Curbside Classic: 2003 Chrysler Concorde Limited – A Last Hurrah For The LH

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Chrysler’s radical Cab-Forward LH sedans were nothing short of a sheer breakthrough for the smallest Big Three automaker, bringing it out of the dark ages, and for the first time in decades, to the forefront of automobile styling. But with sleek, expressive designs emerging from competitors, as well as the continuing advancement of the Cab Forward design language on smaller Chryslers, the LH was in need of a makeover to stay ahead of the curve, both figuratively and literally.

1988-1991 New Yorker Fifth Avenue

Unveiled at the 1992 North American International Auto Show, and going on sale later that year as 1993 models, the original LH sedans (Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision) signaled an end to the prolonged era of K-cars, which were becoming embarrassingly lackluster in their boxy, un-advancing, and all too familiar ways.

1G Concorde front

With their sleek, low noses, steeply-raked front and rear windshields, short overhangs, and flowing body lines, the 1993-1997 Chrysler LH sedans were a breath of fresh air in Chrysler-Plymouth, Dodge, and Jeep-Eagle showrooms, as well as the marketplace in general.

1G LHS side

The LH were by no means the first aerodynamically styled full-size sedans, as in the immediately preceding years, nearly everyone from Chevrolet to Lexus had implemented fluid “aero” design language to some degree in their full-size sedans. But compared to cross-town rivals’ efforts with the 1991 Chevrolet Caprice/Buick Roadmaster and 1992 Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis, the LH best pulled off avant-garde styling in this traditionally conservative class.

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A large part of this was owed to the fact that where GM and Ford grafted new bodies atop the identical chassis they’d been producing since the late 1970s, Chrysler’s LH was an entirely new platform. Indeed the LH chassis was heavily modeled after the Eagle Premier’s which in turn was derived Renault 25, but the LH was extensively modified to serve Chrysler’s new sedans. This gave designers and engineers more freedom to adjust the architecture and underpinnings for improved proportions, space efficiency, and handling.

1G Concorde rear

Despite their fresh styling and critical acclaim for it, after five years on the market, the LH sedans were starting to look somewhat staid, and buyers were losing interest. With a heavy emphasis on highly expressive styling and making its concept vehicles come to life during these years, a cautious, evolutionary update was out of the question.

1996 Chrysler LHX concept

In terms of making the second generation LH just as radical as the first, Chrysler certainly didn’t disappoint. While the second generation Dodge Intrepid owed its general appearance to its own Intrepid ESX concept vehicle, the Chrysler Concorde and especially the LHS borrowed their design primarily from the 1996 Chrysler LHX concept, taking cues from other Chrysler concepts as well.

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While the first generation LH sedans were bold and dramatic, they did it with a degree of conservatism (with the possible exception of the Intrepid). For the second generation however, Chrysler designers pushed the envelope even further, making for some ungainly proportions, and styling that was rather beautiful from some angles, and cartoonish from others.

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Other cars, such as the Infiniti J30/Nissan Leopard J Ferie, Nissan Altima/Bluebird, and Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable had already tried organic-shaped “jellybean” styling to mixed acceptance, but the second generation Chrysler Concorde and LHS were among the largest cars to hop aboard this styling trend.

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While in some ways the second generation LH was a rather elegant shape, compared to the sharp, aggressive looks of their predecessors, all second generation LHs exhibited somewhat inflated-looking midsections. Particularly the Concorde and now near-identical LHS received the most unusual styling, with their bulbous front and rear ends, and longer looking trunk lids than any Chrysler since the R-body.

1998 Chrysler Concorde front

Sharing most of their sheetmetal, the main distinguishing factor between the Concorde and LHS was their front clip and grille designs. The Concorde featured a somewhat unusual full-width “bottom breather” grille. Vaguely reminiscent of vintage Ferraris, it was implemented late into the design process, as the original air intakes didn’t provide sufficient cooling to the engine.

1999 LHS a

The costlier LHS featured an even more out-of place 1950’s Chrysler 300-inspired chrome egg crate grille. Regardless of which grille design, the shared jellybean-shaped headlights and hood creases, making for a startling catfish-like face.

Dodge Intrepid... We're Changing Everything

The Dodge Intrepid meanwhile, made the transition to Gen 2 less controversially than its Chrysler brethren. With a sharper nose and more upright trunk, the Intrepid came across as significantly less lumpy, and exuded a far more athletic appearance, despite mostly identical dimensions. Likewise, the de-facto Eagle Vision replacement, the new Chrysler 300M, managed to wear a more understated, vaguely German look than its other Chrysler siblings.

Chrysler LH 300M front-rear

With shorter front and rear overhangs contributing for a nearly a foot less in overall length, the 300M displayed more flattering proportions. In light of this, the 300M and Intrepid have seemed to age better than the Concorde/LHS, which in only a decade and a half’s time, look nearly as out of this world among modern cars as a 1969 Fuselage C-body.

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Although the evolution of styling is clearly a matter of preference, the numerous improvements and refinements over the original LH is undisputed. Cabin volume was up over the old Concorde, and the massive 18.7 cubic feet of trunk space was even bigger than the old LHS. Wheelbase remained unchanged at 113 inches, but overall length was up nearly 8 inches for the Concorde. Despite the added bulk, weight was kept down thanks to the use of high-strength aluminum for suspension components, engine construction, and the hood, the latter of which helped the 1998 Concorde’s body shell achieve a weight reduction of approximately 40 pounds over the 1997 Concorde. Headlights, a major weakness of the first generation cars, were 50 percent brighter.

1991 LHS-300M interior cutaway

Using new technologies, Chrysler engineers carefully studied sources of noise and vibration, making numerous improvements to the body structure, chassis, powertrain, and interior construction, to reduce NVH. Over the previous bodies, torsional stiffness was up 37%, bending stiffness was increased by 46%, and overall interior noise was reduced by 3 decibels. Chrysler reportedly implemented two millimeter body construction, ensuring that all components fit within two millimeters of the specified position.

1999 LHS driving

Suspension systems for all four second generation LH cars were upgraded, and were tailored to each car’s intended market. Front suspension now used Chrysler-designed Iso struts with integral gas-charged shock absorbers mounted within low-rate coil springs for a better engine isolation. Inside, tracks for more supportive front seats were increased to 8.7 inches to better accommodate bodies of different sizes. The center armrest was raised and placed further forward, and controls were placed within closer reach and better view of the driver.

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Befitting of its luxury position, the LHS received a standard touring suspension providing a high level of comfort for the long haul, but also enough responsiveness for more aggressive handling. Some of its standard featured included leather upholstery, two-stage heated front seats, 8-way power front seats with two-position driver’s memory, 9-speaker audio system, automatic climate control, dual front airbags, speed-sensitive steering, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Beginning in 2001, side-impact airbags and a new Luxury Group including real wood trim, universal garage door opener, and automatically adjusting exterior mirrors became options.

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Both the pushrod 3.3L and single overhead cam 3.5L V6s of the previous generation were replaced by new DOHC 2.7L and SOHC 3.2L V6s, respectively. Despite their smaller displacements, both new all-aluminum engines were more powerful than their predecessors, with the 2.7L producing 200 horsepower and 190 lb-ft torque and the 3.2L producing 225 horsepower and 225 lb-ft torque. For in 2002, the 3.2L was dropped in favor of two new versions of the 3.5L: the LXi’s standard output version now making 234 horsepower and 241 lb-ft torque and the Limited’s high output version from the LHS making 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft torque.

Concordevs300M(Concorde LXi interior – top; 300M – bottom)

Interiors had not been one of Chrysler’s strong points since the mid-1960s, and predictably, there were some noticeable areas of cost-cutting, unfortunately marring otherwise handsome interior designs. Particularly in the lower-line Concorde and Intrepid, there were some hard and hollow-feeling surfaces, tacky-looking accent trim, and vents and door handles were black plastic regardless of interior color. At any rate, these big Chryslers’ interiors were no worse and in many cases better than most domestic competition.

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Furthermore, the higher-positioned LHS (later Concorde Limited) and 300M fared somewhat better than their standard Concorde/Intrepid brethren. Some of the cheap, hard plastic remained, but more elegant instrument and door panels, statelier seat designs, and available two-toned color schemes and real wood trim, conveyed a higher level of quality. The instrument panel of these two cars emanated an Art-Deco vibe, with circular vents, an elegant analogue clock, and chrome-ringed white-faced gauges in the Swiss watch fashion.

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Higher grade French-stitched leather covered seats, as well as the console armrest. Faux wood trim accents were better-placed for a more convincing appearance, and beginning in 2001, rich-looking genuine polished burl wood accents and steering wheel trim were available. Door panels were also less flimsy looking than on standard Concordes, and chrome door handles were standard.

Second Generation Chrysler LHS

Whether it be the now striking resemblance to the less expensive Concorde, or the similarly-priced but handsomer and slightly sportier 300M which it had to share showroom space with, but sales of the second generation LHS never took off. Upon its release, the 300M received all the attention, and double the sales. After three disappointing years, the LHS was de-glorified a bit, and added to the top of the Concorde range as the “Limited” trim, wheels, interior, front and rear fascias in all. The lesser Concorde LX and LXi models also adopted the former LHS’s exterior styling, but stayed with their original less opulent interiors.

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Despite somewhat subjective styling, less than perfect interiors and a few common reliability issues, the second generation LH sedans, particularly the LHS and 300M were respectable efforts, and received high praise and accolades in their early years. Compared to SUV-crazed Ford and GM, there’s little denying that Chrysler showed a much stronger commitment to its sedans during this period with cars such as the LH.

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Unfortunately, as time went on, Daimler-Chrysler began losing interest in the LH and Cab-Forward, choosing instead to invest into the rear-wheel drive LX program, more or less relegating the LH to lame duck status in its final years. Although the Cab-Forward LH cars have little meaning to most fans of the brutish-looking LX cars, they’ll forever be remembered as some of the most highly expressive and eloquently styled full-sized cars of their time, and among some of the best handling large front-wheel drive cars ever.

 

Related Reading:

1995 Dodge Intrepid

1996 Chrysler LHS

1997 Eagle Vision