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Review: The Dodge Spirit


After spending 10 years in Japan, I returned to the USA in early 1991. Although I grew up in a Chrysler family (father an engineer at Highland Park) I was seriously thinking about Honda or Toyota due to their reputation for reliability and quality, and because of Chrysler's flirtation with bankruptcy and other problems up and through the Iaccoca era.


I had just about decided on an Accord, but wasn't excited about the purchase. One day I had some time while waiting for my wife to finish shopping, so I stopped in at a nearby Dodge dealer who showed me a leftover 1990 Spirit ES with 2.5L turbo. Without explaining anything, he threw the keys at me and told me to drive it. I was surprised at the car's speed, solidity, and handling, not to mention the surprising amount of interior room. It was the first Mopar I'd ever driven that had absolutely no rattles or squeaks. It was definitely a solid vehicle - and fast. While the Sprit wasn't as quiet or refined as the Japanese cars, it was faster. And there was something appealing about it that was difficult to define, something that seemed to give it more character than the Japanese cars. It gave the impression of being a real machine rather than the efficient transportation appliances that the Japanese make so well.

Although the Spirit had a noisier engine, and didn't offer the overall refinement of the Accord and Camry, these weren't objectionable issues to an old Motor City boy like me because I think you should be able to hear what your car is doing. The blowout price of $11,600 cinched the deal, and I drove home in my first brand new American car. Initially I was worried about the long term quality and reliability, but this was unfounded. I have now driven the Spirit for 10 years and 74,000 miles without any major problems (and very few minor ones). I always keep fresh Mobil 1 in the crankcase and use a Ford 302 V8 oil filter because it's twice as big as the tiny Mopar filter, adds 1/2 quart to the oil capacity, and provides an additional cooling effect. A new set of KYB struts and shocks at 68,000 miles gave me better-than-new handling. The only real complaint I have is the white aluminum wheels with their many little geometric depressions that are impossible to clean. Others may have complained as these wheels were only used on the 1990 models.

I've driven the car from Arlington VA to Tampa and Detroit about 12 times. It's an excellent highway vehicle. It tracks like it's on rails and top-end power is plentiful. Passing from 80-90mph is a breeze. The engine shakes, rattles, and roars, but produces just as much power as it always did. I love that engine! The quick steering and fat tires make the car handle like a big go kart. The four-wheel discs work superbly. I think the 205/60-15 tires play a big role in determining the handling and overall feel of the car. I have driven Spirits and Acclaims with the smaller 195/70-14 tires and they felt completely different. The 15" wheels and 60-series tires change the AA bodies from squishy family sedans to real road warriors.

With their bulky styling, the AA bodies were not particularly exciting or visually appealing, but they did offer a solid design with sturdy mechanicals that appeal to people who understand and appreciate basic value in a car. Like many Chrysler cars, you have to get beneath the skin to appreciate their beauty. I was sorry to see the demise of the AA body Spirit/Acclaim/LeBaron. They proved that the K-car chassis could be the foundation of a surprisingly good car.

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