1989 Dodge Spirit

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Asking Price Range
$967–$2,287
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Expert Reviews

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chicagotribune.com
We suspected something odd was up when Chrysler said it was going to discontinue the Dodge Aries and replace it with something called Spirit.

Aries had become a household word. Everyone knew about the Aries K-car and how along with its cousin, Plymouth Reliant, it had saved the automaker from bankruptcy.

Lee Iacocca, after having fathered the Mustang for Ford, sired the Aries/ Reliant for Chrysler, a move that eventually made Iacocca one of the world`s bestselling authors, one of the more recognizable television pitchmen and only a nomination and several million votes shy of taking up residence in D.C.

Sure, the Aries had numerous squeaks and rattles, an underpowered engine, sloppy suspension, noisy transmission and spartan features. But it sold well among the blue-collar crowd, those who root for the underdog and who bought the vehicle more as an act of faith in Iacocca than out of wisdom about cars. Yet, Aries had to step aside for Spirit, another oddity in that Chrysler didn`t name it LeBaron.

Aries was long in the tooth at a time when the Chevrolet Corsica and Beretta, Pontiac Grand Am and Ford Tempo were new or freshly restyled.

Enter what Chrysler calls the ``New Spirit of Dodge.``

Catchy slogan for what turns out to be a rather classy car. We fully expected Spirit to be no more than an Aries with a few baubles and a higher price tag. We were pleasantly surprised.

Whereas Aries was burdened with squeaks and rattles; Spirit is quiet. Aries` 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine was underpowered; Spirit`s turbocharged 2.5-liter 4 can slap you back into the seat. Aries` suspension was built on mush; Spirit`s hugs the pavement. Aries` transmission would whine and cry; Spirit`s talks in whispers. Aries` interior looked like it was fitted in a blue-light special; Spirit`s looks like it was fitted by a blue blood.

Spirit is a four-door, front-wheel-drive sedan offered in three series- base, LE and top-of-the-line ES. All are built on a 103.3-inch wheelbase and are 181.2 inches long. That compares with a 100.3-inch wheelbase and 178.6-inch length on the Aries.

The extra inches are more than noticeable. Plenty of room front and rear, with especially ample head and leg room in back. A little styling trickery accounts for the abundant space. The seats sit low in the car to guarantee added head room and the seat bottom is chopped off a bit so it stops well up the thigh and not behind the knee.

The shortened seat forces the occupant to bring those legs back rather than stretch them out. Good thing, because the lip on the bottom of both front seats keeps rear-seat occupants from slipping feet very far underneath.

The trunk is large if not really deep, but the floor is flat to allow easy luggage carrying. The rear seat backs fold individually if you need more cargo carrying capacity or want to carry the skis inside where midnight shoppers won`t notice them.

The Spirit ES is loaded with lots of little goodies that show Chrysler paid attention to detail and abandoned the spartan routine. For example: When you engage a latch in the rear door, the locks become child proof; a dual cupholder pulls out from the center console for rear-seat occupants; a second dual cupholder in the center console along with coin holder and hidden stowage compartment serves front-seat occupants; when equipped with power windows, the rear window slides all the way down, not halfway; and a handy cassette holder is in the glovebox.

Then, too, controls easily are seen, reached and used. Lights are controlled by a pullout/push-in knob, which is simple but practical for knowing when the system is on or off. And the parking brake is engaged by foot. There`s no room-robbing lever between driver and front seat passenger to pull and release.

One item probably will be overlooked by most until used, but it is worth no ing and merits Chrysler designers an ``atta boy`` or ``atta person.``

The Spirit doors open very wide. Not so much that if you park between two cars you won`t be able to get out. Rather they offer a spacious opening for occupants to enter or exit the car without having to suck in the gut and tuck chin against tummy to plop into the seat. Rear seat entry is especially roomy. It appears women could enter the back seat in their finest gowns without having to carry an iron to make a quick repair at their destination. What would make the care taken for rear seat entry better would be for Chrysler to move or remove that unsightly and dirt/grease catching hinge from its current location on the door frame.

Chrysler also paid its typical attention to detail under the hood, a safe, spring-held unit and not a guillotine prop job. The oil filter and spark plugs are within a short reach. Even if you don`t do-it-yourself, the handy location of key components will make it a simpler task for your favorite mechanic and less costly for you.

Spirit ES comes with a sports suspension that takes about all the bumps and twists you can feed it and still hugs the road. Take a tight corner at speed, however, and you`ll feel a little body lean. This isn`t a $30,000 coupe, after all, but rather a $12,000 sedan. The power steering system is a cut above the ordinary. It moves quickly based on only fingertip directional input. The power steering on the Honda Prelude has been the best we`ve experienced. The Spirit ranks a close second.

Chrysler boasts that more than 50 features are standard in the Spirit, such as power brakes and steering, all-season radial tires, AM stereo-FM stereo radio with digital clock, stainless steel exhaust, remote fuel filler door and trunk lid release, sport steering wheel, full console with storage bin, child-proof rear door locks, cup/cassette holders, visor vanity mirrors and gas charged shocks.

TheLE adds tilt steering, cruise control, tinted glass and driver`s seat adjustable lumbar support, and the SE adds 15-inch all-season performance tires, cast aluminum wheels, driving lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, AM/FM with cassette and trip computer to name a few.

Spirit, however, isn`t utopia. It`s superior to Aries, but there are some annoyances as well as a gripe or two. A few well meaning changes could make this car better.

Spirit offers three engines, a 100-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder; the 2.5 with turbocharging that boasts 150 h.p.; and a 3-liter, 141-h.p. V-6 built by Mitsubishi. A 5-speed manual is teamed with each except the V-6, which is offered with a only 4-speed automatic.

We drove the Spirit ES with the 2.5 turbo and 5-speed manual. We consider a turbo to be no more than a crutch without which engine wouldn`t do justice to the car.

There`s no turbo whistle and little if any turbo lag with the 5-speed. With some modi fications to the waste gate, the turbo provides higher initial peak boost from a standing start. You seem to snap off the line and speed shifting definitely will nudge you back into the seat.

But it would be nice if Chrysler had an engine generating that power without the added maintenance cost of a turbo, which requires more frequent oil and filter changes.

A Mitsubishi-built 3-liter V-6 is optional ($615), as is automatic transmission ($536). A Chrysler-built 3.3-liter V-6 will be offered in selected Chrysler vehicles in 1990, but it`s unlikely the Spirit will be a beneficiary in the 3.3`s first year on the market.

We`d like to see a more powerful, nonturbo, domestically built and not imported engine in a car that`s supposed to represent ``the spirit of Dodge`` and therefore the ``Spirit of America.``

Perhaps our biggest gripe with Spirit is styling. There`s a body colored plastic air dam, body colored grille and bodied colored wraparoundfac a front and rear. A plastic strip runs along the lower body sill and wheels are color keyed. Nice, but Pontiac did that with the Grand Am SE.

And all that plastic is only on the ES. The base and LE Spirit don`t carry those frills. Spirit is neither a head turner nor an eye popper. After coming up with a vehicle as attractive as the LeBaron coupe, we expected more out of Chrysler with the Dodge Spirit.

But Chrysler in part made up for the lackluster look of the sheet metal with an attractive window sticker. The base Spirit starts at $9,995, the LE at $11,195 and the ES at $12,495.

>> 1989 Dodge Spirit ES Wheelbase: 103.3 inches Length: 181.2 inches Engine: 2.5 liter, 150 h.p., turbo four Transmission: 5-speed manual; automatic optional Fuel economy: 20/29 manual; 19/24 automatic Base price: $12,495 Strong point: K-car grows up Weak point: Deadly dull design >>

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