Something's happened over the past 20 years. Back when the Baby Boomers were wearing bell bottoms and beads, young buyers could pick up a stripped-down new car without asking for an advance on their family inheritance. These days, it's almost impossible to find anything that fits into the truly affordable category. One reason is that even the low-end Asian imports are loaded up with high-cost and high-profit features.
The Plymouth Breeze is designed to rework that equation. This roomy sedan is the type of low-price, high-value vehicle that should blow away the competition. It's sporty, stylish and offers a surprising amount of interior space, yet it's affordable enough to attract many of the young buyers who might otherwise be forced to settle for something pre-owned.
The Breeze is one of three Chrysler cloud cars, compact cars that offer nearly as much interior space as a midsize sedan. Of the trio (Cirrus, Stratus, Breeze), the Breeze is the stripped down version. But don't think that means a bare-bones, barely driveable car.
The Plymouth Breeze comes standard with popular features: air conditioning, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, power front-disc/rear-drum brakes, AM/FM stereo, tilt steering column and dual front airbags. For 1999, power windows, door locks and mirrors have been made standard equipment.
Better yet, you won't feel like you're driving the domestic equivalent of a Yugo. Here's a look at what you get for your money.
The sedan segment is a staid lot. Line 'em up and you'd have a hard time telling most apart without taking a close look at the name badges. Not so with the Breeze. Like all the Chrysler cloud cars, it is a stylish standout. The aggressive, steep-sloping hoodline gives the Breeze a constant sense of motion and grace.
Better yet, the eye-pleasing look has a functional side. The automaker calls it cab forward design. You move the wheels close to the car's corners, minimize the engine compartment and devote the rest to passengers and cargo. The Breeze offers a big trunk and lots of rear-seat passenger space. That's certainly a plus when you're working up the value equation.
Out of sight, but not out of mind, Plymouth has taken steps to improve the '99 Breeze, reducing noise, vibration and harshness and upgrading ride comfort. All in all, the car doesn't look like something you'd have to make excuses for, and there are no apologies to be made when you take it for a drive, either.
The Breeze may be what they like to call decontented these days, but it still offers a surprising range of standard features, including air conditioning, dual air bags, intermittent windshield wipers and a rear-window defroster.
But it's roominess that makes the Breeze a stand-out in its class. The Breeze has nearly as much room as most midsize 4-doors, even though it is officially classified a compact sedan. You'll also find tremendous cargo space inside the cavernous trunk, enough for a golf foursome-and a picnic lunch.
The Breeze audio system was an especially nice touch. It comes with a cassette player and a CD upgrade is available. The Expresso package is a particularly popular version. It comes with unique interior fabric, badging and an AM/FM cassette stereo.
Fit and finish has been improved since the 1996 introduction of the Breeze. Door gaps have been tightened and everything seems to be put together better than we remembered when we first drove the car a few years back.
Back in the old days, a stripped sedan was likely to come with cheesy cloth bench seats. Forget about it. These comfortable buckets are attractive and supportive in all the right places.
Safety features include dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes. For parents, the integrated rear child safety seat is a real plus. And the security package includes remote keyless entry, panic alarm, illuminated entry and headlight turn-off delay.
Traction control is not on the option list, though, and would be a nice addition. Parents will be pleased to know they can order an integrated rear child safety seat. And there's a theft-deterrent security package available, as well.
We weren't blown away by the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. With 132 horsepower, you'll be able to merge into freeway traffic, but you'll need to give yourself time for a 65-mph pass. The Breeze with this engine is an acceptable economy package for those who only worry about the bottom line. (It gets 23/31 mpg EPA city/highway when equipped with an automatic transmission, 26/37 mpg when fitted with the 5-speed manual.) But in an era of cheap gas, even budget-minded buyers seem willing to spend a bit for a little more off-the-line muscle.
The 2.4-liter, double overhead-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine is, for our money, a better package. It bumps the pony count to 150 horsepower, and that's just enough to make a difference. You still get great fuel economy (an EPA city/highway estimated 21/30 mpg) as well as a little more punch.
The bigger engine comes with a 4-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission. The base engine is offered with either an automatic or a 5-speed manual.
As we noted already, there have been marked improvements since Breeze was introduced, especially when it comes to noise, vibration and harshness. The car isn't nearly as quiet as a Camry, but that's asking a lot. NVH levels are easily within our comfort range, especially with the upgrade engine package. And it appears that Chrysler has taken the time to beef up sound-deadening insulation used to isolate road and tire noise.
Happily, they haven't isolated road feel. And that's one of the best features of the Breeze. You're readily in touch with what the car is doing at all times. Credit the independent front and rear suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars, and speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering. The suspension is nicely damped, filtering some of the vibration from Detroit's broken pavement, yet it feels firm and controlled.
Handling is pretty good in this car. It's stable in corners and doesn't get ruffled by abrupt throttle changes. It offers good grip and well-controlled transient response. So it can handle an emergency lane-change maneuver. It's predictable when driven hard with surprisingly little understeer. (Most front-wheel-drive sedan tend toward lots of understeer -- where the front tires lose grip before the rear tires and the car tends to go straight in a corner.) The Breeze is quite stable at high speed and not overly sensitive to breezes -- or even strong crosswinds.
The anti-lock brakes proved comfortably sure-footed on wet and dreary Detroit highways. The brake system uses front discs and rear drums.
Headlight performance is a weak point for the Breeze. It's been a consistent problem with Chrysler products, a sacrifice made to accommodate smaller, more aerodynamic headlamps. (Few buyers shop for headlight performance and it's a difficult thing for us to measure.) The defroster could also use some beefing up. On a cold Detroit morning, it took quite a while to clear off the massive windshield.
It's been a long time since the Baby Boomers wore bell bottoms--and could get a new car at an affordable price. These days, entry level buyers--whether Boomers on a budget, or Gen-Xers finishing college--will find it rough to afford anything new. But if they're looking for a real alternative to a three-year-old sedan, the Breeze should land high on their shopping list.
It's a great-looking car that's also roomy and loaded with more standard features than you'd expect. And for just a little more, you can add a lot of upgrades, everything from CD sound to a peppier powertrain.
Plain and simple, the Breeze is a car to consider.