Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Review: Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

For quite a few years Chrysler was stuck in a rut. Not necessarily a design rut or a product rut (though they certainly had their share of that too), but rather a naming rut. I can just imagine a meeting in the marketing department going something like this...

“All right, so we’ve got this new model here. The blueprints are drawn and it’s all ready to go. We’ve just got to think of a catchy, memorable new name that will grab the public’s attention.”

“How about, ‘Fifth Avenue’?”

“No, no… we’ve already used that.”

“Maybe… ‘Cordoba’?"

“That’s old news. Come on people, we’ve got to think of something new!”

“I’ve got it! We’ll call it… LeBaron!”


“Hold on guys… don’t we already have two of those?”

“Third time’s a charm!”

“I’ll send it over to Iacocca.. He’ll love it!”

Apparently the third time wasn’t a charm, as by 1995 no fewer than five different models had carried the LeBaron moniker. There was the original and often forgotten first series model (Diplomat clone), which ran from 1978-1981. Then came the K-body LeBaron (Aries/Reliant clone) produced from 1982-1988. We can’t forget the BMW-inspired LeBaron GTS hatchback (Lancer clone) from 1985-1989, and the 1990-1994 LeBaron sedan (Spirit/Acclaim clone).

Though all of these cars may have technically carried the LeBaron name, what really is the true, definitive “LeBaron”? What is the iconic shape people think of when they hear that oh-so-pretentious sounding word? The curvaceous 1987-1995 convertible-coupe, naturally!

In the process of summarizing the pros and cons that come with the LeBaron, I realized that there are actually more negative attributes than there are positive ones. When you really get down to it, the LeBaron has a substantial amount of flaws. So then why do I love it? To put it simply, the LeBaron is just plain fun. Perhaps more importantly, it looks fantastic. Styling is the most subjective area of an automobile, and for that reason I try as much as possible to keep it out of my actual reviews. When discussing the LeBaron though, it simply has to be mentioned. While not everyone is going to go gaga over the silhouette, few people will actively dislike it. Indeed, I have yet to encounter anyone who considers this shape to be ugly, or even mildly unattractive. The appeal of the LeBaron’s design is the simplicity itself. The exterior carries no unneeded ornamentation and all the lines are clean and crisp. From the smooth hidden headlamps and sleek waterfall grille to the long, sloping hood and curvaceous rocker panels, the LeBaron manages to look elegant and sporting all at once. This is, of course, all my own opinion, and while many will agree, there’s bound to be someone who doesn’t.

Despite the impression it may give from the outside, is the LeBaron really sporting and elegant under the skin? In short: yes and no. From 1990 onwards the majority of LeBarons sold came equipped with the ubiquitous Mitsubishi 3.0-liter V6 paired to Chrysler’s then-new “Ultradrive” 4-speed automatic transmission. Though a six-cylinder engine delivering a mere 141 horsepower seems paltry by 2010 standards, it was a respectable output for its day. Turbocharged 4-cylinder engines were also available until 1993, and while they technically have higher horsepower and torque ratings than the 3.0-liter, the V6’s power delivery is infinitely smoother and more refined. Equipped with the V6 and four-speed auto, the 3000-pound LeBaron reaches 60 in an adequate if not tire-screeching 9 to 10 seconds. It is worth noting, however, that the LeBaron gives the impression of being much faster than this, thanks to an extremely sensitive throttle. While this touchy accelerator pedal makes smooth starts from a standstill rather laborious, it can also be very helpful when you’re in a performance-oriented mood. Brake feel is well balanced, finding a happy medium between grabby and vague. In American tradition steering effort is light, though the wheel transmits more feedback than one would expect. To back up the LeBaron’s sporty image, Chrysler has tuned the suspension for handling rather than comfort. While body motions are better controlled because of this, ride quality suffers greatly. The LeBaron’s ride is smooth… provided the road is. The firm suspension hammers over bumps more than it absorbs them. Even worse, the LeBaron’s rigidity is similar to that of a wet noodle. Minor road imperfections cause the body to twist and flex, while rough roads can leave you wondering if the car is still in one piece. It doesn’t take much time in the LeBaron to memorize which roads are properly maintained and which are not. On the bright side, interior design and appointments are impressive. Though the unorthodox dashboard controls take some getting used to, the dashboard and door panels have a smooth, organic design and a rich appearance despite some hard plastic surfaces. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for build quality, with certain exterior body panels such as the doors and trunk glaringly misaligned and ill fitted. Interior space is adequate for driver and front passenger, with backseat and cargo room, though not ample, substantially more generous than other ragtops.

Dashing good looks, respectably sporty road manners, sprightly feeling acceleration. Well styled, luxurious interior with many useful creature comforts. Smooth, quiet V6 engine.

Harsh ride, excessive body flex even by convertible standards. Build quality is poor. Reliability is not impressive either: 4-speed transmissions are prone to premature failure, even when working properly shifts are sloppy and often ill timed. 3.0-liter engines are also notorious for burning oil.

Newer convertibles, even Chrysler’s own Sebring, offer greater refinement and better rigidity. None however, exhibit the LeBaron’s shapely, classic lines. They will also cost a lot more. Those who are not diehard fans of the styling likely won’t be able to look past the LeBaron’s rough ride and mediocre construction. For those who do appreciate the looks, the LeBaron offers fun, sporty, open-top driving pleasure for little money. It is much wiser to acquire a well-maintained, low mileage LeBaron in order to avoid the reliability issues of more worn examples. Just don’t expect to rack up as many miles as your Toyota Camry in the long run.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: 2009 Chevrolet Impala

The Chevrolet Impala, as we know it today that is, first debuted for the 2000 model year to replace the aging Lumina. The only similarity between this new Impala and previous models was the name itself, as Chevrolet’s flagship became a front-wheel-drive unibody car initially available with only V6 engines. Though sometimes marketed as a mid-size car by Chevrolet, both the interior volume and exterior dimensions fall well within full-size (or “large”) classification. The original FWD Impala series ran from 2000-2005 with little change. For the 2006 model year a redesigned Impala was introduced, though in essence it was largely a reskin of the previous generation, with mechanical updates consisting merely of suspension tweaks and revised powertrains. Even with virtually no revision since the 2006 redesign, the Impala remains Chevrolet’s best selling model as well as one of the top selling passenger cars in the United States.

And that bestseller status is curious, as I’m left wondering why anyone would buy this car. Ever since it was introduced a decade ago, the Impala has always been among my favorite sedans of the new millennium. I guess that’s because I had never driven one. Don’t get the wrong message, the Impala is by no means a bad car. But it is certainly not an impressive one either. For starters, this Impala does not deserve its spoiler and body skirts by a long shot. The driving dynamics are strictly old-school American; it has been quite a while since I’ve driven a car with such a soft suspension. Even moderate braking induces unsettling amounts of nosedive, and panic stops cause the tail to become airborne. Not only that, but the brake pedal suffers from typical “General Motors Mushiness” when applied hard. Though the Impala doesn’t quite qualify as aquatic, body lean is noticeable in corners. Continuing with the “American” theme, the Impala has almost no steering feedback and doesn’t feel agile in the slightest. All this is rather distressing when I compare it to my ’97 Monte Carlo, the predecessor to this Impala albeit in two-door form. Though neither is meant to be a sports car, it almost seems as though Chevrolet has gone backwards in some regards. Yes, the Monte suffered from the same mushy brakes and numb steering as the Impala, but body motions felt much more controlled. The Monte Carlo also felt like a much trimmer and more manageable car, despite having the exact same 200-inch length and 73-inch width. This disparity can be attributed to both the Impala’s greatly increased height (almost 5 inches), and severely sloped windshield, combined with criminally thick pillars and a high beltline. The latter also contributes to positively abysmal visibility, specifically to the sides and rear, a major drawback to 21st century styling. Another blow to the Impala’s overall appeal is the interior. I thought the Monte Carlo had too many hard plastic surfaces throughout the cabin, but the Impala’s dashboard and door panels make it seem like a Lexus. If you’re going to part with 25,000 dollars for an automobile, I doubt you want to tap on the top of the dash and hear a noise that sounds similar to knocking on the door of a bank vault. On the bright side, the design and appearance of the cabin is flowing and pleasant, and controls fall easily and naturally to hand. For all the disappointing areas of the Impala, the powertrain is not one of them. Though 0 to 60 times of around 9 seconds are not very impressive by new car standards, the power delivery of the V6 is effortless and silky smooth. Only under hard acceleration will you even hear the engine at all. Transmission performance is equally pleasing, in all but hard driving shifts are completely undetectable. The cabin is roomy and spacious as one would expect from a car this size, though backseat space in not quite as generous considering the car’s full-size dimensions.

The soft suspension absorbs road imperfections reasonably well, and is very compliant in highway driving. Engine and transmission performance are where the Impala truly shines, both operate with buttery smoothness and ease. Interior room is ample apart from backseat legroom, and the front seats are comfortable and well shaped. Engine and traffic noise is kept out of the cabin extremely well.

Interior materials are sub par even by economy car standards, which is downright pathetic considering the Impala is Chevrolet’s flagship. Handling and roadholding are at least a decade behind the curve (no pun intended). Visibility is poor to the level where it becomes unsafe.

Many advocates will claim that American cars have been improving dramatically in recent years. While this may be true for some models, this one still has a ways to go. The Impala is adequate, average, and unexceptional. In today’s market a car has to be more than that to succeed. The Impala simply feels dated. When the second generation Lumina was introduced back in 1995, its two main criticisms were the sub par hard-plastic interior and flaccid, unimpressive handling. Sound familiar? Somebody better show the GM executives a calendar, because last time I checked it’s 2010.