DC Takes Another Shot at the Clouds Cirrus and Breeze are gone; Stratus and Sebring take over In a segment ruled by Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, DaimlerChrysler Corp. hopes its 2001 Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus sedans and coupes have adopted enough styling cues from the LH large car platform to draw consumers away from the Accord/Camry powerhouse. Once in the showroom, DCC's counting on the cars' improved performance and quiet ride to sell the consumer on these replacements for the Cirrus/Stratus/Breeze trio.

Although they were wholly decent efforts, the original "cloud" cars failed to generate much volume - or attention. The new offerings might have a better shot.

The Sebring name brings cachet from the top-selling convertible that bore the name until the marketing decision to expand it to encompass the new sedan and coupe for the '01 model year.

Two years of product development yield a sedan that strengthens the family resemblance with the new low oval grille first seen on the Chrysler Concorde. The new and larger headlamp and taillamp housings take cues from the 300M as does the rear view. Crisper creases and a beltline that rises an inch (25 mm) from front to rear give a European feel (says DC, anyway). The wheel arches are akin to those on the Ford Focus, albeit thinner and sleeker. The roofline is designed to be sportier than the average family sedan.

The interior continues the linear, crisper look, a departure from the softer insides of the previous-generation cars. Improved seating features a 60/40 split rear seat for pass-through cargo storage, a feature not usually found in this segment. It is part of the Sebring's bid to bill itself as a near-luxury midsize sedan.

The coupes also are more European in flavor with chrome window surrounds and chrome around the grille and fog lamps. Side molding eliminates the cladding of their predecessor, the Dodge Avenger.

DaimlerChrysler puts a lot of money and emphasis on performance. The Stratus coupe is downright fun to drive, especially with the new 5-speed manual transmission (which also comes with a hydraulic clutch when hooked to the V-6). Canadians must choose the more refined Sebring, as Dodge cars are no longer sold in that country.

The powertrain availability is as confusing as following the cars' developmental gestation, which now sees the coupes built on the Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Galant/Eclipse platform in Normal, IL, and the sedans built with no Mitsu bits in DCC's Sterling Heights, MI, assembly plant.

Here's the breakdown: Coupes are available with either a 2.4L SOHC 4-cyl. or a 3L Mitsubishi-designed V-6. For Stratus, either engine can be linked to a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed AutoStick slushbox, while the Sebring coupe offers the manual only with the 3L.

Meanwhile, the base sedan engine is Chrysler's decent 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl., supplemented by the 2.7L DOHC V-6 formerly served up only as the base large-car engine. Automatics only for either engine.

For the coupes, the new 3L fitment offers 200 hp at 5,500 rpm and 205 lb.-ft. (278 Nm) of torque at 4,500 rpm - 32 hp and 22 lb.-ft. (30 Nm) more than the outmoded 2.5L V-6 it replaces. The 3L is said to be 10% more efficient (20 mpg city/28 highway) while meeting low emission standards. The base 2.4L 4-cyl. on the LX also was tweaked.

The sedan's new body structure achieves a 13% reduction in twist and 33% reduction in bending, while on the coupe rigidity increases by more than 90% in bending and 9% in torsion. A new front suspension and crossmember give a more refined ride and handling that proves itself in a quick maneuver to avoid a motorcycle making an unsignaled attempt to pass during the test drive.

While the sedan and coupe come from two different platform teams, both achieve their goal of a quieter ride. The sedan's new body shape reduces wind noise, right down to design of the windshield wiper, mirror and A-pillar. Even the glass in the door is 0.2-ins. (5 mm) thicker and the door panel has integrated acoustic water shields and extra sound dampening.

The coupe focuses on suspension and tires, with a single-piece bodyside construction for fewer body joints and less noise.

Sedans start at $18,520 (including $575 destination charge) for the Chrysler Sebring LX and $18,375 for the Stratus SE. An extra $800 upgrades the base model to the 2.7L V-6. Sebring LXi starts at $21,495 and Stratus ES is $21,010.

The coupe, with $585 destination charge, is $20,495 for the Sebring LX and $22,060 for the LXi. Stratus SE starts at $18,395 and R/T is $21,290.