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MOPAR or No Car: Which Of These Chrysler K-Cars Would You Take Over Walking?

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I felt a bit bad for Chrysler last week. Two brutal losses, right in a row. We here at Shitbox Showdown are Pentastar fans (sympathizers?) from way back, and we wanted to make sure the company at least got a participation trophy this week. So today, your choice is Mopar or No Car.

First, there is the small matter of David’s sanity as it relates to two prospective project cars. Let’s see how the votes came out:

Of course. It wasn’t even a contest, really. Nor was it a fair comparison – that dusty T-bird isn’t even in the same league as the Corvair. So we’re going to leave this result out of Friday’s matchup, leaving just three cars to vie for Shitbox Of The Week. What is interesting about these results is that “Dude needs to stop buying cars” also beat out the Thunderbird, and it might be the best advice of all. [Editor’s note: As I am a cheap bastard, I actually contacted the T-bird owner. It was a one-owner car with an amazing interior for $1800 OBO! -DT]

And now, this:


“If you can find a better car,” Lee Iacocca told Americans in 1982, regarding Chrysler’s K-cars, “buy it.” Despite this advice, millions of people bought one anyway. (I kid, I kid; I’m actually a big fan of Chrysler’s K-era.) As a result of this success, those millions of K-cars became millions of used K-cars, and then a funny thing happened: they aged into really good beaters. Second (or third, or seventh) owners who skipped the depreciation line and bought an old Reliant or LeBaron from a used car lot were rewarded with a decent, sturdy, cheap car that didn’t require a lot of maintenance and wasn’t especially prone to rust. (I’ve even had a few of them myself, over the years.)

But nothing lasts forever, and the days of the $2,000 used K-car are gone. Or are they? To find out, I conducted an exhaustive, nationwide, thirty-minute search of Craigslist ads, and found… two. And one of them isn’t even technically a K-car; it’s a AA-car, but let’s not split taxonomic hairs. It’s pretty much the same thing.

And here they are:

1988 Dodge Aries Wagon – $2,500

K-car Dodge Aries Wagon left front three-quarter view

Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter overhead-cam inline 4, 3-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Concord, CA

Odometer reading: 118,000 miles

Runs/drives? Doesn’t expressly say it, but “passed smog” is a good indicator


If you can find a more generic wagon than this, you’re looking harder than I ever could. The Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, especially the post-1985 facelift ones like this, are so generic-looking that they were actually used in stock photos as generic cars quite often in the ’80s and ’90s, with the Chrysler Pentastar removed. It is the ultimate expression of form following function, and personally, I kinda love it for that, especially the wagons like this. It’s a box with an engine at the front. It opens in the back to hold stuff. What is this, rocket science? It just works.

K-car Dodge Aries Wagon interior

This one seems to be in quite good shape. The paint is shiny, the interior looks practically new, and while there aren’t any underhood photos, I’m sure that throttle-body fuel injected 2.2 is “honestly dirty,” with a few new shiny parts scattered about, and a stack of service stickers on the radiator support, probably all filled out by the same mechanic over the years. (“Don’t let anybody but Hector work on my car; he’s the only one who does it right.” You know how it goes, especially among folks who write their Craigslists posts in all caps.)

K-car Dodge Aries Wagon side view

Actually, for $2500, I’d be interested in this myself if I were looking for a car right now. (I don’t just buy them willy-nilly like certain editors I could mention). Yeah, they’re slow and boring to look at, and boring to drive, but there’s a homeyness, an earnestness, to these cars that’s hard to quantify, but if you get it, you get it. A nice reliant automobile, even though this particular one is an Aries.

1989 Plymouth Acclaim Turbo – $2,100

Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter turbocharged OHC inline 4, 3-speed automatic, FWD

Location: outside Harrisburg, PA

Odometer reading: 120,000 miles

Runs/drives? Current daily driver, according to seller


The Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim were the replacements for the Aries/Reliant. This 1989 example is a first-year model, and thanks to a factory turbocharged engine, has a bit more oomph than the standard K-cars — about 50 horsepower (coincidentally also about 50%)  more. Not an insignificant boost for those days. The motor also gained a balance shaft to take out some of the buzziness inherent in 4-bangers. The basic chassis didn’t change much from the K-platform on which it was based: It’s still front wheel drive and still features McPherson struts in the front suspension and a solid beam axle at the rear, but a bunch of little refinements and lessons learned over eight years of production made the “AA-body” (as the Acclaim is known in Chrysler-speak) a nicer car than its predecessor.

This car also looks quite nice still, except for some minor rust and a case of “clear-coat eczema” on the hood. The bucket seats and floor-mounted shifter are just a little bit sportier than the old-person bench in the Aries (but don’t be fooled – this is no sports sedan), and the alloy wheels are a nice touch. The power windows need a little attention, but on cars this old they usually do.

Mechanically, it sounds like this Acclaim is in good shape, with a recently-rebuilt “Torqueflite” automatic transmission, and lots of work to the cooling system (a K-car Achilles heel), exhaust, brakes, and suspension. This is also the seller’s daily driver, so clearly he trusts it, which is a good sign.

Say what you will, make all the jokes you want; these K-cars saved Chrysler. Without these, you have no Neon ACR, no Prowler, no modern Hemi, no Hellcat Redeye. And, probably, no Jeep, because the K-cars were enough of a success to allow Chrysler to rescue AMC, and Jeep along with it, from oblivion in 1987 [Editor’s note: Jeep would have been fine. The XJ was crushing it; someone would have bought the brand]. So here’s to the humble K. Maybe you can’t find a better car. Which one would you choose? 

Images: Sellers
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64 Responses

  1. First, I love this shot box series.

    Second; It’s funny, I was just talking about this with my wife. Her Mom went from a Volvo to a Turbo spirit and she remembers the change fondly as an upgrade. The spirit felt quicker to her, delivered a decent radio, was comfortable. And served her single mom well for years.

    Auto aesthetes have ripped on 80’s Chryslers for years. But the 2.2/3 spd torqueflight was a solid combination for the era, reliable and decently economical. Throw a turbo on and for its time it was quick. The interiors were plain but nice and functional.

    For those of us who grew up riding in back seats during the era of high double digit 0-60 times abs Toyotas so rusty they crunched, the K-car class was a nice upgrade cheaper than most of the competition, that would last you a long time.

    I’d buy either one of these.

  2. Much as I hate to, I will have to vote for the wagon. I don’t share most of your readers affinity for wagons. I just don’t like them. Still, the turbo/automatic combination is too much to swallow.

  3. I voted for the wagon as it a bit more usable space. As a beater/backup it can work. The back can become a hardware store or light dump runner.

    Sure neither one will win an award, but these are basic A to maybe B options.

  4. My father had an ’83 Reliant K-car. Holy crackers that thing was bad. The engine struggled to spin high enough to make it to the next gear and when it did, the next gear was so low that the engine struggled to stay in that gear, let alone accelerate if there was even the slightest incline (or headwind). Steering was noisy, suspension springy (uncontrolled and harsh), and brakes had a tendency to reverse the orientation of the car on icy roads. Actually the braking on icy roads was a plus. You impacted cars butt to butt, thus making the impact better than hitting your face on the steering wheel.

    Those in the late 80s weren’t much better, but the addition of a turbo was helpful, when the turbo system was working. Turbo longevity was not a thing.

    That flipping car left scars mentally.

  5. Imagine a world where the K-car was a flop. Chrysler would die then Jeep would have been up for sale. If GM had bought it, they would have absolutely destroyed the brand as only GM can do. The Wrangler would have become a FWD based unibody CUV by now. Just like the Blazer.

  6. Apparently I’m the only one with an inexplicable fondness for the Spirit and Acclaim.

    Also late ’80s/early ’90s Chrysler clearcoats just started to disintegrate right from the factory didn’t they?

  7. A buddy had a used Acclaim in college. It was bulletproof. We drove that thing back and forth across the USA a few times without a single problem. It went to a mechanic exactly once in those years when us knuckleheads couldn’t get it done ourselves. Solid car. Better than walking.

  8. Here’s the problem with old cars that were turbocharged and were equipped with automatic transmission: as soon as you reach the RPMs needed to get some boost, the gearbox will change into the next gear, it’s a really bad combination. Sure you can use the selector to avoid automatic up shifts, but the automatic boxes of this generation weren’t designed to be used like that, it’s no fun.

    1. True, but where it was useful was passing gear, especially on two-lane roads. It was nice to be able to pull out, stomp on it, have it kick down a gear, and get some actual acceleration instead of just more noise like so many cars back then. 0-60 wasn’t great, but 50-70 was eye-opening if you were used to eighty horsepower slugs. Very useful on the back roads of Minnesota and Wisconsin back when I had my ’84 Laser XE turbo.

  9. Everybody likes to dump on these cars, but TRUTH IS, they were well put together for the price point and deserve a lot more love than they get. From the ash dump that was ‘old’ Chrysler, and ahead of the competition, came the Horizon/Omni twins that led to the K-Car revolution. Dirty little secret: I almost bought a Reliant K wagon (and went for the Malibu when they threw in the floor mats WTF was I thinking except my conservative father was a ‘GM guy’)… and to this day I truly regret not buying that car. Subsequently I owned (2) Lancer ES’s 2.0T and they were great! My mechanic at the time LOVED the turbo engines– he said they are so easy to pop the top and get to the bearings, one of the simplest and most elegant designs of the time.

  10. The wagon, not just because of the wagon-ness but because it’s the last model year of its’ run (there were ’89 Aries and Reliants but the wagon peaced out a year early) and you can’t get more ’80s than metallic champagne beige with a maroon velour interior.

  11. I went for the wagon – because it’s a wagon and brown ;). Seriously, if I’m going to drive a shitbox, it might as well be useful, and the wagon actually holds quite a bit.
    We had a few Omni’s and TC3’s back in the day – nothing inspiring, but not horrible, either given my dad’s dubious car choices. His last, however was a ’92 Acclaim. So much meh. Base engine on the 3-speed auto. It was a car, and that’s about all you could say. The turbo with the auto would takes a meh car and just amplify the sadness.

  12. Definitely the Aries wagon. Those early K cars had a solid little-old-person reputation in my hometown’s more blue collar suburbs. Did you turn 65? Here’s your complementary Entertainment ’87 coupon book, lamp for your living room picture window, and sky blue Aries or Reliant sedan. Today, I get the warm-and-fuzzies whenever I see a survivor in the wild.

  13. I’d go wagon because its a wagon, but in this case the wagon also look like it was one of the best cared for Aries wagons ever. Meanwhile the Acclaim with its after market wheels and “Dodge” sticker makes me think it was hooned.

  14. Walking is safer and cheaper. I owned an Aries wagon, in a flesh tan color, similar to the one in the article. It had vinyl seats, not that red coffin liner crap. I could run up a highway ramp faster than that POS. It was made to be used for 3 years, then crushed. This one and its AA cousin should be too. NO ONE should ever have to suffer the stigma of owning such a trashmobile. There is not enough hate in the universe to express my loathing for these cars.

  15. I’ve some fondness for the Aries, having driven a friend’s in high school circle early 2000s. Hers was a family hand-me-down, much like my ’87 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. The Aries drove like a sports car compared to the Fifth Avenue

  16. I had an ’83 Aries two door in the late 90s as teen, white with tan interior! Felt like a government issue driving appliance, but I still liked it. I smoked at the time and I remember really liking the ash tray. It was really big and had a place to store your pack of smokes for ease of access while motoring. I think it was my second car, quite a step down from my ’83 Grand Prix that came first.

  17. The wagon is superior, mostly because I don’t want to deal with turbo-K people. Then I remembered they’re only one part of the K-car crowd, and I want nothing to do with any of them.

    Shoes and a bike are cheaper. Crack pipe on the lot of them.

  18. Hmmm. Herpes or Syphilis. Herpes or Syphilis? I’d take the Aries (I know they are getting rare in the world. But much like smallpox, that’s a good thing for the population).
    Simply because I won’t feel bad when I swap an SRT4 engine into it and make it a gambler.

  19. These days, even if you had a $1,000,000, you’d be tapped out in Toronto after buying a house (nevermind an old house up on Danforth), and the $400 you’d save buying the Acclaim gets you a lot of Kraft Dinner.

  20. My parents had an Aries wagon in that time frame and honestly, for the malaise era it wasn’t terrible. So it got my vote for sentimental reasons. Also, CA vs. PA car makes a lot of difference. The Aries looks in surprisingly good shape and seems like it could be a useful car.

      1. A friend of mine originally from Western NY turned me on to them years ago. She used to see them in tiny bars while attending SUNY Rochester before they “made it”. They got fairly well known back in the early to mid-nineties and really were a great band to see live.

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