The Rad Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS Were Like SRT-4s of the ’80s
The other Lancer that was Chrysler's hot subcompact in the '80s.
We’re all quite familiar with the legendary Mitsubishi Lancer, particularly turbocharged Evolution models with big power and big wings. But did you know there was also a Lancer from an assembly line in Michigan? Oh yeah, and it carried its own unique performance tuning history! Well, a minuscule amount of performance tuning history, but nonetheless it was a thing.
I’m talking about the Dodge Lancer: Chrysler’s H-platform entry in the reasonably-priced compact car segment for the 1980s. This was a longer-wheelbase version of the venerable K-platform and was around for just about five years.
The Dodge Lancer badge itself had actually been around for a while, since 1955 in fact. The first two generations that lasted up until 1962 were cool, but I’d like to focus on the badge’s big comeback in 1984.
What a time the early-to-mid ’80s were for turbocharging. The Saab 99 set the precedent in the late ’70s, The Audi Urquattro was kicking ass in rally, the Lotus Esprit gained a non-intercooled snail in 1980, the L-body Dodge Omni had one bolted on in 1985; the turbo was (and still very much is) the answer to everybody’s OEM-sourced need for speed.
Dodge blessed the H-platform with turbocharging, too. It offered a naturally-aspirated engine, but the turbo was where it was at. My mother actually had one in the late ’80s until the turn of the ’90s, I think it was a Lancer ES as it was turbocharged and automatic. Can’t recall if it was any fun to ride around in, though. But I know for sure it wasn’t a Shelby.
Wait, what? Ah yes: There was a Shelby Lancer and a Lancer Shelby. The former was shipped to Shelby and tuned in-house at their facility in SoCal (they made a total of 800), the Lancer Shelby was outfitted with Shelby bits within Dodge’s assembly in Michigan. Production numbers were lean, and it seems like people remember the Daytona and its Shelby variant better than the Shelby Lancer/Lancer Shelby.
The Lancer and its H-Body sibling the Chrysler LeBaron GTS (all non-GTS LeBarons were K-Platform, by the way) were marketed as “the sports car for kids with kids of their own” means it was a roomy four-door sport compact for its time, kind of like that era’s 10th-gen Civic Si sedan (underrated car, by the way).
Focusing on its performance, the Lancer ES was no slouch for its era: its turbocharged, 2.2-liter, inline-four single-cam engine claimed 146 horsepower. This enabled it to hit 60 MPH in 8.1 seconds when equipped with a manual transmission. Three-speed auto-equipped models hit the mark in 9.3. Whew, back when slush boxes truly were slush boxes! Apparently Car and Driver praised it for its smooth power delivery, good highway and track performance, and found it rode very well.
Meanwhile the LeBaron GTS actually out-accelerated, out-maneuvered, and out-braked some of the European competition at the time, including the Mercedes 190E and BMW 528e. Not bad for an front-wheel drive American car. That’s right, all H-bodies were FWD, and all were semi-independent front suspension with trailing arm rear suspension. They had mildly sporty suspension as standard to improve, well, sportiness, though were still regarded as a having cushy, American-friendly ride. A Sport Handling Package was available to base Lancers and LeBaron GTSs to tighten things up a bit more and increase its footprint on the road. The Lancer ES actually had this as standard.
The body style was pretty plain. It came in a four-door, mildly-hatchback-looking body, and had quintessential Chrysler/Dodge design language of the time, though with some sporty bits here and there. Naturally, the Shelbys were significantly-sportier looking.
It’s pretty cool that Chrysler built something to compete with the Europeans in the smallish-sporty space. It was able to out-performed them (on paper, at least), and all all it took was a single-cam lump of an engine, front-wheel drive, and rear trailing arm suspension – all bolted up to a stretched-out K-platform.
It’s sort of a bummer that these things had such a short life, but so it goes. I guess the flavor and styling of the European compact sport sedans just had better staying power. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much about actual production numbers or sales figures for the LeBaron GTS or Dodge Lancer and I can’t remember the last time I saw one on the road. It doesn’t look like they were ever raced, either, though I’m sure a few Shelbys saw a fair share of drag racing.
One could call the Lancer ES the precursor to the… now I know this sounds wild, but just think of it… Dodge Neon SRT-4. Well, maybe a far-removed precursor, more like a great-grandparent. It looks like the legend of the H-body has lived on! Check out this thread on the turbododge.com forum for what people have been up to with them since 1989. Though, it’s hard to tell what kind of action these cars have seen over the past couple of years. Apparently cheap turbo upgrades are available?