COAL: 1993 Dodge Intrepid — Showroom Switcheroo

“Cab Forward”. I think “engine room forward of the front wheels” described it better.

By 1993, our son was two years old, and there were future plans for a second child. The daily drivers of the two-seat RX-7 and the Ford F-150, with a bench seat for three, were still working out. But, with another child somewhere out there on the horizon, and the expectation of kiddo carpooling on deck, something had to be done. We needed capacity for more butts in more seats.

I carefully did my homework on family cars. My starting point was Fords and Dodges, as the friendly and familiar local dealer carried those brands. It seemed easy to ignore GM in all of it, for two reasons. The first was that their family cars just gave off the impression that they were my parents’ cars. I am sure there were some fine cars that could be easily differentiated from the melange of rather generic four door grey or beige GM sedans that popped up in my mind, but I didn’t really want to expend any mental effort to try to discern such things.

Secondly, while Chrysler and Ford seemed to try to do good work, even though they sometimes fell well short of the mark, GM’s attitude seemed to be “this is what we offer, and this is all you will get”. Looked at another way, GM seemed to be saying “we can do better than anyone else, but we don’t really choose to do so, not for you who are shopping in the cheaper end of the middle of the product line”. So the mental picture of Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Chevys, all stirred up in some sort of mechanical soup, and differentiated largely by badges and trim, was off-putting to me. Sure, there were Saturns by then, but they didn’t really register. All of this was purely subjective on my part, and I am sure a case could have been made for my shopping the GM offerings, but I just didn’t have any interest in doing it. My memories of repeated and various GM Deadly Sins (to use the CC label for them) simply stood in the way, and colored my thinking.

For some reason, I didn’t shop the imports either. We were looking for a larger car, and my mental picture of imports, at our price point, was smaller cars. Again, likely not entirely correct, but there it was. The upsized K-car Chrysler variants and the Ford Taurus offered cars that represented good efforts, and seemed to be a bit of a break from what had come before. They were also mentally easy to differentiate from what appeared to be our parents’ cars. Grand Victorias weren’t in the running for us, but the Taurus could be. I think Ford and Chrysler made extra sales, with late Baby Boomer families, by differentiating very well their newer offerings from the “older” ones that their parents would have bought. GM, not so much, Saturn excepted.

I also failed to shop the Taurus SHO (which I knew to be a great car and a fantastic performance value-for-money), or a leftover Dodge Spirit R/T, of which I was only dimly familiar with. This was to be my spouse’s DD, and it didn’t need any extra zoom-zoom, unless that was what she wanted. I had a race car for that sort of thing. So I did my homework on features, owner satisfaction, repair records, etcetera. A bit harder to do, pre-internet, but I managed. The verdict? A Dodge Spirit. That was the car for us. I preferred the looks and the space efficiency of the squared-off Dodge to the rounded Taurus, which settled the deal for me.

The Dodge Spirit, here showing some small ravages of time. But we know already that this was not to be.

So we headed down to the Dodge dealer, by appointment with the owner. Despite the dealership owner being a family friend, one still felt a bit like a chicken going in to get his feathers plucked. Sales are sales, and the dealership had a monthly quota to make. Especially as this place had recently risen from the ashes of the long-time Dodge dealership that didn’t survive past the eighties, and it needed to re-establish itself. I got all that.

They had a Viper in the older, smaller showroom, which could only fit one car, and the Viper was fun to get a look at up close. But we were there to look at and test drive the Spirit. Um, er, OK, hold on a minute (salesman, knowing we were friends of the owner, disappeared for a moment). We were told that a Spirit could be brought up from the back, but why don’t you take a look at the new Intrepid in the meantime? Bigger, newer technology, more comfortable, yadda, yadda. I am always a bit leery of first year cars, especially something that is novel and built from new and untested mechanical architecture. But, OK, let’s take a look, while they try to find a Spirit somewhere (I have a mental picture of the lot boy running out back, to the far reaches of the lot, as he has been instructed to quickly hose down and dry off a dusty new Spirit and install some hubcaps).

The car sure has a big back end. The whole thing is big, and long, and swoopy. Not really what I had in mind.

The car was silver grey on the outside (the color was “Driftwood Metallic”, if I recall correctly), and grey inside. Lots and lots of grey. The car was somewhat low (though not low like the RX-7), and amazingly large inside. The interior was not particularly distinguished, but it had a swoopy (that word, it will keep coming to mind) dashboard dominated by plastic, and not hidden behind any fake wood veneers or anything like that. The seats were big and comfortable.

A spacious and comfortable interior. Our example had the shift lever on the steering column, which eliminated the center console and made the roomy seats even wider. The center armrests folded up and down, with cup holders located in the “noses” of them.

The back seat was amazing. One sat low, but hip room (for two) and head room were ample. Knee room was limousine-like, with plenty of room to stretch your legs. The doors and sills were wide, but they felt light, not heavy and clunky like the Detroit doors of old. The car drove just fine, like it was supposed to, as cars built in the ‘90s tended to do. It was big and a bit ponderous, but it drove “smaller” in the steering and handling, than one would expect. “Ponderous nimbleness”, perhaps?

The back seat had lots of room in every direction, and would eventually make the car the one we would take home. The reason is not obvious here.

The engine (which I would take a closer look at later, as the dealership visit was a bit of a whirlwind affair) was mounted longitudinally, ahead of the transmission and the front wheels. That’s the reason for the extreme front overhang on these cars. This was a legacy of Renault design, which found its way into AMC, and then to the LH model Chryslers, inherited through Chrysler’s buyout of AMC. If you want a scorecard, the heritage is Renault 25, then Eagle Premier, and finally leading to the plethora of Chrysler LH’s. The base engine was a pushrod affair, not overhead cam, but it was a narrow (60 degree) V-6. Almost a straight six, but not quite. It did share the straight six characteristics of silky acceleration and lots of low end torque.

A narrow 60-degree V-6, stuck out on the nose of the car, facing forward. A bit novel for Detroit.

We never did get to look at the Spirit, but that didn’t matter. We got a fancy and elaborate first-year brochure for the Intrepid, back when they were pulling out all the stops to sell these things. We spoke a bit with the finance guy about how the payments would not be materially different than the Spirit, and how the owner was making sure we got a bit of a discount. A bit. That was OK, his kids needed new shoes too.

But what sold us (Vicki, actually, as it was to be her decision, ultimately, and her car) was a set-up that, in hindsight, could have been envisioned from the moment we walked onto the lot. I am sure it was spoken of and strategized out in the morning sales meetings, and we walked right into the trap. After driving the car, talking a bit about the financing options, and a bit about optional features and warranties and such things, the salesman walked us back to the car we had test driven, and opened up the back door. He reached for a tab between the rear seats, and dropped the center cushion. It was not a cushion, it was a built-in child’s seat. Perhaps not the ultra-safe gigantic plastic toddler seats of the day, but a child seat nevertheless, with padding and comprehensive seat belts and straps for little people. Done, sold, where do we sign? One could put two children’s seats on either side, and still have room for a third child in the middle. Genius. Preschool carpool, here we come.

The feature that sealed the deal. Young family? Get a built in child seat. Sold!

The car came home with us, the RX-7 was sold off, and carpooling commenced. The ownership experience was just fine, with only one serious issue during our tenure. Cresting the top of a hill on the Interstate, on a hot summer day, the transmission let go. Not only did it let go, it did so spectacularly, NASCAR style. It simply exploded with no warning, with fluid smoke everywhere, and the tinkling sound of bits of metal bouncing along the pavement with 80 miles per hour of momentum. A quick coast to the shoulder, and that was that. Fortunately, it was still under warranty, so a new transmission was installed without charge. We got a secondhand Spirit from the dealer as a loaner! After seven years of ownership and an almost entirely good experience, it was time to move on. Little things such as switches and window tracks were getting a bit sketchy. We also had two kids of our own by then, and we had moved to a neighborhood distant from the elementary school, but with no bus service, and with a highly developed carpool arrangement. Time to up the carpool capacity once again.