As Chrysler bounced back from the brink of doom in the early 1980s, the company needed to expand its lineup beyond frugal transportation like the K-car. Minivans, sport coupes and convertibles helped to satisfy this goal, and another market niche beckoned as well. Young adults who had grown to appreciate compact (largely imported) cars were aging into a more settled product, yet retaining their preferences for tight handling and good economy. Thus, the 1980s sport sedan market was born. Our featured car was Chrysler’s entry in this market segment – envisioned as a sedan with American traits but with an international feel.
Though a good car, and in some ways one of Chrysler’s best products of the 1980s, the LeBaron GTS never became a major force in the sport sedan market, and within just a few years, sales fizzled away. For Chrysler, it was like hitting a lead-off triple, then stranding the runner on base. So close, and yet so far away.
The GTS was not Chrysler Corporation’s first sport sedan of the 1980s – that honor goes to the Dodge 600ES. Following a formula shared by GM and Ford at the time (Pontiac 6000STE, Ford LTD LX), the 600ES was a gussied-up version of a high-volume mid-size sedan, outfitted with a firmer suspension, bucket seats and alloy wheels. For its next act, Chrysler wanted to up the ante and offer a purpose-built sport sedan.
To Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca, “purpose-built” didn’t mean new from the ground up, but rather a very well disguised K-car. America’s foremost corporate hero of the 1980s, Iacocca’s impressive sense of business acumen saved Chrysler, and a significant component of his strategy was to create a family of cars around a single platform. Consequently, his sport sedan’s new skin hid a chassis and drivetrain that was familiar to the company’s customers. Its lineage was fairly straightforward: A stretched K-car platform similar in size to the Chrysler E-Class/Dodge 600, mated to a Chrysler Laser/Dodge Daytona drivetrain.
By the mid-1980s, some critics warned that the public was reaching its limit for K-car derivatives. Iacocca scoffed at this notion by recalling his greatest hit at Ford – the Mustang, which he reminded people was “a Falcon in a new dress.” If the Falcon could transform into an industry-changing Pony Car, then the K-car could just as easily transform into America’s premier sport sedan.
The resulting car, code-named the H-body, reflected the preferences of young professional consumers in the early 1980s. Chrysler dropped loud hints that its upcoming model would be outside of its square-and-traditional comfort zone. “This has been called our Yuppie Car, and that’s what it is,” claimed Tom Pappert, Chrysler VP of Sales and Service.
These days, companies chase millennials and their purchasing power. In the 1980s, it was yuppies – due to their collective willingness to spend money and to their relatively young age (suggesting a likelihood to be repeat customers). Crucially, from an automotive standpoint, yuppies liked foreign cars. Along the way, they also picked up a fondness for crisp handling, good economy and a compact size.
When introduced as a 1985 model, LeBaron GTS was a breath of fresh air. Its styling was curvy and contemporary and its driving characteristics mimicked Japanese and European competitors rather than broughamy domestic sedans. Chrysler’s ads offered comparisons with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, which was of course rather ambitious, but it made for good advertising copy. The real competition were Japanese mid-size sedans.
Although the styling may have been fresh, the name surely wasn’t. Using the well-worn LeBaron nameplate on a car marketed to a young, import-oriented crowd was a curious choice, and apparently a late choice at that. Chrysler planned on calling this car the Commander, but ultimately chose LeBaron instead, matched to the sportier-sounding GTS suffix. Its Dodge twin, the Lancer, differed only in grille, tail lights and minor trim.
The GTS’s most perceptible distinction was its styling. Lacking the fussiness and pretense of other Pentastar sedans, the GTS featured a flowing and crisp appearance with up-to-date touches such as aircraft-style doors cut into the roof panel, a steeply raked, flush-mounted windshield (called ‘aerowrapped’ by Chrysler), and semi-flush side glass.
The rear end presented an interesting design touch: It was a hatchback, but avoided overtly shouting so. With a notched hatch lid, the car appeared like a conventional sedan with a short trunk lid, though in fact the hatch concealed a useful 18 cu. ft. trunk – expanding to 42 cu. ft. with the 60/40 rear seat folded. Liftover, however, was high, since the tail lights and license plate housing were fixed. Offering a hatchback in the mid-size sedan class was a gamble, since customers typically associated hatches with lower-priced cars.
Chrysler hoped to shift the odds of marketing a hatchback in its favor with the notchback design – the utility of a hatch without the economy-car styling that most hatchbacks implied.
Under its skin, the GTS was more of a conventional Chrysler product. For 1985, GTS came with a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine in either normally aspirated (97-hp) or turbocharged (146-hp) form. One year later, a third powerplant was added: A 100-hp 2.5-liter four, which provided considerably more torque than the rather tepid 2.2. All engines were available with either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission.
As one would expect, the 5-speed Turbo received the most press attention, but represented a minority of total sales. The turbo did provide performance that was worth bragging about (0-60 in 8.3 sec. w/ 5-spd.), although power kicked in abruptly and featured all of the lag and turbo whine that epitomized 1980s turbos. Non-turbos had more sedate performance – adequate for the times, though far from exceptional.
H-bodies’ performance credentials were strongest in the suspension department. The standard setup (called Road Touring) featured a noticeably firmer feel than other Chrysler/Plymouth sedans. An optional Sport Handling package offered alloy wheels, firmer suspension settings and sway bars. Compared to other domestic sedans, even the base model handled relatively well. All H-bodies had gas-pressurized MacPherson struts and shocks, anti-roll bars and quick-ratio power steering with excellent on-center feel. Chrysler officials knew that younger drivers preferred a firmer, more European ride, and acted accordingly in setting up the GTS’s suspension characteristics.
Our featured car is not a turbo, but rather a sparsely equipped base model (and in astonishingly good condition). GTS’s came in two trim levels – High Line (the base model) and Premium, with the Premium offering additional niceties that were either optional or unavailable on the High Line. Upon its 1985 introduction, the GTS was priced competitively, starting at $9,099. A fully-loaded turbo would check in near $13,500. Although our featured car is a 1987 model, it’s hard to tell, since Chrysler offered few year-by-year changes as the GTS cycled through its 5-year lifespan.
The interior was clearly that of an American car – not cutting-edge, but at the same time it was thoroughly modern. Full instrumentation came standard, with six legible gauges, including a tachometer.
One of the interior’s best features were the seats. Even the standard bucket seats such as these were contoured, supportive, and comfortable for long distances. The interior also featured novelties like console storage bins and a cup holder that folded out from the dash. Other pieces were upgraded from Chrysler’s standard parts bin as well, such as the soft-touch climate control and radio buttons.
However, the origins of many parts were clear. Major components, such as the as the door hardware and the steering wheel, were plainly sourced from other Chrysler products, and the overall level of finish was more Aries than Accord.
H-bodies excelled at space efficiency, treating the driver and passenger to ample room, even for tall people. The rear seat was plenty big for two (three with a squeeze) adults – something that not all mid-size cars could match.
The GTS and Lancer had a lot going for them, and in both 1985 and ’86, the two models combined to exceed 100,000 sales. In terms of demographics, the H-body appeared to be a hit with its intended audience; Iacocca stated that the average H-car buyer was just 34 years old. But after those first two years, sales fell apart. 1987 sales fell by nearly half, and then the H-body hurtled towards irrelevancy.
This was a rapid fall from grace for what had been a promising vehicle. What happened?
First, mid-size hatchbacks never sold well in North America despite good efforts from several manufacturers. One can’t blame carmakers for trying, since it seemed logical that a generation accustomed to hatches on their Civics or Horizons would seek to carry forth that useful fifth door in a family car. But the hatchback perception remained lodged with economy cars. What didn’t help the GTS was that Chrysler’s 1987 bargain-oriented P-cars (Shadow/Sundance) featured the same notched hatch design as the GTS. The struggle to convince buyers to accept a mid-size hatchback got tougher with the P-car’s introduction.
Most importantly, though, was that the H-bodies lacked refinement. The GTS was noisy, rough around the edges, and showed unrefined build quality – more akin to a downscale Chrysler product than to a sophisticated German or Japanese competitor.
This lack of sophistication rose to the forefront when comparing drivability. Both the 2.2 and 2.5 liter engines were loud and relatively course feeling, the cable-shifted manual transmission was stiff and notchy, and the automatic was rough and inflexible. This was all problematic for a car doing battle against the bastions of smoothness – Honda, Toyota and Mazda.
Generally speaking, the GTS and Lancer were competitive cars when introduced in 1985. But their Achilles Heel was that they were engineered to beat early-1980s competition – not the improved late-1980s cars. During the 1980s, Honda, Toyota and Mazda all made significant strides in everything from drivetrain smoothness to interior quality, and Chrysler’s H-bodies couldn’t hold their own against the newer competitors. For the H-bodies, the roughness that was partially tolerable in 1985 became almost archaic just a few years later.
Given this quick trajectory towards obsolescence, it was surprising that Chrysler began European GTS sales in 1988 – sold as the “Chrysler GTS” and featuring the Dodge Lancer grille. Unsurprisingly, sales were slow.
Sales were slow back home by that time, too. And by the end of the decade, Chrysler gave up trying to make a dedicated Euro-inspired sport sedan.
The H-body’s replacement, the AA-body Spirit/Acclaim/LeBaron, proudly reverted to Chrysler’s traditional K-derivative boxyness. This 1991 LeBaron brochure boasted of its car’s competitiveness with the Olds Cutlass Ciera and Buick Century… no more BMW or Accord comparisons for the Chrysler brand’s mid-size offering.
The GTS was close to being a great car, and was an excellent first attempt at a sport sedan. What it needed most was some refinement. Unfortunately for auto enthusiasts, this type of car was outside of Chrysler’s comfort zone, and without strong sales, the company reverted to a more familiar product for the crucial mid-size segment. It’s too bad, though, that consumers never got to see what a second-generation LeBaron GTS could be like, since the original version possessed so many good qualities. So close, and yet so far away.
Photographed in August 2016 in Falls Church, Virginia.
Curbside Classic: 1985-89 Chrysler LeBaron GTS – Hatchback Setbacks William Stopford