by the allpar staff
We are continuing Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge (cars) 1914-1966 history and our own Dodge cars 1967-80. For the most part, Dodge and Plymouth were identical in these years, with minor styling details separating them. However, Dodge got all the performance cars now, and kept trucks; during this final period, Dodge became the dominant Chrysler Corporation car brand for the first time.
1981 Dodge Aries was the car that changed everything at Chrysler (along with Plymouth Reliant). It was the first front wheel drive car with a largely rear wheel drive feel; inexpensive yet available in high trim levels, it provided more usable space than Valiant or Volare at lower cost, with fine gas mileage and much more low-end torque than imports. Aries also debuted with the 2.2 liter engine that would power innumerable cars for years to come.
1982 brought a stretched version of the Aries, with upscale cues and trappings, the Dodge 400; a hastily engineered convertible version arrived midyear. U.S. Dodge 400 sales were minor (around 30,000), but it was a sign of things to come. Diplomat cleared around 23,000 sales and Mirada around 7,000, by comparison.
The 1983 Shelby Charger was another sign of things to come, as performance, once signalled by ever-thirstier engines, was now put into small packages.
1984 was a big year for Dodge, with the debut of the groundbreaking Caravan and Voyager minivans — clearly based on the Reliant and Aries — as well as the first stretched-wheelbase K-derivates, the “E” cars including Dodge 600, and the first Dodge Daytona, a sporty car based on the Aries platform and architecture. Neither Daytona nor E cars had anywhere near the impact of the Dodge Caravan.
While Dodge had sold upscale-looking Aries-based cars before (400, 600), the 1985 Dodge Lancer was the first to have an upscale look and feel inside and out, with performance to back up the looks. A turbocharged four-cylinder and five-speed manual made Lancer enjoyable in the straights, and a well-tuned suspension kept it glued to the road without a “Shelby style” punishing ride. Sales were similar to Daytona, 600, and Diplomat, lower than the inexpensive Charger, Omni, or Aries.
In 1986, Dodge issued the Omni GLHS, a turbocharged car that beat many muscle cars, including contemporary Mustangs. Not many were made (500 in 1986), but the little cars earned Mopar a lot of credibility on the street. Rather than using the Chrysler Turbo II, it used a Shelby version that was similar but with slightly more horsepower and but none of the forged internal engine parts.
The 1987 Dodge Shadow (twin to Plymouth Sundance) looked just like the Lancer, but was a down-market car replacing the Aries (though both were available for some time). This would be one of the last “K-based” cars. Contemporary magazines claimed the suspension was adapted from the Dodge Daytona.
The 1988 Dodge Dynasty was an odd duck, an upscale-looking car without the performance of Lancer, sold at a higher price, with plenty of chrome and a decidedly retro squarish look; derided by some critics, the car was a success, with 55,000 sold in its first year as it attracted older buyers from the even-more-expensive, less economical Diplomat series.
The 1989 Dodge Spirit would be a tremendously popular car, replacing Dodge 600. The car was “sport-tuned” compared with the “comfort-tuned” Plymouth Acclaim, and came with a 2.5 liter four-cylinder, turbocharged 2.5, or 3.0 liter V6. It would be the last K-based car.
1990 came without the Aries, Lancer, and Diplomat, and it was the last year for the Dodge Omni. The Dodge Monaco (a rebadged Eagle Premier) was added late in the year. The losses (and the new Monaco) were drowned out by the news of the Dodge Shadow convertible, “Turbo III” Daytona R/T, refreshed Caravan, and the fastest sedan in America, the Dodge Spirit R/T, boasting a 224 horsepower four-cylinder (the same as the Daytona R/T) that provided stunning acceleration. The “T3” engine was a testbed for distributorless ignition, dual cams, and four valves per cylinder. This and the GLHS twins were the quickest four-cylinders Chrysler had ever made.
The 1992 Dodge Viper roadster, created quickly and on the cheap, was powered by a unique V-10 engine; it did 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. The car gave Chrysler a new and refreshed image, and changed talk from “when will Chrysler die” to “Chrysler is alive again;” but most important, it was the testbed for implementing AMC’s engineering techniques at Chrysler. From here, things would only get better, for the next six years.
The new life for Dodge continued with the revolutionizing full-size cars; the front wheel drive 1993 Dodge Intrepid; it gave small-car handling to a comfortable big car, larger inside than any Dodge for many years. The Daytona and Dynasty quietly had their final years; Daytona had never sold well and Dynasty could not compete with Intrepid.
“The New Dodge” continued with the 1995 Dodge and Plymouth Neon. It had best-in-class overall performance (proven in stock car races), good mileage, a large interior, a reasonable price... and the first profit on a small car for any domestic maker in quite a while. Neon’s reputation suffered from ill-advised cost-cutting, but it debuted with waiting lists at dealerships. Launched nearly a year later, the 1995 Dodge Stratus brought critical acclaim and was hailed as superior to the ’95 Ford Contour, which cost three times as much to develop.
The 1996 Dodge Caravan was the first Caravan to be part of a ground-up, clean-sheet design not based on the Aries. It took a great deal of tuning and refinement to beat the best minivan on the market — the 1995 Caravan. Dodge also added a Viper GTS Coupe.
The second-generation 1998 Dodge Intrepid carried Cab Forward to a new extreme; it would be the last big Dodge front wheel drive car. Also in 1998, Daimler acquired Chrysler in what has generally been considered to be an extremely bad event for Dodge.
The second-generation 200 Dodge Neon debuted; many saw it as a car that had lost its way, though. Larger and heavier, it had been refined with lower noise, framed windows, and new options, but the aggressive axle ratio only restored the original acceleration at the cost of gas mileage. Much of the original feel remained and quality was higher, but the Neon would never recover from the quality gaffes of the ’95s and ’96s; and the three speed automatic continued to hurt it.
The 2001 Dodge Caravan debuted with industry firsts including a power liftgate, removable/powered center console, power dual sliding doors (with manual overrides) with in-the-door motors and obstacle detection, and triple-zone automatic temperature control. The van also got substantial power boosts and numerous other features.
The 2002 Neon finally got a four speed automatic, and both Stratus Sedan and Sebring Convertible gained a five-speed/V6 combination. 2003 changes were mainly cosmetic refreshes with similar front clips.
Rumored from 1994 onwards, a forced-induction Neon, the 2004 Dodge SRT-4, fulfilled the promise of Neon’s well-tuned chassis. The car sold for under $20,000 and had a turbocharged 2.4 liter turbo engine with 230 horsepower and 250 lb-ft, beating anything near its price class.
The “LX” cars debuted with the rear wheel drive 2005 Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300/300C; both had the 3.5 V6 (with disappointing performance in the heavy cars) and the new Hemi V8. The latter won general praise for its speed, manners, and relative economy. AWD was optional.
One year later, the four-door 2006 Dodge Charger was released; it was mechanically similar to Magnum but in a more palatable sedan format, like 300/300C. It slowly gained traction as a police car despite easily outperforming Ford’s ancient offerings.
The disastrous 2007 Dodge Caliber replaced the fast, light, economical Neon with a hatchback that had lower acceleration and gas mileage. Much-criticized, its form still filled a need for some people, and discounting made it a good buy for those who could tolerate its CVT (or use its manual transmission) with the sewing-machine sound-alike engine. A Caliber SRT-4 had 285 hp for thrilling acceleration but did not gain the same following as the Neon SRT4 had.
As though to prove that it could style style beautiful cars, the next year brought the 2008 Dodge Challenger. Never a huge seller, the car did bring a tremendous amount of publicity, and attracted many new buyers with its classic styling themes. The company also brought out new minivans, dropping the short wheelbase models and specially tuned Dodge suspension.
The 2009 Dodge Journey replaced the base short-wheelbase minivans in size and price, without sliding doors or stowable seats. Based on Chrysler Sebring, it had a four or six cylinder engine, and would later become the Fiat Freemont as well. Controlling interest in the “new [post-bankruptcy] Chrysler” was given to Fiat this year.
Redesigns initiated under Cerberus began to appear in 2010, with Caliber getting a large interior upgrade and other models getting various powertrain and feature upgrades.
2011 was a major upgrade year, with suspensions, skins, and powertrains upgraded on Avenger, minivans, Charger, and Journey; the Pentastar V6 was adopted on all these cars, and the ZF eight-speed automatic joined the Charger V6 as an option. Challenger SRT got a new 6.4 liter engine to beat Camaro SS and Mustang GT.
For 2012, the changes continued. A new 392-cube V8 debuted on Charger, after showing up on the 2011 Challenger; it shut off four cylinders when they were not needed. An eight-speed ZF automatic was used on V6 Chargers, boosting their highway mileage to 31 mpg and giving them acceleration equal to the 2006 Dodge Charger Daytona.
2013 marked the return of the Viper, but it was now an SRT car. More importantly, Dodge’s first compact sedan since the Neon was released: titled Dodge Dart, it was based on an Alfa Romeo but was significantly altered in Auburn Hills. Sales were sluggish on this rather important car, whose engine lineup was substantially changed for 2014.
In 2014, FastCompany named Dodge (which is not a company) one of the most innovative companies in America. Dart engines were juggled, Dodge Challenger option groups were retuned, and Launch Control was new on SRTs. SRT cars became Dodges again. Charger Pursuit showed up with all wheel drive. Caravan got a 30th anniversary edition.
In the 101st year of Dodge history came the 707 horsepower 2015 Dodge Challenger (and Charger) Hellcat.
Return to Dodge Cars, 1914-1966 • Return to Dodge Cars, 1981-2014
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