(first posted 2/10/2016) In hindsight, one may be tempted to dismiss the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim as being frumpy sedans with dated mechanicals. After all, these sedans – built from 1989 until 1994 – were built on a variation of the K-Car platform and their interior and exterior styling was boxy and rather passé, even in 1989. However, despite these handicaps, the AA-Body sedans were sensible new car buys and had plenty to offer, even if they were never class-leaders.
Chrysler certainly got plenty of mileage out of the K-Car platform. Although the Spirit arrived 8 long years after the platform debuted in the 1981 Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, the basic K chassis remained with MacPherson strut suspension up front and a beam axle at the rear. However, the wheelbase was stretched 3 inches to 103.3 inches and the Spirit was 3 inches taller.
The frumpy roofline allowed for plenty of headroom and an airy cabin, while the wheelbase stretch made for a spacious cabin. A front bench seat was still available for maximum people-carrying capacity, although the Spirit, like all other K-Car derivatives, was no wider than the Aries/Reliant. The cabin was also rather plasticky.
A Dodge showroom in 1989 was a rather confusing place. The Aries stuck around for one final season, priced to sell. The slow-selling Lancer was also a nominal presence in Dodge showrooms, while the new K-derived and even more rectilinear Dynasty was also available. The Spirit effectively replaced the Lancer, 600 and Aries and straddled segments; while the rival Ford Tempo and Chevrolet Corsica were classified by the EPA as compacts, the Spirit’s interior volume put it in the mid-size category. The Dynasty, although also available with a choice of four-cylinder and V6 engines, was positioned more as a rival to the Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Lumina.
Unlike the larger Dynasty, the Spirit had an available turbocharged engine. The engine lineup included: a naturally-aspirated 2.5 four-cylinder with 100 hp and 135 ft-lbs; a boosted 2.5 with 150 hp and 180 ft-lbs; and a 3.0 Mitsubishi-sourced V6 with 141 hp and 171 ft-lbs. The fours were available with one of Chrysler’s notchy five-speed manual transmissions or an optional three-speed automatic, while the V6, initially restricted to the top-line ES but available on all trims after 1990, came only with an automatic.
The base four wasn’t as smooth as that in the Accord and Camry and it was also down 15-30 hp on those Japanese sedans. However, it had similar torque figures and that pull was available lower in the rev range. The available V6 – a feature lacking in the Accord – was also quite smooth.
The Spirit was distinguished from its Plymouth counterpart with a crosshair grille, less chrome and, underneath, a firmer suspension set-up. Although it was positioned as the least sporty of the two AA-Bodies, the Acclaim did gain a sporty Rally Sport option for its sophomore season. However, it was a one-year only affair and soon the Plymouth would be available only in one trim level and a series of option packages. The Spirit’s firmer set-up improved handling without compromising too much in the way of ride quality. Although not the most entertaining car to drive in its segment, it acquitted itself acceptably. Those preferring a plusher ride quality and a cushier interior could, after 1990, purchase the AA-Body Chrysler LeBaron sedan.
Plymouth didn’t receive a version of the hottest Spirit, the 1991-92 R/T. Packing a 2.2 turbocharged four with 224 hp and 217 ft-lbs of torque, mated to a five-speed manual, the subtly styled R/T reached 60 mph in under 6 seconds. It was faster in the sprint than the Taurus SHO which had two more cylinders and greater displacement but an extra 300 pounds in curb weight. However, the limited-production R/T, despite a tweaked suspension, was no match for the SHO in the twisties and the dated chassis was somewhat overwhelmed by the power. Still, for a boxy sedan that looked little different from a Spirit ES, the R/T was packing some serious performance. To sweeten the deal, there was a new, slick-shifting five-speed stick and a price tag more than $4k less than a Taurus SHO.
The Spirit had been benchmarked against Camry and Accord but fell short in overall quality and refinement. But, in its favor, it also came at a lower price despite costing more than a Tempo or Corsica. In 1990, a base Spirit with the 2.5 four-cylinder and a five-speed manual transmission listed at $10,485; a 3.0 V6 ES retailed for $13,145. The cheapest Honda Accord sedan, however, was priced at $12,345 and lacked a driver’s airbag. The cheapest Camry cost $11,588 and also missed out on this increasingly popular safety feature. List prices don’t tell the full story, either: a Dodge dealer would probably have been much more willing to haggle.
Unlike the Spirit’s direct domestic rivals, the Ford Tempo and Chevrolet Corsica, there was a four-speed automatic available. However, the Ultradrive was only available in Spirits equipped with the 3.0 V6 and its shift quality was criticised. Reliability also proved to be an issue, a black mark on a car that was otherwise rated by JD Power and Consumer Reports as being one of the most reliable domestic cars.
Those seeking a smoother and more reliable transmission in their V6 AA-Body could select a three-speed automatic instead of the UltraDrive after 1992. Anti-lock brakes were an option after 1991, the same year the steering set-up and suspension were tweaked, but the option was deleted for 1995. Turbocharged Spirits, including the hot R/T, ceased to exist after 1992. For 1993, the Spirit received a mild facelift, arguably to its detriment: the new taillight assemblies looked cheap, as did the monochromatic grille treatment (the featured car is a 1993-95 model).
Otherwise, nothing much happened with the Spirit and Acclaim during their seven-year run, much like the Tempo and Corsica were relatively untouched during the 1990s. Sales fell each year: in 1990, Dodge sold just under 100k Spirits, but in 1994 only 42k were sold. The Spirit’s final season was even more meager, but that year Chrysler Corporation had introduced a much more exciting replacement.
Chrysler may have rebounded when Lee Iacocca took the reins, but by the late 1980s they had a mostly stale product lineup and a worsening financial situation. The early/mid-1990s would prove to be another boom period for the company, with the full-size LH sedans, the compact Neon and the replacement for the Spirit/Acclaim/LeBaron sedans: the “Cloud Cars”, badged as the Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze. These had striking cab-forward styling, were more fun-to-drive and yet still possessed a spacious interior. Much like the Spirit had been a stronger sales performer than the 600 and Lancer it replaced, the Stratus would better the Spirit’s figures.
The Spirit had been a last hurrah for the basic K-Car platform. By 1995, the Spirit and Acclaim were the last K-derived cars remaining. Chrysler had managed to craft an acceptably competitive sedan out of ageing mechanicals, priced and specified it in an appealing manner, and continued to sell it in serviceable numbers until the middle of the decade. R/T aside, it was never a very exciting car, but it was a good buy nonetheless. The Spirit was willing.