Vintage Review: 1980 Dodge Mirada – Retro Before Retro Was Cool

As Chrysler Corporation lurched and stumbled from crisis to crisis through the years, hidden in the mistimed mayhem were a few oddly compelling products.  One such car was the Dodge Mirada, a mean-looking Personal Luxury coupe that could even be outfitted as a pseudo muscle car circa 1980.  And therein lay the problem: very few people wanted such a machine after the second Oil Embargo of 1979.

Let’s try to be charitable for a minute.  Rather than thinking of the 1980 Mirada as launching years too late, perhaps it can be thought of it as decades ahead of its time.  How so?  In the late 1990s, with the arrival of cars like the VW New Beetle and the Chrysler PT Cruiser, new “old-style” cars based on existing underpinnings suddenly came into vogue.

The approach would spread from cutesy retro compacts to big, brawny rear-wheel-drive sedans with “old-school” style like the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger in the mid-’00s.  Plenty of American swagger for buyers bored with anodyne “international-style” sedans.

And Pony Cars were also reborn in the 2000s with retro skins, creating a new generation of distinctive throwback designs and available high performance in fairly large 2-door bodies.  While definitely a niche market, the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang each represent important halo cars for their makers.  All these cars embody a dash of past glories brought somewhat up-to-date.

But big, brashly styled 2-door coupes with thirsty, old-fashioned engines in the late 1970s/early 1980s?  Fuggedaboutit!  Fuel-price-shocked buyers were flocking to smaller cars, front-wheel-drive was seen as the future, and the “downsized” Detroit cars from the late 1970s started to seem oversized all over again.  So the Mirada, already very late to the downsizing party, was a rather unwelcome arrival at the time, despite its handsome lines and full-bore Personal Luxury trappings.  Repackaging yesterday’s trends could never really be expected to end well….

Chrysler of course knew that its “new” J-Body Personal Luxury cars were off the mark despite handsome lines which featured more than a hint of the crisp, late-1970s design language of the Lincoln Continental Mark V.  Perhaps that prompted the name change from Magnum (which had only been put into use a few years prior) to Mirada (which means “the look” in Spanish).  While on the topic of nomenclature that would ultimately change—with references to downsized, front-wheel-drive Aspens and Volarés—it was already clear that Chrysler’s future was K-Car-based, even if the Aries and Reliant names hadn’t yet been released.

Part of the problem was that the “smaller” Dodge Personal Luxury coupe was still pretty big and heavy, and ironically no more fuel efficient than its jumbo predecessor.  Plus, despite offering the biggest available engine in its class, it was still no barnstormer thanks to a quixotic-quest for fuel efficiency in the form of a too-high final drive ratio.

Inside, the Mirada was more “mush” than “muscle,” which was fine for run-of-the-mill Personal Luxury duty but hardly appropriate for the “mean-machine” imagery that the Dodge coupe hoped to convey.  Even Car and Driver’s counterpoints couldn’t refute the crux of the article: the Mirada was nothing more than a pretty face.   Test results bore that out as well—the Mirada could not top traditional rivals like the Pontiac Grand Prix, nor new-fangled competitors like the Datsun 200-SX and Toyota Supra in key areas like acceleration and fuel economy.  At $9,791 ($31,712 adjusted), the loaded test Mirada was not inexpensive either, pitting it price-wise against more modern challengers.

So for enthusiast-oriented buyers, the old Aspen/Volaré-based Mirada was a miss, but how about for the benign style-over-substance tastes of the typical American Personal Luxury buyer?  Consumer Guide Auto Test ’80 provided some insight into how the typical Mirada would have performed on the undemanding highways and byways of Middle America.

For its role as a stylish cruiser, the car was deemed to be competitive.  The same dated chassis set-up that had so irked Car and Driver was seen as “proven” by the pragmatists at Consumer Guide.  The “tried-and-true” Slant-6 was also seen as adequate for everyday driving, and not that far off the acceleration performance of the small 318 V8.  Gripes centered around ingress/egress and instrument panel layout—the sacrifices dictated by design.  Overall, in an age of diminished expectations, the Mirada was seen as being better than the old Magnum it replaced.  It was not a chart-topper in any way, but at least Dodge remained in the hunt.

As C&D writer Rich Ceppos had predicted, the Mirada did top one thing: 1979 Magnum sales.  1980 Mirada sales edged out the ‘79 Magnum by 2,392 units (32,746 vs. 30,354), an 8% year-over-year increase—the only Personal Luxury nameplate to post a gain during the very brutal (for larger domestic cars) 1980 model year.  But within the context of the U.S. Personal Luxury market, the Dodge was still the laggard.

 MY80 Sales Change vs. MY79
Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme  273,741 -40%
Buick Regal  214,735 -21%
Chevrolet Monte Carlo  187,850 -41%
Ford Thunderbird  156,803 -45%
Pontiac Grand Prix  114,714 -45%
Mercury Cougar  58,028 -66%
Chrysler Cordoba  53,471 -39%
Cadillac Eldorado  52,685 -22%
Buick Riviera  48,821 -6%
Oldsmobile Toronado  43,440 -13%
Lincoln Mark VI (2- & 4-door)  38,891 -49%
Dodge Mirada  32,746 8%


GM continued to dominate with its broad array of successful Personal Luxury coupes (despite suffering dramatic year-over-year sales declines), while FoMoCo floundered with the hideously downsized Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar and Lincoln Continental Mark VI.  But the news was also grim for Mopar—the slick new Mid-sized Personal Luxury suits (both the Chrysler Cordoba and Dodge Mirada) failed to catch-on in the marketplace.  Possibly it was because the entire market segment was tanking as buyers rushed en-mass to smaller, more logical cars.  Perhaps it was fear of a Chrysler bankruptcy that held the J-Body duo back, or maybe it really was because they were still too old-fashioned to be truly competitive despite the trimmer-than-before proportions.

No matter the cause, this was one case where repackaging the “best of yesterday” absolutely did not meet the needs of the current day.  But it sure was good looking….

Additional Reading:

Curbside Capsule: Dodge Magnum and Mirada – Last Christmas These Stole My Heart by William Stopford