll. In sudden-stop situations, the four-wheel antilock disc brakes brought the Intrepid to a safe, controlled halt.
One caveat, however: it's beyond us how such an otherwise tightly-engineered car can allow so much wind noise to intrude--via the front-seat windows--upon such a joyful driving experience.
Now that the LH has been in the marketplace for more than four years, we're somewhat torn. On the one hand, we love this car. On the other, even though we hotly anticipate innovations--and the LH cars are headed for a truly head-turning redesign for 1998--we almost hate to see Chrysler tampering with such a wonderfully-crafted car.
On the other hand, with updates on the near-horizon, this is a good time to cut an extra good deal on the current Intrepid. We find it hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with this car.