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1981 Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge cars, engines, and technology

by David Zatz • Special to Allpar

1981 was one of Chrysler Corporation's most important years. The new K-car platform was launched, giving Chrysler an advantage over imports for customers who valued space, torque, and comfort. The new car had a new engine, the 2.2 liter four-cylinder, a rugged, durable powerplant that would stick with Chrysler until 1994; from the start it had clearcoat paint and strong rustproofing, so that, in future years, it would not embarass the company. Despite the small exterior size and light weight, the K-cars actually had roughly the same interior space as the Volare/Aspen.

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1981 was a financial turning point. Chrysler had hit a low spot in 1980, losing $1.8 billion. In 1981, the loss narrowed to half a billion; in 1982, the company was nearly at breakeven, and by 1983, they were profitable. Chrysler and the pundits often talked about the minivans that saved the company, but in reality, it was the K-cars that turned the corner. Its sales, with just two models, passed 300,000 units in 1981, easily beating a panoply of different rear wheel drive models... and turning a profit.

The new cars for 1981: Plymouth, Dodge, and... Imperial

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The Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries were built on a 99.6 inch wheelbase. To keep costs down, the rear suspension was not fully independent, but had a new flex arm beam 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 public went wild over the new cars, which supplied most of the positive attributes of Valiants and Volares - space, comfort, easy servicing, and low cost - with high gas mileage, modern design, smaller exteriors, better paint and rustproofing, superior cornering, and much quieter interiors. The sales figures reflected their popularity: the Chrysler sold 300,000 K-cars every single year until 1989, when there was only partial availability. The market was quite happy to keep buying K-cars, mainly Plymouth Reliants (except in 1987-88), until they were taken away.

The ride was smoother than the Volare/Aspen, the noise levels lower, space similar, fuel economy far superior, responsiveness not much different than the slant six (if not better), and, in general, there were few disadvantages over the older product with many leaps forward. They gave buyers a happy medium between their big old American cars and the dimunitive, often slow, imports; and the K-cars had higher build quality than recent Chrysler rear-drivers.

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. With a manual transmission, the light Reliant could be zippy; Motor Trend tested an automatic 2.2 and did 0-60 in 12.5 seconds; the Mitsubishi 2.6 brought that down to 12.4 seconds. Car & Driver drove a four-speed manual to 12.2 seconds, while Consumer Reports took a leisurely 16 seconds with an Aries automatic (13.8 with the 2.6 engine). That compared favorably to the 1984 Toyota Corolla, whose manual transmission-equipped model usually took 14-16 seconds 0-60, with the "hot" SR5 AE86 taking 12 seconds to do 0-60. Thus, the "hot" Toyota SR5 was about as fast as the standard K-car. The five-speed manual and fuel injection would boost the K-cars further, in later years.

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The interior boasted cloth and vinyl bench or bucket seats, with stalks for wash/wiper and headlamps. The standard and most common powerplant was the brand new 2.2 liter engine designed by Chrysler, with an optional Mitsubishi 2.6 that, despite being Japanese, turned out to be far less durable than the 2.2.

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Bodies included a two-door coupe, six-passenger four-door sedan, and two-seat station wagon, around 900 pounds lighter and two feet shorter than the rear drive Volare/Aspen they replaced; new lightweight seats were thinner, had more seat travel, and were still more comfortable than the ones they replaced. Trunk space was slightly larger in the Reliant and Aries than in the Volare and Aspen.

Because of their interior space, the K-cars were not considered "compact" by the EPA; they were classified as mid-sized. Indeed, they were America's highest-mileage six-passenger car.

Numerous steps were taken to cut drag; after the basic styling was done, wind tunnel testing cut drag by 20%, through revised pillars, hood and grille shape (cutting drag by 6% alone), an air dam, backlight headers and a roof trailing edge, and contoured park and turn lamps.

(Four door sedan)1980 Volare1981 Reliant
Land vehicle Vehicle Car Car seat cover Car seat
Headroom, front39.238.6
Headroom, rear37.537.8
Legroom, front42.5
Legroom, rear36.6
Shoulder room, front55.2
Shoulder room, rear 55.2
Trunk capacity,
cubic feet
14.8 15
Weight (pounds)3200-3300

Even in 1981, the 2.2 liter engine was computer-controlled, with two computers controlling the electronic ignition, spark timing, and electronic feedback carburetor. The system worked far more reliably than the prior Lean Burns, though the principles were similar. Since the engine was mounted sideways, and along with the transaxle was mounted above the axle, cornering was generally superior to the rear wheel drive cars then sold by Chrysler and others. The engine itself only weighed around 87 lb; a staged two-barrel carburetor helped bring power to 84 hp, with 111 pound-feet of torque coming in at a relatively low 2,400 rpm, making for good driveability with the common automatic transmission. The EPA rated the Reliant 2.2, with manual transmission, at 29 city, 41 highway.

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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 flat 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.

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The Mitsubishi 2.6 was basically a good engine design, plagued with a less than ideal valve seal setup and 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.)

An Imperial launch

A new Imperial was launched in 1981, the last V8 Imperial ever made; it was based on the new J-bodies, launched in 1980, which were essentially gussied-up Volares.

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The Imperial was billed as "a new kind of personal luxury car - smaller, more fuel efficient, technologically advanced, and built to a remarkably high standard of quality." Each car went on a five-and-a-half mile test drive, and had numerous checks by technicians before they were shipped out; the CEO of Mark Cross appeared in magazine ads to vouch for the reliability of the car. The modern look of the grille and the almost-unique trunk area had been penned back in 1977, when it was expected to be either the next-generation Cordoba or a new Chrysler called the LaScala.

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The Imperial was sold only in two-door hardtop form, two feet shorter and 800 pounds lighter than the 1975 Imperial two-door, and had a single option: a power moonroof (though there was also an extra-cost Frank Sinatra edition and a choice of wheels and radios). Standard features included a garage door opener, electrically heated and adjusted rearview mirrors, and a powerful (for the time) 30-watt stereo. The Imperial was upgraded beyond the comfortable Cordoba with more acoustic control, heavier-gauge steel for the hood, deck, roof, and quarter panels, and a high trim level. Aerodynamic styling brought 14% lower wind resistance than "previous Chrysler cars of this class," for a .7 mpg gain over "these cars" as well as a quieter interior. (One can assume the "previous cars" refers not to the 1975 Imperial but to the 1980 Cordoba.) The aerodynamic improvements led at least one NASCAR driver to favor the Imperial on superspeedways.

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Electronic fuel injection used a single throttle-body injector, with a computer that also adjusted spark advance. Most components were made in Huntsville, and the system was designed and built by Chrysler. Theoretically, it should have provided far better driveability, but the system was badly flawed, and Chrysler once again ended up replacing many of the systems with carburetors, and providing service long after the warranty was over - up to 50,000 miles. The standard warranty on Imperials covered everything but tires for two years or 30,000 miles, whichever came first.

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The Imperial provided passengers with a perhaps more useful change from past vehicles: instead of merely buzzing as a warning, the Imperial provided chimes (for seat belts unfastened), beeps (for keys left in the ignition), or a continuous tone (headlights on while the driver's door is open).

Full details are on our 1981-1983 Imperial page.

Technological changes

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New to V8-powered vehicles were lockup torque converters; the sixes and fours had to wait, but the fours at least got a new lower-stall-speed converter (previously used only with the Volkswagen 1.7) to increase gas mileage. At last, the phase-in of hydraulic lifters on the slant six completed, ending the need for valve adjustment.

The 2.2 liter engine used hydraulic "mini lash adjusters," which maintained zero valve lash without maintenance, quieting the engine and saving space. The 2.2's valve train was belt-driven, using a single overhead cam with eight cast-iron rocker arms.

A new wide-ratio transaxle was used with the four-cylinder cars, providing a lower first and second gear (2.69:1 vs 2.48:1, and 1.55 vs 1.48:1) to improve acceleration. Third gear remained 1:1, with reverse staying at 2.1:1. The overall top gear ratio on these cars thus went from 3.48:1 to 2.78:1.

The slant six and V8 cars underwent a similar change, coupled with an "economy" rear axle on V8s to improve mileage.

All but the R-bodies and L-bodies used new permanent-magnet motors for door locks, replacing the solenoid type servos; these were lighter, smoother, and smaller (they were also used on K cars). Corrosion resistance was increased across the board, and more optional-equipment wiring was routed through the bulkhead connector instead of threaded through bulkhead openings; corporate requirements for wiring reliability were raised, with more audits of supplied materials. Reliant and Aries used an electronic low-voltage lamp, replacing the alternator-charge lamp, to monitor the entire electrical system.

All of the 1981 radios could tune to Traveler's Information Service radio stations, at 530 and 1610 kHz AM.

All six and eight cylinder engines used a new 1.8 horsepower starter, which was more powerful and quieter than past gear reduction starters. Four-cylinder models got a new starter relay for longer life, using a single contact rather than the prior dual contacts, and, at long last, eliminating the need for a ballast resistor.

Two optional maintenance free batteries were made available on more models; and engine block heaters were optional for the 2.2 and 2.6 liter engines. The 2.6 liter engine came with a new 75 amp alternator and 1.2 kW starter motor, both from Mitsubishi; the alternator had a built in voltage regulator.

Concealed headlamp motors used a full 360 degree gear, instead of the 166 degree gear, to avoid damage when being tested without load.

The continuing cars: rear wheel drive

Most of the rear wheel drive cars were carryovers from 1980, with the LeBaron and Diplomat continuing largely unchanged; Cordoba and Mirada getting upgraded interiors; and New Yorker, Newport, St. Regis, and Gran Fury continuing with new models and appearance packages.

Rear drive buyers got the 3.7 (225) slant six or 5.2 (318) V8. Gone were the B and RB engines, and even the hot 360, now banished to truck use. The slant six and 318 had the potential for speed, but it was not being realized; the company had dropped the Super Six with its two-barrel carb, and presumably was not even thinking about a setup like the Australian Hemi Six with its triple Weber carbs. The 318, likewise, could have been enhanced with free-flowing heads and a progressive four-barrel, but only Californians could buy it with a four-barrel carburetor, and that was just to make up for the extra emissions equipment. All the cars (except Imperial, but including the front-drivers) used carburetors, and the automatic was always the efficient, reliable TorqueFlite, given a wider set of gear ratios.

Engines and transmissions

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Well over half the cars sold by Chrysler were four cylinders, though the K-cars were brand new; they and the Omni/Horizon were clearly the cars of the 1980s.

All the rear wheel drive cars had three-speed automatic transmissions; all the front wheel drive cars had four speed manuals. The new A-460 manual, designed and built by Chrysler, was used with all Volkswagen and Chrysler four-cylinder engines (the A-412 manual was also used in 1981); it had a wider spread between first and fourth gears, with a lower overall top gear ratio for higher gas mileage (ratios were 3.29, 1.89, 1.21, and .88, with an OTGR of 2.69:1). The clutch linkage was self-adjusting, and the clutch pedal was wide with a spring on the underside connected to a positioner.

Plymouth had just one rear wheel drive car at this point - the R-body Gran Fury, which would shortly be dropped. In return, the Gran Fury name would be moved to the Diplomat body, where it would stay until disappearing permanently in 1989.

LeBaron and Diplomat were essentially the same, and were very similar to the outgoing Volare/Aspen, and for that matter to the Valiant and Dart. They were repositioned, though, as luxury cars, while the Volare and Aspen had been clearly entry level. For 1981, LeBaron had eight models: salon and Medallion two-door hardtops, Special Sedan, Salon, and Medallion sedans; and the LeBaron and Town & Country wagons. Diplomat continued as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door wagon. Sedans and wagons had a 112.7 inch wheelbase; LeBaron hardtops and two-door Diplomats had a 108.7 inch wheelbase. All had a torsion-bar front suspension and leaf springs out back; they would be the last cars built with that architecture.

LeBaron's interior was upgraded; standard features included power steering, power front disc brakes, whitewalls, and trip odometer. Diplomat got longer door armrests, a two-spoke steering wheel, and weight reductions from more use of plastic.

New to Cordoba were an optional four-way passenger seat, with new bucket seat cushions, a new polished steering wheel, and better stereo. New Cordoba models were the Crown and "sporty" LS; front end styling was changed with the parking and lane-change lights moved between the headlights and grille.

Mirada gained the CMX and S packages; the S included cloth-trimmed bucket seats and a sporty steering wheel, exterior stripes, and dual remote-control mirrors. The seat cushions and tilt steering were improved, and a new steering wheel was used. The "simulated convertible" Cabriolet package was made standard.

Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon: Franco-American cars continued

The Omni and Horizon continued with numerous modifications, mainly for reliability. Electric-fan airflow was improved with a fiberglass-filled propylene fan, with a 1 inch larger diameter; the radiator was enlarged in frontal area and thickness. The 2.2-liter, 84 horsepower 4-cylinder was now an option on Omni and Horizon, and the base model was tagged "Miser." An extremely limited number of Euro-models were offered with
blackout trim in the package.

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