Last fall, long before Mercedes created a gleam in the eye of Chrysler's top executives, the company held a short press event to test some pre-production versions of its redesigned 1998 Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde sedans. The cars tested very well and auto writers generated a lot of favorable stories. It was named to Car and Driver magazine's list of 10 best cars for 1998.
_____So the opportunity to conduct a week-long test on an actual production Intrepid — pulled off the same assembly line as the cars sold to the public — had been eagerly anticipated. Dodge provided the base model of the Intrepid during the first week of May. Those seven days of testing confirmed the early impression of the car: Dodge made some substantial improvements in its 1998 large family sedan, building the spacious and now peppy Intrepid to a higher level of fit and finish than the earlier generation LH sedan.
_____The test car had already logged about 2,500 miles, and it provided a comfortable and quiet — although not perfect — ride. The ride was quiet except for one 5-mile stretch of I-5 near Wilsonville. That stretch of road has been chewed up by tire studs, and the uneven surface extracted a loud and very annoying dashboard rattle from the Intrepid.
_____As in the past generation of Intrepid, even large adults should find the car extremely roomy and comfortable. And the exterior styling provides ample evidence of why Mercedes is trying to buy Chrysler. The Intrepid looks more like a flashy sport coupe, rather than a family sedan. It would be hard to mistake the Intrepid for the many nondescript sedans that seem to predominate in the midsize market.
_____In comparison with the Honda Accord, the Intrepid measures about 15 inches longer overall and 4 inches wider. That translates into about two inches more hip and shoulder room throughout the interior of the Intrepid and a spacious trunk at 18.4 cubic feet, more than 4 cubic feet larger than that of the Accord. Dodge also improved the Intrepid's trunk by eliminating the hinges that used to intrude on cargo space and damage cargo placed too high under them.
_____The interior of the car contains a variety of practical cubbyholes and spaces for storing sunglasses, pens and other items. Dodge's interior designers finished the long dashboard in a non-reflective matte — many owners of the previous Intrepid complained about reflection of the old dashboard into the windshield. The white-faced gauges provide a nice styling touch and are easy to read.
_____The headlights represent another major improvement in the car. Dodge officials say the low beam output is 50 percent higher and the high beam shines 100 percent brighter than in the previous generation Intrepid. At night, the headlights really light up the road and shoulder areas.
_____The all-new engines available in the two models of the Intrepid run much smoother, quieter and with more power than the engines in the earlier generation car. A responsive 200-horsepower V-6 replaces a 161-horsepower engine from the '97 base model Intrepid. The old engine always sounded highly strained under heavy acceleration, but the new one handled all the demands of a week of daily commuting with a quiet surge of power when needed. And despite the additional horsepower, the new car also gets better gas mileage.
_____A 225-horsepower V-6 that can really make the car scoot powers the uplevel Intrepid model, the ES.
_____The four-wheel independent suspension did a good job of smoothing out bumps. The test car came with the optional larger 16-inch tires which aided control in cornering. The steering system, however, will probably feel a little dead on center (you have to move the steering wheel farther to get a response) to some drivers.
_____Dodge engineers installed larger rotors in the front brakes of the '98 Intrepid. The car's brakes performed well with little dive for a car of this size.
_____There is also good news on the financial front for those who might be interested in the Intrepid. Car sales generally, including those of the Intrepid, have been slow, so Dodge now offers a new Intrepid lease. According to Automotive News, the special lease for the base Intrepid costs $289 per month for 36 months, and it will run through July 6. With this lease, $1,988 is due up front. An equivalent Intrepid before this offer carried a lease rate of about $317 a month.