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Chrysler front-wheel-drive performance 1983-1993

by Bill Cuttita

During the late 1970s, Chrysler Corporation was in financial trouble. After several quarters of heavy losses, Chrysler was unable to tap credit lines for its ongoing operations. One immediate effect was the loss of high-performance development, which didn't make much sense anyway, in the face of two U.S. oil crises in 1973 and 1978.

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Finally, in 1979, new Chrysler Chairman Lee lacocca turned to the United States government to guarantee loans to keep his company alive while it developed vehicles for the 1980s. Part of the condition was extending the technologies that had gone into their successful front-wheel-drive L-Body economy cars (Dodge Omni, Plymouth Horizon, and two- and four-door variants). Over 288,000 of those cars had sold during their debut year, 1978. Chrysler also committed to reducing their number of platforms from five to three.

Loan money was spent to create the "K" car line of products: the "Ks" themselves, the G-Body Laser/Daytona, and the all-conquering minivan, which would make Chrysler a roaring success during the 1980s, freeing money for performance.

1980 Dodge O24 DeTomaso

The first inkling the public had regarding Chrysler's intent to rebuild a performance image in this new context was in 1980. Lee Iaccoca's friend Alejandro deTomaso, who had worked with Lee on the Ford Pantera in the early 1970s, lent his hand to the Dodge O24 with the DeTomaso option - an appearance package only. It looked racy, but still had the same Volkswagen 1.7 engine as all other L-Bodies.

1982 Plymouth Turismo and Dodge Charger

The big change came when Chrysler created the 1982 Plymouth TC3 Turismo and 1982 Dodge 024 Charger (possibly on "1981 1/2" models) by adding the new 2.2 liter Chrysler four-cylinder. Engineers had spent some time improving the car's suspension, and it showed.

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These were reasonable performance cars for the time, with good acceleration, responsive handling, acceptable braking, and an affordable price. The industry press gave the car favorable reviews and wanted to know what else Chrysler had up its sleeve.

1983: Shelby Dodges

They found out the next year, when lacocca persuaded another old buddy, Carroll Shelby, to work with Chrysler on performance development. They created the Chrysler Shelby Performance Center (CSPC) in Whittier, California, to prototype and test new ideas for the front-wheel-drive products. The big news didn't come until early 1983, when the Dodge Shelby Charger was released as a 1983 1/2 model, based on the L-Body coupe.

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The car had a new nosecone and air dam, side sill panels, C-pillar sail panels, and silver on Santa Fe Blue or blue on Radiant Silver striped paint scheme with a startling matching 'C5' interior. Most interesting to gearheads were the revised cylinder heads and machined block with slightly higher (than the Charger 2.2) 9.6:1 compression, new camshaft timing, and electronics good for 107 hp.

Power was delivered through a revised close-ratio A-465 five-speed gearbox with a lower 3.87 final drive; everything was kept pointed in the right direction by new springs, struts, swaybars, a fast ratio power steering rack, larger vented Kelsey Hayes brakes (off of the 'K' cars), and 1 5x 6-inch alloy wheels with 195/50 HR 15 Goodyear Eagle GT tires. Over 8,000 of them sold, and for a half-year introduction, Chrysler and Shelby knew that they had something good.

There was no 1983 Omni O24 or 1983 Horizon TC3; even the low-powered versions of these cars were now dubbed Charger and Turismo.

1984: Laser and Daytona; 2.2 turbo; Omni GLH

Things really spooled up the following year, when the G- Body twins (Chrysler Laser and Dodge Daytona) were launched with an optional turbocharged, fuel injected 146hp 2.2L engine. This K-car derivative's cutting-edge styling and massive performance (for 1984) made the car a hit with sporty car buyers and performance enthusiasts.

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The Shelby Charger got a new color combo (Garnet Red, with silver stripes and gray interior) which showed up on very few '83s, an optional automatic transmission (with the 97hp California-emissions engine), an official three more horsepower due to a change in the test specifications (no known engine changes were made), and, for around 1,000 cars, all-tape center stripes rather than painted stripes with tape trim. The stripes were supposed to save time on the assembly line, but quality suffered, and production fell back to the original paint and tape stripes.

The Shelby Charger also got a sister in 1984, with the introduction of the Dodge Omni GLH, (which stood for "Goes Like Hell"). The four-door L-Body GLH featured the Shelby mechanicals, blacked-out trim, a choice of four colors (Graphic Red, Gold Dust, Radiant Silver, and Black), and fog lamps in a reasonably subtle and inexpensive package-over 3,000 of them cruised out of the dealerships.

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Though mechanically nearly identical to the Shelby Charger, the GLH won lots of praise for its handling - chiefly due to the longer wheelbase (99.1 vs. 96.5) which made the car feel more stable than its two-door sibling, even though it was over 100 pounds lighter.

Another inexpensive performance option in Chrysler showrooms that year was the Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt Turbo, which offered Shelby-like acceleration (and a famous "Don't step on the gas unless you really mean it!" rear window sticker) but with some unusual handling characteristics due to the 13-inch wheels.

As a side note, in 1984 200 Dodge Rampages were built with Shelby transmissions at Chrysler's new car preparation facility in Santa Fe, California. The car was originally intended to support the Direct Connection business, so none of the cars had the Shelby stripes, but they did have the nose-cone assembly and custom-length side skirts.

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The Shelby Performance Center and Dodge were working overtime for the '85 model year, which brought the turbocharged 2.2 to the lightweight Shelby Charger (now available in black with silver stripes) and Omni GLH.

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Part of the engineering for all the 1985 turbo cars included equal-length halfshafts to dial out some of the front-wheel-drive torque steer, a stronger A-525 transaxle with 3.56 final drive, five-lug wheels, beefier wheel hubs and bearings (based on experience from Chrysler and Shelby's racing programs), revised performance exhaust, and suspension refinements to handle the extra power.

The Shelby got the turbo drivetrain as standard motivation, Goodyear's new "Gatorback" radials in the 205/50VR 15 size, a "turbo" hood with a power bulge and a vent to dissipate heat in stop-and-go traffic, while the GLH received the hood vent for the optional turbo engine, chin and side-sill spoilers with Day-Glo red pinstriping, and insignia to go with a new color; Santa Fe Blue.

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The Shelby Charger and GLH Turbo became instant legends, being faster than almost every foreign and domestic car in the US, and certainly among the most affordable.

A total of 7,700 Shelby Chargers were produced and 6,500 Omni GLHs, the latter split almost in half between normally aspirated and turbocharged engines.

The new cars for this year, the four-door hatchback Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS, received the turbo motors as an extra-cost option, and showed a "fast with class" side to Chrysler's sedan lines, but it was the GLH Turbo that caused BMW to pull an ad that touted the 535i as the "fastest four-door sedan sold in the US."

1986: Omni GLHS

The last 3,100 Omni GLHs were produced, and Carroll Shelby became a manufacturer (again) with the creation of Shelby Automobiles. The last 500 were all black turbos, and were sent to Carroll's new plant in Whittier, California, to become the Shelby GLHS (Goes Like Hell Some-more); with silver graphics, revised springs and swaybars, adjustable Koni struts and shocks, 175 hp and 175 Ib-ft torque from a revised 2.2 with a Turbo II induction system featuring a special radiator assembly with an intercooler for the intake charge, two piece intake manifold, multi-port fuel injection, larger Garrett turbo, 205/50 VR 1 5 Goodyear Gatorbacks on special Shelby Centurion wheels, Shelby Automobiles dash number plate, an unpegged speedometer with applique indicating up to 135 mph, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

While originally intended to be a late '85 model released that summer, production delays kept the Omni GLHS from dealer's lots until the spring of 1986. The performance world was set on its ear by early reviews, including an April '96 Hot Rod Magazine cover with the announcement "GLHS WHIPS GT-350!" and a comparison article declaring the little Omni 2-seconds faster over a side by side lap at Willow Springs and 1-second faster in the quarter-mile than a 1966 Shelby Mustang.

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The official GLHS numbers went like this: quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds, 0-60 in 6.5 sec, and .88g on the skidpad. Bite was improved tremendously over the GLH, but at a cost -- a slightly harsher ride, and care had to be taken when pushing the car quickly over surfaces that were less than ideal, as the little Omni could lose grip going over bumps.

The GLHS was sold through Dodge dealerships that stepped up to a Shelby Automobiles franchise, for a $10,995 sticker price.

The Shelby Charger remained relatively unchanged for this year. As for the Daytona, the $183 CS (guess who?) Performance package was made available with larger swaybars, CS fender badges, 15 x 6.5-inch "crab" wheels with 225/50VRI5 Goodyear Gatorbacks, and new four-wheel disc brakes.

1987: Shadow/Sundance; Turbo II; CSX

The P-Body 1987 Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance were launched in the spring of 1986 with an available Turbo I and A-520 manual transmission combo. Dodge also began offering the full Turbo II package with stronger crankshaft, rods, and Mahle pistons capable of handling the 25 pound-feet more torque than the Shelbys' block, upgraded alternator and electrical system, and an A-555 manual transaxle that included a 3.85 final drive, Getrag-sourced gears, four pinion differential (rather than the two pinion piece in the 520), and bigger 230mm clutch assembly, standard in the Daytona Shelby Z with manual trans.

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Shelby Automobiles uncorked three new models: The Charger GLHS, Shelby Lancer, and the Shadow-based Shelby CSX. All new Shelbys used the Turbo II induction system on the Turbo I block as had the previous year's Omni GLHS. The Charger was produced in 1,000 units (again, the very last Shelby Chargers built) and was essentially a re-do of the Omni GLHS with a sunroof, a new "GLHS" graphics package without a center stripe, black 'Shelby' valve cover (instead of the argent "Chrysler Turbo" valve cover on the Omni), and a 125-mph speedo applique, only this time the price was $12,995. It was released into the new model year cycle along with Chrysler's '87 models-the only time Shelby Autos managed to do that.

Some said the Charger GLHS handling
was again slightly inferior to the Omni's, claiming the extra inches of wheelbase gave the four-door a more stable feel.

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During the hiatus between the '86 and '87 model runs, tooling for the original Shelby Centurion wheel (with the word "Shelby" cast into it), as found on the Omni, had been destroyed in a factory accident and a Centurion II wheel of the same dimensions was produced for the Charger GLHS and CSX.

The $16,995 Shelby Lancer was a significant change from the fast-but-unsophisticated GLHS models, aimed squarely at the more refined European sport/touring sedan market, and loaded with luxury interior touches like power windows, locks and driver's seat, and a leather-wrapped signature steering wheel. Originally intended to be a subtle charcoal gray color, supply problems between Chrysler and Shelby forced it into the bold Graphic Red with black graphics.

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Based on the Lancer ES, 400 were produced with a manual transmission and cloth interior, and 380 were built with an automatic transmission and leather interior, costing an extra $1,000 MSRP. A handful of special-order cars were received with mix-and-match interiors and drivetrains, but were not available to the general public. All had four-wheel disc brakes (converted from the Daytona CS package), Monroe FormulaGP struts and shocks, 15 x 6.5-inch Shelby CSS mesh-spoke pattern cast aluminum wheels with 205/60VR 15 Gatorbacks, larger swaybars, urethane bushings, performance-tuned springs, driving lights integrated into the blacked-out grille, trunklid spoiler, and a 10 speaker Pioneer DEX77 1 20 watt compact disc sound system with nine-band graphic equalizer, antitheft coding capability, and rear seat remote control.

The 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds, 15.7 seconds in the quarter-mile and .85g on the skid pad was terrific for a family-type sedan, but the car was not a hit in the showrooms.

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The 1988 Shelby CSX was introduced during the spring of 1987 and used most of the same suspension and brake upgrades as on the Lancer, but in a smaller, lighter package (based on the humble Plymouth Sundance). The run of 750 cars had black with silver/gray air dam and lower body cladding.

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Blue insignia, a special grille opening, a boost gauge integrated into the dash, and painted insets in the Centurion wheels set this car off as subtle, but its performance was far from it. This user-friendly performance car won praise from those who drove it fast - especially those who had gotten used to the vices of the faster GLHS - quick reactions weren't necessary to keep a driver out of trouble on a bumpy track at race speeds, and the brakes inspired confidence. Motor Trend ran a press car up to top speed for a test and clocked it at 148 mph - a figure that today begs more questions than it answers.

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Despite favorable press, the CSX was a victim of a Shelby Automobiles' glut - more cars than the market would bear. Dealers weren't too happy to see new CSXs rolling in while there were still plenty of unsold Lancers sitting on their lots...nor were they happy to see those $30,000-plus, 2.2L "Chrysler TCs by Maserati" sitting on showroom floors with the rare-but-troublesome Maserati DOHC 16-valve turbocharged or Turbo II engines. The Dodge Shelby Charger itself was discontinued after being reduced to just over 1,000 '87 units in red and black. No blue or silver examples were produced.

Late in the year, Chrysler introduced a new induction system with a one-piece intake manifold to the 2.2 engine line that incorporated common components to non-intercooled Turbo I and intercooled Turbo II manufacturing, reducing the cost of both.

1988: CSX-T, Turbo IV, and more

Chrysler and Shelby tried to catch their breath for the 1988 model year. Dodge created the "race car in street clothes" Daytona C/S Competition (rather than just the C/S Performance), aiming it at the SCCA Showroom Stock and NHRA Stock drag racers. The package started with "maximum performance" brakes, ditto the suspension and a Turbo II drivetrain with a high capacity cooling system in a no-frills, base Daytona. A/C was only available as a dealer-installed option.

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Dodge also offered the Lancer Shelby as an upgrade to the Lancer ES with Turbo II/manual trans or Turbo I/automatic trans drivetrain options, the previous year's Shelby Lancer exterior goodies, Shelby swaybars and springs (but not brakes), color-keyed Pacifica wheels, and a rooftop air deflector, just like your mom's old Fury station wagon. The Lancer Shelby was offered in three colors: red, white, and black. Less than 300 were sold that year.

Shelby only had one model this year, borrowed from another page in the Shelby history book: the CSX-T for Thrifty Rent-a-Car. Sold only to Thrifty for rentals, it was made insurance-and warranty-friendly by retaining the Shadow ES's Turbo I drivetrain.

To the 999 white cars, Shelby added CSX brakes, bodywork and interior touches, Monroe FormulaGP struts/shocks, and new 6.5-inch, five spoke wheels with 205/50VR 15 Goodyear tires. As a result of the previous year's Shelby Automobiles overproduction, 160-plus of the leftover 1987 CSXs were sold to Thrifty as rental vehicles as well.

Thrifty rented the Shelbys for $34.85 a day, then sold them, slightly used, to the general public in the fall of 1988. As many as four were converted at the factory to Turbo IIs with the Shelby Performance (Shelby Auto's performance parts arm) Turbo II kit.

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The fruits of innovative thinking came to Shelby Automobiles, in the form of the '89 CSX-VNT. The car was again based on the Shadow ES, but with a list of changes that was Shelby's most comprehensive to date. The engine was based on the previous year's 2.2 Turbo II, but was upgrade to what Chrysler called the Turbo IV (note: Turbo III was the 16-valve 2.2 introduced two years later) through the world's first production use of a Variable Nozzle Turbo, or VNT.

Based on Formula 1 technology, the Garrett turbo utilized moving vanes to manage the amount and speed of exhaust gasses passing through the turbine, causing it to act like a small turbo that "spools up" to boost quickly at low engine rpm, thereby reducing 'turbo lag'. At higher engine RPM, the vanes opened to allow more volume to pass (albeit at a lower airspeed), changing it into a bigger turbo-and eliminating the need for a wastegate because the boost level could be controlled by com- puter management of the VNT vanes.

While rated at the same 175 hp as the standard Turbo II, the torque was now up to 205 Ibs.-ft and the power curve was broader and flatter, making it noticeably easier to drive due to the reduced driveline lash from throttle modulations. The 498 production cars (two were pulled off the line to become 16-valve Turbo IV prototypes, but were never completed) were painted Exotic Red with gold graphics and had attention-getting airdam side and rear skirts, and a rear wing by Kaminari. Standard also was another production first; light- weight Fiberide compressed fiberglass 15 x 6.5-inch wheels, finished in gold.

The standard 195/60VR 1 5 Eagle GT +4 tires were replaced on 16 cars by the optional 225/50VR 15 Gatorbacks, which required a G-Body steering rack be installed at the factory for clearance. Approximately 236 cars came with special Recaro bucket seats cov- ered in Shelby Charcoal cloth. Only 14 CSX-VNTs had both the tire and seat options: the two that had the 225/50VR15 Gatorbacks and the standard interiors would be rare birds indeed.

The sound system was advertised as a four-speaker AM/FM cassette stereo, but due to supply problems they showed up at the dealer with only an AM/FM stereo. Some dealers were astute enough to recognize the problem and installed the advertised system before the cars went into the buyer's hands. One CSX-VNT was converted at the Shelby facilities to European lighting standards, and delivered to Sweden's King Gustaf, a personal friend of Carroll Shelby.

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Other performance highlights for 1989 were the introduction of the 2.2/2.5 "common block" design to further reduce the number of parts needed to assemble the various normally aspirated and turbo versions of the engine, the availability of the Turbo II drivetrain in the Chrysler LeBaron GTS coupe and convertible, the new "Diamond Star" coupes built at the Diamond Star plant in Normal, lIIinois - the Eagle Talon and sister Mitsubishi Eclipse, with an available 2.0L, 190hp DOHC intercooled turbo engine, only available in front-wheel drive for this year.

The Lancer Shelby was discontinued after another 300 or so were built.

For those who couldn't wait for a V-6 minivan, a 2.5L Turbo I with 150 hp and 180 lb-ft was now available, though towing anything with it sent the engine into boost for long periods, and voided the new vehicle warranty.

1990: last Shelby; VNT package

Chrysler produced the VNT engine option for approximately 589 Daytonas, 255 LeBarons (123 Coupes, 132 Convertibles), and 141 Shadows, as well as the CSXs, with the new A-568 five-speed manual transaxle as standard. Chrysler's New Process Gear (now New Venture Gear) group was justifiably proud of the new trans with coarse pitch gears and a three-plane shifter setup which made for much better shifting qualities than the four- plane arrangement used in all previous manual transmissions.

The Daytona and Shadow could be ordered with the C/S Competition package, which started with the base model and added a VNT engine, A-568 trans, and "Maximum Performance" brake/suspension arrangement. VNT Competition Package production numbers for the Daytona are unknown at this time, but Chrysler has stated recently that 30 Shadows were built with this package. Unfortunately, reliability problems with the VNT implementation having to do with oil management in the valve cover and PCV system forced Chrysler to halt production of VNTs in the spring of 1990, and production of the Turbo II or IV never resumed in North America due to changes in engineering strategy.

Eagle's Talon now had the T5i AII-Wheel-Drive option, which included a 195hp version of the 2.0 turbo. A 2.5L Turbo I powered Spirit ES was available at this point, and foreshadowed what was to come in the A-Body the next year.

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Later in the year, Shelby Automobiles announced they were out of the automobile production business altogether, citing sagging sales and rising costs. The '90 Shelby CSX was to have been powered by a Turbo III 220-plus horsepower DOHC 16V 2.2 engine codeveloped by Lotus, using the A-568 trans with a limited slip differential (sourced from Weismann, Torsen, or NPG), and a leather Recaro interior. The base Shadow itself would have been sourced from Mexico rather than the USA. The blue car would have had gold insignia, gray interior and a price tag of over $22,000. There was no confidence within Chrysler that there was a significant market for such an expensive (for 1990) performance car based on a two-door economy hatchback, and that, as they say, was that.

Chrysler and Shelby decided to part ways regarding licensing the "Shelby" name for Dodge products in America, so the Daytona Shelby options were ended with the '90 model year, except for a production glitch concerning a certain white '91 Daytona, built after the licensing agreement had expired (which was supposed to be badged as a Daytona IROC, but showed up at the dealer as a Shelby) ...which, coincidently, was the car High Performance Mopar Editor Greg Rager had on order since before the licensing agreement expired.

1991: Turbo III, Spirit R/T

Despite problems with the VNT and Shelby Autos, Chrysler didn't give up on front-wheel-drive performance as evidenced the next year...when 1,208 Dodge Spirit R/Ts were outfitted with a 224hp/220 Ibs-ft torque Turbo III drivetrain (less the Shelby limited slip differential). R/Ts were capable of sprinting to 60 mph in 6 seconds, covering a quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds, topping out at over 140 mph; the vented four-wheel disc brakes with optional ABS could haul it right back to a stop in a hurry. The combination of balance shafts in the engine, slick-shifting A-568 manual trans with 3.85 final drive, rigid chassis, a long list of luxury options and judicious suspension work, made for a remarkably smooth synthesis of muscle and refinement for around $20,000.

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Red and white were the only two colors available, with three differently painted versions ofthe alloy 15x6 "snowflake" wheel, though all R/Ts had a unique thin strip of orange trim at the car's beltline.

Also debuting this year were the Mitsubishi-built 200hp V-6 Dodge Stealth and radical 300hp Twin Turbo V-6 All-Wheel Drive Stealth R/T, which could buzz to 60 in 5 seconds.

Chrysler made the 150hp 3.0L V-6 available in the Shadow/Sundance/Duster P-Bodies and the Daytona this year, with an optional A-543 manual trans that made for a stealthy ride that could put plenty of normally aspirated cars in the rearview mirror.

Replacing the slots in the Daytona lineup formerly held by the "Shelby" packages were the IROC packages, tying in with Dodge's sponsorship of the IROC (International Race Of Champions) race series (which were run in tube-framed rear-wheeI-drive V-8 cars with Daytona body work).

The Daytona C/S packages were available in their final form this year, with the Competition package featuring a high-torque 2.5 Turbo I / A-568 drivetrain and all the Maximum Performance suspension goodies from previous iterations. In addition, Plymouth offered a version of the Diamond Star coupe with the resurrected Laser name, and the 190hp Turbo 2.0L four as an optional motor.

1992: Dodge Daytona R/T

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1992 found some minor revisions in what was to be the final Spirit R/T model, with new unidirectional five-spoke vented wheels, a new color (silver), a 150-mph speedometer, and some blackout of the grille to make the now-familiar Dodge "cross-hairs" more prominent. Only 191 Spirit R/Ts were built this year as Turbo Ills found a new home in the newly face-lifted Dodge Daytona.

All Daytonas received a new nosepiece with aero head lamps to replace the pop-ups, a new hood, new side window treatment, new side cladding, and tail facia. The 2.2 DOHC Turbo option was available on only 250 Daytona IROC R/Ts (800 were originally scheduled to be built but that number was reduced due to cylinder head supply problems). The Daytona IROC R/T was outfitted with all the go-and- stop-fast goodies from the Spirit R/f, a retuned suspension that included 16- inch wheels shod with 205/55ZR16 Gatorbacks, and subtle "16 Valve R/T" badges on the front fenders. The colors offered were red, white, blue, and black.

0-60 times were in the high five second range, and a quarter-mile went by in around 14.5 seconds with a top speed of 150 mph, making it the fastest front-wheel-drive product Chrysler ever produced, and faster than that year's Mustang GT and Camaro Z28 V-8s. Some testers mentioned that the 7-year-old (at that point) G-Body chassis wasn't quite as stiff as the newer A-Body Spirit/Shadow, but there was no getting around the extra weight the four-door carried, and the acceleration figures showed it.

Chrysler stopped American production of the 2.2/2.5 Turbo I early this year, after nine years of production. The Diamond Star cars continued unabated.

1993: Last of the turbos until 2003

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The swan song for the front-wheel-drive Chrysler Turbo cars was in 1993, when the last of the G-Body cars were the 181 Daytona IROC R/Ts produced in blue (keep your eyes open for blue '93 R/Ts-there are only eight of them), black, white, and green. Unfortunately, durability problems with the Turbo III timing belts and cylinder heads manifested themselves to a point where it was an appropriate decision to discontinue production of the engines.

At the time, Chrysler was spending their engineering resources on the new car and engine families that are today making their own chapter in the history of Chrysler front-wheel-drive performance: the Neon, the Dodge Stratus, and the LH sedans.

Chrysler produced more turbocharged cars than any auto manufacturer ever, many of which are available used, inexpensively. It's not uncommon to see 300-plus horsepower, II-second 2.2 turbos being built for significantly less than $10,000. No company has put more boost under the right foot of the American public. If you're looking for a "sleeper" on a low budget, and don't mind dated styling, you might be well advised to investigate some of Mr. lacocca's and Mr. Shelby's step-children.

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