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By My80Volare ~ Kevin Imhoff



Dodge Aries. Plymouth Reliant. The K-Cars. While images of brute horsepower or rapid acceleration is not commonly thought of when hearing the names of these cars, no Mopar fan can deny the impact they had for the Chrysler Corporation. These were the cars that saved a failing automaker.


It was 1978. Things were bleak for all three of America’s automakers, especially Chrysler. Low sales were pushing the Pentastar to the brink of bankruptcy. Ford had fired Lee Iacocca, the man behind the Mustang and Cougar, because he wanted more control over the company. Henry Ford II wouldn’t listen to his ideas, but Chrysler was all ears. Chrysler hired Iacocca as the new chairman of the company, in an effort to save the floundering carmaker.


In 1979, the Chrysler Corporation, with the help of the UAW, began lobbying congress for a financial bailout of the company to the tune of 1.5 billion dollars in loan guarantees. The loans were granted, and Lee Iacocca started to work his magic. He wasted no time reviving the company, promoting the release of the 1981 Dodge Arias and Plymouth Reliant. He would call these cars “The last train at the station. If we failed here, it was all over.”





1981 saw the release of the K Car.  They came in three body styles, 2 door coupe, 4 door sedan, and 5-door wagon, and they were named the 1981 Motor Trend “Car of the Year.”  These were compact cars, designed to compete the import compacts that were increasing in sales as American car sales were falling; yet they could still carry six passengers. Their front wheel drive design set a new benchmark for American cars and the build quality, while not exceptional, was far ahead of what was being produced during the 70’s. The advertising campaign said it best: “If you can find a better car, buy it.” It was a purpose built car, designed to be cheap, fuel efficient, and reliable. Initial sales were slow, but before long, everyone was driving one. It was an ingenious platform, which lent itself nicely to variations for other cars that would follow. The initial engines offered were the carbureted 2.2-liter Chrysler four cylinder, and a 2.6 liter four cylinder Mitsubishi built motor. The 2.2 motor was rated at a whopping 82hp, and turned out to be not as reliable as hoped. The 2.6 equipped cars even carried a “Hemi” badge on the fenders, but were rather down on power considering its displacement. But, yes, it was a hemi engine. However, thanks to the lightweight of the cars, even these engines were not all that sluggish. Transaxles offered were a four-speed floor shift, or a three-speed automatic. They were left relatively unchanged, until 1985.




1985 saw the redesign of the K cars, with a rounding of the front and rear fascias, larger taillights, and smoother hood. It also saw the release of fuel injection. A throttle body system replaced the electronic feedback carburetor, and solved the cold start and idling problems associated with the carb. Power also climbed to 93hp. The 2.6 was dropped in favor of a 100hp 2.5-liter motor. These improvements helped to make these cars zippy in traffic.



By the end of the K cars production run in 1989, the Reliant and Aries had evolved into a rather nice car. They were comfortable, quiet, and still reasonably priced. They maintained their form over function design established at the onset of their production. They were roomy, steering was light, handling was somewhat nimble, and they had reasonable reliability. All of the qualities sought in the early designs were found with them. In essence, they delivered what they promised. They were humble, but they did their job, and did it well. More importantly, it delivered what was most desired for Chrysler: It made the company profitable again. By 1985, Chrysler had emerged from bankruptcy, and was again making money.




The K car was a truly remarkable car. The platform used in the design gave way to almost all of the designs used by Chrysler in the 80’s. The Dodge Daytona and Chryslers new minivan were direct descendants of the K car platform. The Voyager and Caravan combined with K car sales pulled the company to solvency. K cars were also transformed into, of all things, Executive Sedans and Limousines, and the military, and local police departments used them as patrol cars. The original 2.2-liter motor was also the foundation for many of Chrysler’s performance models developed in the 80’s. With the addition of a turbo, and later, an intercooled turbo, the cars these engines were placed in became potent little drivers, competing with the likes of the Camaro, Mustang, and Trans-Am. Even the Caravan/Voyager received the benefit of the turbo-charged engines.


All in all, The K car is often demonized, and certainly not thought of as “revolutionary” car. But it will always hold its place in Chrysler history as the car that breathed new life into a dying company.


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