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1996 Eagle Vision

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

The concept of manual-automatic transmissions has, so far, been restricted to ultra-pricey cars. Porsche's Tiptronic started it; BMW's 8series and Acura's NSX have since followed.

Now Chrysler has brought the idea down into the affordable category by making their Autostick available on various models of Dodge Stratus, Chrysler Intrepid and Eagle Vision.

We tried it on the upscale TSi model of the Eagle sedan. It's standard equipment on that car, teamed with the 214 horsepower 3.5 litre four-cam 24valve V6 engine.

Autostick follows a similar pattern to its expensive predecessors: you can leave the shift lever in drive, and let the transmission work as a normal automatic.

Or, you can exercise a certain degree of manual control over the shifting by depressing the thumb button on the floor-mounted shift lever, and pulling back one notch to A/S, just as if you were selecting "D3" on a conventional automatic.

The transmission stays in whatever gear the box was in at the time (unlike the Acura which, for reasons known only to itself and its programmer, switches to third if it was in fourth.)

To change gears in the Vision, you need only slap the gear-stick to the right to up-shift, or to the left to downshift. The electronics won't let you choose a gear that would over-rev the engine – at 100 km/h, for example, you can slap leftwards as far down as second, but it won't choose first. Just as well.

TOGGLE LEFT OR RIGHT

Likewise, if you're working your way up through the gears, it won't stay with a ratio that'll turn your nice motor into so much high-tech shrapnel. Select first in Autostick and stand on it, and at the engine's red line (6000 r.p.m.) and before the presumed rev limiter cuts in, it'll shift to second, like it or not. It then stays in second, unless you knock the lever rightwards again (or hit the red line again, at which point the OPP may well be on your case.)

The other exceptions to manual control in Autostick mode that I was able to discover in a week's driving include a downshift into first if you try a full throttle departure from rest whilst in second or third (you can't choose fourth when stopped); once again, it stays in first until you shift or the valves start to float.

Autostick will make a throttle-induced downshift into third, if you were in fourth going 80 km/h or less and you really hammer the loud pedal. I wasn't able to elicit similar third-to-second or second-to-first behavior.

In all cases, the gear you (or the car) has selected is displayed on the instrument panel.

If you've gotten this far, the question you may be asking is: So what? Can't you do all this with a normal automatic, just by stirring the shift lever?

Well, yes you can. And, like the other manual-autos, the Autostick transmission isn't fundamentally different. It's not a sequential box, like motorcycles or Formula One racing cars have. It's just a different arrangement of micro-switches that tell the tranny's electronic controller what ratio to choose.

And, if you're like me, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. You've paid all this money for an automatic, why not let it do the work? Stick it in drive, right pedal to go, left pedal to stop –end of story.

But, if you're the sort who likes to play with the automatic transmission, Autostick makes the task much easier. You can do it all without looking; a solid punch of the lever gives you exactly one step up or down – no need to worry whether you've moved the lever to the right slot.

Looking at night won't do you any good anyway since Vision's floor mounted shift gate isn't illuminated and you can't see what gear you're choosing until you get used to looking at the dashboard display.

I must allow Autostick another advantage. Today's most modern automatics, and Chrysler's electronic four speed is among them, are adaptive: they can change shift patterns depending on how you drive. But they are not as yet predictive.

If, for example, you've been tooling gently along the freeway, then dive onto a twisty two-lane road, you might prefer the automatic to shift with more alacrity. But it'll take some time before the transmission's internal logic catches up with your new driving style.

Some trannies have a mode switch, giving you the choice of sport or economy modes. But with Autostick, you have more complete control.

In short, Autostick is an interesting feature, more-so depending on what type of driver you are. But it's not the sort of thing that makes or breaks a car.

Which begs the question: What's the rest of the Vision like?

Pretty neat, actually. Vision is the sportiest manifestation of Chrysler's LH sedan family, all built right next door in beautiful downtown Brampton.

Some four years after their introduction, the LH's are still among the hottest-looking cars on the road. The long wheelbase, slanted nose, rakish windshield, gigantic tires filling nice, round wheel wells – gorgeous.

There's enormous room inside. But it's not just the cab-forward architecture, as Chrysler would have you believe. These are big cars, with a wheelbase longer than Buick's Park

Avenue.

Despite the size, Vision seems a small car from behind the wheel. The short, slanted nose gives excellent forward visibility, and the view to the rear is not as bad as the high trunk lid might lead you to expect (nor as bad as in Chrysler's smaller JA sedans, Dodge Stratus, et al).

The car handles well, with nice flat cornering and a nimbleness that again belies its size.

The road-speed variable power steering is not, as so few of these are, as linear as most cheaper, non-variable systems, including Chrysler's own. Somebody in the engineering community must think they are a good idea.

The big V6 provides lots of performance, although a longstanding if minor beef about the LH remains: throttle response from rest is almost too abrupt, making it difficult to make a smooth, gentle getaway. Perhaps this is a strategic move to cover up the low bottom-end torque that's common with multi-valve engines; although the 3.5 V6 doesn't really suffer from this problem.

You learn certain things about an unfamiliar car when picking it up late on a freezing cold night. Number one: why would anybody in this country order leather seats? Twenty minutes after leaving Chrysler's parking lot I still felt like I was sitting on blocks of ice. Sadly, heated seats aren't on Vision's option list, but cloth upholstery would obviate much of the need. Leather, by the way, is optional on all Visions, but it's packaged with other desirable options on the ESi model, so most of the cars come with it.

Second, most of Vision's minor controls are illuminated windows, door locks – so Chrysler knows this is a good idea. So why not light the previously noted shift gate, or the steering wheel-mounted cruise control buttons?

Vision's age is reflected by a somewhat busy interior, with less-than state-of-the-art ergonomics. The radio is above the heater/air conditioner, but both are very low on the centre stack, and are replete with tiny buttons that make changing either your tunes or your climate hazardous when on the move.

Overall, however, Eagle Vision is a handsome, capable, high-tech piece that looks good, goes well, has considerable panache, and sells for a decent price.

And it's built right here. Kind of makes you proud to be a Canadian, doesn't it?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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