In the early 1980s, the Dodges Aries-K inspired Chrysler's renaissance.
After a quiet 1980, Dodge followed Chrysler-Plymouth's lead by beginning another divisional overhaul, replacing old rear-drive models with smaller, more-efficient front-drive designs, most every one derived from the versatile 100.1-inch wheelbase K-car compact of 1981.
Aided by a steadily expanding lineup marketed with a renewed emphasis on sporty performance, Dodge reaped the rewards with higher sales. Division volume rose from 309,000 for 1980 to nearly 341,000 for '81. By 1985, Dodge had achieved its goal of a half-million annual sales.
One model that wouldn't disappear was Diplomat, which got a crisp restyling for 1980, then took over for St. Regis as the traditional full-size Dodge through 1989. Though reduced after 1981 to just a single four-door sedan in two trim levels, Diplomat enjoyed steady, if modest, sales (again mainly to police and taxi fleets). Its standard Slant Six was discontinued after '83, leaving only the veteran 318 V-8.
Aries-K was the foundation of Dodge's 1980 line. Replacing Aspen, it was a well-engineered new-wave compact, though no more original than Omni. Design hallmarks included the choice of two transverse-mounted single-overhead-cam fours -- Chrysler 2.2 liter (135 cid) or optional Mitsubishi 2.6 (156 cid) -- plus rack-and-pinion steering, front-disc/rear-drum brakes, and all-coil suspension with front MacPherson struts and a twist-type rear beam axle doubling as an antiroll bar.
Most Aries were sold with optional TorqueFlite. The standard transaxle was a four-speed floorshift manual; a five-speed option arrived for 1982, then replaced the four-speed for '86, when a 2.5-liter version of the Chrysler "Trans-4" was added. Coupe, sedan, and a neat little five-door wagon were variously available in base, Custom, SE, and LE trim at competitive prices identical with those of Plymouth's twin Reliant. A smooth 1985 facelift made all Ks look more grown-up; and coupes could be ordered with sporty options like 14-inch cast-aluminum wheels, front bucket seats, and a center console.
Though Aries consistently lagged behind Reliant in sales, it sold consistently well: nearly 181,000 for debut '81, between 125,000 and 150,000 a year thereafter. Progressively improved workmanship, longer warranties (up to 7 years/70,000 miles on drivetrain components by 1987), and sensible product upgrades helped keep it competitive through 1989, when the line was trimmed to make room for the new A-body Spirit. By that time, critics had long chided Chrysler for not building anything truly new since 1981, but many buyers didn't seem to care much. The K sparked Chrysler's renaissance and no little innovation. Few cars can claim as much, let alone one so humble.
Dodge's first K-car derivatives appeared the year after Aries' launch. These were a personal-luxury twosome dubbed 400, a coupe and sedan with a front end like that of the Mirada. A 400 convertible arrived at mid-1982, the first open Dodge since the 1971 Challenger and a deft marketing move by Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. Like the LeBaron convertible, the 400 was built at first by an outside contractor, but proved so popular that Chrysler took over production itself. Mechanicals and dimensions for all 400s were nearly identical with Aries'.
Arriving for 1983 was a stretched 400 sedan called 600, using the new K-based 103.1-inch-wheelbase corporate E-body. A 400-like front differentiated it from Chrysler's E-Class and New Yorker. A sporty ES version bid for the burgeoning "Eurosedan" market with black exterior trim, handling package, and five-speed. It didn't win many buyers from Saab, BMW, or Mercedes, but was surprisingly capable, all things considered.
Shifting gears for 1984, Dodge dropped the 400 sedan and put 600 badges on the coupe and convertible. The latter was also newly available in ES trim, tied to the turbo 2.2. It was the raciest Dodge in years, but few were ordered. Still, the new approach helped series sales, which rose from 1983's combined 59,500 to over 72,000 for '84. The following year brought a more prosaic E-body SE sedan, and its strong initial sales pointed the way. After an Aries-like 1986 facelift, the 600 coupe and convertible were canceled, leaving the SE and a detrimmed base four-door to sell just as well all by themselves through 1988.