Curbside Classic: 1990-93 Chrysler Imperial – Tarnished Crown

(first posted 1/31/2017)    Sumptuous American luxury with modern mechanicals, efficient packaging and a more compact size. Sounds like a winner! And indeed, much to the chagrin of many enthusiasts, the 1983 New Yorker was a commercial success, selling better than its larger, rear-wheel-drive predecessors had during the 1970s. But almost a decade later, Lee Iacocca was still stretching and contorting the same basic platform. What had seemed a novel idea in the early 1980s had become decidedly passé as the new decade started.

It’s easy to lambast the 1990 Imperial as being a rolling joke, a final nail in the coffin of Lee Iacocca’s credibility as he seemingly steered Chrysler back into irrelevancy. Chrysler had spent too much on diversifying their business in the 1980s – Iacocca brokering the purchases of, among other companies, Gulfstream – and had spent too little on engineering. The basic K platform had become a Hydra, growing more and more heads, and while some of those heads had been phenomenally successful – the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in particular – Chrysler would find the bridge too far. That bridge was the 1990 Imperial.

That I spotted one in Mexico is remarkable. Despite Chrysler being one of only five automakers in Mexico during the 1980s, the majority of passenger cars they sold were humble Dodge Dart K (Aries) sedans. The New Yorker was not assembled in Mexico and therefore could not be sold there. By 1992, however, Mexico was opening their extremely guarded market, partially reversing their anti-import decree in 1991 and slowly increasing the percentage of imported vehicles allowable each year starting at 15%. The Imperial was one of the first vehicles to be imported by Chrysler de México and it sold in pitifully small numbers, being withdrawn from the market after only one year.

Like Imperials of the past, the ’90 Imperial was a more prestigious version of the New Yorker. The New Yorker had been redesigned in 1988 but much of the K-Car componentry underneath was carried over. While wheelbase and total length had increased by 1 and 6.4 inches, respectively, the new New Yorker was only 0.5 inches wider at 68.9 inches. The Imperial and its New Yorker Fifth Avenue sibling were stretched further, with a wheelbase 5 inches longer at 109.3 inches and a total length of 203.0, almost 10 inches longer. Despite this considerable growth, total width remained the same.

But if the Imperial was a smaller car than a Lincoln Town Car or Continental – and it was – Chrysler certainly did their best to hide that fact. Iacocca’s preferred luxury styling elements were liberally applied here, including opera lights, a padded vinyl roof, full-width taillights, a waterfall grille and even hidden headlights. The canted front fascia was the most daring touch on what was a dreadfully unambitious, by-the-numbers design. The Imperial looked much like the FWD 1990 New Yorker Fifth Avenue, which looked much like the FWD 1988 New Yorker. Oh, did I mention all of these were sold at the same time? The New Yorker Salon ostensibly rivalled the Buick LeSabre, the New Yorker Fifth Avenue tackled the Buick Park Avenue, while the Imperial was Chrysler’s best attempt at a Cadillac de Ville rival.

While to today’s eyes the Imperial looks intriguing (I personally love the front-end styling), with an interior as warm and inviting as any other domestic luxury sedan of the era, in its time it smacked of cynicism, desperation or both. Chrysler didn’t have the engineering resources of GM and by the end of the 1980s it had started racking up losses. The engineering fruits of Chrysler’s acquisition of American Motors had yet to ripen, as Chrysler and AMC engineers were still working on the 1993 LH sedans. The Imperial seems to have been just one last attempt to squeeze some more profit out of the K platform and tide the Chrysler brand over for the much more impressive Concorde and LHS/New Yorker to come. The Imperial may have had a new V6 and a four-speed automatic but the needle hadn’t moved much from the ’83 New Yorker.

What did an Imperial offer over a cheaper New Yorker Fifth Avenue? Not much, really, other than some different trim and a couple of other items. The main improvement was the fitment of anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes which made the Imperial safer to stop.

If only it felt as confident on the move as it did coming to a stop: Chrysler’s suspension tuning prioritized cushiness above all else. While that seems appropriate in a domestic luxury sedan, reviewers like those at Motor Trend found the Imperial pitched and yawed, the suspension bottoming out when the road got rough (or as Consumer Guide put it, “hammering over bumps”). In a Motor Trend comparison test between the Imperial, Cadillac Sedan de Ville and Lincoln Continental, the magazine savaged the Imperial’s handling, criticizing its “pallid, over-boosted rack-and-pinion steering and severe body roll.”

In comparison, the de Ville suffered from body roll and light steering but managed to filter out bumps with greater alacrity, perhaps due in part to its fully-independent suspension. The Imperial managed to handle like a de Ville or Town Car without offering the interior size, suspension travel and smooth V8 performance of either or the towing ability of the Lincoln. And while it was underpowered for its size, the FWD Continental offered a vastly better ride/handling balance; the Japanese similarly shaded the Imperial. Even the Imperial’s optional air suspension couldn’t make up for the deficiencies in the car’s ageing underpinnings.

It’s a good thing the Imperial cost around $4k less than the de Ville because it lacked both the cachet and the performance of the Cadillac, and, while it was as long as a de Ville, it remained 4.5 inches narrower. For those transporting only 4 passengers, that might not have been an issue. What would have been an issue for a domestic luxury car buyer was the Chrysler’s performance in comparison. The Imperial came standard with a 3.3 V6 with 147 hp at 4800 rpm and 183 ft-lbs at 3600 rpm, mated to a four-speed automatic. This powertrain was good for a city/highway mpg rating of 18/26, only 2 mpg better in the city than the de Ville’s brawnier 4.5 V8 (180 hp at 4300 rpm and 240 ft-lbs at 2600 rpm) and 1 mpg better on the highway. The Cadillac clearly had the edge in low-end torque, a desirable trait for domestic luxury car buyers.

After peddling only naturally-aspirated and turbocharged four-cylinder engines throughout much of the 1980s, Chrysler had come to realize larger engines were needed. Initially, they had sourced 3.0 V6 mills from Mitsubishi before developing the 3.3 in-house and debuting it in the 1990 New Yorker. But even the underpowered Lincoln Continental’s 3.8 V6 produced more torque so Chrysler bored and stroked the 3.3 to create a 3.8 V6, the new standard engine for 1991. This produced 150 hp at 4400 rpm and 203 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm and achieved an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg. Only now, the Chrysler was even less efficient than the Lincoln and found itself out-gunned by the de Ville’s new-for-1991 4.9 V8 which produced even more horsepower and torque and managed the same gas mileage figures. Talk about bad luck.

The Imperial had very few selling points. Its anti-lock brakes were an option on the New Yorker. The optional Mark Cross leather interior and 3.8 V6 were available on the New Yorker Fifth Avenue. Hell, if you wanted a padded vinyl roof, a cushy interior and a V6 engine, the new LeBaron sedan offered all of that. The Lincoln Continental had more space, the Cadillac de Ville had more pace, and new GM models like the Buick Park Avenue and luxurious new imports like the Lexus ES250 had more grace. If the Imperial name had carried prestige in the past, it had been tarnished by Chrysler’s discontinuation-reintroduction-discontinuation dance with the name, not to mention the last Imperial’s reliability issues.

Did Iacocca really think people would pay $5k more for an Imperial than a New Yorker Fifth Avenue? 14,968 buyers did in 1990, less than half the figure recorded for the Fifth Avenue. But by its last two seasons, the Imperial was down to only 7k annual units. The New Yorker and Fifth Avenue were declining in sales, too, as newer, better rivals were introduced. While these sedans may have fallen behind, Chrysler’s brand of luxury still had some loyal followers and the Fifth Avenue managed to continually outsell the cheaper New Yorker until the triumvirate’s demise in 1993.

Chrysler had attempted to create buzz about the Imperial but rather than being a true luxury flagship, it was yet another stretched-and-pulled K-Car, a slightly longer Brougham sausage in Chrysler’s lineup. Overpriced, overwrought and underdone. Sounds like a loser.

Photographed in beautiful Hipódromo, Mexico City near Parque México.

Related Reading:

eBay Find: 1987 Chrysler New Yorker – Get Your Crystal Key

Curbside Classic: 1991 Chrysler New Yorker – Paging Bill Blass

Curbside Classic: 1990 Chrysler New Yorker Salon – No, It’s Not a Dynasty, and It Could Have Been Named Better