Curbside Classic: 1996 Chrysler LHS – Lost Hopeless Soul

The Chrysler LHS has always been one of those cars that’s baffled me, as I’ve never known quite what to make of it. Sure Chrysler marketed it as a large import sports sedan rival, but its main competitors were domestics like the Oldsmobile LSS, Buick Park Avenue Ultra, and Lincoln Continental. Regardless, its formal roofline and long overhangs always said more Lincoln Town Car to me than Acura Legend, or even Cadillac STS. As I certainly know, marketing types can put a positive spin on just about anything.

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Introduced a year after the first three LH sedans (Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision), the LHS and identical Chrysler New Yorker hit the scene with added length, more formal styling, and a greater amount of standard equipment. The New Yorker and LHS differed only in trim, suspension tuning, and equipment levels. Other than that, they were just two different names for the exact same Chrysler sedan.

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While three heavily-related Chrysler-branded full-sizers may sound a bit excessive, this was nothing new. For decades, Chrysler’s full-size lineup had been well-represented with the trifecta of Newport/New Yorker/Imperial, New Yorker/Fifth Avenue/Imperial, and now Concorde/New Yorker/LHS. Still, if the LHS was targeted at individuals looking for a sports sedan, then having an identical New Yorker (and all the stodginess the nameplate carried) next to it in showrooms didn’t help its cause.

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Despite sharing all sheet metal with the New Yorker, the monochromatic LHS was clearly the more formidable brother, with its glove-soft leather sport buckets, Spiralcast alloy wheels, and a more liberal use of wood-tone interior trim.

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What made the LHS different from top-line Chrysler sedans of recent memory was that it was aimed at performance buyers. Not since the famed Chrysler 300 had Chrysler even attempted to create a large, luxurious sports sedan.

1993 Chrysler 300C prototype

In fact, the LHS could have very well been called “300”. Only one year earlier, the production LHS was previewed as the 1993 Chrysler 300C concept. Using the 1994 LHS/New Yorker body shell, this fully working prototype included a panoramic glass roof, two-toned interior, and unique front and rear fascias which ultimately did not make it to the production vehicle.

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But alas, a production Chrysler 300 was not to be (fans would have to wait another five years for the name to return, and eleven years for a RWD V8 Chrysler 300), and it was probably for the better. While its naturally-aspirated 3.5L V6 made sufficient power, it was no Hemi V8. And to make matters worse for the LHS, that 3.5L V6 could also be found in all of its LH platform siblings.

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The same can be said for its performance-tuned suspension, which was identical to that found in the Dodge Intrepid ES and Eagle Vision TSi.  So if the LHS wasn’t a worthy 300 successor, or even the sportiest LH sedan, what exactly did it have going for it?

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Well, for one thing, it was easily the most stylish Chrysler sedan in over a decade. Even if it did share its sheet metal with the New Yorker, the LHS’s small styling tweaks easily made it a much better looking car. And then there’s those seats. Those coddling buckets covered soft, supple, and rich-looking gathered leather have to be among the most inviting seats of their time. Even rear passengers received the special treatment with equally satisfying seats and limousine amounts of legroom. The Chrysler LHS can really be summed up in one word: “Imperial.”

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Yes, the LHS was large, stylish, luxurious, and comfortable–all hallmarks of Mopar’s once prestigious flagship. Although the Imperial name was muddled somewhat over the preceding two decades, the LHS was the most worthy Chrysler product in years to have been called Imperial. Despite its own incompetencies and shortcomings, the LHS was a much more credentialed vehicle than the puny, obnoxiously tarted-up K-car Imperial it replaced.

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But like the 300, a 1994 Imperial was not meant to be. The LHS was all about showcasing Chrysler’s latest styling and technologies. The name “Imperial” probably would’ve drawn memories of Broughams and Iacocca–two things Chrysler was trying hard to distance itself from.

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Regardless of what it was called, a name alone would not have drastically changed the LHS’s course of fate. While it received initial praise and posted respectable sales figures among domestic competitors, the LHS was soon forgotten. Chrysler failed to give the car any updates, performance upgrades, or the proper media exposure to keep the car fresh in the minds of consumers. Its wishy-washy personality and the presence of several related LH models were also detriments to the car’s success.

99 LHS vs 300M

A second generation LHS would appear in 1999, although it would be little more than a Concorde with an uglier grille and upgraded interior. No one seemed to notice though, as the big news at Chrysler was the new 1999 300M. Sharing the LHS interior, but wearing sportier, less bloated styling, the 300M improved on the performance path set by the 1994 car. Much like the New Yorker, the LHS was soon eclipsed by the 300M.

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Although it never really nailed the whole sports sedan thing, and remains but a distant memory in Chrysler’s history, the LHS deserves credit for being the car that started Chrysler’s return to full-size performance sedans – a tradition very much alive with the current 300.

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Related Reading : Curbside Classic: 1994 Chrysler LHS  Curbside Classic: 1995 Dodge Intrepid  Curbside Classic: 1993 Eagle Vision