Curbside Classic: 1997 Eagle Vision ESi and The Flightless Journey Of Eagle – The Blind Leading The Blind

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As a company, Chrysler doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to logical decisions. One of their more puzzling decisions was the 1993-1997 Eagle Vision and, for that matter, the whole short-lived Eagle brand. Born out of the AMC buyout from Renault in the late-1980s, Eagle was something that no one knew what to make of, including those within the Chrysler Corporation. Making things up as it went along and without a clear purpose or strategy, one could say that Chrysler lacked a clear vision for Eagle. Ironic, considering the brand’s last new model was named “Vision”.

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Eagle’s very existence came as a result of the terms under which Renault agreed to divest its stake in AMC to Chrysler. Renault had invested an astronomical amount into a car it would now not even get to sell, and to compensate for this, the contract terms obligated Chrysler to produce at least 300,000 examples of the Renault-designed Premier for five years and to purchase 260,000 of the Premier’s available PRV V6 engines from Renault. Rather then badging the Premier as a Chrysler, Dodge (which it ultimately did), or Plymouth, Chrysler chose to sell it through the some 1,200 newly acquired AMC/Jeep dealers under a newly created marque. Looking to the past, the brand was called “Eagle”, a name whose lineage could be traced through AMC and Kaiser all the way back to the 1952 Willys Aero-Eagle.

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Eagle, as a brand, officially debuted for the 1988 model year, with its lineup including the full-size Premier and the smaller Medallion, which was another Renault design. Judging from these two vehicles, it would appear that Chrysler was trying to market Eagle as something along the lines of an American Acura, which itself was introduced as an alternative to upscale European import brands. On paper, selling a line of upscale “import fighting” cars alongside Jeeps didn’t sound like a bad idea, as Jeep buyers typically were of a high-income demographic and were already owners of luxury import cars.

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While it’s true that higher-end models of the Premier competed with cars like the Acura Legend, Audi 5000, and Volvo 700-Series, lower-end models were aimed at domestics like the Taurus/Sable, GM W-bodies, and Chrysler’s own EEKs. The Medallion faced a similar situation in its size class.

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Then, to make matters more confusing, Eagle continued selling the all-wheel drive AMC Eagle for one more year, reincarnating it as the “Eagle Wagon”. Canadians also received the Eagle Vista, which was a rebadged Mitsubishi Mirage subcompact econobox. Neither of these cars would appeal to a well-heeled import buyer.

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Over the next couple of years, the Eagle Wagon and Medallion were hastily dropped, and three more badge-engineered Mitsubishi compacts arrived: the Mirage-based Summit, the Galant-based 2000GTX (which was only sold in Canada), and the Eclipse-based Talon. The Talon was the only one of these that Chrysler had a hand in building, via its Diamond-Star Motors joint-venture with Mitsubishi. It would appear that Eagle was now just an outlet for Chrysler to sell more Mitsubishi captive imports.

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The unloved Premier never lived up to its expectation of 300,000 sales, and was quietly discontinued in 1992. With just shy of 140,000 Premiers and their rebadged Dodge Monaco siblings produced over five years, Chrysler was forced to pay some $200 million in penalties to Renault for failing to meet the agreed upon quota. The Premier and Medallion weren’t perfect by any means, but they still offered more potential which, unfortunately, was never utilized.

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Although the Premier was an unfortunate failure, costing Chrysler far more than it ever made from sales of the car, the Premier did as least serve some purpose to Chrysler, as its engineering would serve as a basis for the LH cars. With Chrysler now free of all obligations to Renault, no one would’ve been surprised had Chrysler sent Eagle to the guillotine then and there, in 1992.

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But in an unexpected display of faith, Chrysler seemed to recommit itself to the brand when it chose to make the third variant of the LH platform an Eagle, calling this new car the Vision. The 1993 Vision would be the first and only Eagle based on a Chrysler product, as well as the last new car introduced under the Eagle marque.

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Why the Vision went to Eagle instead of Plymouth remains a mystery. Maybe Chrysler intended to produce a large cab-forward Eagle sedan all along. After all, the 1990 Optima (pictured above), which was the final of three concept cars to preview the LH, was badged as an Eagle. Yet by 1992, there was really no reason for continued investment in Eagle. In addition, most of the Jeep-Eagle dealers were being incorporated into Chrysler-Plymouth franchises, voiding any claims that the car was made an Eagle to avoid competing with the LH Concorde in the same showrooms.

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There’s no denying that this car would have done better as a Plymouth, given Plymouth’s better name recognition and successful history of selling economical transportation. Paul even did a photoshop of an LH “Plymouth Accolade” a few years back. A Plymouth LH obviously would’ve passed on the “import touring sedan” image, in favor of the more realistic “stylish and affordable family sedan”, which was truer to the LH’s actual mission. From an accountant’s standpoint, a Plymouth LH also would’ve presented a big opportunity for fleet sales. With the LH’s critical acclaim, increased fleet sales of it wouldn’t have been an image killer in the way that the W-body Impala and 4th generation Taurus were.

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As was the case in many other instances over the years, Plymouth was consistently denied the same wealth of products as other Mopar brands, making it a far cry from the high-volume brand it once was. While Eagle was no favorite child either, at least Eagle received an LH and was allowed to keep the Talon sport coupe, whereas the similar Plymouth Laser was axed in 1994.

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In any event, the LH sedans debuted in late 1992 with much fanfare and praise. Heralded as the torch bearers of Chrysler’s renaissance, the LH cars were praised for their advanced design, space efficiency, and innovative features. They drew buyers into dealer showrooms, and were an instant success, collectively outselling the cars they replaced.

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Yet through all this positive attention, Eagle and the Vision largely took a back-seat role. As in previous years, Eagle received little in the way of marketing and media exposure, with the Vision becoming sort of a stealth car, flying under the radar of mostly everyone who was otherwise familiar with its siblings. With Eagle still lacking a sufficient presence and identity in the minds of consumers, it came as no shock that Vision sales were substantially lower than Concorde and Intrepid.

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While one would have to have had good vision to spot the differences between the Vision and Concorde (Intrepids had a few more unique body panels and different shaped lights), the Vision did sport a few distinctive touches. Its aggressive front end included a large Eagle logo flanked by rather Oldsmobile-like twin grilles. Along the side, unique wheel designs and available matte gray lower body trim gave it a some extra sporting flair.

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Around back, the Vision eschewed the Concorde’s full-width taillights in favor of more European-looking taillight clusters that included amber turn signals. All Visions also came with stiffer suspension tuning and standard bucket seats.

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An enhanced Vision was shown as a concept in 1994, featuring a more distinctive and aggressive front end, along with further aero enhancements. Appropriately called the Vision Aerie (not to be confused with the ladies’ undergarment store), it was an attractive vision of a possible facelift, although it’s unlikely it would’ve generated more buzz for a brand many people had never heard of.

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Over the course of its run, the Vision was available in two models whose names were borrowed from the Talon: ESi and TSi. The more basic ESi, like our featured car, was powered by Chrysler’s 3.3L pushrod V6 (inherited from the Dynasty), making 161 horsepower and 181 pound-ft of torque, and came equipped with power windows and locks, air conditioning, rear heat/AC outlets, premium cloth upholstery, and 16-inch polycast wheels.

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The better-equipped TSi was also more performance-oriented, and featured the new SOHC 3.5L V6, making 214 horsepower and 221 pound-ft of torque. Beginning in 1996, the TSi also gained Chrysler’s Autostick semi-automatic transmission, the first such application in an American car. The TSi also boasted a higher level of standard equipment that including anti-lock brakes, speed-sensitive power steering, traction control, chrome plated alloy wheels, full overhead console, automatic climate control, 8-way power adjustable front seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Leather upholstery and performance tires were also available.

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That was all fine and good, but in truth, the Vision didn’t offer anything that couldn’t be found in its siblings, and as a result, only competed with them. In its best year, 1995, Vision production topped out at 31,271 – roughly half that of the Concorde, and only a fraction of the Intrepid. What’s more, when it came to external competition, the Vision faced the same problem as its predecessor in that it faced a broad range of cars, ranging from mainstream domestics to luxury imports. The 1996 brochure alone compares the Vision TSi to a number of very different cars including the BMW 325i, BMW 740i, Infiniti I30, Infiniti J30, Lexus ES 300, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Rather ironically, one year after the Vision ended production, Oldsmobile released the Intrigue, a similar-sized and quite similar-looking car with the same “import fighter” pretensions as the Vision.

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The first-generation LH cars saw few changes over their five-year run, and the Vision was no exception. By looking at the VIN number, I was able to peg this as one of only 5,874 Visions that were produced for 1997, its final year.

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Lacking a clear identity, effective marketing, and an overall presence, Eagle never had much of a chance for success. Whatever vision Chrysler may have once had for the brand never panned out. After a dismal decade of operation, in September 1997, Chrysler finally announced it would be dropping the brand within the next year – a decision that came as a shock to no one, had they actually even heard of Eagle. The Vision and Talon quietly ended production and any trace of Eagle was removed from dealerships.

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Chrysler already had too many brands selling the same cars and dumping Eagle was probably the most logical move they ever made concerning the brand. Today, just a handful of cars, like this ’97 Vision, are but all that is left to remind us of Eagle, a brand that could never quite get its wings off the ground.

 

Related Reading:

1989 Eagle Premier

1993 Eagle Vision

1994 Dodge Intrepid

1996 Chrysler LHS