Midsize muscle: The fabulous, the forgotten, and the flops
Enhancing performance on full-size cars was common in the 1960s, when cars like the Mercury Marauder and Buick Wildcat prowled American parkways and interstates. The practice had disappeared by the early ’80s, when it reappeared on a number of midsize sedans. As foreign automakers were wooing car buyers and gaining market share, American automakers responded by attempting to add a dash of European élan to their plebeian midsize four-doors.
Some were fabulous, some forgotten, and some clearly misguided. But all were fascinating. Let’s take a ride back to the 1980s.
1983–89 Pontiac 6000 STE
Even though the 6000 STE’s parts weren’t all that different from similar offerings from Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick, its execution was. “The Pontiac 6000STE stands head and shoulders above every other Detroit sedan, including its fellow General Motors front-drive A-cars,” David E. Davis, the dean of automotive journalists, wrote in Car and Driver in 1985. “It is a sedan that can hold its head high in any automotive society.” With its six front lights and two-tone paint, the STE was distinctive. Yet its powertrain was Chevy’s anemic 2.8-liter V-6, rated at 130 horsepower and mated to a three-speed automatic. Yes, it had the expected suspension and styling tweaks of its A-car cousins, and it was the most popular in its segment, accounting for nearly 16 percent of Pontiac 6000 buyers in 1984. Anti-lock brakes were added in 1986, with a suspension retune and the addition of all-wheel drive, the first in a GM car, in 1988.
While other American automakers adored square shouldered styling, the 1986 Ford Taurus embraced an aerodynamic future with a stylish vengeance. Its image was enhanced with the debut of the high-performance SHO in 1989. Short for Super High Output, the SHO had one of the few American engines that was beguiling to behold. Designed by Yamaha, the double-overhead-cam 3.0-liter V-6 produced a healthy 220 horsepower, and was mated exclusively to a Mazda-built five-speed manual. Performance upgrades include four-wheel disc brakes, upgraded suspension, dual exhaust, 15-inch performance tires, aluminum wheels, and a ground effects package. Inside, drivers were treated to a 140-mph speedometer, sport seats with lumbar support, center console, gauge package, and a host of driver convenience features. While the SHO outsold its midsize performance predecessor, the LTD LX, in pure numbers, as percentage of sales the SHO equaled its older cousin.
1985 Ford LTD LX
Not to be confused with the full-size LTD Crown Victoria, this one-year-only midsize sedan is the most overlooked performance Ford of the 1980s. Like the Mustang GT, the midsize LTD rode on the Fox platform and employed the same performance goodies. So it’s no wonder that the LX was powered by a high-output 5.0-liter V-8 that generated 165 hp. Styling upgrades included a sportier grille, red and black styling accents, twin exhaust extensions, and unique wheels. Inside, bucket seats, console, and floor-mounted shifter separated the LX from its more plebeian cousins. This model accounted for 5.3 percent of sales—not stellar, but not bad for a model with little marketing, one about to be replaced by the far more popular Ford Taurus.
1987 Dodge Shelby Lancer
The sportiest version of Chrysler Corporations H-platform, this stretched K-Car yielded the five-door Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS. Unlike other cars here, the specs matched those of European sports sedans. To emphasize the point, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca brought in his ol’ pal Carroll Shelby to build his own version. Modifying the suspension, adding four-wheel disc brakes and using the turbocharged intercooled 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine used in other Shelby Chrysler vehicles, this Lancer yielded 175 hp. Mated to a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission, 0–60 mph came up in 7.7-seconds, with a 1/4-mile run of 15.7 seconds at 89 mph. A mere 800 were built before being replaced by a factory-built car, the Lancer Shelby, which lacked some important Shelby mods, such as the rear disc brakes. Consider the later models posers to the real deal, the 1987 model.
1983–87 Buick Century T-Type
Say “Buick Century” and most buyers think of sedate senior shuttles. But in an ill-advised attempt to woo a younger consumer, the Century received a sporty T-Type model boasting black styling accents, T-Type badges, special 14-inch aluminum wheels, front bucket seats, and a center console. A Gran Touring suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, revised shocks, and upgraded springs might have improved handling, but the Century’s 3.0-liter V-6 produced a measly 110 hp through a four-speed automatic transmission. The following year, Buick’s normally aspirated 3.8-liter V-6 was optional, but only added 15 horses. Buyers were underwhelmed. In 1986, for example, sales accounted for 2.2 percent of the Century sedans built. Clearly, this T-Type was no Grand National.
1983–87 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ES/GT
Like Buick, Oldsmobile was looking to attract BMW-loving yuppies to its showrooms with a sporting version of its midsize Ciera sedan. Dubbed the ES, it exchanged chrome for black trim and banished the whitewall tires, while adding bucket seats, a front center console with floor shifter, gauge package, and a sport steering wheel. Mechanical changes were less dramatic, aside from a sportier F41 handling suspension. Engine choices mimicked the Buick Century’s. In 1985, Oldsmobile added a GT package, but sales were minimal—and it’s no wonder. For a division still selling Broughams, Supremes, and Holiday Coupes with vinyl roofs, this model was a charade.
1984–90 Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport
Like Buick and Oldsmobile, Chevrolet had its more athletic version of the A-body sedan, the lamely named Eurosport. In an attempt to convince buyers that this wasn’t your average Chevrolet, giant Eurosport decals decorated the front doors. Blackout trim and 14-inch wheels completed the styling upgrades. Like other A-cars, the Eurosport had GM’s F41 sports suspension. Chevy’s optional 2.8-liter V-6 produced a feeble 112 hp, although it did mate to a four-speed automatic transmission. A 92-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine was standard, although it could be fitted with a four-speed manual rather than a three-speed automatic. By 1987, Europsport buyers could get a Getrag five-speed manual, but horsepower was still a mere 135. European automakers did not feel threatened.