CC Capsule: 1992 Chrysler Spirit—Illegal Alien

Here’s a detail of a car seldom seen by most of us. You doubt? Read on! Marc’s Canadian-spec 1990 Dodge Spirit reminded me I found this car parked in front of a low-rent apartment house in the University District of Seattle about 15 years ago (back when there was still a thing such as low rent in Seattle).

The pic above is what first caught my eye as I drove up 11th Avenue Northeast at 30 mph. I was in the middle of a long thing for AA-bodies at the time, with an almost autistic eye for their details. The SPIRIT grille badge marks this out as a Mexican-market Chrysler Spirit. In the US and Canada, this grille badge would read DODGE. In Europe on the Saratoga it would read CHRYSLER.

I ducked round the block, pulled over, and had a look—fortunately I had my camera with me; at the time I had a 3-function cellular flip phone: calls, voicemails, and texts. The Washington licence plate was current; this car was there for reals. Easy enough to imagine how it got into the US: a foreign national drove it in—which is perfectly allowable, just as Americans can drive their cars into Canada and vice versa—and then sold it on, which is not.

The bigger question is how it managed to get registered in the States. In theory that should’ve been just about impossible, for the car is not manufacturer-certified as compliant with US safety or emissions regulations. There’s an exemption for cars over 21 years old for emissions and over 25 years old for safety, and those timeframes were the same in 2003 when I spotted this car, but it was only 11 years old, so that’s not it. The car’s VINs are all original and correct, so there were no monkeyshines as sometimes seen with late-production air-cooled VW Beetles brought in from Mexico (or late classic Minis and late Land Rovers from the UK), falsely declared and titled as 1967 models or suchlike. Perhaps when it was first registered in Washington, the state did not check VINs to see if they show up on the master list of US-market vehicles. Other states did check at that time (and most all of them do nowadays); if the VIN isn’t on the list, they require US Customs clearance papers before they’ll issue a title. CarFax claims to have 12 records on this car by VIN, but I’m not into paying the $40 just to read ’em; I could wish for a friend in used-car-shopping mode right about now.

Whatever which way it came to be there, there it was. The owner came out and asked why I was checking out his car. He seemed a little dubious when I explained it was unusual; said he didn’t know anything about its history and he’d just bought it as cheap transport from a local used-car lot. Still, he humoured me and even opened the hood to let me take pictures. The left rear quarter glass was busted: “I broke that myself so if someone breaks in they can just open the door instead of breaking glass”, he said. Erm…okeh, let’s look at some details:

This badge is bizarre from top to bottom. First off, what’s with the goofy typeface? And liter is an American spelling; elsewhere in English and French it’s litre, and in Spanish it’s litro. This from the same company who had long been badging American-market Cherokees and Wranglers “4.0 Litre”. This badge was never placed on non-Mexico cars, for the engine it refers to was never installed outside Mexico (…yet that Mexico-only fender badge doesn’t say Inyeccion Multipunto…). The Mexican first-year 1990 Chrysler Spirit came with a carbureted 2.5-litre engine that took leaded gasoline and had a tubular exhaust header rather than a cast-iron manifold. In 1991 Mexico decided exhaust emissions control would be a good idea and immediately ramped their standards up to near-US levels of stringency. That year, the Spirit’s standard engine became a multipoint-injected version of the 2.5, with a full American-type emissions control package. Meanwhile, the American, Canadian, and European market versions of the same car were saddled with a wheezy, lower-power, less-efficient and dirtier-running TBI version of the same engine. No fair!

Here’s the engine referred to by the badge, and there’s lots to see here. The intake manifold and fuel rail are not entirely unfamiliar; these were used on turbocharged versions of the K-derivative Chrysler FWD cars and on the US-market Flexible Fuel Spirits and Acclaims of ’93-’95, which also used the air cleaner arrangement shown in this photo. Look smack in the middle of the intake manifold: there’s an intake air temperature sensor that was not present on American turbo or FFV applications. This car’s air conditioner has had a surprisingly complete and expensive R134a changeover done, including the installation of a Sanden compressor and associated bracketry to replace the original Nippondenso item, and a new set of hoses. The radiator fan bears an English-language warning decal, which seems a little unusual, but then again the coolant bottle cap is also in English, as are the engine oil and transmission fluid dipsticks and the oil filler cap. Everyone understands English if you’ll just shout it louder, but the American-type radiator suggests a likely explanation here is a repair made with US parts.

The data plate on the radiator support panel shows us several things: this is clearly not a US VIN, because US and European AA-bodies were designated by an “A” in the 5th position, while Mexican units got a “1”. Let’s decode the VIN:

3: Mexican built
C: Chrysler branded
3: Passenger car
B: Driver and front passenger manual seat belts, no airbags
1: AA-body (in Mexico)
4: “High Line” (standard trim level)
6: 4-door sedan
W: 2.5-litre MPFI engine without balance shafts
0: [VIN check digit]
N: 1992 model year
T: built at Toluca assembly plant
323827: Vehicle serial number

On the tag immediately to the left of the VIN, we see the character M, which indicates this is a Mexican-market vehicle. (U = USA, C = Canada, B = International Export, M = Mexico).

Here’s the VECI (Vehicle Emission Control Information) label. It’s very similar in format to those affixed to US and Canadian vehicles. We can see several interesting things about the vehicle from this label:

CATALYST: Same as everywhere else in the world except the Middle East, this vehicle is equipped with a catalytic converter.

This vehicle complies with the standards in effect, applicable to 1992 model vehicles, [and this compliance is] certified at the altitude of Mexico City. Mexico City has unique pollution problems and is at very high altitude, so cars intended for sale there must be emissions certified at that altitude.

Basic [ignition] timing and the air/fuel mixture have been preset at the factory. Refer to the service manual for adjustment procedures and all other information. Any adjustments not in the service manual are considered unauthorized. Caution: apply parking brake when servicing [vehicle]. This is just about a direct translation of the language found on a US, California, or Canada VECI.

Spark plug type: Mopar M48, Champion N12Y. Gap: 0.035″ Now this is interesting. N12Y is the Champion number for a non-resistor spark plug without a copper core. Outside Mexico, the spec is RN12YC—same heat range and configuration, but with a resistor and copper core. Champion discontinued non-copper-core spark plugs in this line ages ago in Northern North America. I can only guess that they were still available in the more price-sensitive Mexican market. Non-resistor spark plugs would generate EMI and RFI and interfere with radio reception. I would say the same about operation of the engine control computer, but Chrysler did install EMI/RFI-shielded ECMs in some vehicles in some markets. Perhaps that’s what was done here, in recognition that people would install cheap non-resistor spark plugs.

[Ignition] Timing: 6° BTDC, no other adjustments required. Outside Mexico, the nonturbo 2.5 engine’s basic timing spec is 12° BTDC. Clearly the W-code engine has different advance curves in the engine control computer.

Looking at the vacuum diagram, several more interesting things become apparent: this engine uses a barometric pressure read solenoid in conjunction with its MAP sensor. This was not implemented on North American vehicles except in turbocharged applications, and the US 1992 Factory Service Manual says “The baro read solenoid is tied into the MAP sensor vacuum hose. It switches the pressure supply to the MAP sensor between atmospheric pressure and manifold vacuum. The engine controller operates the solenoid. Atmospheric pressure is periodically supplied to the MAP sensor to measure barometric pressure. This occurs at closed throttle, once per throttle closure but no more often than once every 3 minutes and within a specified RPM band. Barometric information is used primarily for boost control.” My guess is that it is used on the W-code engine, at least in its Mexico City Altitude form, to enable more precise fuel-air mixture (and possibly ignition timing) compensation for changing altitude.

And no rollover valve is shown in the line between the [vapour] canister and the Tanque de combustible (fuel tank). Such a valve prevents fuel leakage in the event of a vehicle rollover, and is present on all US/Canada 1992 VECI labels. Whether it was left off the diagram or not installed on the car is unknown.

Earlier I mentioned the 1990 models; here’s one of them. Engine management was essentially a 4-cylinder version of the Electronic Lean Burn system introduced in the US and Australia in 1976. Obviously no catalytic converter was used. Isn’t it strange to see a mishmash of ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s technology and design like this? Here the spinning-fan warning is in Spanish, but the oil fill cap and dipstick are in English. Can’t tell about the coolant bottle cap, but the Mexican cars got heavy-duty radiators with metal tanks rather than the light-duty plastic ones we got:

That leaded-fuel ’90 engine might’ve been technologically primitive, but it must’ve been well calibrated, and that tube header must’ve helped it get this notably high fuel economy rating; the figure on this label translates to 26.85 miles per US gallon, combined city/highway, though I know nothing about Mexico’s fuel economy test protocol:

Next, here’s a peek underhood of a ’94 non-turbo Spirit. Same W-code engine (2.5 MPFI, no balance shafts), but with full US-type emission control. The rollover valve missing in the ’92’s diagram is shown here in the ’94 as valvula antivuelco (“Anti-roll valve”). This ’94 label calls for Champion RN12YC spark plugs, and doesn’t indicate certification for Mexico City altitude:

So why did Upper-North-American and European-delivery cars get the cruder, dirtier TBI version of this same engine? Probably because Chrysler never met a penny without pinching it, and in these markets they perceived no demand for better than that on base-engine toasters. In Mexico Chrysler had a somewhat more upmarket niche and were perceived as better engineered—for awhile in the ’90s their corporate slogan was Ingeniería Chrysler—Chrysler Engineering—and just compare the tone and premise of these two ads. Still, though, I’m not convinced of that, either; how does deleting the balance shafts and thus worsening noise, vibration, and harshness fit in with making a car to suit a perception of refined engineering? There’s no real power gain until engine speeds far higher than anything like a stock Spirit is ever going to see, so that’s not it. I understand there was a version of the 2.5 with multipoint injection and balance shafts; perhaps that one went in the flossier LeBaron? Donno.

As you might see in the Mexican ad, late-production Chrysler Spirits also got a grille never used up North or abroad: it’s the same as the ’93-’95 US/Canada Dodge Spirit grille, but chromed. In this pic the original is installed on the car, while a Taiwanese aftermarket replacement sits atop:

So there we are: three cars that look almost just like their run-of-the-mill American counterparts, but with more and more differences the deeper we dig. Mexico (still) doesn’t have any statutory vehicle safety standards, so some cars there are built with more-or-less American safety equipment, some with more-or-less European, some with a mix, and some with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .