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The Dodge Spirit R/T: 224 Horsepower Four-Cylinder Sedan

dodge spirit r/tDodge Spirit R/T at rest

In 1989, the Dodge Spirit was introduced to provide reliable transportation in a traditionally styled four-door sedan, building on the architecture of the Reliant. Enthusiasts ignored it, though it gained a following among normal customers.

Then, in 1991, Chrysler added a 224 horsepower (218 lb-ft) screamer of an engine, based on the 2.2 four-cylinder that usually produced 93 hp.  This car was a fairly ordinary looking Spirit, except for the "R/T" after "Spirit" on the trunk lid, body-color crosshair grille, a modest spoiler, and a decal on the fender. But most grocery-getters don't move from 0 to 60 faster than any other four-door sedan sold in the US in their model year.

2.2 turbo III

Sold in 1991 and 1992, the Spirit R/T had a quarter-mile time of 14.5 seconds at 97 mph and a top speed of 141 mph, making it the quickest four-door sedan sold in the United States (the fastest mass-produced four-door sedan in the world. Two cars sold only in Europe might have been faster: the handmade BMW E34 M5 and Alpina B10, selling for the equivalent of $59,905 and $109,500, respectively. Thanks, Stephen, for details on the competition.) All this came at a base price of $17,820, including power windows and air conditioning.

Turbo III engineThe Dodge Spirit R/T’s 2.2 Turbo III engine boasted 1.67 horsepower per cubic inch. Yet, unlike some of the Shelby sports cars, the Spirit R/T maintained its comfortable ride. The Spirit ES suspension was modified with increased spring rates and front valving, performance-oriented rear shocks, 70mm progressive-rate front jounce bumpers, and a 28.6 mm rear sway bar. Tires were 205/60R15 Michelin XGTV4, wheels 15" x 6".

Handling was decent, and while torque steer was minimized by the modifications, it was still a palpable presence. The front roll center was raised for faster response, caster increased for better tracking, and steering flex reduced. The R/T felt solid and stable even over 100 miles per hour, though the poor aerodynamics make wind noise quite high. Roadholding was measured by Car & Driver at .80 g.

getrag transaxleThe 2.2 Turbo III engine was the third turbocharger setup Chrysler Corporation had developed. Mopar engineers worked with Lotus to create the engine, which included Lotus-designed heads; it was the first four-valve-per-cylinder engine Chrysler had ever built, and featured balance shafts, a double overhead cam, and an intercooled Garret turbocharger. There was only one transmission - the A-568 five-speed manual, created for that engine.

Dector Vega German wrote: "It also came out (in Mexico) as a LeBaron R/T.... It has a special manual gear box because conventional gear boxes could not stand the torque. Every 40,000 km or so the distribution chain (timing belt) breaks... this car is just incredible. I have reached a speed of 240 (km/h) but top speed is 270 (km/h)."

As Dector noted, unless you get a good Gates or Dayco timing belt and retension it after about 45 minutes of running (thanks, Ed at Delco), it may break far ahead of schedule. Since the Turbo III is a "non-interference" type engine, this usually causes little or no damage but is inconvenient. Common reasons for belt breaking are improper tensioning, problems with the tensioner itself, and not retensioning it.

Turbo 3 engine

A common replacement item seems to be the gears that the timing belt runs on. The symptoms seem to be broken timing belts and a loud clicking noise which is especially pronounced over 2,000 rpm. The tensioner has been fingered as a common culprit but the exhaust and intake cam gears also go bad.

The most important issue when you own a Turbo III is to maintain the engine. Have the TSBs done; change the oil regularly; and keep the antifreeze topped off and purged of air bubbles.

The oil pump may also be a problem. One R/T owner said they sometimes suddenly "bind," resulting in the bracket breaking, and or the gears on the shaft which drives the pump getting stripped. While Chrysler no longer has any of the original $120 pumps in stock, aftermarket pumps are available for $30.

All Spirit R/Ts were made in Mexico, came with four-wheel disc brakes, trip computers, air conditioning, tachometers, a message center, speed control, tilt steering wheel, and remote release trunks. There were two colors in 1991 (white and red), three in 1992 (silver was added). Very few were made in 1992. Ironically, they were not sold in Mexico until 1992, and continued there until model year 1993.

The distributorless ignition system uses a coil pack (about $120) that fires spark plugs 1 and 4 together, then 2 and 3 together. The air intake is better designed than the TBI cars, as one might expect.

Paul Bicknell got the following production figures from Chrysler PR:

dodge spirit R/TTotal 1991 Spirit production: 93,773
79,707 ordinary Spirits
6,245 LE
6,613 ES
1,208 R/T

The Turbo I models are more practical and get higher (about 30 mpg) mileage; they are cheap and have plentiful parts. Spirit R/T parts often cost more, and are harder to find. Many mechanics are taken by surprise by this engine, which is rare and has then-unusual technology. The Turbo III seems to max out at 30 mpg and city driving drags it down quickly.

The police were invited to test the Spirit R/T as a potential squad car, along with the Taurus SHO and Lumina Z34, both of which were V6 models. None was suited to police work.

Dodge Spirit R/T performance upgrades

Ed Kelly wrote about his well-researched R/T upgrade plans:

I am running a 16 valve T3 Spirit. My starting point is a 14.6 quarter mile. The only current mods are a K&N airfilter and the removal of the muffler.

On street tires I have very little traction for launches and thus my 60' time is ~2.4. If I rev the engine above 2500 RPM, I have no traction on the launch. The passenger tire will just spin and smoke.

I have consistently heard that an ND Performance computer will net you 1-1.5 sec. Conservatively, that is ~13.0...

The exhaust piping is somewhat open, but could be a little better. 2.5" piping has been done and should be sufficient if manderal bent. With a T3 a little larger may be helpful, especially if it the head is ported.

Once port work is done, the computer would have to be recalibrated. This is part of the reason I am holding off on getting a computer. When I do get one, it will almost definitely be a multi-program one, I want to make sure the engine can run on bad gas and survive, run on everyday 92 or 93 octane fuel, and be able to go to the track and dump octane booster in and run all out.

See extensive 2.2 Turbo III specifications and Centerlining the Turbo III camshaft.

Car reviews - living with a Dodge Spirit R/T

The clutch action is heavy, and not too smooth, though there is reportedly a replacement clutch that is much better. The engine idles smoothly.

The car is moderately comfortable to ride in, somewhere between a Civic and a Corolla. There's little power at the low end, but at about 2500 rpm the turbo spools up with a friendly whistle and off we go. If I have not gotten the turbo spooled, the Neon will get the first licks in at any traffic light. On the highway, power is available in a second.

Gas mileage could be better, but it is exceptional for the power and speed you get - compared even with, say, a brand new Audi TT, which is much smaller inside, not to mention newer, pricier, and kitschier.

Highway mileage is not too bad at about 28-29 mpg, but city is about 22, I'd say. EPA estimates of 22-29 seem to be accurate. Using regular gas hurts power, and you feel it at the lower rpms. After speaking with Neil Emiro, I discovered that the computer only has one program, for premium, and that using a lower grade causes knocking, which the computer quickly detects and stops by changing the spark advance. One thrilling burst of acceleration can kill quite a bit of gas mileage! but it's probably worth it.

The Spirit R/T is much faster than the Contour V-6 SVT, but gets the same or better gas mileage!

The problems of living with a Spirit R/T are what one might expect. Insurance costs more. Parts are often more expensive. Some things break more often. In three months, I lost an oil pump, two timing belts, the MAP sensor, and the battery, but I have a 103,000 mile car. The timing belts seem to be a common item.

Is it worth it? Well, if you absolutely need to rely on your car...get something with lower performance. If you have a spare car or a short commute, or a surfeit of mechanical skill, it's probably worth it.

Mexican Phantom R/T and LeBaron R/T

Cuevas Seoane Jose Luis wrote: The Phantom came in 3 versions in 1992 and 1993: one with luxury accessories, and a 160 hp 2.5 engine, a similar one with R/T logos, and a limited edition Phantom R/T Turbo III (only black, white, and red colors). In 1994, the luxury and Turbo III were dropped. The Spirit was sold with the 2.5 TBI (110 hp), the 2.5 turbo, and the Turbo III in 1992 and 1993.

Mexican Spirit R/T

Supplied by gts1
High altitude figures,
speeds at lower altitudes
will be much faster
Spirit R/T (2.5 turbo) 15.8
Nissan 200SX SE-R 17.5
Golf VR6 5-speed 17.0
Neon DOHC 5-speed 17.5
97 Corvette automatic 15.4
Stratus R/T 16.6
Contour SVT 17.2
Sunfire GT 5 speed 17.7
Escort ZX2 5 speed 17.9
94 Mustang GT 5 speed 16.4
98 Civic 19.1

From gts1

"Regular" RTs were offered from 1991 to 1995. All came with 3-speed automatic transmissions, I don't know if it is a 413, on the side has a decal that reads: "845 turbo", all came with transmission oil coolers.

All regular RTs came with the 2.5 turbo II engine (from what I know only available here in Mexico). Power was underated at 160 hp 4800rpms, the turbo is a Mitsubishi TEO4H, boost was set at about 11 psi (I've seen many RTs that go all the way to 15 psi, mine goes to 13 psi), it also has a bypass valve. There is a mini oil cooler mounted between the block and the oil filter.

All came with 4-wheel disc brakes, some had ABS as an option, all came with 15" wheels and 195/60 tires (some 205/60s).

The exterior is exactly the same as the 16v DOHC model, except wheels (DOHCs used 16" here in Mexico) and for the side decals, they only read: "intercooled turbo".

The RT sold very well here, and it's seen as a very fast car, how fast? My "regular" RT has done the quarter mile in a best of 15.827s at 7500ft (a very high altitude). Compare it with the ETs of some cars that I have run with in the quarter mile at this high altitude.

The only mod that I've done to my R/T is to open the exhaust, this helped a lot, before I opened it the car ran 16.15s...now 15.90s. When I run it at the drag strip I always remove the air filter, empty the trunk, lower the front tires to 24 psi and rise the rears to about 45 psi.

[about the performance figures: I had a Nissan 2000GSR (Sentra SE-R), it ran a best of 17.12s with some mods. A friend's GTI VR6 best time has been 16.89. Both this cars run 15s at sea level. My very own 90 Shadow GTS the other day ran a 15.11, this time corrected for altitude should be in the 14s. One day a guy in Mustang GT with Ohio plates ran here, he could not believe his times were so slow (16.4-16.6).]

As for the Spirit RT 2.2 DOHC 16v see a retro-test that was done to a 1992 RT in the November 1998 issue of the Mexican Automovil Panamericano magazine (table follows) - note the R/T is a four door family-size sedan...

Test Spirit R/T Grand Prix GTP Camaro Z28 Firebird Trans Am
0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) 8.00 10.84 7.89 8.28
0-400 meters (1/4 mile) 15.72 17.54 15.69 15.98
Max horsepower 225@5410 rpm 241@5230 rpm 352@4280 rpm 345@5520 rpm
Notes Five speed, four cylinder V6 Four speed automatic, V8 Four speed automatic, V8
Reminder: these figures are only comparable to each other due to high altitude conditions. All are presumably unmodified - Spirit R/T would have restrictive exhaust.

Dodge Spirit R/T performance

Tracey Hudson wrote:

I currently own a 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T and have been very happy the performance. I currently have 103,000 on the odometer but you would never know it by driving it.

The few performance mods are a Borla exhaust (you can see straight through the thing), 2.5 stainless cat back exhaust, Neil Emiro computer [he's out of business so they're hard to get], and a Bell Engineering variable rate of rise fuel pressure regulator. I have not run it at the track yet but did Varicom the car prior to the modifications which netted a 14.8 @ 96 mph. Not bad for street tires!

It's incredible how much you can pick up with one of Neil's computers (the fuel pressure regulator is an option but it doesn't have to be as elaborate as mine). The only problem is if you hit over boost (code 45) which I have twice. The solution is a map by-pass with a pressure switch. If you need one or know of any one who does let me know.

If you haven't already experienced it yet the heads have a design flaw - the driver side rear corner, where they like to leak anti-freeze. The proper fix is to pull the head, remove the plug ( not enough gasket material between the coolant passage the plug and the side of the head) replace it with an aluminium plug, weld it in place and machine the head.

The Ultimate K-Car (by Stephen Lyons)

Nearly a decade after their introduction, Chrysler gave the venerable Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries a makeover, extending their wheelbase and updating their suspension and drivetrain. The resulting Plymouth Acclaim and Dodge Spirit sedans lost much of the sharp edged, angular look of their predecessors, but the underpinnings remained firmly rooted in K-car technology, right down to the base engine, the stroked 2.5 liter derivative of the original 2.2 liter four introduced with the K-cars back in 1981. In fact, in 1990, Dodge decided to plug the 2.2 liter powerplant back into the Spirit as an option for the 1991 model. Ho-hum, huh?

Hardly! This was the Spirit R/T, and the 2.2 liter engine under the hood, with a Lotus designed dual overhead camshaft, 16 valve head installed, with a Garrett intercooled turbocharger, puts out an astounding 224 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and even better, 210 ft-lb of torque at just 2800 rpm. The bottom end was upgraded as well, most notably by the addition of twin balancing shafts that smooth out all this output. Power is transmitted to the suitably large wheels (15 inchers, big for a car of this size back then) by a 5 speed manual transmission for which the extra robust gearsets were sourced from Gertrag. Braking is via 4 wheel disc ABS, and suspension has been suitably stiffened and upgraded.

The exterior is understated, devoid of garish striping or outsized spoilers, and the cloth upholstered interior was no giveaway to all the mechanical goodies lurking underneath. The seemingly obligatory ground effect lower bodywork modifications are in evidence, though. The car qualifies as a "sleeper" in the boulevard wars, and make no mistake about it, it will suck the doors off of a lot of supposedly "hot" cars, and not shame itself in the company of the rest.

Dodge made Spirit R/Ts for just the 1991 and 1992 model years, and in limited quantities. It is an overlooked star in the galaxy of Mopar high-performance vehicles, and worth latching onto should you ever be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get hold of one.

Feedback from Ryan Baker

I bought a 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T from the original owner when I was 17 years old. I found her sitting on a trailer during the 2003 Mopar Nationals in Columbus, OH. Mine is one of the red ones. I drove her as a daily driver in high school until one New Year’s Eve, a deer decided to land in front of me at 60mph. My dad owns a body shop so I contacted him when the accident happened. I bought all the new parts to fix it (hood, both fenders, grill, airbag) a new Centerforce Stage II clutch, shocks/struts, even the last “Spirit R/T” decal for the trunk lid. I enlisted in the Air Force and never did have time to fix the car and repaint the outside like I wanted. The car is still sitting (stored from the elements) with 127k miles on it. The interior is perfect and all original. My father lost his body shop due to the economy and I constantly deploy it seems like. I just wanted to share my story and see if there is any advice out there. Thank you for your time.”

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