Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, and Chrysler LeBaron K-Cars
Originally written by Aaron Gold. Modifications suggested by Michael Swern, whose 140,000 mile 1985 Reliant Wagon was still going strong when we last heard from him in 2004; LeBaron added by Anthony Forte. See the "every extended K-car" (EEK) forum and Chrysler Town & Country.
Overview (by Stephen Lyons)
The original K-cars, the Dodge Aries and the Plymouth Reliant, had a smartly integrated front wheel drive layout that represented a new breed of American automobile.
The public clearly liked the new vehicles, quickly buying hundreds of thousands of them. In their nine years, the original K-cars were a true success story — and that’s not even to mention all their siblings with slightly altered wheelbases and suspensions, which were produced through 1994.
The K-car’s angular styling was the norm in the early 1980s, and with its long hood and short rear deck, it had good proportions; its performance was more than adequate compared with the other cars of the day, and with the average car of the muscle-car era, which was most likely to have a straight-six or economy V8 pulling much more weight.
The K-car platform proved eminently flexible, being stretched, compressed, and reconfigured to produce such diverse vehicles as the famed minivan, the 0-60-in-5.8 Spirit R/T sedan, and the exotic two seat Chrysler's TC by Maserati grand tourer. Even the base K-car became the Chrysler Town & Country wagon.
One reason for the cars’ success is how well designed the 2.2 liter four cylinder powerplant was. Except for a substandard average head gasket life [fixed in later years], these were reliable and able to handle far more power than originally foreseen. 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 is a breeze.
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 strong design.
Many details of the new cars were refreshed; 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. New door locks were introduced (these were used on other carlines as well). An electric fan replaced the engine-driven models of past models, with a standard shroud.
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. Powered initially by a standard 2.2 liter 135 cid engine with 84 hp, or an optional 2.6 liter 156 cid 92 hp Mitsubishi Silent Shaft four, the Scout Car joined the midsized Gran Fury Pursuit and the Voyager as Plymouth's offerings to law enforcement. (this paragraph from Jim Benjaminson)
Chrysler, lacking a small V6, brought turbocharging to the masses during the 1980s. This brought some high performance variants, such as the Dodge Shelby Daytona and the Chrysler LeBaron GTC/GTS versions. Styling of these K-car derivatives was more aerodynamic and exciting than their Aries/Reliant ancestors, too — though the Aries and Reliant had put in over 320 hours of wind tunnel testing, and had 20% less drag than they had when initially penned.
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 2 door and 4 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. The E Body evolved from the success of the Plymouth and Dodge K cars.
[With regard to minivans] ... I resolved not to go into production with a less than fully developed product, regardless of pressure applied. At times, I was unpopular when I told Hal Sperlich (President in 1982-3) that we weren't ready for production. Hal trusted me and supported me even when I did not tell him what he wanted to hear. He then had a bigger problem than I did because he had to tell Lee (Iaccoca).
The basic Reliant, Aries, and LeBaron, however, never got any powerplant more powerful than the 100 horsepower 2.5 liter single-injector four; even with those, if equipped with a stick-shift, the K-cars were quite sprightly. A fast-opening throttle gave garden-variety Reliants and such a feeling of power, even with an automatic transmission.
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)
|1986||Aries LE||Auto||2.5||11.4||Home Mechanix|
|1982||Aries SE||Auto||2.2||16.0||Consumer Reports|
|1982||Aries SE||4-Speed Manual||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|
By comparison, the 1984 Toyota Corolla was recorded at 14-16 seconds 0-60, with the “hot” 1985 SR5 AE86 model doing 0-60 in 12 seconds. (We have no tests of the “hot” version - with the five-speed manual transmission and 2.5 liter engine, though we’ve been quoted around ten seconds).
Plymouth Reliant - Dodge Aries History (by Aaron Gold)
The K started out as a boxy six-passenger car with a front bench seat, powered by a new 2.2 liter "Trans Four" motor, with a Mitsubishi "Silent Shaft" 2.6 as an option. The Mitsubishi motor was later dropped in favor of a fuel-injected Chrysler 2.5.
Thanks to the Reliant’s and Aries’ light weight, none of the engines was sluggish, even with the three-speed automatic. Acceleration was better than many competitors, and thanks to the 2.2’s relatively high torque, it generally felt better than competing cars that needed to be revved high — even if the latter could do 0-60 a little faster . Gas mileage with the stick-shift was admirable: 26 city, 41 highway (EPA estimates; the wagon was 26/40), making it America’s highest-mileage six-passenger car. The engines boasted high torque so they could run well with air conditioning, up hills, and fully loaded, and felt responsive from launch.
(Allpar addition:) To keep costs down, the rear suspension was not fully independent, but had a new flex arm system; the front suspension used struts with rack and pinion steering, both de rigeur at this time for small cars, and a departure from the torsion bar suspensions used for so many years. The Ks bowed for 1981 as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant [and, in Mexico, the Dart]. A two door coupe, four door sedan, and four door wagon were available. Base power was a 2.2 (135 cid) in-line-four fed by a 2 barrel electronic feedback carburetor with a progressive opening (opening first the primary bore and then, as the pedal was depressed further, the secondary bore) churning out 82 hp. The engine was computer-controlled, with two computers controlling the electronic ignition, spark timing, and electronic feedback carburetor. Transaxles were a 4-speed floorshift manual or a 3-speed automatic. The car did 0-60 in the 13 second range [not bad for the times]. A 2.6 Mitsubishi motor was optional, and cars bearing this motor - for 1981 at least - were adorned with the badge "2.6 HEMI." (Yes, they were hemi-heads!) The torque of the 2.2 stood in stark contrast to the weak Escort, Corolla, Datsun B210, and other competitors; and while gas mileage was not as good, the driving experience was far better.
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.
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).
Numerous improvements to the sound insulation and feel were made in 1983, and indeed, the K-cars were kept refreshed in small ways throughout their run, even though they never gained multiple-point fuel injection or a turbocharger.
For 1984, the Reliant and Aries received a facelift. The cars were a combination of the traditional American architecture and the modern European style pioneered by SIMCA, Chrysler's subsidiary in Europe. They had a solid-beam rear axle, independent front suspension, and transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine with front wheel drive. The Reliant/Aries wagon could be had with a stick-shift or automatic. The SE provided B-body-type interior appointments (cloth center armrest seats, lots of standard equipment), providing the features of the LeBaron without the bulk. 1984 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 received a pleasant facelift, with a rounded front fascia, smoother hood, and bigger taillights, which brought the car more into the then-fashionable “curvy look” from the boxier styling influenced by larger cars (complete with oversized grille and prominent chrome). 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.
[Editor's note] In 1984, the Town & Country, a high-end K-car wagon, was introduced.
For 1988, the Reliant featured a new designed roll-down window mechanism for rear doors.
The early 2.2s were not quite as reliable as their slant six predecessors; early models often had cam problems, and many older motors whine with the distinctive note of a replacement timing belt. The feedback carburetors could be temperamental, especially on a cold motor (mainly due to automatic chokes, a problem on most vehicles of the period). The automatic transaxles (beefed-up versions of the Omni/Horizon TorqueFlites) were rugged, however, and well maintained Ks would continue their existence for many years.
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 was 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. In the end, the 2.2 still made 84 horsepower in 1982, but there were many differences from the first to second year.
The Mitsubishi 2.6 was basically a good engine design, plagued with a less than ideal valve seal setup ad expensive, hard-to-fix carburetors. It generated 92 hp and 131 lb-ft of torque, almost the same as the later 2.5 liter Chrysler design. The clever MCA-Jet system increased efficiency and performance; hemispherical combustion chambers with top-mounted spark plugs and facing valves also helped (Chrysler even put "2.6 HEMI" badges on the side of some 2.6-equipped cars.)
The fuel injected version used a single-point throttle-body fuel injector (though multiple-point fuel injection had become common by then), and turned out 93 HP (129 lb-ft), about 7 hp more than the first carburetor versions. Fuel injection solved the starting and idling woes. (The spark-control computer on the 2bbl engines frequently refused to hold the timing steady as they aged; variations of 2-5 degrees at idle were common, and my mechanic saw one that jumped by 10 degrees. This, along with other factors, resulted in the 2.2s' often uneven idle.)
A 2.5 version of the motor put out 100 HP (135 lb-ft) and made a K-car zippy around traffic. The 2.5 had a longer stroke to lower emissions and generate good low-end power, at the expense of high rpms. It always had fuel injection, and its balance shafts made it somewhat smoother and quieter. However, it was only available with the automatic, at least in 1986.
Chrysler's TBI motors had a steep throttle tip-in, meaning if you tapped the rather stiff gas pedal, you got a lot of revs. Starting an automatic K without jerking your passenger's neck back required a bit of practice; with the 5-speed's clunky shifter and abrupt clutch, driving smoothly was nearly an art form.
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.
|(inches; sedans)||1972 Plymouth |
|1986 Plymouth |
|Trunk (cubic feet)||16.5||14||15|
|Fuel||21 gallons||16 gallons||13 gallons|
|Seat height (f/r)||8.6 / 11.3||8.6 / 11.1|
|Turning Circle||40.8 feet||38.3 feet||35.2 feet|
K Chrysler LeBaron (Written by Anthony Forte)
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.
Some may ask why the LeBaron K-car was created, since it was likely to “bring down” Chrysler’s branding. Burton Bouwkamp wrote: “The Chrysler K car and E Body were high trim level Plymouths, but it was the only way we could afford to give the Chrysler brand a new car. The alternative was to carryover the rear-wheel-drive car for the Chrysler nameplate, which was judged to be less desireable.” The K-LeBaron did outsell the M-body New Yorker throughout their runs.
When the K-based LeBaron was produced, the 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, making the car fairly quick due to its light weight; 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 then, producing less than the 2.2 turbo’s 146 horsepower, albeit with far more torque.
The front drive LeBaron came out in 1982 in sedan, wagon, or coupe, and a convertible was added soon after. The coupe and convertible were restyled and 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).
|(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.
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.
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
Other Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant pages