Is there another American automobile brand whose decline and ultimate demise was more painstaking to watch than Plymouth’s? Once Chrysler Corporation’s volume leader, decades of neglect from its parent company had moved Chrysler and Dodge downmarket into Plymouth’s territory and had turned Plymouth into a starved and incomplete lineup of rebadged Chryslers, Dodges, and Mitsubishis, making it ever redundant and frequently raising the question of the brand’s very existence.
Consistently denied new products given to its sister brands, when Plymouth did receive a new vehicle, its version typically had the habit of appearing inherently less compelling than versions from its corporate cousins. Yet with the Laser, Plymouth gained what was initially a compelling bright spot, although ultimately, it proved an especially mournful case of despair.
Launched early into the first quarter of 1989 as a 1990 model, the Plymouth Laser was one of a trio of new compact sports coupes from Diamond Star Motors (DSM), Chrysler and Mitsubishi’s North American joint manufacturing venture. Mitsubishi-engineered, with Chrysler helping style the exterior and Mitsubishi the interior, these first vehicles from DSM also included the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Eagle Talon. Interesting was the name choice of Laser, as this was also the name Chrysler used on its short-lived sports coupe from 1984-1986. Apparently the automaker felt they didn’t get their full money’s worth out of the name.
Sporting thoroughly fresh and contemporary styling unlike anything else in the Plymouth lineup at the time of its launch, the Laser was also the first Plymouth in nearly two decades that didn’t have a rebadged Dodge or Chrysler sibling competing against it. With its other Mopar sibling being sold by Eagle, a newly-created brand with little prominence and little equity, one wouldn’t have been wrong to say the Laser was well-poised for success and to bring some badly-needed distinction to Plymouth.
Superficial looks are a matter of one’s own taste, but given other vehicles one would have seen if they strolled into a Plymouth dealer in 1990, it’s not out of line to say that the Laser was Plymouth’s most stylish offering. Displaying an organic wedge shape and fastback roofline, there wasn’t a straight line or sharp angle in sight.
Sporty was the overall tone of the design, and started right up front with a unique combination of pop-up headlights and sleek wraparound running lamps complementing the car’s wide, road-hugging stance. Between them, Lasers featured a Pentastar-etched body-colored plastic panel in the place of a traditional grille for the in-vogue “bottom breather” look, with “PLYMOUTH” spelled out in a fresh modern font below the left running lamp. Lasers with the 2.0-liter also featured an unusual off-centered power bulge in the hood, required to fit the timing belt under the car’s low hood line.
Protective black-accent trim moldings framed the lower bodysides and bumpers, while RS models gained a black-accent roof to emphasize the car’s body-color targa band. Around back, full-width effect taillights accentuated the vehicle’s wide look and high deck, which in your author’s opinion looked best without the integrated spoilers of its siblings.
Inside, it was a similarly sporty affair, with a driver-focused cockpit dashboard that was worlds away from the boxy layouts of most other Plymouths, featuring full analogue instrumentation, easy-to-use stalk-mounted headlight and wiper controls, and high-mounted rotary climate controls. Mitsubishi-sourced switchgear and controls were not shared with fully-Chrysler developed Plymouths, and regardless of transmission, the interesting joy-stick style gearshift selector looked more at home in a video game.
The Laser’s differences from other Plymouths were not merely skin deep. Mechanically-speaking, the DSM cars were fully-Mitsubishi, sharing little with other products marketed under Chrysler Corporation brands except for captive import Mitsubishis such as the Colt. Three different Mitsubishi 4-cylinder engines were available, each one matched to one of the Laser’s three initial trim levels.
Starting at the entry-level was the Laser base model. Powered by the 1.8-litre 4G37 (92 hp/105 lb-ft), standard features included front bucket seats with cloth with vinyl trim upholstery, AM/FM stereo with four speakers, tilt steering wheel, manual rack-and-pinion steering, full analogue instrumentation, dual remote control mirrors, and 14-inch wheel covers.
The Laser RS added the 2.0-litre 4G63 (135 hp/125 lb-ft), sport-tuned suspension with increased spring rates and shock dampening, power rack-and-pinion steering, plus accoutrements including front sport seats with adjustable lumbar support and premium full-cloth upholstery, dual power remote mirrors, rear defroster, deluxe door trim, raised center armrest, 8-speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette player, and 16-inch wheel covers.
The top-line Laser RS Turbo featured Mitsubishi’s 4G63T making an impressive 190 horsepower and 203 lb-ft torque that was capable of propelling the Laser from zero-to-sixty in 6.2 seconds. Additionally, RS Turbo models added an even stiffer performance-tuned suspension that added a front double ball-joint link sway bar, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear shift lever, and speed-rated all season tires. Depending on trim level, other options and packages could be specified including an 8-speaker stereo with cassette and integral CD player, air conditioning, and rather attractive lace-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels.
Regardless of trim, all Plymouth Lasers featured an independent MacPherson strut front suspension with multilink sway bar and a trailing beam rear suspension with integral sway bar, along with choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic, and four-wheel disk brakes. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes were available on RS and RS Turbo models beginning in 1991.
Covering the $11,000-$15,000 range (base prices), the Laser was priced right in line with competitors including the Ford Probe, Honda Prelude, Mazda MX-6, and Toyota Celica, and was truly a compelling alternative. Rightfully so, Plymouth gave the Laser considerable promotion during its extended introductory year, with its aggressive RS model gracing the covers of Chrysler-Plymouth brochures and advertisements featuring Tina Turner in the U.S. and Celine Dion in Canada. After this, however, the Laser was rarely ever heard from again at all. By its third model year, the Laser was already relegated to the back of the deluxe 1992 Chrysler-Plymouth brochure, sharing a half-page with the Acclaim.
Why Chrysler chose to shun the Laser so early on, despite it being one of the entire corporation’s most competitive vehicles, is rooted in the financial struggle Chrysler was facing in the early-1990s. A late-1980s diversification strategy and spending spree, combined with falling sales from a an aging automobile product portfolio sent Chrysler deep into the red. Looking to become a leaner company capable of achieving an operating profit again, Chrysler rapidly began divesting itself of assets and overhead to focus on its core automobile products, and its stake in Diamond Star Motors was one of the casualties.
Chrysler sold its entire 50-percent stake in DSM to Mitsubishi in 1991, and as early as December 1991, Mitsubishi had already announced that it would discontinue production of the Laser during 1993, making the car somewhat of a lame duck. Despite its impending fate, the Laser somewhat belatedly (two years after the Eclipse and Talon) gained all-wheel drive as an option on its RS Turbo model for 1992, making the car even more of a treat and also a tease. Like its siblings, the Laser also debuted fresh front and rear styling, with the pop-up headlights replaced with cheaper composite headlights, sadly for a more generic look.
Aside from these additions, Laser production and promotion continued winding down over the next two years, concluding in late 1993 with just a handful of 1994 models produced. Although some 115,000 Lasers were produced over four years, few remain on the road today largely due to their very nature as an affordable compact sports coupe. Even sadder is that few beyond automotive enthusiasts even remember the Laser or are aware it even existed, as the Talon and Eclipse received significantly greater promotion and media exposure, not to mention longer lives.
While the Laser was ultimately not Plymouth’s knight in shining armour, it was one of the early-1990s’ most exciting affordable cars, boasting serious performance credentials. These days, turbocharged all-wheel drive sports cars are the norm, but in 1989 it was a relatively novel concept, especially for a brand like Plymouth.
Photographed in Vail, Colorado – September 2019
1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS Turbo
One of my high school classmates got a brand new one in 1989, it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It looked futuristic and fast.
When we were preparing to move into our current house, I met with the sellers to go over some final details. They were a couple a little older than we were and with one child. The wife’s car was in the garage – a lower trim Laser in that turquoise color shown in one of your pictures, but with some dealer-added graphics on the side.
I always found these to be appealing little cars, as good as about anything else in their price class, or perhaps half-a-step down from the Toyotas and Hondas. I certainly liked them better than the Ford Probe and they were leagues nicer than the Beretta.
I agree completely on Plymouth – it was sad watching the line get starved. It was like they were good for minivans and nothing else. Don’t I recall that the P.T. Cruiser was originally (and very, very briefly) sold as a Plymouth?
“Don’t I recall that the P.T. Cruiser was originally (and very, very briefly) sold as a Plymouth?”
You may be thinking of the similary-styled Prowler, which was first sold as a Plymouth before being rebadged as a Chrysler.
The PT Cruiser was intended as a Plymouth (some sources state that “PT” stands for “Plymouth Truck”), but things were winding down at Plymouth a year or so prior to the release of the PT Cruiser, so it was introduced under the Chrysler marque.
Actually I remember a Motor Trend Auto Show report showed a prototype of what became the PT Cruiser as the “Plymouth Pronto Cruiser”. It was based on a more practical retro-styled show car called the Plymouth Pronto that featured on Car and Driver’s cover some time in 1997/98.
Yes, but to be clear J P was asking if the PT Cruiser was ever sold as a Plymouth, not shown.
As my comment states, the PT Cruiser was developed, planned, and teased to the automotive press and car show attendees as a Plymouth. But the decision to discontinue Plymouth was announced in the fall of 1999, a year before the first production PT Cruisers hit showroom floors as 2001 models, and as Chryslers.
OK JP – I want to know what you think about this…
Why were these cars put on the market? Why did everyone making a car, feel a need to produce a FWD, non-V8, two door with a hatch? Was there some kind of massive demographic shift occurring in the market? Did someone somewhere suddenly pop up and panicked asking, “Where is our FWD coupe?” It seemed that these were big with the ladies. Did some auto exec’s daughter ask her father, “Those big old Mustangs gag me with a spoon! I want something for me, Daddy!”?
Were the parts just hanging around, waiting for a coupe project? GM made a slew of FWD coupes, yet they had to make more? We know that the Probe was committed before the Mustang backlash, forcing it into a half-hearted launch. Were these coupe just by-products of their four door sedan stable mates?
Why did everyone think they needed to make these cars? None of them survived the 1990s, except the Mustang. Was this just a huge bust?
I still don’t quite understand why Plymouth didn’t get the second generation model if Eagle did. Aside from Chrysler divesting itself of Mitsubishi shares, it almost seems like management decided in 1990 that Plymouth was on its way out. Plymouth belated got a version of the “cloud” car and never got a version of the LH platform.
I have owned and driven several Plymouth cars, and while it is true they were Chrysler Corporation’s volume seller/low priced brand, I think it could have remained viable if the suits had applied a bit of strategic planning to the division….or maybe not.
I couldn’t agree more. Plymouth was a much higher-volume brand, with reputation and presence deeply-rooted in American minds. Chrysler’s reasoning was probably that they could keep Plymouth afloat for a while longer with the high-volume and profitable Voyager, while Eagle was struggling with literally nothing else besides the Vision. Clearly this strategy backfired and both brands went to the chopping block.
I don’t think Plymouth ever resonated with import buyers, certainly not on the West Coast,, they probably figured it would be better to put all the extra eggs in the Eagle’s nest, er, I mean basket and keep Plymouth as a more volume/budget brand. Actual cost may have been an issue as well, a Plymouth needed to be a bit cheaper and this was hard money going out to Mitsubishi for every one.
I wonder what the take rate was on the “Available portable handheld cellular telephone?”
Considering it was likely a very expensive option, I doubt few actual customers did. I imagine it was probably something dealers might have added to their fully-loaded showroom models to gain a little more gross.
And on top of that, at that time cellphone equipment was often “subsidized,” at little or no upfront cost to the consumer, by locking the subscriber into a contract (usually two years) with per-minute charges (data usage was not a thing in those days).
At least that’s how I remember it from when I got my first cellphone in 1992 or 1993. And because of that, I wonder why Chrysler even bothered to try marketing this as an option.
’92 or ’93 was pretty early for a cellphone, the first phone to really make it broadly in the market was the Motorola StarTac in ’96. My ’93 Audi S4 came with a hardwired carphone in the center console as standard and this was pretty common among the higher end European models. Having a Plymouth branded “portable” would have been a pretty big deal if more than a little counterintuitive as to the branding.
With all the K-derivatives, didn’t Chrysler deny turbocharging on any of the Plymouth branded ones? So might this be the only turbocharged, all-wheel drive Plymouth passenger car?
Or could the briefly available turbo minivan be obtained as a Plymouth?
These were nice little cars. A gentleman here in town who is in the antique car club has a base model Laser than looks brand spanking new. It is rather delightful to see.
I recall there were good deals on these, typically the ‘loss-leader’ strippo models designed to draw customers into the showrooms to upsell them into something more profitable.
So, I took the bait and checked one out. Nothing really stands out on that test drive, other than it seems like the seating position was kind of low, and that instrument cluster looks like it was lifted straight out of a Cessna. Not particularly speedy, either, as the manual transmission version I was driving seemed a tad underpowered.
Whatever it was, I passed on buying it. But for someone in the market for a practical Japanese coupe, it wouuld have been okay considering the higher-priced alternatives.
Nice photos and good write up on a brand that died too soon.
I really think that about 20 years ago Dodge should have switched over to making trucks and commercial vehicles like Ram does now while keeping Plymouth around to sell passenger vehicles.
> Is there another American automobile brand whose decline and ultimate demise was more painstaking to watch than Plymouth’s?
Packard? Studebaker? Oldsmobile?
Mercury’s demise most closely mirrors Plymouth’s – although Merc was positioned above rather than (ever so slightly below) its sibling, it too spent its last few decades with almost nothing to distinguish it from Fords save for a different grille, different taillights, and a few assorted trim pieces. Ironically, despite FCA having too many brands already (shades of GM in the ’90s), they don’t really have a proper counterpart to Plymouth. Today, Dodge has a split personality, despite their trucks having been split off as a separate brand. On one hand there’s the Charger and Challenger, probably the vehicles most closely associated with Dodge, with a distinct brand position. Dodge is for people who like American cars the way the were in 1970, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. There’s a certain brashness about them, with V8 and rear drive in a segment (at least for the Charger) where a transverse V6 and front drive are the norm, and the endangered species that are big coupes. On the other hand there’s the value-priced family vehicles like the Journey and Grand Caravan; old, somewhat stodgy, but proven designs that are exactly the sort of cars Plymouth was once great at selling (think Valiant and Duster). But they clash with the image Dodge is trying to purvey with the Charger and Challenger.
I would argue that FCA’s number of brands (at least US based brands) is irrelevant, given that they all sell out of the same dealer channel. GM’s problem was that they had multiple dealer channels to feed, and to some extent this is still GM’s problem.
In theory there would be no reason that FCA could not call next year’s Dodge Challenger a Plymouth ‘Cuda, presuming they still have rights to the names.
Plymouth’s problems went way, way back and were caused by oddball dealer channel arrangements that resulted in them never having dedicated dealers. Ultimately, this might have been a good thing, but it certainly did nothing to build a brand.
That sounds as good a reason as any for Plymouth’s demise. You ‘never’ saw something like a Oldsmobile-Chevy, Buick-Pontiac, or Ford-Lincoln dealership.
So, Plymouth was kind of hobbled right from the start. While it’s probably true that it was unlikely there were many people cross-shopping a Plymouth with a Chrysler, it just wasn’t a very good idea, particularly when you could get a strippo Chrysler Newport for about the same money as, say, a loaded Plymouth VIP.
Plymouth’s best years were during the sixties/seventies when the marque got exclusive stuff like the Fury, Barracuda, Road Runner, and Duster. But during the belt-tightening of the seventies, suddenly, Plymouth vehicles began looking like nothing more than a Dodge with a slightly different grille and taillights. Then Iacocca came onboard, and the lack of differentiation reached new lows. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
The final nail in the coffin may have come in 1994 when the Plymouth Neon didn’t even have that. The only difference between a Plymouth Neon and a Dodge Neon was that one said, “Plymouth” and the other “Dodge”. They were otherwise completely identical. At that point, there just wasn’t reason for Plymouth’s existance.
Sorry, but I must (belatedly) disagree. My father bought new Fords and new Mercurys at the same dealership. They supposedly even sold Lincolns at that dealership, but even the wife/eventual owner of that dealership never drove a Lincoln.
As far as oddball GM mashups: in my town the only GM stand-alone was Chevy. One dealership had Oldsmobile and Buick (with Jeep on the side before it was bought by AMC) while another had Cadillac and Pontiac. I don’t remember anyone having GMC, but that may be due to a fuzzy memory.. Now, the Chevy dealer has Chevy and Cadillac with Buick becoming the odd man on the outs (no one wants Buick in that area as their SUVs are already “covered” by Chevy.
I think that, in more heavily populated areas, GM and Ford liked to keep each brand at its own standalone dealerships (except that Lincoln didn’t have its own dealers, generally being combined with Mercury; Lincoln’s sales volume probably wasn’t high enough for it to survive on its own). Outside of large metropolitan areas, though, you would see combined dealerships like Howard described. The less populated the area, the more things were combined.
The real difference is this: Each GM brand managed its own dealer network, would only combine with other brands where market conditions warranted, and had no permanent arrangement tying it to another other specific brand.
Plymouth, by contrast, never had its own dealer network. Before 1960, the other three main Chrysler divisions each had their own dealer network, and all three sold Plymouths. In most cases, the dealers had greater loyalty to the other brand than to Plymouth, and had every incentive to try to upsell customers to the other brand rather than selling them a Plymouth.
After 1960, Plymouth was inextricably tied to one of those brands (Chrysler) – Plymouth even lost its status as a distinct division in Chrysler’s corporate structure – and in case of any conflict between the two brands, priority would always be given to Chrysler.
I can’t comment on Studebaker, as I never knew it in operating existence during my lifetime. With regards to Oldsmobile and Mercury, their declines and ultimate demises were very hard and sad to watch, much like Plymouth’s.
The difference was that right up until the very final years of each, GM and Ford respectively continued bolstering the lineups of Oldsmobile and Mercury with new models. Even if they were hastily rebadged models in most cases, Oldsmobile and Mercury went out with full lineups (each with 3 sedans and 2 SUVs/minivans). Plymouth was not treated to that same fate.
Agreed. Unlike the others Plymouth died a lonely death, got no obituary and nobody attended its funeral. An automotive John Doe.
I remember when Oldsmobile went under, there were articles after articles in magazines ruminating on how one of the oldest and once best selling brands could fail. I don’t remember any such articles when Plymouth was cancelled, just one day the Plymouth Prowler was now the Chrysler Prowler and that was that. It’s like by the time the brand was over no writer could even remember what Plymouth’s place in the market ever was, fans just group all the historic Plymouth’s under the ma Mopar umbrella, and non fans just didn’t care. Even Mercury whose grille engineered lineup was a joke to many people, it was noteworthy enough to even be that. Mercury sparked the same endless debates of most other defunct brands pondering the “what if’s” and deadly sins – come to think of it was there ever even a dedicated CC deadly sin for the Plymouth brand? – Plymouth was so unnoteworthy in its prior couple decades all of its greatest hits and misses weren’t even worthy of discussion. That’s sad.
I had much lust for a turbo AWD model when these were new.
They were nominated for C&D “BANG FOR THE BUCK” award while that was a thing for a few years.
While not a direct competitor, the Miata was introduced at about the same time, and for about the same money. If you didn’t care about cargo space or a fixed roof, the Miata was unarguably a better choice at the price.
Wow – the Plymouth Laser! Total throwback. This was my favorite of the those three, related sporty coupes. I thought the Laser looked lean and clean, but a few of the details on the Mitsubishi Eclipse and (moreso) Eagle Talon looked a bit overwrought. The Laser, to me, seemed like the early-’90s equivalent of the sporty Arrow coupe from fifteen years prior.
When I think 1990s streetscapes in my head, I see hoards of DSM Lasers and Geo Trackers. These are the definitive 1990s sports car, not the Miatas or 240SXs that the internet has embraced, no, first gen DSMs were literally everywhere.
I didn’t at all like them as a kid, I liked the wedgier K based Laser of the 80s and found the round DSM design too small short and round like a ladybug. I was much more a fan of the Dodge side of things with the larger and also Mitsubishi derived Stealth(which were better differentiated from each other too). As I entered my teens the DSMs were bottom of the barrel cheap and consequently were probably the most common “sports cars” of the rice burner fad, until they blew their engines. Now that that stigma is long gone and the ubiquity has dwindled I’ve come to appreciate them a lot more now, they were among the last cheap fun sporty cars you’d see in huge numbers on the road, and in this era of tall greyscale crossovers, I miss them a lot more than I ever would have imagined as a 8 year old car snob.
No love for the wide-body Plymouth/Dodge Conquest a la Starion? I would have thought you’d like that one more than the K-Laser, I know I did.
I had forgotten that the Laser got the same top engine as the Talon. I bet their take rate was lower.
My best friend’s father had a 1990 laser in that purplish color. We lived in Howard County MD (which was and still is a very wealthy county) and his neighborhood was full of Benz and BMW’s and other assorted high end cars(with the exception of 2 1980’s Grand Am and Celebrities) when this car arrived it looked like it dropped out of space compared to the boxy 240D next door. It was this futuristic looking vehicle that looked like it came from the year 2040 and not a design that came from the 1980’s
Folks that were not around when these arrived in 1990 might not understand how influential these cars were. Back when these cars came out, they (and the Probe) were fresh and new. Attractive, reasonably affordable (till insurance premiums rose on them) and fast. The 195hp turbo was probably one of the fastest cars of the era but the base 92hp with a stick was pretty quick off the line due to low weight.
I honestly think that if you took one of these and got rid of the tacky 90’s door graphics and then plopped it in the middle of cars from 2016-2019, the Lazer, Talon and Eclipse would look like they belonged there.
My ex girlfriend had one with the turbocharged engine. Red with a beige interior had those motorized shoulder harness. A friend I know bought one in Alberta, Canada 🇨🇦 has the standard B-pillar seat belts and the car was imported being it was over 25 years old.