I’ve always been surprised by how rabid a following the Chrysler K-Cars seem to have, but one thing that does not surprise me in the least is how un-rabid a following the K-Car’s follow up, the P-bodies, have. Or, don’t have. The P-body cars were the Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance, the darkness and light sides of who-gives-a-shit.
The Sundance and Shadow came about because Chrysler needed a way to replace the aging K-Cars without, you know, having to really spend the money to replace the K-Cars. The clean-sheet replacement for the compact Mopar cars wouldn’t come until the Neon in 1995. The Shadow and Sundance were built on modified K-Car platforms as a way to modernize the cars a bit and fill the gap until the new cars were ready.
The P-bodies actually had a touch shorter wheelbase than the K-Cars, but were heavier and looked bigger. The styling was all-new, but retained the K-Car’s phobia of curves and ingrained distaste of anything that anyone could consider actually interesting.
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The resulting cars had decent proportions, but were bland and pretty forgettable, even by the standards of mid-’80s American cars. The most exciting thing Chrysler could think of to say about the body design was that the cars were hatchbacks, but didn’t really look like it!
This, of course, played into Americans’ baffling distaste for hatchbacks, even though they’re so useful. The Sundance or Shadow finally allowed American buyers to revel in the decadent European delights of a hatchback, all without letting anyone know about their filthy practicality perversions.
The Sundance and Shadow were reasonably priced, and somehow Chrysler managed to lose money on every one, which seems sort of insane for a car that wasn’t even a new platform. You’d think they’d have taken better notes after their 1979 bailout, but, whatever. Money management is boring.
What makes these cars such beige-hot examples of mehtitude is that Chrysler really tried hard to make them drive and handle better than the aging K-Cars they were based on. They had anti-sway bars and gas struts and you can tell Chrysler was really trying to make these things engaging to drive.
Sadly, all the work and effort seemed to just get the old platform up to roughly the level of the competition, but by no means better. In short, a lot of work took them from crappy to just okay. That just kind of makes everything even sadder.
The engines were about the same story; fine, not great. The base engine was the same old 2.2-liter inline-four from the K-Cars, making a shoulder-shrugging 93 horsepower. A turbo version of the 2.5-liter version of the engine made 150 HP, pretty decent, and it was even possible, for one magic year in 1990, to get a 175 HP turbo 2.2-liter for the Shadow.
There was also a Mitsubishi-sourced V6 making 141 HP.
Really, the power output was probably the best thing about these cars, but even that wasn’t really enough. Well, maybe that and the seven year/70,000 mile warranty, which is always the fallback bragging point of a truly meh car.
The ad people didn’t really have much to grab onto with the Sundance or Shadow, so they sang terrible songs about ‘Pride,’ and how it’s back, and in America, or something.
They also mention “47 standard features” and then sort of illustrate them, which should give you an idea about how exciting these features were:
You’ll note that these features include such mind-scramblers as a clock, headlamps that expel beams of visible light, a rear hatch that can open, just like the hatch of, say, a freaking spaceship, and, best of all, side mirrors that can reflect your beautiful human face.
I had a friend who had one of these, a Sundance, and while I don’t think the car ever really let her down, man, was that thing devoid of any personality at all.
She was someone who bought cars like appliances, and even she found herself bored by the thing. This car was the automotive equivalent of the feeling you get when you tell someone something pretty upsetting about your dog’s illness or your recurring life failures, and they respond “Hey, that’s great!” making it abundantly clear that not only were they not paying attention, but they weren’t even paying attention that they weren’t paying attention.
The Dodge Shadow version was a bit more evocative for advertisers, who played up the car’s ability to scare dogs.
You get the feeling that even Chrysler was getting pretty bored with these things. For example, one of the changes for 1991 was...
new molded-in-color front and rear fascias with a “slight texture”
...which is about as phoned-in an improvement as you can imagine.
Over at Allpar, the one place on the web where you think someone might be able to get excited by a Dodge Shadow or Plymouth Sundance, what I imagine as the booming, authoritative Voice of Allpar has this to say about the cars:
Chrysler did not succeed in creating much “buzz” around the cars, despite the fast CSX and other turbocharged cars. Not investing in a fastback or true coupe may have hurt; the Duster was simply an option and trim package, and stripped of the paint and decals, was identical to the standard car. To the press, the Sundance and Shadow were “just another old K-car” and the CSX was generally ignored by most mainstream media.
There you go. “Generally ignored.” “Not much ‘buzz’.” Remember, that’s from a one of the biggest Mopar enthusiast sites out there. It’s hard to imagine a bigger endorsement of a meh car than that.