Curbside Classic: Plymouth Sundance/Dodge Shadow – Something For Everyone, Everything For No One

(first posted 11/9/2011)   Two hundred  dollars. A hundred and fifty dollars – ten for each mile per hour over the speed limit – and fifty for a “head injury surcharge.” And the dread accompanying the unpleasant task of informing my grandmother that I had jeopardized her good standing with her insurer, after being issued a speeding citation in her – what else? – a Plymouth Sundance.

To date, my only speeding ticket ever (paid promptly and disposed of), I achieved this rather hefty (for a college student) bill in a 1994 Plymouth Sundance. The last of the P-bodies, the Sundance was at that time nearly gone from my area of the Northeast. My grandmother’s example, though showing under seventy thou on the odometer, was rapidly rotting from the ground up. Grandma never washed it, and wasn’t afraid to drive on salty winter roads.

For a small car, even in base trim, the Sundance was heavier than most of the competition. Short gearing and torquey power plants gave more than adequate acceleration; an overbuilt suspension turned in competent handling if a slightly wallowy ride.

The Sundance was the last in a long line of Chrysler products for my grandmother, replacing an ’86 Horizon (which replaced a ’78 Horizon which replaced an even older Plymouth of indeterminate model and vintage). It was a great concept, but its execution left much to be desired.

Grandma was the target customer for this car, though perhaps somewhat older than the demographic it was intended for. The P-bodies were intended to replace the Omni/Horizon duo (although our friends at Allpar hint at Aries/Reliant replacement, those cars were supplanted by the Spirit/Acclaim). Available from late ’86 as 1987 models, the Sundance and Dodge Shadow were a compact variation on the K-car platform, with sedan styling and hatchback practicality. Visually, the cars are somewhat similar to the new-for-’91 Ford Escort hatchbacks, although the P-body hatch looks more like a sedan – and probably is the reason no sedan was ever offered.

Numerous power plants and trim levels were offered, including 2.2L, 2.5L, and turbocharged Chrysler four cylinders, and in the later model years, a 3.0L V6 (yes, the same Mitsubishi mill as in the minivans). A manual transmission was available with all engine combinations, with the antiquated three-speed automatic a popular option.

As much as this type of car is not to my liking – American manufacturers are not known for their successes in producing homegrown econoboxes, in my estimation – it was a respectable package that offered decent comfort and value. Interior materials were hardly Corolla quality, but the layout and packaging made ergonomic sense. Seats were comfortable, if somewhat soft, and the driving position felt natural and confidence-inspiring.

Compared to the quirks of the Omni/Horizon twins – with the ventilation controls to the left of the steering wheel, and a significant height differential between gas and brake pedals – the P-bodies were light years ahead of their forebears in comfort and convenience. One quibble with the interior, though: In the later facelifted models, the Chrysler corporate gauges – with major markings at the 5 (mph) and 500 (rpm) intervals – were used, contributing at least in part to my speed violation above.

Over the course of their lifespan, models were available as strippers for fleet buyers and value-conscious individuals; as sports and turbo models (even Carroll Shelby was in on the act with the Shadow CSX, more or less a Shadow GLH); as luxury compacts in ES V6/automatic trim;

and as fun-in-the-sun beach cars, with a “coach built” (ASC- the Sawzall specialists) convertible joining the Shadow line, sold from dealership floors from 1991.

My grandmother’s Sundance was only a step above a fleet buyer’s special. Our local telephone company had a large fleet of white, two-door Sundances with zero power options. Grandma’s car added remote, non-power mirrors; an infuriatingly complicated dealer-installed Audiovox cassette player; and emerald green paint. Her specimen even lacked air conditioning – which, while not a critical option in New England, is certainly nice in hot, humid July and August, when the mercury regularly rises over 90.

Shortly after the ticket incident, Grandma decided to move on from the Sundance, and from Chryslers in general. I thought her decision was wise; the gas tank in her car was rusting from the top, and a combination of indifferent build quality and shoddy dealer repairs led a persistent water leak into the trunk, that went from bad to worse. Having known the car since elementary school, I was somewhat sad to see it go, but it no longer suited her needs. And even though I had learned it was easy to drive fast, it wasn’t particularly fun.

Much later did I learn that her decision was also motivated by her own encounter with the law – likewise her only violation in over six decades of driving. Thus did the Sundance lose Chrysler a customer twice over – once with an incompetent eye towards assembly, and once with a class-defying delivery of performance and handling. Perhaps with better marketing, or more clearly-defined goals, this car would have sold better. Certainly, with Honda-like materials and quality control, it might have have earned a loyal following for its builder.

[pictures by Paul Niedermeyer]