[Not my car, but the right year and color. CC’s Tom Klockau found this one at a car show and wrote about it here.]
It’s July, 1989. I’m about to turn 25, and I have never owned anything but old heaps. I’ve decided it is time for me to buy my very first brand-new car. Problem was, I only had $1000 for a down payment. The photo up there tells you what I wound up buying, obviously – but as always, there’s a story…
With only a grand in my pocket and the desire for a brand-new car, I’m looking at the low end of things. There are some interesting choices, for sure, but even by the late 80s, low-end Asian cars are decidedly cheap and tinny. Here are some of the choices, along with their MSRP:
- Chevrolet (nee GEO) Metro: $5995
- Ford Festiva: $5699
- Honda Civic: $6385
- Hyundai Excel: $5499
- Mazda 323: $6299
- Plymouth (nee Mitsubishi) Colt: $6678
- Subaru Justy: $5866
- Toyota Tercel: $6328
[Source: Michigan Secretary of State website]
… and I drove them all. Each and every one felt like tin cans, with pokey 1.5-liter engines and tiny tires, some as small as 12 inch. Most of them shaved a few nickels off the price by installing 4-speed, non-overdrive transmissions, making for harsh travel at highway speeds. I was seriously underwhelmed by all except the Toyota and the Honda, both of which came with serious dealer markups.
At that point in my life, I was very much pro-American and pro-union, so I felt it was best to see what American manufacturers had to offer. General Motors was out of the game, offering only their version of the Suzuki Swift. Ford offered the Escort Pony for $6964. It felt crappier than any of the Asian-branded cars. And then there was the Dodge Omni America (aka Plymouth Horizon America), with an MSRP of $6595.
On paper, the Omni/Horizon was a clear winner. It came with 14″ tires and a fuel-injected 2.2 liter engine. I test-drove it, and it was indeed faster than the rest of the pack. In every aspect, it seemed like a better car, so I made my choice. The local Dodge dealer had a handful of stripped-out models on the lot, and with rebates and taxes and fees, it was going to cost about $7500 out the door. The deal was struck.
Then I called my insurance agent and things fell apart. Because I was under 25, full coverage insurance was going to cost more than the loan payment! No way I could make that work on my meager income. My heart sank. Then my agent proceeded to tell me that if I would just wait until my birthday, the insurance would reduce by 50%!
I called the salesman and told him I had to push the sale back to August 9th. He was mad; I could hear in his voice that he wanted that sale in July to make his numbers.
Regardless, I showed up on my birthday with my (minimal) cash in hand. The salesman gave me the good news that Chrysler had added an additional $1500 rebate, making the out-the-door price just a smidgen over $6000! I felt like I hit a jackpot, and the deal was done.
My first new car! No, it didn’t have any features, like a radio, a/c, or power steering, but it was all mine and it was brand new!
I drove the snot out of that car for 3 years, putting almost 60,000 miles on it. Because it had more power and taller gearing than the rest of the pack, it got great mileage, exceeding 40mpg regularly on road trips. The only failure was some long-forgotten emissions part, replaced under warranty. I worked hard, scrimped and saved, and paid my 4-year loan off in three years.
But by then, the car wasn’t doing so well. It needed tires. It needed brakes. Rattles, squeaks, and clunks had developed. I thought I might trade it in on something else. When I went shopping, I quickly learned how fast a Dodge Omni America could depreciate. Dealers offered me $600 in trade. Ouch.
A friend was in need of a car, and happily offered me $1000 for it. I took it and never looked back. It soured me on new-car depreciation for the rest of my life, and I’ve never bought another.
I put $750 in the bank, and went out and bought the finest heap $250 could buy. Tune in for that story next week.
Great story Evan! it brings up that ever-so-common question of should I buy new vs. used? You did get almost 60k miles out of your Dodge, so that was a good thing, and didn’t really spend any money on repairs so that was a good thing too. You probably should have kept it, put some cheap tires on it, fixed the brakes and ran it for another 100k miles or for as long as you possibly could have. Then it would have been worth every penny you originally spent on it. Living with the rattles, squeaks and clunks may have been worth it if you were trying to maximize your initial expense.
I remember this car. My cousin had its twin, the Plymouth Horizon. At the time, I found it to be hideous looking, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want something like that. Today, however, I look at them and I find them quite attractive, probably more so than the VW Golf of the same vintage.
I agree, the design has aged remarkably well. It is still an attractive and practical car.
During a period of tough times in the late 1980’s early 1990’s, my parents had a manual transmission Omni. I thought it was awful compared to my Chevy.
But Omni > walking.
Great story. I waited many years before I bought my first new one in 1999. And would still have it were it not for someone rear ending it and totaling the thing. A couple of months after I had paid it off.
Lesson learned: investing all that time effort and energy as well as committing future labor to that purchase was not worth it when it’s so easily wiped out.
At 25 I was buying my then 18 year old Valiant.
Depreciation has never bothered me. I don’t plan to ever sell.
And the secret is to address the problems as they come up and never deferring maintenance.
Dealers will always low ball the trade to some scandalous number, even if the car has less than 50,000 miles, I have found out.
Your decision to opt out of the game is admirable and I will never buy another new one either.
BTW, I did replace the totaled car with a new one as I resented the fact that all my efforts had been destroyed and felt like I “deserved” it. I still have it 11 years later.
A happier ending, but still, a lesson learned.
Re: “BTW, I did replace the totaled car (a ’99?) with a new one… I still have it 11 years later.”
What car was/is the ’99 car? And, if it’s 11 years later now, does that mean it was totaled in 2005? And did you replace the ’99 with something else?
Something doesn’t ad up? I’m confused. 😎
We had a bunch of these in our family. Three Omnis and a (Beyond the Blue) Horizon. We found them peppy and comfortable, and the fwd would pull them around like slot cars, a mechanical version of the way the Warner Bros. bulldog, Marc Anthony would run just on his forepaws. None of us ever had the chance to drive a Rabbit (Golf) for a comparison, which might have changed our opinion… but we got a lot of miles out of those little ponies.
Ahhh, the good old days, when a car that didn’t fall apart before it was paid for was “reliable.” I remember those days of under-powered cars with a tinny feel to them. I don’t miss them. Why, you might ask? Well, just for fun a few minutes ago, I configured a Ford Focus SE hatch, with 5 speed manual (of course) and all the expected.
$254 a month all in on a 36 month lease. $3000 a year year for a brand new car, and you’ll never wrench on it once.
Or you could put the cash in a pile and burn it…save on insurance that way!
In 1989 I went shopping for a new car, and bought a 4 door Civic with A/C.
I’m surprised that of all these small cars, the Mitsubishi was the most expensive and by a decent margin.
I think the reason why I didn’t consider an Omni or Horizon was because of their weak dealer network…even in a city as large as Memphis. If I remember correctly, there were 2, maybe 3 dealers for Chrysler products within a 35-40 minute drive while Ford had about 6 and Chevy 5. Of course, it didn’t help that the O-H twins were 10 years old in 1979, the oldest cars on that list…..IIRC.
A virtue for me, Howard. Mean lots of parts availability and the bugs have been worked out !
I also felt a design that had a few years of production behind it was a plus when I replaced my (then totalled) Civic with a near new Ranger. And before that, in the 70s when I replaced my 72 Vega with a 76 Pinto.
Saw a brown 84-85 horizon this morning, I see it around here all the time.
After years of work commuting past rows upon rows of brand new pickups the local spoiled punks parked at the High School, I decided that I was going to have a new vehicle by the time I was 30. Until then, I had nothing that could be considered new or even “late model”. I did it at 29 but soon realized the thrill fizzled out long before the payments and other extra costs (high license tab fees and high insurance) did. While I’ve learned to “never say never”, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever buy new again. I still have that “new” vehicle- now 22 years old- and it’s a rusted out P.O.S. just like anything I could have picked up for a song.
Out of seven cars I have owned, only one was new (97 Toyota Camry).
As we walked out the dealers front door, there was a row of Camry’s with the most expensive XLE (alloy wheels, V6, moon roof, leather) to the far right and the cheapest CE (stick shift, manual crank windows) to the far left. The dealer walked past 5-10 cars talking to himself before he realized I was headed in the opposite direction to the cheaper models.
Left the lot with a silver CE (auto, 4 cylinder, dealer installed cruise control, factory A/C, AM/FM radio with no cassette player, manual crank windows). Still paid a bit of a premium due to the fact it was a Toyota.
Since then, never saw the benefit in owning a brand new car. Also, with the benefit of the web, CarFax, and other info, you can get a good idea of the car’s background.
According to the list above, the Dodge Colt was listed at $6678 in 89. I paid $5000 cash for a brand new one in 84. It was a stripper model with the 1.3 liter , 4 speed manual , no AC or radio. But I had an AM FM cassette installed the 2nd day I had it. The car got great mileage, up to 47 mpg hwy.
I bought a new Colt in ’91 for $5995. 1.5L, 4speed, no AC, radio, but it had decent power, got 35 mpg and you could drive it all day at 85 mph on I-5. I put 210k miles on it before giving it to my oldest son. Great car!
I was in a similar boat in early ’88. It seemed I had to do something to the old Matador Mom had loaned (given) me every weekend just get it through the following week’s commute. One morning in a driving rain storm, after I had spent the entire weekend working on the thing, the wipers quit, stopping dead in the middle of the windshield and I had had it. I did not want another beater I could afford to pay cash for. A newspaper ad appeared that week for the local Hyundai dealer advertising base Excels for $4999 so I went to take a look first thing the next Saturday morning but to my surprise all of the base hatchbacks had already sold out. But good news! They still had a couple of optioned up base models in the back. I ended up paying around $8000 for a sedan with a 4-speed, air, power steering, a two speaker Panasonic AM/FM tape player, molding package and flame red paint. I had a few issues with trim and fit quality which were taken care of under warranty but friends and acquaintances who also owned that ’86 to ’89 generation were having more serious issues with charging and transmissions. I traded it for an ’89 Buick Century sport coupe (read Century Custom with a 3.3 V6 and some left over T-Type components) about 18 months later at about 9000 miles and got a $4000 allowance for it. It took me one more new car to realize that buying new for commuting just doesn’t make good fiscal sense at my income level. Regardless, there wasn’t anything that really piqued inspiration to by new again until I bought my Challenger in 2013.
Chrysler could really use a modern Omnirizon today.
That would be this Fiat Tipo, a C-segment hatchback. Also available as a sedan and a wagon.
Wasn’t the Tipo supposed to be the Chrysler 100??
See attached link to Allpar article.
My dad went through 3 of these when he had a 70 mile round trip daily commute during the mid-80s and early 90s. All were bought used with the first being a low-mile gold/beige ’84, 4-speed with the VW engine. My brother learned to drive a stick in that car. It was a stripper model, no air, AM radio and I remember he had to buy and keep a special Allen wrench in the glove box so his preferred oil change place could change the oil on it. He sold it with about 120K on the clock as he was getting a little paranoid it would leave him stranded in spite of it still running excellently. So then came another low mile car, a red/red ’88 auto with the 2.2L. It too was a decent little car that I ended up driving a fair amount in high school and little bit beyond as my ’78 Bonneville with the 400 V8 inhaled gas. The ’88 was given to my brother with about 150K on it and it served him until just over 190K. Third was a 60-70K mile used light blue ’90 my dad specifically searched for as they had an airbag. That wasn’t nearly as good a car and little things constantly popping up forced him to sell that after a couple years. Overall, I have positive memories of these cars…went a lot of places and did a lot of things in them…and that’s where, I think, my fondness builds; a lot of life occurred in the first two and no matter what was going on, it was likely a Dodge Omni that got us there.
Until recently I didn’t know that these cars soldiered on till the late eighties. By then its Euro-equivalent, the Talbot Horizon, was already replaced by the Peugeot 309.
In 1978 PSA bought Chrysler Europe for $ 1 and re-introduced the Talbot name. The Peugeot 309 replaced the Horizon, initially it was meant to be a new Talbot model. But the re-introduction of Talbot didn’t work out very well, to put it mildly.
I do know that the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon used carburetors on their 1.7, 1.6 and 2.2 liter engines all the way into 1987. They switched to FI a year later. And in 1989, the Hyundai Excel, Subaru Justy and Toyota Tercel were still using carbs on their engines.
My mother’s 1987 Omni was fuel injected…it was a mid-year change.
I smile every time I see one of these. From 1979 when they were on the market for just a year until the early 90’s there was always a variant of this car in my life. They were simple, economical, drive nicely for what they were, and there were so many around that parts were abundant. I used to see a low mileage mint silver Horizon at my local convenience store once in a while, but it’s been months since my last spotting. That was one CC that I was actually tempted to leave a note on, or wait for the driver to come out and see if he wanted to part with it. I also think the design has held up really well to the test of time. I didn’t think much of the looks of these when they were everywhere, but from today’s perspective I think they’re really nicely styled. Having taken a camping trip from NJ to Key West in an un-air conditioned Omni in ’91, complete with ancient leaking 6-man tent on a roof rack and 3 other unshowered travelers, I have some very fond memories, and a few not-so-fond ones, but in general I harbor a strong love for these little boxes.
? WHAT ?! .
All this Omni-Horrible love and not one complaint about the ability to force a nasty steering feedback yaw ? =8-) .
I wasn’t for of these new but as mentioned , they were simple , robust and faily well screwed together so they ran and ran….
Dirt cheap and dead easy to fix too .
Agreed : the styling seems to have held up rather well .
I test drove one in 1983. It was a dog, although, the fastback styling and handling were great. Then I bought a used one that the guy tried to replace the timing belt and had issues, like he was mechanically not inclined. I got it for $100, put it together and drove it for a few miles, it blew up as the oil pump was crap. The V8 fit in quite well and I still have and drive the car.
Whoah! “The V8 fit in quite well and I still have and drive the car.”
Any photo’s of THAT? lol
My mom had an ’85 Omni in a similar shade that she got as an off-lease. It had the 2.2 with the 5-speed and moved along pretty well, even with a clunky shifter. It didn’t like cold starts, though, and it took a few minutes to warm up and run well on a cold day. She likely would have kept it for quite a while, but after two years she put it into a ditch and got another off-lease – an ’87 Sundance with a turbo 2.2 and 5-speed. Lots of fun with that one :). Back to the Omni, though – in many ways a much better car than some of the competition offered for a decent price.
Seems like there’s an undercurrent of one-hit wonders as new car owners. I, too, only bought new once. I also only bought a house once. Some things, you gotta get ’em out of your system.
I was 27 when I bought a new car. Similar program, US brand, low price. In 1980 it was a MK1 Ford Fiesta. It was a tinny minimal car, but new. 4-speed, no radio (no place in the dash for one), 145SR12 tires.
Window cranks broke. Tiny front tires and brakes lasted about 10K miles, front struts not much longer. It overheated on the Grapevine (I-5 north of Los Angeles). Significant torque steer. Floors oil canned. In spite of all that, it was fun to drive and looked good in its own cute way.
Unlike others here, the next vehicle was also new, a 1984 Toyota 4×4 pickup with 5-speed and A/C. It cost about twice as much, but my career was going well by then.
As a young, single guy I did enjoy buying…especially ordering exactly what I wanted…new vehicles rather frequently…’70 Malibu convertible (6 cylinder, automatic), ’72 Dodge Polara 2-door hardtop (360 V-8, automatic), ’73 Mustang convertible (6 cylinder, 3-speed on the floor). Just before the Mustang, I met a girl who would become my wife. She lived 20 minutes away and with the first “gas crisis” happening, the Polara was just getting a bit expensive to drive, hence the Mustang’s 6 cylinder. Marriage followed soon after, along with 3 sons, so brand-new vehicles were out of the picture for a while. We did get a couple of new vehicles along the way, but I just can’t justify paying the new car prices of today, so have only bought used since we leased a red ’96 Chevy Cavalier (I know, not a high point to go out on!) and have purchased some very nice 2-3 year old vehicles for almost 1/2 their original list price. What made my early new car buying experience most enjoyable and memorable was the ability to make the car uniquely yours by ordering whatever combination of drivetrain and other options you wanted vs. today’s “buy from inventory” process. The 4-6 week wait for MY car, driving past the dealership often to see if it might have just arrived, made it all the more special for me.
Only new car I ever bought was a 1994 Toyota Camry coupe in red. I paid $19,300 for it thanks to an amazing set of unusual circumstances that will probably not happen over my next ten lifetimes.
I worked two jobs while taking a full course load at Emory University, made a small fortune investing in Chrysler stock, and my folks surprised me by offering to pay half on any vehicle I bought so long as it was a four-cylinder and an automatic. The car I would buy at 21 years of age was going to serve me for the next 15 to 20 years. My goal after ‘the car’ was to save up 20% for ‘the house’ and then maybe buy a used Miata a few years later.
22 years later that 1994 Camry is still on the road with a 200,000 mile odometer rollback. Apparently someone back in 2010 decided to turn 283,000 miles into 83,000 miles. I had sold it way back in 2006 with 236,000 miles on it and only let it go because I was too busy working the Atlanta auto auction circuit as an auctioneer and buying/selling whatever car I could reasonably resell. That car averaged 30 mpg on the highway and 27 in mixed driving. Even for today’s standards, those are perfectly acceptable numbers.
Today that Camry probably has somewhere around 350k miles. It had 342,000 (minus the 200,000 mile rollback) according to Carfax on November of 2015. Like the Omni, it was adequately powered with a 2.2 Liter that was offered for at least ten years. Technically that powertrain was 12 years old when it was retired in 2001 since that same 2.2 Liter and 4-speed automatic debuted in the Toyota Celica back in the late summer of 1989.
I have owned thousands of cars since and not a single one was an Omni or Horizon. They didn’t stay on the road here in Georgia and there were at least a dozen models that were more popular than these vehicles. The Ford Escorts had some staying power back then (I once sold a near perfect ’89 model for $125) and the Civics were the true kings of that market segment. The Omni was just older than dirt.
Re: “Apparently someone back in 2010 decided to turn 283,000 miles into 83,000 miles.”
I recently picked up a ’99 Mazda B3000 (from a non-reputable dealer) with about 83k mi. I was very skeptical about that mileage! However…there was a little “oil change DATE” sticker on the windshield that proved the truck must’ve sat for 4 years, not driven? I noticed new rear leaf spring shackles had recently been installed on RUSTED frame rails & a hole in the pickup bed (hidden under the bed liner) where a shackle had let go, and the leaf spring shot up through the bed. I assumed THAT is why it sat? The truck came with some sort of block or anti freeze heater as well, so I assumed it was a fleet truck (auto parts runner?) bought at auction in NORTHERN New England. A Vermont truck, perhaps, that suffered the ills of road salt? After pointing out the new shackles on non-existent frame rails & the hole in the bed, the dealer knocked off $1k. I repaired the frame area where the new rear shackles were thru-bolted to the nonexistent frame rails. The rest of the truck was perfect! Everything works along with cold AC! For $5k out the door, I have what appears to be a lower mileage older truck?
I’ve commented about these on another Omni/Horizon post on here.
One of the best cars I’ve ever owned as far as reliability was the used ’83 Omni I bought in 1988 for about $2000. It had about 60,000 miles on it, and the 1.6 liter VW engine w/a 4 speed manual trans.
I finally sold it in ’92 with about 135,000 on it when it needed a clutch. The next owner put in a clutch and drove it for another 6 months until she was in an accident in it .
No personal experience with these Omnirizons other than to note how rare they’ve become. But they did seem to be just about everywhere years ago, and the experiences I’ve heard definitely skew more positive than negative.
I, too, have only bought new once in my life, but that may change. My wife’s current car, a 2012 Kia Forte Koup, was leased new, and then we exercised the buyout option at lease end and kept it. It’s been a great car, and she quite likes it, but the fact that it is a coupe may not be compatible with future plans for a family. Since she’s in the car all day for work, having something reliable, economical, and under warranty is paramount, so when it comes time to replace the Forte I’d be inclined to go new again.
For my own cars? Not so much. I’m of the “buy used and get more for your money” school of personal purchase. For the $20K that my ’03 Marauder cost me in ’06, there were any number of fine vehicles I could have purchased new, but I was much happier with the 41k mile Marauder (original sticker $35K).
I actually saw one last weekend…riding The Dragon on my bike, with what seemed like every Miata in the country (20th year for the Miatas at the Gap weekend), something was out of place…there was a line of cars…roadster, roadster, RX8, roadster, RX7, roadster, roadster, square 4-door hatchback, roadster, roadster…wait a second, what the…?
Turns out the dude’s new Miata had been sideswiped, so he brought his other toy: an Omni GLH-S. That car gave away NOTHING to the Miatas on the switchbacks, and would pull away from all but the MazdaSpeed cars or the ones with V8 or rotary swaps on the straights. One of the Miata drivers had his camera running, and showed a couple shots of the Omni with 2′ of daylight under the inside rear tire!