(first posted 6/9/2022)
Full Disclosure: I completed this article on the Plymouth Sundance for CJCZ92’s Cohort photos, only to find this black cherry pearl 1990 Dodge Shadow I couldn’t pass up using. So while the article mainly covers the Sundance, my official “Curbside Classic” is a Shadow.
Throughout history, the names of related Dodge and Plymouth models generally shared little to no relation with one another, until this Dodge-Plymouth duo of compacts, which coincidently was the last not to share a common name. Although they aren’t exactly opposites, “Sundance” tends to evoke jovial images of light and cheeriness while “Shadow” tends to elicit a darker and gloomier state of mind. It’s also interesting to note that “Sundance” was the Plymouth version, as by the end of this car’s run it was the Plymouth brand in a very gloomy state, and Dodge was dancing closer to the sun with rising sales and popularity.
Sold for the 1987 through 1994 model years, the Sundance was Plymouth’s compact sedan and coupe, which would collectively replace the Horizon, Turismo, and Reliant, as these vehicles were phased out between 1987-1990. Riding on a shortened version of the K body, originally designated the “P-platform” (called the “AP” from 1989-onward), the Sundance coupe and sedan were actually 3- and 5-door hatchbacks (or “liftbacks”; the official marketing term varied by model year), cleverly disguised by the car’s notchback design.
Reportedly costing some $600 million to develop, the Sundance and nearly identical Dodge Shadow were Chrysler’s answer to cars such as the Ford Escort, GM J-cars, and less realistically, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. With a strong target market of both first-time new car and females buyers, the Sundance/Shadow sought to offer higher levels of content and refinement than the Mopars they replaced.
The P-bodies were also engineered to offer a more rewarding, “fun-to-drive” experience than previous compact Chryslers. Although no one would confuse the driving experience with that of a BMW or even Honda Civic, the Sundance featured a gas-charged dual path Iso-strut front suspension (beam axle with dual trailing arms in the rear) with gas-charged shock absorbers, front and rear anti-sway bars, and a tighter 14:1 steering ratio, all for improved handling and ride quality.
Chrysler predictably dipped into the growing K-car parts bin for many of the Sundance’s components. Some of the Daytona’s body stampings and suspension components were borrowed, and just about all of the switchgear and hardware, from the gear shift lever to door handles, could be found on other Mopars.
Engines and transmissions were also nothing new, with the 93 horsepower naturally-aspirated 2.2L Chrysler K engine available over the car’s entire production, and from 1988-on, the slightly more robust 2.5L K engine. Offering approximately fifty-percent greater horsepower and torque, the 2.2L Turbo I was also available from 1987-1988, replaced by the larger 2.5L Turbo I, producing 150 horsepower and 190 pound-feet torque.
Replacing the Turbo I as the top engine in 1992 was the equally familiar Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0L V6, producing only 141 horsepower and 171 pound-feet torque, but lacking any turbo lag. Original plans allegedly called for a 16-valve 2.5L inline-4 with Lotus cylinder heads, but this was ultimately cancelled, likely due to cost. Transmissions available over the Sundance’s run were the standard 5-speed manual, optional TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic, and later, the Ultradrive 4-speed auto.
Stylistically speaking, the Sundance and Shadow also shared similarities with other EEKs, though thankfully not the boxy upright appearance of the original Reliant/Aries. Versus the Reliant, the Sundance exhibited rounder sheetmetal and softer angles, and its profile was clearly more trapezoidal influenced, borrowing styling cues from sportier K-cars such as the H-body Dodge Lancer/Chrysler LeBaron GTS, J-body Chrysler LeBaron coupe, and G-body Dodge Daytona/Chrysler Laser.
Thankfully, interiors were also more modern by 1987 standards, with no tacked-on fake wood trim or front bench seats in sight. In their place were contoured front buckets with articulated headrests, a floor console with available center armrest, and a clearly-defined vertical center stack housing all radio and HVAC controls, and on RS models, a turbo boost gauge and fog light controls.
Base models featured the expected lowish-grade cloth seating surfaces with vinyl trim, while higher trim levels gained sports seats with thicker foam padding and some more expressive upholsteries, in typical late-1980s/early-1990s fashion.
Original promotional materials proudly advertised the Sundance’s “Forty-seven standard features”, though looking at the specs page in my 1987 brochure, the combined lists of standard exterior, interior, functional, and safety features adds up to more than forty-seven. With that in mind, some of the listed “standard features” are ones that any car buyer would expect, such as a set of four steel-belted radials. Others such rear coat hooks and a tinted hatch window are a little more vehicle-specific.
For 1988, the Sundance gained the range-topping RS (short for “Rallye Sport”) model, adding standard features such as the 2.5L I4 (with the optional turbo frequently equipped) with 125 mph speedometer, “performance-contoured” front sports seats with thicker bolstering and adjustable driver’s lumbar support, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, 4-speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette player, electronic message center, power door locks, fog lights, full-length center console with armrest, and a decklid luggage rack.
Adding to its more powerful engines, with its attractive standard two-tone exterior paint treatment, upgraded oh-so-Eighties red-accent upholstered seats and door panels, and 14-inch cast aluminum wheels, the RS was clearly the most appealing Sundance, offering a reasonable mix of deluxe features, spirited performance, and visual flair. Unlike its Dodge sibling’s Shelby CSX, Plymouth never received a high-performance Sundance model, nor a convertible.
Although no major update ever occurred over the Sundance’s eight-year lifespan, Chrysler did make consistent improvements to the car. Apart from the aforementioned engine upgrades, the HVAC system was improved for 1988 for better air flow. 1989 brought a host of updates, including redesigned front and rear fascias with composite headlights and single-piece taillights, redesigned front seat backs for increased rear knee room, dual illuminated interior vanity mirrors, re-tuned suspension on RS models, as well as new features such as a six-way power driver’s seat.
1990 Sundances added a standard driver’s side airbag on all models, switched to a “three-plane” shift pattern on manual transmission cars, and offered new options such as a premium Infinity I sound system. 1991 brought suspension and steering revisions, new front buckets, and available four-wheel disc brakes, but the big news was the addition of the “stripper” Sundance America.
Similar to the America trim level offered during the Horizon and Reliant’s final years, the Sundance America was all about value. Retailing for $7,999 (excluding destination), the Sundance and Shadow America series were the least expensive cars on the market with a driver’s airbag, a fact Chrysler proudly advertised. Befitting of its stripped-down positioning, Sundance Americas came standard with cloth seats, unpainted bumpers, steel wheels, the 2.2L I4, 5-speed manual, and little else. Options included an AM/FM radio, air conditioning, rear defroster, and a passenger’s side remote mirror.
Changes for 1992 included standard four-wheel disc brakes, the addition of the Mitsubishi V6, an optional 4-speed automatic, and standard 15-inch wheels with the V6. 1992 also brought a number of exterior and interior trim, wheel, and color changes, and the third return of the Duster nameplate as a trim package after its 1970-1976 run as its own specific model line.
Taking the place of the RS as the Sundance’s “performance” model in 1992, the reincarnated Duster traded RS’s turbo, special upholstery patter, and Euro-esque exterior styling for a smoother and more reliable but less powerful V6, plain grey or beige upholstery, and a monochromatic, boy-racer exterior.
Preference of the RS versus the Duster is totally subjective, although I personally think the RS was a far more interesting and visually appealing model. The Duster just came across as cheap and bland versus the RS’s more upscale aspirations. The very cheap looking and out of place fake wood interior trim was also a negative. But hey, at least you could get gold alloy wheels if you wanted!
Despite the Sundance’s impending discontinuation with announcement of its all-new Neon successor, Chrysler invested a significant amount of upgrades for 1993, which would prove to be the P-body’s second-to-final model year. Chrysler redesigned both the intake manifold on the 2.2-liter and 2.5-liter four-cylinders for improved idling and fuel economy, as well as the timing cover for improved reliability concerning oil leaking. The V6’s idle speed was also reduced for improved fuel economy, and the 3-speed automatic received revisions for a quieter final drive.
The America series and the mid-level Highline trim were eliminated in favor of an un-named base model with available popular equipment packages and individual options, while the top-trim Duster remained. A new anti-lock braking system was now an available option on all Sundances, and an all-beige interior was added. A high-performance torque converter was also an option on four cylinder automatics, and the available Infinity stereos now received graphic equalizer bands as well as the option for a CD player.
With Neon production beginning in December 1993 and sales of 1995 model year vehicles starting quite early in 1994, there was a bit of overlap between sales of the Sundance/Shadow and Neon. Production of the P-bodies officially ended on March 11, 1994, with over 1.4 million Sundances and Shadows produced since 1986. Reportedly, over half the people who test drove Sundances bought one… at least that’s what Chrysler paid Tina Turner to say.
The P-bodies, of course, had their flaws. For starters, the very fact that they were based on the K-platform is enough to make some cringe and run. The fact of that matter is, the limitations of the K-car’s aging chassis was becoming all to obvious. No matter how much Chrysler nipped and tucked, the K-cars and its various derivatives could not match the refinement of newer competitors in areas such as ride quality, handling, and levels of NVH.
Especially by the 1990s, remaining K-car descendents were becoming noticeably elderly, with everything from interiors and hardware to powertrain and bodies projecting a very “recycled” essence. Adding to this, the P-bodies never earned a high reputation for reliability, and like most American small cars of their time, the Sundance/Shadow failed to turn a profit, with the automaker losing money on each unit sold.
In any event, the Sundance 2- and 4-doors did offer a large amount of standard and available equipment, not to mention their over 33 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down, a benefit of their “hidden hatchback” design. Chrysler made an effort to keep the Sundance and Shadow appealing, with new features and minor refinements, even as the P-bodies were becoming outdated and outclassed by newer competitors. Even if they didn’t achieve the same cult status as their predecessors, the Sundance and Shadow were solid bargains right up until the end.