(First Published 9/17/2014) In many ways, this 1994 Chrysler LeBaron sedan represents a number of “lasts” for Chrysler. Starting at the very core, it was the last Chrysler sedan derived from the vintage-1981 K-car, and one of the final vehicles whose entire development took place under the tenure of CEO and Chairman Lee Iacocca.
With his firm hand and unaltered sense of direction, Lee Iacocca may have been the right man to lead Chrysler out of the rubble in 1979. The K-cars were spot-on for the times, and their success restored Chrysler to profitability. By applying the K’s architecture and components to a number of vehicles, Chrysler was able to save considerable money while expanding its vehicle portfolio.
Yet despite enough change to invest in newer, more innovative cars, nearly ten years later Iacocca was still building and applying his outdated sense of style to offshoots of the increasingly antiquated little K-car. It was cars like this 1994 LeBaron that represented the “Old Chrysler,” where the good ‘ol boys ruled, and Iacocca always had the final say.
Arriving as a 1990 model, this final LeBaron sedan was Chrysler’s variant of the AA-body. Much like the K-body LeBaron it replaced, this car came a year later than its Dodge and Plymouth brethren. While it also served as the technical replacement for the H-body LeBaron GTS and, to some extent, the E-body New Yorker Turbo, this AA-body LeBaron sedan was essentially the second generation of the basic K-car.
A little bit roomier, slightly refined, and restyled inside and out (though still very much to the preferred taste of Lido), the AA-body was a nice update of the original K-car, albeit a few years late. Had it came out around ’86 or ’87, and then replaced with something more modern around ’92, the AA-body would’ve been much more competitive.
But the reality is that these cars, which looked and drove much like the 1981 Ks, were rolling off assembly lines right up until December 1994. By that time, Ford was already near the end of its second generation Taurus and Sable, cars that redefined the mid-size American automobile. Toyota and Honda were also busy building some of the best Camrys and Accords ever.
The only vehicles the AA-body really stood a chance against were the equally elderly Buick Century/Olds Cutlass Ciera and, possibly, the slightly newer GM W-body sedans (the Regal and Cutlass Supreme, in the upmarket LeBaron’s case). Chrysler could keep piling on brightwork and vinyl roofs (which hurt more than helped this poor car’s image), but these K-based cars could never compare to newer, more advanced sedans in terms of fit-and-finish, NVH, style and overall refinement.
The AA-bodies were clearly outdated and outclassed in many areas by most of their competition. That’s not to say that they were horrible cars. They did have some strong points (mainly their spaciousness and available Mitsubishi V6), but they could have been a whole lot better. They didn’t have to outdo the Accord in handling, the Camry in interior quality, or the Taurus in packaging. But at the very least, looking at them didn’t have to be as excruciatingly dull as watching C-SPAN.
The LeBaron’s shortcomings were made more obvious with each passing year. As competitors consistently improved, the AA-bodies were simply left to wither. Prolonging their life continued to hurt Chrysler’s image and fortunes, both of which were rapidly declining.
In terms of style, their sharp-edged lines and boxy shape said “screw you” to the aero revolution that was influencing virtually every other car design. Sure, corners may have been rounded a bit versus their predecessors, but excluding the wheels, nothing remotely curved or circular was to be found either outside or within. The upright “formal” roofline was easily one of the two most vertical rooflines of the nineties.
In fact, the AA-bodies might as well have been a 95-percent copy of the exposed-headlight Dynasty/New Yorker Salon. Sheet metal and interior panels were unique, but it didn’t change the fact that they looked almost exactly alike. In addition, the two were both K-derived, so just about everything under the thin surface was shared. Prior to 1993, every Chrysler sedan was virtually indistinguishable in terms of looks, hardware, and dynamics.
However, all that was about to change. A new wave of Chryslers was coming, spearheaded by the sleek and stylish LH sedans. Coinciding with Lee Iacocca’s retirement, the introduction of the LH cars only solidified the LeBaron’s ancientness. Its own “cab-forward” successor, the Cirrus, would not arrive for two more years, leaving the LeBaron as the final K-based sedan in Chrysler’s lineup for 1994. The LeBaron convertible and the Town & Country minivan would stick around through 1995, but those were more specialized vehicles, deviating greatly from the original K. For all intents and purposes, this LeBaron was the last K-car.
Although there was never an official Brougham model, the AA-body LeBaron (particularly the upmarket Landau model) was the last Chrysler to embody the defining characteristics of the Great Brougham Epoch. It was the last Chrysler available with wire wheels, a padded vinyl roof, and opera windows.
On a grander scale, it was the last American car to feature the available loose-pillow style, button-tufted seats that were so popular in the 1970s.
The LeBaron sedan was the last Chrysler without a front-passenger airbag. It required a motorized front-passenger seatbelt–another last for Chrysler. This car also holds the distinction of being the last mid-size Chrysler with 6-passenger seating, courtesy of its standard 50/50 front bench.
In addition, it was the last Chrysler to sport a boxy, K-inspired dashboard. The two other K-derived Chryslers, the LeBaron and Town & Country, had received dashboard redesigns.
Excluding the Town & Country minivan, the LeBaron was the last Chrysler car available with a digital gauge cluster. It was, sadly, the final Chrysler sedan with a stand-up crystal Pentastar hood ornament (which, unfortunately, had broken off this car).
Now I know throughout this entire article my tone comes off largely critical of this LeBaron and its siblings. Yet truth be told, in retrospect, I have a soft spot for these cars. Fifteen years ago, I would’ve described them as ugly little boxes. While the box part hasn’t changed, I’ve grown to appreciate these final K-cars for the very qualities that made them look so behind the times when new.
For better or for worse, this LeBaron signified the end of an era for Chrysler. Out with Iacocca, and everything that embodied his K-hrysler K-orporation, and in with a new era of more open-minded executives, cross-platform teams, and an age where styling mattered. While that may be glorifying the situation a bit, higher times did come to Chrysler, even if they were short-lived.