A few posts back I wrote about some of the rolling wrecks I owned in the “deadly decade” of the 1980’s; the “flammable” 1981 Buick Skylark and the “napkin-munching” 1986 Ford Escort GT. The experiences with those cars drove me to drive Toyotas for the next 10 years. It helped I was mostly overseas in Japan during that period, but even if I had been in the US, I would have avoided anything from the Big Three.
From 1989 to 1999, I drove Toyota Crestas – first a 1982 model, then for seven years a 1988. Seven years was typically a long time for me to have one car but the ‘88 was so nice and drove so well, that I had no desire to part with it. Most CC readers will know that the North American Cressida was the top-line version of the JDM Cresta.
But in 1999 I headed back to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton and couldn’t take the Cresta with me (though I would have liked to), so once again I needed wheels. Was I going to take a chance on a US model, or were the scars still too fresh?
I had done quite a bit of looking and research…obviously a Toyota was the first choice but the Cressida was out of production by then and I didn’t care for the bland styling of the Avalon. I wanted something larger than a Camry, Altima or Accord and European sedans were out of my price range. Then I saw a picture and read a review of the then new 1999 Chrysler LH cars in Road and Track – specifically the LHS version.
I have to say the styling of all the LH cars stunned me. I had been a fan of the cab-forward styling since Bob Lutz, Francois Castaing and Tom Gale pushed it by a soon to retire Lee Iacocca in the early ‘90’s. I know these are polarizing designs, and that some folks can’t stand them, but I thought the LHS was the closest thing to a road-going “concept” car that I had seen. It’s hard to express how much that design struck me.
The silhouette was low and long – and nicely balanced. While it’s typical now, this was one of the first cars to have a wheelbase long enough that the rear door didn’t need a cutout for the rear wheel. That was really distinctive.
The rear was very clean without any added “jewelry” (an Iacocca favorite).
Some thought the front was a little bizarre but I found it unique and tasteful.
The engine was an all aluminum 3.5 litre SOHC 60 degree V6 with 4 valves per cylinder – engine code EGG. It made 253 hp and 255 ft lbs of torque. It was mounted longitudinally, not transverse, with the trans-axle underneath driving the front wheels.
Let’s take a look at some of the “Good and the Bad”…
Styling – Again, I think this car is a stunner. It still looks good today – and I prefer it to the chunky, high-waisted look of the follow-on RWD LX 300C.
Performance – this was a swift car in its day – 0-60 in about 7.5 seconds. The big 3.5 V6 had plenty of low end torque and would wind out nicely.
Interior – not as attractive as the exterior but comfortable and roomy. Rear seat space was amazing – over 41.5 inches of legroom.
Reliability – surprisingly good – I heard from others that these had problems with cam sensors and electrical issues. In the four years I owned it, I never made an unscheduled trip to the dealer.
Overhangs – The car sat low and had fairly long front and rear overhangs – I’d scrape the front routinely over inclines and cement parking blocks.
“Plood” – the interior was nice with leather seats and classic white-faced gauges – but the plastic wood inlays were some of the cheapest and worst looking I’ve seen.
Maintenance – To get that low hood, Chrysler engineers really crammed everything together in the engine bay – I don’t mean crammed as in haphazard, but everything was very tight. To change the battery, you had to unbolt and take out the engine air filter box, that would allow you to get to the cables. Then take off the passenger side front wheel which will allow you to pull the battery out of a small tray near the front. Thank goodness I never had to get anything under the hood worked on – just to change the alternator would have meant removing a whole bunch of components and costly man-hours.
Build Quality – Panel gaps, inside and out were OK – but if you looked in the wheel wells and other places underneath you’d see a lot of metal casting flash and jagged body seams.
Summary: As the title states, the LHS renewed my faith in US manufacturers – almost. After four years of ownership, I came away impressed, but with the feeling I had just been lucky. That impression has only grown stronger as I read sordid tales of GM faulty ignition switches and disintegrating Ford Powershift transmissions.
So would I consider buying a US Big Three vehicle today? Well, it would have to be something that really knocked my socks off like the LHS – with the focus now on CUVs and SUVs, that doesn’t seem likely.