From the June 1985 issue of Car and Driver.
If you had been the guy assigned to pound the stakes by which the progress of Chrysler Corporation was to be measured over the past few years, you would have needed about thirteen arms. Used to be that glaciers had more top end than Chrysler Corporation. Now the company is making noise and dust. And new cars that have inspiration behind them.
Consider this fresh-baked H-car, called Lancer if it’s a Dodge, LeBaron GTS if it’s a Chrysler. It has all the right stuff: front-wheel drive, aero styling, hatchback utility, room for five to rattle around in the passenger compartment, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine option to put some mobile into this auto. Never mind whether the “Made in ______” label says Stuttgart or Tokyo or Detroit; doesn’t this sound like a serious car?
Conceptually, the Lancer/LeBaron GTS may be the most intriguing four-door built in America these days. In the flesh, some aspects of it are second to none. Other aspects are, well, second to some, maybe even third, but by no means out of the ballpark. It’s a car that, if it were a little more refined, could be the answer.
Certainly the overall package is first-rate. The styling department did a nice job on the hatchback, which manages to offer enough of a sloping tail to interest the fastback crowd and, at the same time, an undeniable notch to avoid turning off those who think anything but a conventional silhouette is funny-looking. Neither contingent can complain about the cargo hold. Oh, they probably won’t like the lift-over, which comes to about the top of the taillights, but the space inside is substantial and the floor is flat. Fold down the rear seat and the floor becomes flat and huge. The seminotchback lid, along with a hinged panel beneath, does a fine job of hiding the contents of your trunk from prying eyes.
If there are to be any complaints about the passenger accommodations, probably they’ll focus on vehicle width, which is just a bit narrow for three-across rear seating. Maybe the blame should more properly be leveled against the rear seat itself. It has a very nice pocket on each side of center where a body can find a comfy spot. But two bodies in their respective comfy spots leave not enough room in the center for a third.
Anyway, that’s it for complaints about the interior. Headroom is top-hat friendly. Adult knees and feet will fit in back. The from buckets have a welcome—and, from Detroit, unexpected—firmness. A few seconds with the power-seat buttons and the column-tilt lever, and just about anybody will be comfortable in this car.
There isn’t much difference on the outside between the Dodge and Chrysler versions: grille in front and chrome nameplates in back are about it. Inside, there’s even less. These are conspicuously “corporate” cars, with the corporate pentastar getting top billing and the divisions fighting over what’s left. We could find neither “Dodge” nor “Chrysler” written inside. The car-line names appear only once, and that’s on the respective hatch lids.
We did, however, find an instrument panel that should be required reading for all Detroit interior stylists. It’s to the point: six round dials directly before the driver tell them all they need to know. It’s in good taste: the dial markings suggest not a video game, not a jet plane, not a jukebox, but—ta-dah!—an automobile. (An Atari panel is available for Motor Trend readers.) And it’s free of conspicuous mistakes: the lenses covering the dials don’t reflect the sky back into your face, and the actual dial markings aren’t skewed off center in a bogus attempt at parallax correction, as they are in some GM cars. The beveled buttons on the radio and heater controls are an original treatment, too, and a pleasing contrast to the jellybean shapes that are the fad elsewhere in Detroit. Chrysler got this part right.
In the car world these days, the American makers are searching their souls, trying to divine the true path between what they’ve always done and what the outsiders do. Which way is really better? The GTS represents, in effect, Chrysler handing in its midterm exam for the buyers to grade. The instrument panel is as astute as any German’s on the market, so give the corporation an A here. But how’s it doing elsewhere? On the floor to the left of the driver’s seat are two lever releases for the hatchback and the gas door—pure Japanese. On the dash are a pull button for the headlights and, beneath, a foot pedal for the parking brake—pure Detroit. A nifty two-hole cup holder folds out of the middle of the dash, which is also pure Detroit. The dimmer switch is activated by pulling the turn-signal lever toward you, which used to be the foreign way but now is universal, but in the GTS you have to pull it about two inches to do the job, which is pure Detroit. The blue high-beam light on the tachometer face is so bright, it blinds you about a much as your brights would blind an oncoming driver, which is a mistake in any language. And the “Front Drive” proclamation centered in the PRNDL window (otherwise the window would be empty in models with console shifts) remind one of the curious Motor City practice of bragging about your transmission choice in chrome letters on the deck lid. In any case, what you see from the driver’s seat is a hodgepodge of international cues, which we interpret as evidence that Detroit is questioning its ways. Chrysler’s answers are generally astute in the GTS. And where they fall short of perfection, they at least show a serious search for a better way.
Chrysler has obviously been searching for an international solution to the upscale-sedan problem, and we are sufficiently encouraged by the results to judge the LeBaron GTS on the same set of international standards. Sure, confusion abounds, and Chrysler has deliberately contributed to it. Its showroom menu offers the LeBaron, which is the old, block-shaped K-car derivative with the loose-pillow upholstery meant for the traditional B-O-P buyer, and then this new LeBaron GTS (also a K-car derivative, though it is significantly farther down the evolutionary path), meant for the Audi-Volvo-Saab-Maxima-Cressida kind of yuppie. The difference between the two LeBarons is a whole lot more than the names would suggest. From an enthusiast’s point of view, the GTS is a real car, compared with the non-GTS version, which would make a smart lease ride for some computer-company executive. This is our highest compliment. Chrysler is on the real-car game board now, which is a tough league. You don’t just stroll onto this court and knock off the pros. And Chrysler hasn’t.
But the GTS doesn’t get skunked, either. The turbo 2.2-liter is a decent performer in view of its lack of an intercooler, an item of equipment that is becoming a common feature in this class. It’s relatively quiet as well, but the texture of its sound is unappealing, agricultural rather than visceral.
Chrysler more than covers the basics in roadholding by offering 205/60HR-15 Goodyear Eagle GT tires on 6.0-inch-wide alloy wheels. The adhesion is good, and the look is good. The GTS’s dynamics, however, don’t always live up to the car’s concept. If you just motor around as you would in the cream-puff LeBaron, you’ll think the GTS is a pretty rocky-riding car, and by cream-puff standards it is; but if you’re used to cars with aggressive tires, you probably will have no complaints. If you drive the GTS to the limit of the tires’ adhesion, however, you’ll notice an unwelcome dose of willy-nilly in the suspension. The straight-to-curve transition into corners at speeds the tires are easily capable of produces some wiggles in the steering that will stand the hair up on the back of your neck, particularly if the road is less than terrazzo-smooth. The front buckets don’t help much, either: the supportive firmness you feel in the showroom turns marshmallow when the side forces build, leaving you hanging on to the wheel to stay upright. Hurrying is not a lot of fun.
The stiff tires also show up the lack of structural rigidity in the body. You can feel the doors working in their openings and hear them rustling against the weatherstripping. Don’t get the wrong idea here. You expect some flex in a hatchback, and, by Detroit’s standards of just a few years ago, the GTS is a solid citizen. But today, we might ask for more starch.
The fun quotient of the drivetrain scores lower than we would hope, too. Chrysler has the notches and the nasties pretty well worked out of its cable-shifting mechanism now, but the feel is, well, like pulling cables rather than shifting gears. The clutch effort is on the grunt side, too. Then there is the matter of throttle response, never an easy matter with a turbo. Driving as though you were in a cream-puff LeBaron, there’s no problem making smooth shifts, but when you get the boost up, the engine responds abruptly to sudden openings and closings of the throttle, resulting in jerky shifts unless you concentrate more than is fun. Some makers do better on this matter.
Some do worse, too, which brings us to the final point. This Lancer/LeBaron GTS project is an ambitious one, a Chrysler attempt to build a Euro-style touring car. Pontiac has managed to do this with the 6000STE, Chevrolet is taking a shot with its Celebrity Eurosport, the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe is a solid hit, and now Chrysler is stepping into the batter’s box for its first try in what we enthusiasts would consider the major leagues. That the first swing produces a triple rather than a home run shouldn’t discourage anybody.
The LeBaron GTS Turbo is one year ahead of its time. That’s how long it will take GM and Ford to come up with anything close. Unfortunately, Chrysler too will need a year (or more) to rid this machine of the bugs it was born with. I’m talking buzzes and rattles, nothing really serious. For example, the clutch lets out an agonizing groan when you depress it at high rpm. The window seals whistle. The exhaust system fills the interior with sonic boom at certain speeds. The suspension occasionally feels soft when it should be firm, hard when it should be supple. The seats let you down in the hips.
I’m positive the right engineers could shape this car up quite nicely, given a generous year’s budget to do so. The size, weight, style, and horsepower essentials are all neatly in place, ready for the fairy godmother to come along and bestow true star quality on the LeBaron. I’m sure that Lido has her phone number, so let’s hope he reaches out for a little developmental magic. —Don Sherman
Chrysler does it again! Yet another new car based on the same bits and pieces that the New Chrysler Corporation inherited from the Old Chrysler Corporation. But the LeBaron GTS promises much more than that. Seen rolling by on the highway, it looks almost as fresh and exciting as the Chrysler minivans did a couple of years ago. It is a neat looking car, no question, and it has a number of endearing practical virtues. But why does it have to be so noisy in the lower gears? Why are the front seats so skimpy and lacking in support, lateral or otherwise? Why did I have a backache every mile that I drove it? Why is the shift linkage so vague and rubbery? Why isn’t it as nice to drive or to sit in as an Omni GLH?
Chrysler has spent enormous amounts of time, talent, and treasure to produce a car that’s a great leap forward in concept but a retrograde step in execution. It’s clear that their hearts were in the right places on this one, but we all know that the road to hell is paved with . . . —David E. Davis, Jr.
Heading to Europe on business and in a rush, I once handed in a story as rough as the LeBaron GTS Turbo I drove last night. I had worked myself ragged doing the research—a solid week of nights at the library, transatlantic telephone calls and interviews, the tedious double-checking of names, dates, and titles. All of the pieces were in order and the intent was pure, but I ran out of time, bundled the story together with baling wire and Band-Aids, and was off for the Continent. I’m here to tell of my shame only through the patience and forgiveness of my superiors.
One rewrite, guys; the LeBaron GTS needs a simple rewrite. As it lands, only the exterior can escape the blue-pencil treatment. Inside, we’re faced with a wraparound dash that ends in thin air, nicely shaped seats with side bolsters that dissolve under attack, a scrunchy shifter, a rock-hard clutch pedal, and an engine that sounds as if it were laundering peastone.
Now I know why Sherman was so mad at me. It’s discouraging to see the slipshod and unprofessional execution of a basically sound piece of work. —Jean Lindamood
1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $9659/$13,733
Options: luxury equipment group (power windows, locks, mirrors, and driver’s seat; tilt steering wheel; cruise control; rear defroster; console; light group; tinted glass; intermittent wipers; floor mats) $1288; air conditioning, $757; sport handling package, $688; 2.2-liter turbocharged engine, $610; electronic AM/FM-stereo radio/cassette, $515; rear wiper/washer, $125; leather steering wheel, $91.
turbocharged SOHC inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 135 in3, 2213 cm3
Power: 146 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
Suspension, F/R: control arms/trailing arms
Brakes, F/R: 10.2-in vented disc/8.0-in drum
Tires: Goodyear Eagle GT
Length: 180.3 in
Width: 68.5 in
Height: 52.9 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 53/45 ft3
Trunk Volume: 18 ft3
Curb Weight: 2844 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.2 sec @ 84 mph
100 mph: 26.6 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 15.7 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 13.3 sec
Top Speed: 115 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 202 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 17 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 19/29 mpg