Curbside Classic: 1985-89 Chrysler LeBaron GTS – Hatchback Setbacks

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(first posted 8/21/2015)    Sedans. Minivans. Hatchbacks. Convertibles. Coupes. The K-Car platform and its offshoots had almost any permutation imaginable, even a factory limousine! If you need a concise guide to the menagerie of Ks, Jason Shafer’s guide is a Must Read. The most interesting K derivatives may well have been the H-Body Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer, Chrysler’s first and last mid-size hatchback and one of Chrysler’s sportier offerings.

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While living in NYC, I didn’t think I would spot one of these almost forgotten K-Car derivatives. After all, these aren’t collectors’ items and didn’t appeal much to older buyers, who generally keep their cars in the best condition. However, I managed to spot not one but three LeBaron GTS, all painted in the same shade of burgundy and mostly looking worse for wear but still running.

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The H-Bodies strode a three-inch longer wheelbase than the humble LeBaron/Aries/Reliant triplets with a suspension based on the Daytona/Laser, but Chrysler’s efforts at positioning their products during the 1980s were somewhat puzzling.

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The LeBaron GTS was ostensibly Chrysler division’s mid-size offering. It replaced the short-lived 1983-84 E-Class, which shared the downsized New Yorker’s 103.3 inch wheelbase but had cleaner styling. The E-Class, logically, was priced between the LeBaron sedan and the New Yorker.

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Although the GTS had a 103.1 inch wheelbase, its base price was actually lower than the smaller LeBaron’s. You could, however, price a GTS above even the priciest LeBaron sedan. The Laser was the cheapest Chrysler of all, priced almost $1k below the LeBaron coupe. Even after the Laser’s discontinuation – it proved to be another short-lived Chrysler like the E-Class – the LeBaron GTS still undercut the LeBaron in price. In the GTS’ last year, the smaller LeBaron was gone and the LeBaron GTS was just “LeBaron” even though a new coupe and convertible bearing that name had launched that year and a much softer LeBaron sedan would arrive for 1990.

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Confused yet? It gets more confusing. Let’s look at Dodge and the Lancer. The Lancer was launched in 1985, but Dodge already had a mid-size sedan, the 600. The 600 had been available in a sportier, European-inspired ES trim to rival the Pontiac 6000 STE and Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport. For 1985, the 600 ES was gone but the 600 remained. The 600/Lancer duo thus occupied the same market space, sold at roughly the same price, but targeted different buyers with the 600 being the more traditional family sedan and the Lancer being a sportier alternative, perhaps one that appealed more to import cross-shoppers.

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Perhaps that made sense, but Dodge confused matters in 1988 by introducing the similarly-sized and similarly-priced Dynasty, leaving them with three mid-sizers! For 1989, the 600 was gone but it was immediately replaced with the Spirit, which undercut the Lancer on price.

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Despite the presence of affordably-priced base models, the H-Body was always marketed as a sport sedan alternative. H-Bodies featured a semi-independent front suspension with a trailing arm beam rear, and offered three different suspension tunes: Road Touring, Sport Handling and Sport Handling II. The latter two featured tighter strut and shock valving, higher spring rates and front and rear sway bars, with SH II featuring 15-inch alloy wheels on Goodyear Eagle GT tires. Handling was much improved, but the ride was appreciably firmer. Still, those H-Bodies so equipped could outslalom a Mercedes 190E and BMW 528e while costing half as much, and critics generally praised their abilities. Chrysler heavily advertised the LeBaron GTS as a cut-price rival to the Europeans, while the slightly cheaper (generally only by a few hundred dollars) Dodge was advertised as a rival to Japanese imports.

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Befitting the H-Bodies’ sporting aspirations a manual transmission was available, unlike rivals like the more expensive 6000 STE (at least at first: the STE eventually got one towards the end of the decade). But critics and owners were none too pleased with the shifter, which was often described as rubbery and agricultural.

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Despite the H-Bodies’ sporting aspirations, you could still opt for a front bench and a three-speed automatic. The base engine was the 2.2 single-overhead-cam, fuel-injected four with 99 horsepower. Optional was a 146 hp turbocharged 2.2 that actually had superior fuel economy. For 1986, a 2.5 naturally-aspirated, 100 hp four was added, and a 2.5 turbo arrived in 1989. Turbocharged H-Bodies with a manual transmission were good for a 0-60 of 8.1 seconds.

1987 Dodge Shelby Lancer-03-04

Those after performance could purchase a special Shelby Lancer (later Lancer Shelby), fettled by Carroll Shelby. Four-wheel disc brakes, an even firmer suspension tune – some said an uncomfortably firm tune – and a 175 hp, 175 ft-lb turbocharged four were standard. These came fully-loaded with leather seats (power adjusted up front), power accessories and a 10-speaker premium sound system with a (then quite rare) CD player. 0-60 was quicker than the regular H-Body turbos, at 7.7 seconds, but you paid dearly for the mildly improved performance: around $17k, or roughly $7k above a Lancer ES Turbo. Only 800 Shelby Lancers and 487 Lancer Shelbys were built between 1987 and 1989.

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The H-Body cars were a sales disappointment for Chrysler. Initial sales were adequate, but nose-dived after 1986: Lancer sales went from 51,897 units to 26,619 and LeBaron GTS sales tumbled similarly (73,557 vs. 39,050). By their swansong year, the H-Body hatchbacks were selling in paltry numbers of a few thousand each.

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You can blame the Ford Taurus, but also the 1987 P-Bodies (Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance). These smaller, K-derived hatchbacks were cheaper than the GTS and Lancer but had very similar styling and available turbo engines. One can add cachet to a cheaper car by styling it to look like its more expensive sibling without negatively impacting sales of the latter, but that generally works only with premium brands. Instead, buyers came to Mopar showrooms, saw two similar-looking hatchbacks, and just bought the cheaper one.

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Those who chose either would have experienced the same subpar build quality common in 1980s Chryslers. The interior was handsome enough, but squeaks, rattles and cheap plastics prevailed.

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The Mopar minivans may have been extraordinary upon their launch and created an entirely new segment, but that segment has endured over the years. The H-Bodies, though, were mid-size hatchbacks. Although a practical body style and size, in North America that format was a 1980s phenomenon that quickly died. Victims included hatchback variants of the Camry, 626, Corsica and Stanza.

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The LeBaron GTS and Lancer, too, would die before the nineties. These were cars that could have used a little bit more refining, like a better stickshift, smoother power delivery and higher-quality interior assembly. For the price, though, they weren’t bad and were cleanly styled and quite fun in turbo form. They wouldn’t be the last sporty mid-size Mopars, as the hotter Spirit R/T would arrive shortly thereafter, but despite their K-Car bones the H-Bodies were a departure from what Chrysler usually produced. Never again would Chrysler offer a mid-size hatchback.


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Curbside Classic: 1994 Chrysler LeBaron

Curbside Classic: 1983 Dodge Aries

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