Chronological History of Chrysler Corporation
Part VIII: 1993-1997: Comeback and Success

1864-19111912-191920-391940-49 1950-63 1964-19711972-801981-921993-97
History By Year • Coming: 1998-2007 (Daimler disaster) • 2007-09 (Cerberus) • 2008-2015 (FCA)

1993 dodge intrepidThe first Chrysler comeback came under Lynn Townsend, who renovated the company and then let it atrophy; the second built on cars started during the dark days of imminent bankruptcy, under Lee Iacocca, who revolutioned the cars and then, like Townsend, let Chrysler stagnate. Fortunately, another revolution was building, one which would not be ended by complacency and stagnation, but by fear.

1993: the turnaround begins

1994: Neon to Ram

  • 1994 dodge ramThe new Dodge Ram pickups had “love it or hate it” big-rig styling, the first interiors to be designed around the needs of truck owners, heavily power-boosted engines, and best-in-class suspensions. The Rams were in high demand and within a few years, tripled their market share. Dodge went from leaving the truck business to being Ram-centered, as the pickups eventually became Chrysler’s best sellers, displacing minivans.
  • In early January, the Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge Neon started production, replacing the Plymouth Sundance and Dodge Shadow. The Neon had a higher price, but easily beat all competitors in specs with top of the range cornering, space, and power, and competitive gas mileage. Its predecessors and most competitors lost money; even after serious warranty issues, Neon still sold for a substantial profit.
    • BMW dropped its 318 model, after its performance is beaten by the Neon. BMW had allegedly dropped plans to buy Chrysler 2-liter engines for its 3-series, after vibrant opposition from American owners. The German company would later buy a 1.4 liter version of the Neon engine for its Mini. Ironically, after BMW switched to a new engine, Fiat bought the “Tritec” factory where the 1.4 and 1.6 liter Neon-based engines were made, updated the engine design, and kept production going; one of these engines would end up being used by small Italian-made Jeeps.
  • Neon brought both a new manual transmission, far better than any Chrysler had built before (through New Venture Gear), and a new four-cylinder engine family, the first since the 2.2.
  • Late in the year, a small web site is created, called “Valiant Car Pages.” It would soon be listed in the “Useless Site Pages,” with a comment of “What could be more useless than a web site about cars?” In 1998, the site would be split and renamed allpar.com and valiant.org.
  • The “first minivan with luxury appointments,” Chrysler Town & Country, gathered 35,000 high-margin sales in its first year.

1995: continuing success

chrysler cirrus

  • The last sedans from the K-car days were finally replaced: the Dodge Spirit, Plymouth Acclaim, and Chrysler LeBaron made way for Chrysler Cirrus, then Dodge Stratus. The cars swept awards, though one poorly made molding (specs changed by the supplier without notice) caused nearly all the early models to need repair early on. Consumer Reports took the opportunity to predict poor reliability. The “cloud cars,” designed for one-third the price of the new Ford, pushed Ford to start an early redesign of Contour. Engines were the Neon 2.0, a stroked version (2.4), and a Mitsubishi 2.5 V6. The cars had much of the feel of the Neon, but with a more traditional seating position and larger trunk.
  • LeBaron Convertible continued, with a single trim level (GTC), while the new Sebring Convertible was prepared.
  • Chrysler started selling a new Sebring, a two-door midsize sharing nothing with Cirrus — it was a restyled Mitsubishi Eclipse.
  • A club cab was added to Dodge Ram 1500, with 20 inches more length in the cab than the regular cab, following industry trends.

1996: leaving Mitsubishi behind

intrepid at ctc

  • Chrysler sold defense electronics unit Electrospace Systems, Inc., and its airborne systems unit, Chrysler Technologies Airborne, to Raytheon. In 1997, the “historic military segment” of Chrysler in Huntsville was purchased by a group of private investors backing company managers; they named the new company PEI Electronics. Details
  • Chrysler’s U.S. market share bounced up to 16.2% for the year, an unusually high number for the company. Dodge was responsible for 1.3 million sales, while Jeep came in with another half-million. Plymouth, starved for product, sold 323,834 Neons, Breezes, and Voyagers, while Chrysler sold just under 300,000 cars and minivans; Eagle straggled in with fewer than 29,000 sales. Chrysler earned $61.4 billion in 1996, with net profit of $3.5 billion. The company had not lost money since 1993.
  • Chrysler SebringsFor the 1996 model year, Chrysler had two completely new cars — the first truly new generation of minivans since 1984, and the Chrysler Sebring Convertible. Both were major hits in the marketplace.
    • The Chrysler Sebring Convertible was engineered to be what it was, not built as a coupe and then surgically altered. As a result, it was built at lower cost, and had fewer convertible drawbacks (such as the “flexing bodies” of most competitors). It won both awards and sales.
    • The 1996-2000 minivans were the first generation to be built from the ground up as minivans [interview with project leader Chris Theodore.] The minivans had two wheelbases, a choice of one or two sliding doors, and a wide variety of engines. From 1996 to 1999, Chrysler sold a million minivans per year, and resale values remained high. Along with the second sliding door, the new exterior handle provided better control, and a hill-hold latch, hidden door track design, and child protection were added. The new 2.4 four-cylinder engine provided the same horsepower as the old V6 had — 50 hp more than the old 2.5 liter four.
  • The Grand Cherokee was heavily revised, and continued strong sales.
  • A year after the other cloud cars came the afterthought stripped-down Plymouth Breeze, though Plymouth had, not long ago, been the #1 Chrysler nameplate, and this segment was traditionally a Plymouth strength.
  • New tech included universal garage door transmitter in the sun visors; spatial imaging stereos from Infinity; speed-sensitive wipers; sequential multiple-point electronic fuel injection on all engines; and speed-sensitive variable assist steering. The industry was transitioning from cassette decks to CD players at the same time, and the J-cars had a new set of head units to jump on the CD trend.
  • Chrysler and Mitsubishi amicably ended their joint agreement but each continued to buy engines from the others.
  • The Dodge Dakota pickup switched from the Chrysler-engineered 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine to the more powerful AMC 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, now dubbed “Magnum;” it also gained a four speed automatic. 
  • Neon added a base model Coupe; optional (on all models) four wheel antilock disc brakes; the Expresso package for Highline; and the SOHC engine becoming standard on coupe instead of the DOHC. Numerous other changes and upgrades were also made. 1996 was the peak for Neon sales (U.S.: 245,303) as head gasket, window sealing, and exhaust gasket problems destroyed its reputation.
  • Dodge Ram boosted Cummins diesel power by 23% in peak horsepower to 215 horsepower / 440 pound-feet rpm with manual transmission, and to 175 horsepower / 420 pound-feet with the automatic. The V-10 gained sequential multiple-port fuel injection. EGR was dropped from the gasoline engines (midyear, for the 360), and service points under the hood were labelled in yellow.
  • Cherokee gained returnless fuel injection. There was no 1996 Wrangler.
  • Ram Van and Wagon had minor changes, including a new air conditioned cargo van package, an indicator for the cruise control, and standard 35 gallon gas tank.
  • New logos were introduced — an old fashioned Chrysler seal logo, a circle-around-the-pentastar Plymouth logo (later to become a sailing ship), and a ram’s horn for Dodge.

kokomo plant

  • The Kokomo transmission plant opened in 1996. Harbour Report rated Chrysler the lowest cost producer in North America.
  • For 1996, the Viper was boosted to 415 horspeower and 488 foot-pounds of torque; the frame was made lighter and stiffer; both front and rear suspension were switched to aluminum; and Michelin Pilot MXX3 tires were introduced.
  • The SBEC III powertrain computer was used on all cars but Viper, even the Mitsubishi coupes; the law demanded the use of OBD II diagnostics and enhanced fuel-vapor controls. The SBEC III doubled its predecessor’s speed and memory; it could “talk” with the transmission computer, and altered idle speed when the power steering pump was in heavy use (it also controlled the engine fan). Trucks, Jeeps, and Viper got the JTEC powertrain controller.
  • As with every year starting around 1994, there were numerous incremental upgrades across the board for reliability and drivability.
  • 1996 Chrysler Corporation in detail

1997: new Dakota, Prowler, and Wrangler

  • baby ram dakotaA new Dodge Dakota debuted for the 1997 model year, with mini-Ram styling, and sales were satisfyingly high. The pickup rode like a luxury car, yet had higher capacity than the ’96.
  • Chrysler had 121,000 employees around the world, with around 105,000 in the US and around 15,000 in Canada. The company cleared $61 billion in revenues for 1997, slightly less than in 1996 but far more than 1995’s $53 billion.
  • Chrysler’s car market share in 1997 was down somewhat from 1996, at 8.9% (vs 9.7%), partly due to the introduction of the 1998 LH series late in the year. Truck market share, at 21.7%, was down somewhat from 1996, but still above 1993-95. (Minivans were classed as trucks.)
  • The Jeep Wrangler was completely redesigned for 1997, and was on its way to becoming a major sales force — despite having been a niche vehicle for decades. The XJ/ZJ link coil suspension (Cherokee/Grand Cherokee) was adapted to it for better on and off road performance. The new “TJ” Wrangler’s diagonal articulation was greater than that of the YJ at about 7 inches (178 mm), making it roughly as off-road ready as CJ. Power was boosted, air conditioning made optional across the line, and creature comforts increased.

1997 jeep wrangler

  • The Viper Roadster was launched with January production.
  • The hot new Plymouth Prowler was part of a plan to rejuvenate and re-create Plymouth. The plan never went beyond the Prowler; the second part, replacing Plymouth Neon with PT Cruiser, was cancelled.
  • Chrysler set up an IPO of its Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, and sold Pentastar Electronics, a military test equipment maker, to focus on its cars. During 1997, Chrysler announced it would drop the Eagle brand at the end of the 1998 model year.
  • The Jeep Cherokee was extensively restyled for 1997, with new sheet metal, seats, door trim panels, and a new, electronic instrument panel (with microprocessor) added; a tachometer and trip odometer became standard. Outside, a new grille and air dam, along with numerous other changes and additions, updated the Cherokee’s appearance. Using a CCD bus eliminated numerous wires and electrical connections.

2000 jeep cherokee classic

  • Numerous changes were made to the four cylinder engines for reliability and quietness.
  • Four-wheel disc brakes were made standard on the all wheel drive minivans. Cloud cars and minivans were given better water sealing and sound insulation.
  • In-depth: 1997

Coming next (eventually): the Daimler years, 1998-2006

1864-19111912-191920-391940-49 1950-63 1964-19711972-801981-921993-97
History By Year • Coming: 1998-2007 (Daimler disaster) • 2007-09 (Cerberus) • 2008-2015 (FCA)

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