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