Kronology: History of the K-Car (Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, C. LeBaron)
Sometimes hailed as Lee Iacocca’s baby, the K-car was already in the works when he came on board. Chrysler had introduced the first mass-production front-wheel-drive American subcompact car, the Omni/Horizon, in 1978. The K-car was to be the second 6-passenger front wheel drive American car. (The first was GM’s notoriously troublesome X-body, the Citation/Phoenix/Skylark/Omega.)
The K cars appeared for the 1981 model year as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. A two door coupe, four door sedan, and four door wagon were available. Base power was provided by 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 and 111 lb-ft of torque. Transaxles were a 4-speed floorshift manual or a 3-speed automatic. The car did 0-60 in the 12-13 second range, far quicker than the Toyota Corolla. A 2.6 Mitsubishi motor with hemispherical heads was optional, and cars bearing this motor - for 1981 at least - were adorned with the badge "2.6 HEMI." It should be noted that when Chrysler introduced the 2.5 liter engine based on the 2.2, it produced about the same power as the Hemi 2.6.
1981 cars had no roll-down rear windows. They weighed about 2300 - 2400 lb, and cost $5,880 for the base model.
Early sales of the K were poor, due to some bad planning on Chrysler’s part. Ads touted the K’s low price, but Chrysler was building cars with options like automatic transmissions, A/C, and upgraded wheels. People flocked to the showroom but did not buy; they expected the price they had seen advertised, and found cars costing hundreds or thousands more. Chrysler quickly realized their mistake and started building bare-bones Aries and Reliants, and sales took off, giving the Reliant and Aries their best sales year ever — though, to be fair, this was before the Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 were (and seemingly for no justifiable reason) added to the mix.
1982 brought a reworked manifold for the 2.2, along with a new window mechanism.
A new manual shifter console became available as an option, on Reliant/Aries and Dodge 400; it had a ribbed, pyramid-shaped boot surrounding the shifter up to the new teardrop-shaped knob. Changes were also made to the iso-strut suspension to reduce noise and ride harshness, including completely isolating the sway bar. A clockspring type hood support eliminated the need for a prop rod.
A quieter fan was implemented with the 2.6 liter engine; it had five curved blades and a tip ring, and used less energy than the older fan. A new mini-module fan system for non air conditioned cars included a three-left bracket, two-blade aluminum fan, and 3-amp motor; it was lighter and used less energy. A high-altitude compensator replaced a separate carb for high altitudes on cars with the 2.6 engine (it could be retrofitted to engines not sold in high altitude areas).
By 1983, Chrysler had paid its debts. The Reliant had earned its keep and then some. As if to celebrate, the 2.2 gained a power boost to 94 hp (9:1 compression ratio), and a five speed manual transmission was offered. Power brakes became standard. To quote from Chrysler:
"We’ve put together a combination of under-the-hood and body changes that makes the Aries [and Reliant] quicker to respond, easier to handle and more comfortable to ride in," said Tom Pappert, Vice President - U.S. Automotive Sales for Chrysler Corporation. Aries’ easily accessible 2.2 liter standard engine offers increased fuel efficiency with Chrysler-engineered improvements and modifications in the cylinder head, compression ratio, carburetor, throttle linkage, and exhaust and intake manifolds.
Power brakes and self-adjusting rear brakes were standard on all Aries for the first time.
Other changes included larger brakes, more responsive pedals, improved balance front to rear, and a tandem booster on the 2.2 liter engine with automatic transaxle. The Aries also came equipped with a tethered gas cap and maintenance-free battery.
The 1983 line had two levels for the Aries sedans and coupes, Aries and Aries Special Edition; station wagons had Custom and SE versions. The Aries SE models had standard cloth-covered bench seats, center armrests and doors, and woodgrain accents on instrument panels and door trims, with bright deck lid lower moldings, special "SE" C-pillar Medallions and, on four-door sedans, color-keyed rear door quarter window louvers. The Aries SE wagon had a woodgrain exterior treatment and power steering.
Sound deadening materials such as plastic, polyester, rubber and nylon, were used in many redesigned components and systems such as door latches, speedometer cables to cut down noise, harshness and vibration.
The new five-speed manual transaxle, available only with bucket seats and console, provided a second overdrive at an estimated 8% fuel savings on the highway. The 2.6 liter engine’s new throttle geometry provided a quicker engine response.
The Ks were mostly unchanged until 1984, when they received a new black dashboard with round gauges. Although it was a simple version (the turn signal arrows were actually labeled "left" and "right"), Chrysler would use this readable dash pattern in many cars through the 90s.
1984 also brought the 2.6 liter engine up to 101 hp (and the 2.2 up to 96 hp, its highest non-turbo power), a slight suspension reworking, a new electronic radio, and a 14 gallon gas tank.
In 1985, the K received a pleasant facelift, with a rounded front fascia (the blacked-out version on the Aries is rather pretty), smoother hood, and bigger taillights. Also added was a new climate control panel, map pockets, and an available heavy duty suspension. [Rich Hutchinson noted the absence of the hood ornament, as the pentastar was now integrated into the grille.]
1986 saw the end of the 2.6 liter engine and the addition of fuel injection on the 2.2, bringing it to its final horsepower (maintained through 1994) of 93 hp. The five speed manual became standard, and a 2.5 liter engine was optional except on the base model. This 2.5 had single-point fuel injection, 96 hp, and a long stroke for lower emissions and better low-end power. Its balance shafts made it smoother and quieter, though they hurt the high end.
Additional changes included a center high-mounted supplemental brake light; P185/70R14 radials standard on LE; a standard close-ratio five-speed manual; a standard 90 amp alternator; and a new five-stud wheel mounting standard on all models. New 14 inch Sport wheel covers became standard on the LE. Inside, a new cloth with vinyl center armrest became standard on SE sedans. New packages included Protection and Popular Equipment Discount; neither was available on the base model.
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.
In 1988, after success with the Omni and Horizon America, the K went on the America plan; many options were made standard, and the option list was narrowed. This made the cars cheaper to build, and prices were slashed; the Aries America started at $6995. Sales of the aging K-car continued to be strong. The transmission was also enhanced (with the 2.2) by a Chrysler invention, the lockup torque converter.
1989 was the Reliant/Aries’ final year; the Chrysler version did not return. As if to celebrate, the 2.5 went up to 100 hp, the most power it would ever produce without a turbo, and a four speaker stereo was made optional; but the wagon did not re-appear, and the America was the only version. By this time, the K had become a rather pleasant car 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.
As seemed to be Chrysler’s tradition, the Ks, for their final year, were allowed to share the showroom floor with their replacement models (both the larger A-body Spirit/Acclaim and the similarly sized but heavier P-body Sundance/Shadow), but they still sold over 100,000 units, about half of 1988 sales. The Spirit had features such as stiffer steering (first seen in the “Euro-style” Lancer and LeBaron GTS) and a V6 motor.