BY STEVE COLLISON. Copyright © 1989 Richard Ehrenberg of Mopar Action. Used by permission.
For street-wise Mopar freaks, news of Plymouth's fresh automotive approach to the 1990s might mean little in terms of performance. After all, aren't these cars nothing more than spindly little sportsters powered by four-cylinder engines made in Japan? Well, yes and no. The new 1990 Plymouth Laser RS is a sports car, and it is motivated by "half a V8." But the 2,700-pound front-driver is far from dainty, and its Mitsubishi-built four-banger belts out a breathtaking 190 turbocharged horsepower! In showroom trim, it runs low 14.40s at nearly 96 mph, making it the fleetest Mopar in quite some time. In fact, one must go back to the '74 360 4-barrel A-bodies (4-speed equipped, of course) to find comparable factory performance. Best of all, the all-new Plymouth Laser is made in America.
The result of a joint venture between Chrysler Corp. and Japan's Mitsubishi Motors, the Plymouth Laser is the first of a new generation of automobiles to roll off the Diamond-Star assembly line in Normal, Illinois. The recently operational million facility is the most modern in the world, with nearly 3,000 employees backed up by 470 robots employing the latest production techniques. When production hits full stride later this year, Diamond-Star will build 63 new cars each hour - and they'll do it with a third less manufacturing area than is the norm.
The Eagle Talon / Plymouth Laser were modified Mitsubishi Eclipses. Chrysler engineers worked on both cars' engineering and design, but only as minor players. The next Eclipse spawned the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring Coupe, which used the 2.0 liter Neon dual-cam four-cylinder, at 140 horsepower, for the base engine. The Dodge Avenger would be renamed Dodge Stratus Coupe though it did not share a single part with the Stratus Sedan.
None of that was running through our minds when we first laid eyes on the Plymouth Laser. As he tossed over the keys, the delivery man (who handles some 90 different makes and models for the New York area) remarked, "This is the best car in the fleet, and more fun to drive than a 944 Porsche." As it happened, he was right.
Accustomed as we are to the "large cars" of the '60s, the Plymouth Laser requires a slight contortion to enter the driver's compartment, but once planted firmly in the contoured highback bucket seat, there is plenty of room and the controls are laid out in convenient fashion. This practice, called "ergonomics," gives new car cockpits more of a jet fighter feel, as everything is within easy reach-especially the gearshift for the Laser's five speed manual transmission. The weirdest thing, especially to us older folks, is a new passive restraint system that automatically wraps the shoulder belt around the driver when the key is turned to the on position. The belt slides along a track in the top of the door and locks in place behind the driver's shoulder. There's also a second lap belt to secure lower extremities during spirited assaults. Given this car's propensity for lateral adhesion, we strongly recommend the use of both restraints.
Once belted in, we notice that the Laser's instrumentation is all at eye level, with gauges for water and oil temperature sandwiched between a 145-mph speedomenter and a combination tachometer and turbo boost gauge. The tach redlines at 7000 rpm, and the Laser pulls to that speed in a heartbeat. In fact, this car accelerates so smoothly that its power is deceiving. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Fired up and ready to go, we ease the clutch out and row through the gears. The gearshift/clutch duo work like a hot knife through butter, so effortless are the gear changes. Plymouth considers the Laser a "sport coupe," and as such, it behaves as you would expect a sports car to behave - incredibly responsive to any steering input, with a suspension and fourwheel disc braking system to match. But it isn't until you reach the upper rungs of the rpm ladder that another side of this little beastie is shown.
We knew it felt good, but we had absolutely no idea that the turbo Laser's performance would be comparable to the V8 muscle of yesteryear. Of course, when you stuff 190 hp into a 2,700-pound platform, something good's gotta happen. It's the same basic concept as the early Road Runner-a big engine in a stripped B-body. Only the Laser is far from a stripper-it's loaded to the gills with creature comforts, like air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and even a compact disc player to go with the six-speaker stereo cassette. All of which makes its performance so much more impressive.
While the little turbo Laser looked incongruous amidst the "real" race cars during our test session at Atco Raceway, after a couple of runs down the quarter mile any self-consciousness on our part vanished like a cool breeze. It took three runs to develop a starting line technique that overcame the front-wheel-driver's tendency to rattle the front tires under hard acceleration. Torque steer, another FWD phenomenon, was negligible with the wheels pointed straight ahead, and soon we were knocking off 14.40 elapsed times with alarming consistency. The best run, a 14.42 at 95.54, was only a tenth of a second slower than the best by an 1988 350 Formula Firebird (uncorked and with cheater slicks) on the same day.
Others noticed too, and between runs the "real" racers wanted a peek under the Plymouth's "power bulge" hood. Again, for those used to two valve covers and carburetors, the Laser's diminutive powerplant came as a surprise. But big things come in little packages these days, and Mitsubishi's exotic DOHC, 16-valve 2.0liter engine is no exception. From just four cylinders and 121 cubic inches (2,000 cc) prance 190 ponies, fed by electronic fuel injection and a new intercooled turbocharger designed for more throttle response and less lag. A maximum turbo boost of 11 psi places the power ceiling at 6000 rpm.
Much of this little engine's efficiency comes from its four-valve-per-cylinder cross-flow head. The aluminum casting also serves to anchor twin overhead camshafts, which control 16 valves,-eight intake and'eight exhaust. Complementing the 60-degree valve angles is a large plenum intake manifold that gives the incoming air/ fuel mixture a straighter shot at the intake valves. Other little tricks, like needle bearing rollers for the cams, dual-coil ignition and a deep skirt block for bottom-end rigidity, make for a more reliable beastie.
Like most modern front-drivers, the turbo Laser utilizes a full-synchro 5-speed transmission mated directly to the transaxle, which in this case houses a 4.15-to-l final drive ratio. The clutch is a single disc, self-adjusting diaphragm unit engaged hydraulically. Spring load is a mild 1,389 lbs.lft. Like we said earlier, .shifting is effortless.
Living up to its sports car status, the Laser RS features independent strut-type front and 3-link trailing arm rear suspensions with rack-and pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and specially compounded P205/ 55VR16 Goodyear tires. The standard sport suspension on the RS model also includes heavy-duty sway bars, measuring 3/4 inch (front) and 1 inch (rear), and higher spring rates.
Several laps through the pylons convinced us that the guy who said this thing was more fun than a 944 Porsche was right on the money. What a handler! And with the power to match, the turbo Laser has the ability to emerge from tight spots in a single bound. That kind of performance lets you drive in traffic with confidence.
Back in the pits, the guys were digesting this information with nothing short of dismay. Hey, they said, the thing looks like it was shot out of a cannon, runs faster than most muscle cars, turns and stops on a dime, and even has a CD player. How much could a car like that cost? Twenty-five, thirty grand? Ladies and gents, would you believe $15,000, loaded? Whether you're into small car performance or not, you have to admit that the new 1990 Plymouth Laser RS is an exciting package. It's not the tire-boiling Mopar torque monster of the past, yet it delivers the same goods in a more subtle-and luxurious-manner.
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