(first posted 4/10/2014) How Detroit was lost. Those four words could serve as a current subtitle to this review that appeared 38 years ago in the April 1976 issue of Road & Track. The Plymouth Volare was not the sort of car normally tested by Road & Track, a magazine that focused on sports cars and other vehicles built for performance rather than practicality and everyday transportation, but a Volare wagon nevertheless received strong praise in this review. The reviewers mostly praised traditional Detroit virtues that they expected from the new Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen twins, but which they would not live up to. It was part of a series of failures that would doom Chrysler Corporation before the end of the decade and drag down the reputation of the entire American automobile industry.
The expectations of Road & Track were clear from the beginning of the review, in which its editors stated, “While Road & Track may often take Detroit products to task for a variety of reasons, we also readily admit that for sure, reliable transportation, it is difficult to beat the products of Turin on the Rouge. Little in most American cars is likely to break simply through repeated use, and you have to severely abuse most Detroit iron before it even gets cranky.” They then related an anecdote about a professional race engine builder who drove a Chevrolet Monte Carlo and completely ignored any sort of maintenance for 30,000 miles until the oil idiot light became annoying. Inheriting the major mechanical systems of Dart and Valiant, the Volare promised cast-iron durability combined with reasonable size, a tall and airy roof and window design, and improved interior space and comfort. It should have been a winning formula.
Even when the test revealed design issues that put off the editors of Road & Track, they were willing to give the Volare the benefit of the doubt. They noted the redesign of the front suspension, which switched from longitudinal to transverse torsion bars and added more rubber mounts to give a softer and quieter ride, but at the expense of vague steering and uncertain cornering. They disliked the Volare’s ride-handling balance, citing Peugeot and Volvo as better at making that compromise, but they were willing to give some praise to its “big car ride,” which mainstream American car buyers preferred. They were even willing to set aside poor braking performance by the test car, declaring it to be a possible aberration given past performance by Chryslers and results obtained by testers at other magazines.
A strong tone of respect is evident in this review, which concludes with declaring a properly optioned Volare to be “an excellent transportation car” and “a solid set of wheels that, given proper maintenance, could return 100,000 miles of dependable, if not terribly exciting, driving.” As we know, the story of the Volare and Aspen instead would be one of premature rust, disappointing build quality, multiple recalls, and loss of a long-established market segment that had played a major role in sustaining Chrysler Corporation for over a decade. A decade later, automatic respect for the dependability of American automobiles would be an outdated notion, and GM, Ford and Chrysler are still struggling against public and press perception of their products as lagging behind foreign competition in quality and durability. Reading this review is a reminder of the past reputation of the Big Three and of how far they have fallen.