This is Endangered Species: the column where we talk about cars that you just don’t see anymore and why they’re not around. After writing my latest rant, I decided to talk about one of the most 80s-ish vehicles ever built: The Chrysler K car.
The Chrysler K car has gotten a substantial amount of press recently. A few years ago, Tyler Hoover bought a terrible example of my third favorite K (the LeBaron Convertible) and buried it. It’s also the platform that’s brought up in literally any discussion about ‘Car Czar’ Lee Iacocca.
So what happened to Chrysler K cars? K cars and their derivatives were ubiquitous in the 1980s, but they’ve largely disappeared from the secondhand car market—and I’m here to argue that it might be by design.
ORIGINS OF THE CHRYSLER K CAR
The market for 80s classics has gotten hot in the past half-decade or so. Its largely dominated by the likes of old Mercedes, BMWs, Volvos, trucks, and Toyotas. Even floaty GM G-body vehicles have gone up in value. What do these vehicles have in common? They were all built pretty well.
All older cars have problems—but the 80s cars that are around and popular today were generally overbuilt. They were also somewhat expensive when produced. Owners had an incentive to keep these cars around because a high initial purchase price could justify repairs, and they didn’t happen often. The Chrysler K car was different.
CHRYSLER K CAR SPECS, MODELS, AND FEATURES
The Chrysler K car was designed to be an economy car. It had limited engine choices, but the stock powertrain was perfectly adequate for what the car did. The Chrysler K car came with a dinky four-cylinder engine that claimed between 30 and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. Chrysler produced the original K-platform vehicles between 1981 and 1989. The mid-sized K car was succeeded by the C-platform and the AS-platform for minivans.
By the mid-1980s, four Chrysler K cars dominated the econocar market. These were the Dodge Aries, the Plymouth Reliant, the Dodge 400, and the Chrysler LeBaron. The Aries and Reliant were the standard entry-level K cars. As the 80s wore on, Chrysler shocked the market with a LeBaron convertible. It was the first American drop-top in years. The Dodge 400 became the ‘sporty’ version, and with it came the long-lived Chrysler ‘ES’ sport appearance package.
ARE CHRYSLER K CARS RELIABLE?
The Chrysler K car was reliable when it was new. Today, there’s no reason why a K car can’t be reliable. Reliability depends on how well the car was taken care of. But remember that in many cases, it seems like the car was designed to fail after about 50,000 miles. If you find a good one and you’re willing to put in the work, you can certainly make an old K car reliable. And if it was taken care of, it’ll be like any other car, so just drive it.
CHRYSLER K CAR POWERTRAIN
Chrysler K platform cars got really good mileage, even by today’s standards. Chrysler Corporation offered two engine choices. The base model K car came with either a Chrysler 2.2-liter or a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Higher trim versions came with an optional 2.6-liter HEMI Mitsubishi four-cylinder, which produced more power.
Towards the end of the K-car production run (1987 to 1989), Chrysler also offered a 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V6 engine. The K car was available with a manual transmission or an automatic transmission.
All K cars were front-wheel drive, an unusual feature for 1980s American cars but the start of a trend that’s still with us today.
CHRYSLER K CAR BODY STYLES
The Chrysler K car came in a variety of body styles too. The Dodge Aries, for example, was available as a sporty looking (but not sporty) two-door coupe. The most popular Dodge Aries body style was the four-door sedan, followed by a delightfully practical four-door station wagon.
CHRYSLER K CAR MINIVAN
The Chrysler K car wasn’t limited to small passenger cars. As if to rub it in GM’s face, Chrysler introduced Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager (pictured above) minivans in 1984. The K car minivan proved that the platform was almost universally useful. The Chrysler minivan itself was a revolutionary vehicle, and defined a new era in vehicle production.
SPORTS K CARS AND THE SHELBY K CAR
1987 marked the introduction of the sporty new K car. And yes, there was actually a high-performance Shelby Lancer available with a five-speed manual transmission and more horsepower.
Along with the Shelby lancer, Chrysler offered additional high-performance packages on its existing K car lineup. By 1988, you could buy a sports version of the Dodge Shadow, LeBaron Coupe, Plymouth Sundance, and even the LeBaron convertible.
CHRYSLER K CARS IN MOVIES
If you’re just learning about the Chrysler K car platform, you’ll probably begin noticing an occasional Dodge Aries or Plymouth Reliant wagon in 1980s movies. The first notable example above is the red Dodge Aries sedan from John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985). Below, we have the ‘cool’ Chrysler LeBaron convertible from Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985).
CHRYSLER K CAR WARRANTY
At the time the Chrysler K cars were built, they actually came with an industry-leading five-year or 50,000-mile warranty. This was Lacocca’s rebuttal against Quality problems that were persistent before the company was restructured.
Now on the surface of it, having the biggest and baddest warranty in the game sounds impressive. But what it actually means is that Chrysler’s confidence in the reliability of its cars ended at around five years or 50,000 miles.
Economic cars of the 1980s (Chrysler K cars were the literal definition of an economy car) were even more disposable than today’s cheap vehicles.
Detroit’s finest econoboxes were generally even expected to make it to 100,000 miles, and they were so cheap that nobody cared. Yes, the famously long-lived imports of the 70s and 80s were starting to become popular. But they just hadn’t been around long enough to get the 300k-mile reputation that old Honda and Toyota vehicles have today.
WHAT MADE THE K CAR SUCCESSFUL?
The Chrysler K car was an advanced car for MOPAR by the standard of the times. It popularized front-wheel drive in domestic vehicles, and was one of the first mass-market American turbo cars. The platform itself underpinned everything from convertibles to the original minivan. These are all reasons why the Chrysler K car was successful. It was incredibly versatile, as seen by the K car Chrysler Executive limousine below.
But all that R&D money had to be recouped somehow, and they accomplished that by building them like banker’s boxes instead of bank vaults.
The Chrysler K car is a perfect case study in planned obsolescence. They were built to be reliable until a year or two after the warranty ran out. And by then, most people were ready to buy a new car anyway. All this means that they aren’t really around on the secondhand market today.
WHAT HAPPENED TO K CARS?
Most of the Chrysler K-series cars were junked sometime between the launch of the Neon and Cash for Clunkers. In other words, they were “normal” cars and people drove the wheels off them. And given their low entry price, there was really no reason to continue with upkeep (especially during a time when the average American bought a new car every 3 or 4 years).
Chrysler K cars were perfectly good cars at the time. Their simple styling and amazing visibility are a nice contrast to the modern slough of compact crossover hatchbacks. Yes, they were advanced cars in 1985, but nobody thought these things were going to be future classics.
SHOULD I BUY A CHRYSLER K CAR?
Time for the big question: should you buy a Chrysler K car? If you just want a nice little car to run around in, or an old minivan to haul firewood, it’s not the worst option. People are already starting to bring Chrysler K Cars to shows. Plus, old economy cars like the Falcon and Corvair have started going up in value. And though it’ll probably never be worth as much as other classic cars, it’s still an interesting and fun vehicle to have.
If you like what the K cars are about, you’re a decent driveway mechanic; a Chrysler K car could be the grocery-getter for you. Cars like this aren’t amazing behind the wheel, but they’re not bad as far as cheap, honest transportation goes.
The styling also gives new meaning to “it’s hip to be square,” and that aesthetic is definitely in right now. And when it comes to ride comfort, it’s tough to beat the ‘floaty boat’ suspension of Chrysler K cars and similar vehicles. All this being said, you’ll have to find one first.
So should you buy a Chrysler K car? Yes, we think so. Check out the Regular Car Reviews video on the Reliant K wagon above.