Curbside Capsule: 1992-94 Plymouth Sundance Duster – Little Car, Big Engine

plymouth sundance duster

Take a smaller than full-size car, shove a big engine in it and you have a muscle car. That was the recipe in the 1960s, when big-block V8s were wedged into intermediates like the Plymouth Satellite and Pontiac LeMans, resulting in iconic muscle cars like the Roadrunner and GTO. But what happens if you use a similar recipe and change the ingredients? Say, use a compact, front-wheel-drive platform but wedge a V6 in there. What do you call that?

1994 dodge shadow es - photo courtesy of Roehm

 Shadow ES photos courtesy of CarDomain user Roehm

Chrysler wedged the Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0 V6 in the Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Shadow for 1992. The AP-Body twins had launched in 1987 and were always the larger kids on the compact playground, although they were a bit unrefined and rough around the edges. The AP-Bodies actually used the Daytona’s 97-inch wheelbase, and were closely related to the larger LeBaron GTS/Lancer twins which they resembled. In a way, they were almost like modern-day Larks: compacts hewn from larger cars. The big-engined compacts initially came with naturally-aspirated 2.2 and 2.5 four-cylinder engines, as well as a 2.2 turbo four with 146hp and 170 ft-lbs. Those were some pretty solid numbers for a 1987 compact, but a 2.5 turbo launched in 1989 exceeded them with 150hp and 190 ft-lbs. There were also Shelby-fettled versions with even more power.

1994 dodge shadow es 2 - photo courtesy of roehm

Contractual obligations to use a certain number of Mitsubishi V6s meant the turbos would disappear for 1992. The V6, despite having a larger displacement and two more cylinders, was less powerful than the turbo four with 141hp and 171 ft-lbs. Of course, being naturally-aspirated, it didn’t suffer from the old top engine’s turbo lag and didn’t require premium unleaded. Consumer Guide reported the V6 was actually 1 mpg more efficient on the highway, albeit 1 mpg less efficient in the city (21/29mpg). Transmissions were a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic, instead of the three-speed in the Turbos. Overall, the V6 was almost as powerful as the turbo but delivered the power more smoothly. V6 AP-Bodies also received a funky asymmetrical hood bulge.

plymouth sundance duster

Despite the V6’s lower horsepower and torque figures, the AP-Body V6s still comfortably outperformed most cars in their segment. To sweeten the deal, AP-Body V6s had a lower list price than base-model, four-cylinder Civics, Corollas and Escorts; the V6 engine carried only an approximate $1k premium over four-cylinder versions. Plymouth also dusted off (ahem) the Duster name, as seen on the featured car, and this sporty Sundance received 15-inch wheels, sports suspension and the V6. Although this was no RWD V8 coupe, the Sundance Duster’s low price and gutsy engine made the use of the heritage nameplate seem somewhat appropriate. Sporty Shadows wore the plainer ES tag.


Of course, Chrysler didn’t invent the V6/compact combination: GM had beaten them to the punch with the V6 X and J Bodies. And sure, a Civic would have been more refined and a Cavalier Z24 was slightly more powerful (albeit saddled with a three-speed as its automatic option), but that much power for under ten grand – $4k less than a Sentra SE-R – was a screaming deal.

Curbsiders, what did you think of these big-engined compacts?