K-Cars: Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, and Chrysler LeBaron
The original K-cars, the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, had a smartly integrated front wheel drive layout that represented a new breed of American automobile. They were not as fully “modern” as the company’s own Horizon and Omni, especially given their solid-beam rear axles, but they had a more solid feel, a smoother ride, and a distinctive American flavor. Many Volare and Aspen buyers found the K-cars to be an upgrade; and, compared to most imports of the day, they were better suited to American roads and tastes.
The public quickly snapped up hundreds of thousands of the “K-cars,” despite lingering doubts about Chrysler. The original K-cars were a true success story for nine years.
The cars were a combination of traditional American architecture and the modern European style (pioneered by SIMCA, Chrysler’s subsidiary in Europe), with solid-beam rear axles, rack and pinion steering, MacPherson front suspensions, and transverse-mounted four-cylinder engines with front wheel drive.
The K-car platform proved eminently flexible, being stretched, compressed, and reconfigured to produce diverse vehicles from the famed minivan, to the 0-60-in-5.8 Spirit R/T sedan, to the two-seat Chrysler’s TC by Maserati. Even the base K-car spawned the Chrysler Town & Country wagon.
Even small details of the new cars were explored; the Aries and Reliant ended up with the least door closing effort of any Chrysler vehicle, regardless of price, thanks to a new door latch, which was also more resistant to freezing. An electric fan replaced the engine-driven models of past models, with a standard shroud. Lee Iacocca personally blustered and pushed the manufacturing people into much higher standards than they were used to, by this time, shredding the complacency that had taken hold of some executives even after the Volare/Aspen debacle.
Over 320 hours of wind tunnel testing helped designers to cut drag by 20% from the original designs, cutting back on wind noise and wind resistance, and helping highway mileage.
The Ks bowed for 1981 as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — and, in Mexico, the Dart — with a two door coupe, four door sedan, and four door wagon. The car did 0-60 in the 13 second range [typical for the time]. A 2.6 Mitsubishi motor was optional, and cars bearing this motor - for 1981 at least - were adorned with the badge “2.6 HEMI,” reflecting their hemispherical head design. The relatively high torque of the 2.2 four-cylinder (and the 2.6) stood in stark contrast to the Escort, Corolla, Datsun B210, and other competitors; and while gas mileage was not as good, the driving experience was far better.
By 1982, Plymouth had the Reliant patrolling the streets of America in full police car trim. Reviving a term used in the past, it was called the Reliant Scout Car; it joined the midsized Gran Fury Pursuit and the Voyager van in law enforcement. (Thanks, Jim Benjaminson)
While the K-car eventually ranged from sporty compact to minivan, most of that proliferation was not originally in the plans, which makes it all the more impressive. Burton Bouwkamp, head of body engineering when the K car was designed, wrote in 2009:
The K car was a clean sheet of paper design with a power train that was common with the L body (Omni/Horizon). We knew there would be two door and four door station wagon models, but we did not anticipate the G-24 coupe (Daytona) or the convertible. Both were Lee Iacocca additions.
We also did not anticipate the stretched wheelbase Chrysler and Dodge 600 (E Body) models which evolved from the success of the Plymouth and Dodge K cars.
The Reliant, Aries, and LeBaron never got any powerplant more powerful than the 100 horsepower 2.5 liter single-injector four; even those, with a stick-shift, were quite sprightly. A fast-opening throttle gave automatic transmission cars a feeling of power.
Performance and drivetrains
- 2.2 liter: originally 84 hp, 111 lb-ft. Went to 94/117 in 1983, then to 93/122 with fuel injection in 1986.
- 2.2 liter compression ratio: 8.5:1 (1981-82), 9:1 (1983-85), 9.5:1 (EFI) 1986+
- Standard axle ratio: 2.78 (station wagon/optional ratio: 3.02)
- 2.6 liter Mitsubishi engine: 92 hp and 132 lb-ft(?) and 101 hp and 140 lb-ft
- 2.5 liter: 100 hp and 135 lb-ft.
0-60 times (Mike Swern)
|1962||Valiant||3-Speed Manual||3.7||13.0||Home Mechanix|
|1986||Aries LE||Auto||2.5||11.4||Home Mechanix|
|1982||Aries SE||Auto||2.2||16.0||Consumer Reports|
|1982||Aries SE||Manual (4)||2.2||12.2||Car & Driver|
|1988||Reliant SE||Auto||2.2 EFI||12.9||Home Mechanix|
|1988||Reliant||Auto||2.2 EFI||10.6||Car & Driver|
|1985||Reliant LE||Auto||2.2||13.4||Popular Science|
We have no tests of the “hot” Reliant (five-speed manual transmission and 2.5 liter engine). These times have to be considering in the context of straight-six Fords and Chevys, as well as tiny-engined Nissans, Datsuns, Hondas, and Toyotas.
Thanks to the Reliant’s and Aries’ light weight, none of the engines felt sluggish with the three-speed automatic; hill climbing (gradability) was better than most competitors. Gas mileage with the stick-shift (26 city, 41 highway, sedan; 26/40, wagon) made it America’s highest-mileage six-passenger car.
To keep costs down while providing a bigger-car ride, the rear suspension was not fully independent, but had a new flex arm system; the front suspension used struts with rack and pinion steering, finally leaving the torsion bar suspensions Chrysler had used since 1957.
The K’s boxy shape was functional; in a shot at the Japanese competition, Chrysler ads boasted that the K’s front and rear benches seated “six Americans.” The trunk was decently sized. Gauges were minimal, with a square speedometer and idiot lights.
Steering was light; handling was nimble if dull. With their function-over-form exteriors and their mundane mechanicals, the Ks were worthy sucessors to the 1970s Darts and Valiants, even if they were not quite as bulletproof.
All original Reliants and Aries had a 100.1 inch wheelbase. The overall length of the two and four-door models was 176 inches. The wagon was 0.2 inches longer. The vehicles had a 13-gallon fuel tank. The coupe and sedan had approximately 15 cubic feet of luggage space; the wagons, 35 cubic feet with rear seat up and about 70 feet when folded.
Wagons were on the same wheelbase as other cars, keeping their weight down so acceleration was sprightly and gas mileage was surprisingly good; these were some of the last wagons made by Chrysler until the ill-fated Dodge Magnum, with their place taken first by minivans and then by crossovers. The Reliant wagon was stylish and, with a stick-shift, fleet. Rear seats folded down to form a level platform and to increase cargo space from 35 to 68 cubic feet. On a less critical note, the Reliant LE station wagon had wood-tone bodyside and liftgate appliques with woodtone surround moldings (these could be deleted from a buyer’s order if they were not wanted.) The interior boasted cloth and vinyl bench seats, with stalks for wash/wiper and headlamps.
Changes to the Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, and Chrysler LeBaron
Two new electronically tuned radios made by Chrysler in Huntsville were optional on all Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge cars and trucks for 1982. These were the Quartz Lock radios, which some claim had a high defect rate; they had numerous grounds to the radio chassis designed in, making them harder to work on. (See the kronology page for more 1982 changes).
The Chrysler LeBaron version, essentially a higher trim Plymouth, was added to the lineup for 1982.
Numerous improvements to the sound insulation and feel were made in 1983. Then, for 1984, the Reliant and Aries were given a minor facelift, though retaining their squarish looks. The SE provided upscale interior appointments (cloth seats and center armrest, generous standard equipment). The Town & Country, a high-end K-car wagon spurred by Lee Iacocca himself, hit the market.1984, again, brought a more upscale appearance and a new instrument panel with gas, temperature, and voltage gauges, and a trip odometer; color-keyed seat belts; molded trunk carpet; and another 7.5 inches of front seat travel.
In 1985, the K cars were once again facelifted, this time gaining a rounded front fascia, smoother hood, and bigger taillights, which brought the car more into the now-fashionable “curvy look.” A fuel injected 2.2 arrived at last, followed by the 2.5 liter engine, which replaced the Mitsubishi 2.6. Rear windows used a light plastic gear, saving 60% of the weight of conventional manual height assemblies. The hood used counterbalance springs rather than a prop rod.
1986 was a fairly major year for Chrysler engines: both the 2.2 and 2.5 fours gained roller camshaft followers, for much better durability. The rollers improved idle quality and fuel economy by reducing friction between the camshaft and the older followers, and increased engine life, especially in colder climates (or with owners who put in lower-quality oil). The company also hit an industry first by post-hardening its nodular iron cam. Together, the steps cut friction by 20% and increased city driving economy for both engines by 3%-4%.
Sound deadening steps led to molded air intakes on both 2.2 and 2.5 engines, and a power hop damper on the 2.2 turbo with manual transaxle. Engine mounts and exhaust hangers were also improved to quiet the cars; and the carbureted 2.2 got lighter connecting rods, while all 2.2s got lighter piston pins, to reduce second-order vibrations.
Chrysler Corporation keys moved to the modern look, with a plastic cover over the top and teeth on both sides; Reliant and Aries gained “precision-feel power steering;” and the mandatory third brake light was implemented. Reliant/Aries also got more ergonomically designed switches, computer engineered to be more comfortable, with less travel and surface variations to help people to use them without looking at them. Halogen headlights became standard.
The popularity of the “K-cars” led to the letter K being added to the decklid; and these cars got the fuel injected 2.2 and the brand new 2.5, though they were among Chrysler’s least expensive cars. The close-ratio five speed manual became standard; a 90 amp alternator was now standard; and a new five-stud wheel mounting was used on all models.
New 14 inch Sport wheel covers became standard on the LE, while a new cloth with vinyl center armrest interior became standard on SE sedans. New packages included Protection and Popular Equipment Discount; neither was available on the base model, which also made do with fully manual rack and pinion steering (not a major drawback on this light car). Every model came with power assisted brakes, disc in front, drum in rear. Standard tires on all base-model body types were P175/80R13, for a smooth, comfortable ride; better cornering could be had with the optional P185/70R14 radials (standard on LE).
The Reliant/Aries’ replacement came on-line in 1987: the Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Shadow, styled to look like the upscale Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer. However, high demand for the K-cars kept them in production for two more years; they gained a stainless steel exhaust (a corporate standard now) and standard front bucket seats. The mid-range models were dropped (SE for Plymouth), but the top and bottom levels remained.
For 1988, the Reliant and Aries had a redesigned roll-down window mechanism for rear doors. A new “Reliant America” series (along with Horizon/Omni America) added normally-optional features at a rock-bottom price, attracting economy buyers; the strategy was later applied to the Plymouth Sundance. The Chrysler LeBaron version was dropped at the end of the year.
For 1988, Chrysler made many changes to their entire lineup. The battery was upgraded to 400 amps; an electromechanical lockup torque converter was included; idle speed noise and vibration were cut; a stainless steel exhaust became standard. The base model was dropped, along with the woodtone appliqué on wagons.
For 1989, the front suspension was improved by using larger bushings on the lower control arm, and a position-sensitive strut design. New underhood service identifiers were added for fluids. There were also new stereos, and new steering wheels. Perhaps the largest change was dropping all models except the Reliant America and Aries America.
One reason for the cars’ success was the well designed 2.2 liter (135 cid) four cylinder powerplant. Except for head gasket issues in early years, common to four cylinder engines of the day, the 2.2s were reliable and had decent torque at low speeds. Unlike many small overhead cam engines, it is a noninterference design, so if the timing belt slips or breaks, the pistons and valves do not thrash each other into oblivion. Aside from the starter’s location (under the back side of the block), routine repair and servicing was relatively easy.
Unlike the slant six, still in production at the time, the 2.2 was not starved by a “cost conscious” carburetor. Instead, the company sprang for a modern two-barrel electronic feedback carburetor with a progressive opening — opening the secondary bore only when needed — churning out 82 hp when launched. Two computers (designed, built, and calibrated by Chrysler itself) controlled the electronic ignition, spark timing, and electronic feedback carburetor.
Transaxles were a 4-speed floorshift manual or a 3-speed automatic. The automatic transaxles, beefed-up versions of the Omni/Horizon TorqueFlites, were fairly rugged; when they were used with fuel injection, they had a steep throttle “tip-in.” The five-speed’s abrupt clutch made driving smoothly somewhat difficult at first. Gear ratios for the Torqueflite were 2.69:1, 1.55:1, and 1.00:1; reverse was 2.10:1. Overall top gear ratio was 2.69 for the manual, 2.78 for the automatic.
A 2.6 liter four made by Mitsubishi was available as well; it tended to have issues with the valve seals and an overly complex, expensive Mikuni carburetor, but was otherwise a good design. It generated 92 hp and 131 lb-ft of torque. The clever MCA-Jet system increased efficiency and performance; hemispherical combustion chambers with top-mounted spark plugs and facing valves also helped efficiency, and Chrysler put “2.6 HEMI” badges on the side of some 2.6-equipped cars, causing some amusement.
The early 2.2s often had cam problems, resolved by valvetrain redesigns [see the story]. The feedback carburetors could be temperamental, especially on a cold motor (a problem on most vehicles of the period).
The first 2.2 used a cast iron block with aluminum pistons, overhead camshaft and valves, and an aluminum cylinder head. Just one year after its launch, numerous tuning changes were made, so that the 1982s had the underhead flast removed from exhaust valve, with different cam centerline and sprockets and exhaust valve seats; the new “D” intake manifold, with shorter runners and a larger plenum, was phased in as a running change. Stock was added to the block between the cup plugs, below the manifolds, and they switched to the “teacup” oil filter. The 2.2 still made 84 horsepower in 1982, but there were many differences from the first to second year.
When the 2.2 gained fuel injection, it used a single-point throttle-body fuel injector, though multiple-point fuel injection had become common by then, to cut costs. This version turned out 93 hp (129 lb-ft); more important, it solved the starting and idling woes of carbureted versions, as well as the inability of some spark-control computers to hold the timing steady as they aged.
A 2.5 version of the motor, always fuel injected, put out 100 hp (135 lb-ft) — more power and torque than the Mitsubishi. Its balance shafts made it somewhat smoother and quieter than the 2.2, but it was only available with the automatic at its launch in 1986.
K Chrysler LeBaron
The 1982-88 Chrysler LeBaron was a modified K-car, sharing almost all of its parts with the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, but presenting a completely different appearance with quad headlights, more chrome, better wheel covers, padded vinyl roof, a "waterfall" grille with stand-up crystal Pentastar, a much less boxy front clip, and different taillights.
The K-based LeBaron’s name was taken from a rear wheel drive car, derived from the Volare, which then became the Fifth Ave. The LeBaron was the only K-car to get a turbocharged engine, the optional 2.2 turbo putting out 146 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque — quite a bit for such a light car; both the 2.5 liter and 2.2 turbo could be ordered with either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. The V8 in the 1981 LeBaron and 1982 Fifth Avenue was, by contrast, producing just 130 horsepower, albeit with far more torque (230 lb-ft).
The front drive LeBaron came out in 1982 in sedan, wagon, or coupe, with a convertible added soon after. The coupe and convertible were given a different body in 1987. (See the full story on the Chrysler Town & Country coupe and convertible)
In 1985 the LeBaron received a minor freshening; in 1988 the power steering ratio went to 16:1 and tires were upgraded, and some features were made standard, including rear window and outside mirror defrosters). In 1988, the K-based Lebaron sedan and wagon were dropped. The LeBaron GTS, a five-door hatchback identical in most respects to the Dodge Lancer, was made with different styling, from 1985 to 1988.
Plymouth Relient and Dodge Aries Overview
Even at the end of its run in 1989, the Reliant and Aries were pleasant cars to drive; LE models had plush cloth interiors, good sound insulation, nice digital radios, and, frequently, the 2.5/auto combination. They were quiet, plush and smooth-running, compared to the early models. And the prices were still rather cheap.
The Ks were great products. They were cheap, reasonably reliable, and delivered economical transportation for six people.
The value, especially when compared with traditional rear wheel drive compact cars, could not be denied: acceleration was similar to the 318-powered Gran Fury, and though they were a full two feet shorter on the outside, legroom was only about two inches less (combining front and rear), hip room was higher, and headroom was under an inch less; the trunk was nearly as large. In short, for much less money, one could have a vehicle only a little smaller than the “now big” Gran Fury, with similar performance and interior space but considerably better gas mileage —indeed, for many, gas mileage would double with the move to the “four bangers.”*
The K platform spawned almost all of Chrysler’s products for the 1980s, and sales of the car were strong enough to bring Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy. They were simple and humble but they did their job. And in the wake of the rather disastrous tenure of GM’s X-bodies, they led the American automotive world into an era of small, space- and fuel-efficient FWD cars, a tradition that continues on GM, Ford, and Chrysler showrooms today.
Two of the more interesting facets of the K line were the Executive Sedan and Limousine... (not to mention the planned turbine version).
Looking at the wagons, one can see that the K-car was not much smaller inside than the F-body wagons. Legroom around 2 and a half inches less generous in back; hip room was one inch less in front; and cargo capacity was off by four cubic feet. In return, drivers got a car two feet shorter, bumper to bumper, making parking easier; and roughly doubled their gas mileage.
|Track—Front / Rear||60.0"/59.5"||57.6|
|Turning diameter (curb-to-curb)||40.7’||35.2’|
|Legroom—Front /Rear||42.4" / 37.4"||42.2 / 34.8|
|Hip room—Front /Rear||56.8" / 56.6"||55.6 / 56.2|
|Cargo capacity— [cu. ft]||71.8||67.7|
Comparison to other Dodge and Plymouth cars of the time
The K-cars provided nearly the same interior space and ride as the M-body Gran Fury and Diplomat, at much lower cost, with much better mileage; and they afforded a five-speed manual transmission option to get quicker acceleration and even better gas mileage.
The Gran Fury was a full two feet longer, but legroom was only 1.5 inches better in the rear seat, and a mere .3 inches longer in the front. The trunk capacity was similar - .6 cubic feet better in Gran Fury. The Gran Fury was actually narrower inside than the K-car, while managing to be four inches wider outside. And the K-cars didn’t have transmission humps inside.
Yes, the Gran Fury had its strengths - a tough structure, loads of torque, and a plush, attractive interior - but its dated engineering, which dated back to the 1950s with major updates roughly every ten years until the mid-1970s, and the basic architecture limited its attractiveness to the average buyer, as did the unaerodynamic shape.
Specifications and comparisons
|(inches; sedans)||1972 Plymouth
|Trunk (cubic feet)||14||15||12.9||12.3|
|Fuel||16 gallons||13 gallons|
|Seat height (f/r)||8.6 / 11.1|
|Turning Circle||38.3 feet||35.2 feet|
|Base engine||100-hp 3.7||97-hp 2.2||86-hp 2.3||70 hp 1.6|
|Opt engine||150 hp V8||100 hp 2.5
Comparing the wagons:
|1987||Plymouth Reliant||Chevy Celebrity|
|Legroom||42.2 / 35.7||42.1 / 35.6|
|Base engine||97-hp 2.2, 24/32 mpg||98-hp 2.5, 22/32 mpg|
|(inches unless noted; 1986 figures)||Two-door||Four-door||Wagon||1982 Reliant||1986 Gran Fury*|
|Height||52.5||52.9||53.2||52.3 - 52.7||55.1|
|Headroom, F/R||38.2 / 37.0||38.6 / 37.8||38.6 / 38.5||39.3 / 37.7|
|Legroom, F/R||42.2 / 35.1||42.2 / 35.4||42.2 / 34.8||42.5 / 36.6|
|Hiproom, F/R||55.7 / 54.3||55.6 / 56.2||55.6 / 56.2||53.5 / 53.2|
|Trunk capacity, cubic feet||15.0||15.0||34.9||15.0/34.2**||15.6|
|Cargo, second seat down, c.f.||67.7||69.2|
|Gas tank (gallons)||13|
|Gas mileage (2.2 manual)||25 mpg city /35 highway*||29/41**||16/21*|
|Power, 2.2 liter engine
(Gran Fury: 318)
|97 hp @ 5,200 rpm
122 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
|84 hp @4800
111 lb-ft @2,400
|Power, optional engine
( 1986: 2.5 / 1982: MMC 2.6)
|100 hp / 136 lb-ft||92 hp @4,500
* 25/35 corrected for 2008 standards = 22/32!
16/21 corrected for 2008 standards = 15/20 - required premium!
** 15.0 for sedans, 34.2 for wagon. 40 mpg highway for wagon.
Reliant and Aries trim levels
- 1981-1984: standard, custom, special edition.
- 1985: Base, SE, LE.
- 1986: Base, LE.
- 1987-88: America plan (fewer options, lower price, more standard features).
- 1989: America only; no wagons