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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They are a nice looker, deffinatly. Beautiful shape, and that blue is such a good colour on yours. I can see your reviews getting better and better!