Today’s Dodge Charger has a large following thanks to V-8 powertrains worthy of its Mustang counterparts, but how many Pentastar V-6 Chargers sell from the Hemi’s halo effect? Especially considering what the Dodge Viper did for the brand, the trickle-down effect of a flagship is a very real phenomenon. But what about another spicy offering that likely boosted sales of Dodge’s bread and butter Spirit sedan?
The story begins in 1981, when the much ballyhooed Chrysler K-car platform debuted with the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. The hype was so strong that both nameplates received a “K” suffix to ensure Americans knew what flowers blossomed from their bailout money. While the initial product’s merits are perhaps open to interpretation, these bones undoubtedly saved the company and were the right blueprint for the present and future of American motoring.
By 1989, the cornucopia of K-car derivatives spawned the “AA” bodied Dodge Spirit midsized family sedan. It was nothing outstanding until engineers had a little fun with Lotus R&D and some parts-bin Frankensteining to make a special R/T version.
Even with acceleration times slower than expected, Motorweek‘s Retro Road Test of the turbocharged, intercooled, Lotus twin-cammed, five-speed manual Dodge Spirit R/T shows why Chrysler claimed this was the fastest sedan in America: 6o mph happened in 6.4 seconds and the car traversed the quarter-mile at 15.1 seconds at a stunning 97 mph. With only one horsepower less (224) than the Mustang 5.0 of the era, the “Turbo III” mill transformed the Spirit into a potent machine, with front-wheel-drive torque steer to match. Handling via solid rear axle wasn’t up to par with the trend-setting Taurus SHO, and the lack of standard ABS braking certainly hampered things upon halting the turbo boosted fun.
While the basic, K-car derived underpinnings did many a North and South American buyer right, Motorweek pointed out another issue with this Q-ship: Aside from the modest rear lip spoiler, the cheaper ES-grade Spirit (above) looks like the R/T, right down to the fog-light equipped lower valence and 15-inch snowflake alloys. But the Taurus SHO and even the E34 BMW M5 deviated modestly from the fleet cars from whence they came, so perhaps the Spirit ES should be considered a cosmetic package waiting for the R/T performance to arrive in the coming years.
Is this the Spirit ES or the R/T? Flip through the 1990 Spirit brochure to know for sure. Spoiler: It’s just the ES. (But read the brochure anyway, because it’s sweet.) Which meant the R/T’s value pricing relative to other super sedans of the era was clear, right down to the afterthought rear door speakers shared with every other Spirit. At least Chrysler ensured all passenger cars had a standard driver’s side airbag, as that was not guaranteed elsewhere in the early 1990s.
The Dodge Spirit was a no-frills, honest family car, and the turbocharged Spirit R/T acted as a halo letting showroom foot traffic see the light.
Would you buy a Spirit, any Spirit, if you could afford the note on a Honda Accord? Not likely, but we must embrace high power offshoots of more basic transportation, be it an R/T tweaked Chrysler or today’s Tesla Model 3 Performance. And the people behind them should be celebrated too, especially when they promote the product in a time before CEOs gained fame via pithy, 280-character tweets.