How Dodge Works

The 1931 Dodge Six, shown here as the 1931 DH Six station wagon, was the company's first six-cylinder car.

The Dodge Brothers Company was 14 years old when it was bought by Walter Chrysler in 1928. As a new division of his corporation, Dodge built 125,000 cars in 1929. Then the Depression turned the nation's economy from sunny to gloomy. Though most makes bottomed out in 1933-34, Dodge averaged a healthy 100,000 cars a year, good for fourth behind Chevrolet, Ford, and sister-make Plymouth.

Brothers John and Horace Dodge were traditionalists who believed in practicality and honest dollar value, so their cars never made any gesture toward sport. This continued under Chrysler, with nothing to suggest the high-performance Dodges to come.



Through 1954, Dodges were just solid, reliable, low-to-middle-priced cars. Famed World War I U.S. Army General John J. Pershing did as much as anyone to make "Dodge" synonymous with "dependable" by commanding a fleet of 250 Dodge touring cars during his Mexican border campaign against Pancho Villa in 1916.

Dodge changed rungs on the Chrysler price ladder in the early 1930s, sometimes standing above DeSoto, sometimes below. By 1933 it was decided that Dodge should occupy the attractive spot just above Plymouth and below DeSoto. Though the Great Depression delayed Chrysler's efforts to rebuild Dodge by several years, the division surged in 1935, reaching 159,000 cars for the model year. Dodge then soared to near 264,000 for '36 and reached its prewar peak with over 295,000 for 1937. A deep recession the next year temporarily ­halted the climb, and Dodge slipped out of the top five, but by 1941 it was back up to 237,000.

The Dodge Brothers (who both died in 1920) and their successors sold only four-cylinder cars through 1928, then announced their first six: 241.5-cubic inch L-head unit making 58-68 horsepower. Chrysler presided over the first Dodge Eight in 1930, which would continue through three different displace­ments for the next three years. Dodge then offered nothing but inline-sixes through 1952. That engine, a flathead cast-iron design introduced in 1933, ultimately evolved through displacements of 201-230 cid and rated horsepower of 75-138. And it wasn't finished even in 1952; it continued for seven years more.


The phrase "Luxury Liners" is still popular parlance in today's auto lexicon. Dodge's 1939

Dodge styling in the 1930s was the most conservative of any Chrysler make, and the division was lucky to escape being saddled with an Airflow, as was planned for 1935. Dodge's long-famous ram hood mascot, a manifestation of the Chrysler takeover, arrived in '32. Lines were four-square through 1934 save a slight concession to the "streamlining" craze in a rakish 1933-34 grille. Then came a waterfall grille, skirted fenders, and much-more-rounded lines as part of the companywide "Airstream" look adopted for 1935-36. By 1939, Dodges had acquired extended "pontoon" fenders, elongated rear decks, and a sharp "prow-front" under the direction of company design chief Ray Dietrich, thus falling nicely in line with DeSoto and Chrysler.

Like most makes, and the Depression notwithstanding, Dodge cataloged numerous body types throughout the '30s, including all the popular open styles. Among the latter was a convertible sedan, which was absent for 1935 and then vanished after '38 due to diminishing sales. A long 128-inch-wheelbase chassis appeared for 1936 under seven-passenger sedans and limousines; by 1939 this was up to 134 inches. Dodge also made a strong effort to win custom-body business by selling chassis to hearse, ambulance and station wagon builders.



Speaking of wheelbases, Dodge did much shuffling there, too. The short-lived Eights started at 114 inches, stretched to 118.5 for '31, then to 122. Sixes ranged from 109 to 120 inches through 1939, but were mostly 114-117 inches. Series names and positions also changed a lot, as did each year's advertising theme. Chrysler would name cars most anything if it helped sales, and it hyped the Dodge line under such prosaic banners as "New Standard" (1934), "New Value" ('35), "Beauty Winner" (1936), and "Luxury Liner" (1939). That last one is still part of auto "journalese," if not popular parlance.

Nineteen-thirty-seven brought some of the more innovative period Dodges. Though not vastly altered from the "Air Styled" '36s, they boasted nonsnag door handles, recessed dash knobs, lower driveshaft tunnels, one-piece steel-roof construction (ending fabric inserts at last), and built-in windshield defroster vents. Dodge also claimed an industry first with fully insulated rubber body mounts.

Like other Chrysler products, the '39 Dodges were totally redesigned -- fitting for the make's Silver Anniversary year. Also in evident celebration, the division returned to a two-series lineup for the first time since 1934: Special and DeLuxe, differing mainly in interior trim. DeLuxe also offered more models. Long sedans took a year off, but not the sturdy Dodge six: still pumping out 87 horsepower, as it had since '34. A "birthday present" of sorts was a limited-edition five-passenger DeLuxe Town Coupe with Hayes bodywork on the standard 117-inch wheelbase. Hayes built 1000 of these pretty, thin-pillared bodies for use among Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler. The Dodge version saw 363 copies of the one-year-only model, and led the "Luxury Liners" in glamour as well as price ($1,055).


Continuity was Dodge's hallmark in the '40s, the division retaining its essential 1939 bodyshells all the way through "first-series" 1949 models, though exterior sheet metal and some internal structure would change along the way. Standard wheel-base throughout was 119.5 inches. A long sedan and limousine returned for 1940 on a 139.5-inch chassis, which then shrunk a bit to 137.5. Styling was typical of Highland Park in this era: prominent fenders, increasingly gaudy grilles, and low rooflines with limited glass areas.

The 1940 line repeated '39 offerings: low-priced Special coupe and two- and four-door sedans; the same as DeLuxe’s plus convertible, five-seater coupe, and the aforementioned seven-place sedan and limousine (the last cost $1,170). The upper series accounted for some 120,000 units, about 60 ­percent of the model-year total -- though only 1,000 were long models. Running boards were on the way out, now a $10 linewide option. A new 1940 extra was two-tone paint, though with fenders, hood, and deck in the contrasting color, this conferred a taxicab air and was not popular.



A clean facelift livened up looks for '41, announced by parking lights combined with the headlamps in a more horizontal heart-shaped grille. Chrysler's Fluid Drive clutch became optional, and higher compression booted the old-soldier six to 91 bhp. Two-door sedans were now Broughams, DeLuxe designated the inexpensive three-model line, and the upper series was renamed Custom. Expanding the last was a handsome four-door Town Sedan with blank rear-roof quarters. It was a modest success, garnering 16,074 orders.

Long models continued selling in small numbers (just 654 this year). Total production divided between 106,000 DeLuxe’s and 131,000 Customs. Though Dodge had moved from ninth to sixth in the industry for 1940, it fell back a spot for '41. The following year, though, it reclaimed sixth from Oldsmobile.

With Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, the government halted civilian production in February 1942. Dodges weren't as scarce as some other Detroit cars that year, though they're hard enough to come by now. Model-year production was about 68,500. Among standard-chassis models, the Custom convertible was rarest: just 1,185 built.

A heavy facelift made the '42 Dodges look good, if not quite as radical as that year's hidden-headlamp DeSotos. Front fenders were broadened to accommodate a more-horizontal grille with a distinct eggcrate texture and bulged center. Optional fender skirts returned from '41 with bright moldings to match rear-fender trim, and five-passenger coupes gained more rakishly angled B-posts. The only mechanical change involved stroking the old six to 230.2 cid and substituting a Carter carb for the previous Stromberg. Horsepower stood at 105.

Sporadic wartime design work in Highland Park produced several interesting prototypes for postwar Dodges. These involved the basic 1940-42 body updated with smoother grilles, wraparound bumpers, thinner door pillars, and fully integrated fenders. But all were rendered stillborn because '42 tooling was far from amortized. Dodge thus resumed civilian production with warmed-over prewar cars for 1946-48, as did most other American makes.

The division was especially slow to do so, building only 420 cars by the end of 1945. But output zoomed in calendar '46, and Dodge finished the model year in fourth (behind the low-priced three) with nearly 164,000. The tally was over 243,000 for '47, but Dodge fell to fifth behind an equally resurgent Buick. The make regained fourth the next year, again on slightly more than 243,000 cars.


Dodge's 1949-model Wayfarer had a very square appearance.
Dodge's 1949-model Wayfarer had a very square appearance.

The facelift for the 1946-48 Dodges -- all but identical save serial numbers, like divisional siblings -- was created by A.B. "Buzz" Grisinger, John Chika, and Herb Weissinger, a trio soon to win fame at Kaiser-Frazer. Allowed bolt-on alterations only, they opted for a new grille with thick horizontal bars overlaid by thinner vertical ones. Square parking lights sat outboard of the bottom grille corners, and a prominent nameplate graced the hood. Technical improvements included dash-mounted pushbutton starter (replacing a foot pedal), front brakes with double wheel cylinders, revised transmission, inline fuel filter, and "Full-Flo" oil filter.

Like its corporate sisters, Dodge wasn't ready with its first all-new postwar cars in time for a 1949 announcement, so 1948s were sold through April as "first-series" '49s. The "second series" '49s were all-new save a rerated 103-horsepower six, and sold in record numbers: nearly 257,000 for the model year, though that was good for only eighth in industry volume.



Model offerings were considerably revised within two series. The inexpensive group was the 115-inch-wheelbase Wayfarer, comprising a notchback business coupe, a fastback two-door sedan, and a novel three-passenger roadster with side curtains. Prices spanned $1,611 to $1,738. The "volume" models were a new Meadowbrook sedan and top-line Coronet sedan, coupe, convertible, and -- new for Dodge -- a four-door structural-wood wagon.

All rode a 123.5-inch wheelbase and sported better trim and equipment than the Spartan Wayfarers. Exclusive to the four-door Coronet was an $85 "Town Sedan" option with luxurious Bedford cord upholstery. The $1,848 Meadowbrook sold for about $75 less than the standard Coronet sedan.

As with other Chrysler divisions, Dodge's new '49 styling was very square and slab-sided. A shiny latticework grille bore some resemblance to the 1946-48-affair, but looked more massive. Bolt-on rear fenders were capped by three-sided taillights, but front fenders were fully flush for the first time. Collectors judge the Wayfarer roadster the most desirable '49 Dodge, and many of the original 5,420 have been restored. The Coronet wagon was far less successful: only 800 were produced. After 600 more were built for early 1950, it departed for an all-steel Sierra wagon.

Gyro-Matic semiautomatic transmission became optional. This was an important sales point at a time when people were tiring of manual shifting. Fluid Drive with Gyro-Matic was a complex solution to a simple problem, combining a conventional clutch with a fluid coupling that multiplied torque like a torque converter; electrical shift circuits added to what one writer called a "full range of potential transmission trouble." The coupling performed the usual flywheel functions of storing energy, smoothing power impulses, and meshing the ring gear with the starter pinion.

Lacking a clutch-plate contact, a clutch was mounted in tandem. The fluid coupling was a drum filled with low-viscosity mineral oil. Running the engine rotated a set of vanes attached to the inner face that threw oil outward onto a facing runner with another set of vanes. The oil turned the runner to provide a smooth flow of power while avoiding any metal-to-metal contact.

Fluid Drive had two gear positions: Low, governing first and second gears, High for third and fourth. Low was mainly for fast starts or towing. In most other driving you simply shifted into High and pressed the accelerator, then let up at 14 mph, when a "thump" announced the shift from third to fourth. Stops and starts required no clutching or shifting, hence Chrysler's claim that Fluid Drive Gyro-Matic eliminated 95 percent of all shift motions. The clutch was there, but was used only to change between Low and High or to back up.

Unusually for an all-new Detroiter, the 1949 Dodge got a heavy facelift for its second season. Coronet now featured Dodge's first hardtop coupe, dubbed Diplomat, and the Wayfarer roadster gained roll-down door glass to become the Sportabout convertible (still with a single bench seat for three). Other offerings returned from '49, including a seven-passenger sedan on a 137.5-inch wheelbase in the Coronet line. This would continue in very small numbers through 1952, mainly for taxi and limousine use.

Dodge fared well in the early 1950s despite ho-hum cars and government-ordered caps on civilian production due to the Korean War. Division car output was just over 343,000 for 1950 and 290,000 for '51, good for seventh in the industry. The division maintained that rank with only 206,000 cars for '52 and a more-satisfying 320,000 for '53, then dropped to eighth on 1954 volume of only 154,000.


The Dodge Coronet from 1951 got an upgrade in 1953.

Styling became a tad sleeker for 1951-52. Wheelbases were unchanged, but a lower grille opening, clean flanks, and faired-in taillights improved appearance. The most-visible '52 alteration was paint applied to the grille bar just above the bumper.

A revised 1953 lineup put a lone Meadowbrook Suburban wagon and other two-door models on the 114-inch Plymouth wheelbase -- thus reviving a stubby look; a 119-inch chassis supported six-cylinder Meadowbrook, Meadowbrook Special, and Coronet sedans and club coupes. But windshields were now one-piece, rooflines restyled, and trim moved around, all of which helped improve what were still slab-sided boxes. As with all '53 Chrysler Corporation cars, this facelift marked the first direct influence of new styling chief Virgil Exner, who'd come to Highland Park from Studebaker a few years before.



But the big news for '53 was the Coronet Eight, a new top-line group that consisted of long-chassis club coupe and sedan and "shorty" convertible, Diplomat hardtop, and two-door Sierra, all powered by Dodge's first-ever performance engine: the brilliant Red Ram V-8. Arriving at 241.3 cid, it delivered 140 horsepower but was capable of much more. In essence, it was a scaled-down version of 1951's new 331-cid Chrysler Hemi.

The company had long experimented with hemispherical combustion chambers and was now cashing in on what it had learned. Against other V-8s, the Hemi offered the inherent advantages of smoother porting and manifold passages, larger valves set farther apart, better thermal efficiency, ample water jacketing, a nearly central spark-plug location, and low heat rejection into coolant. Its main drawback was cost: far more expensive to build than, say, the 1955 Chevrolet 265.

Even so, the Red Ram combined with surprisingly low weight to make the '53 Dodges terrific stormers and fine handlers. They were even frugal with fuel: A Red Ram scored 23.4 miles per gallon in the '53 Mobilgas Economy Run. Other V-8 Dodges broke 196 AAA stock-car records at Bonneville in '53, and Danny Eames drove one to a record 102.62 mph on California's El Mirage dry lake.

Several interesting show cars also contributed to Dodge's now increasingly youthful image. Like others at Chrysler in this period, these were Exner designs built by Ghia in Italy. The first was Firearrow, a nonrunning '53 roadster with a unique frameless windshield; a road-ready version appeared the following year. In late 1954 came the evolutionary Firearrow convertible and sport coupe whose lines inspired the limited-production Dual-Ghia of 1956-58. The coupe proved quite stable aerodynamically, achieving 143.44 mph on the banked oval at the Chrysler Proving Grounds in rural Chelsea, Michigan.

Only detail appearance changes occurred on Dodge's '54 production models, but the Red Ram became available across the board, and a luxurious new top-line Royal V-8 series offered club coupe, sedan, convertible, and Sport hardtop coupe. Meadowbrook now listed six and V-8 sedans and coupes on the 119-inch chassis; Coronet added long-chassis four-door Sierra wagons and short two-door Suburbans, plus convertible and Sport hardtop as before.


The Royals were performance cars. This Royal Lancer is from 1957.

Dodge paced the 1954 Indianapolis 500, and trumpeted its selection with 701 replica pace-car convertibles called Royal 500. Priced at $2,632 apiece, they sported Kelsey-Hayes chrome wire wheels, "continental" outside spare tire, special ornamentation, and a tuned 150-bhp Red Ram. A dealer-installed four-barrel Offenhauser manifold was also available, which must have made this a screamer, though Chrysler never quoted actual horsepower.

The Royal 500 symbolized Dodge's rapid emergence as Chrysler's "performance" outfit. And indeed, the division was rolling up more competition successes. Lincoln is famous for its dominance in the Mexican Road Race of these years. Less widely known is the fact that Dodge overwhelmed the event's Medium Stock class in 1954, finishing 1-2-3-4-6-9.



After suffering poor '54 sales along with sister divisions, Dodge came back with a vengeance. Bearing Exner's first-generation "Forward Look," the all-new '55s were flashy but not overdone, the work of Exner lieutenant Murray Baldwin. They were bigger as well as brighter, with all models on a 120-inch wheelbase. Series comprised six and V-8 Coronets and V-8 Royals and Custom Royals.

The last, the new line-topper, offered four-door sedan and three Lancer submodels: sedan (a midyear arrival), convertible, and hardtop coupe. The old six, which had been coaxed to 110 horsepower for '54, now packed 123 bhp. The Red Ram was bored to 270.1 cid, good for 175/183 bhp; an optional "Power Package" with four-barrel carb delivered 193. Dodge prospered with greatly increased '55 volume of nearly 277,000 cars, but rivals also did well in that record industry year and Dodge couldn't budge from eighth place­.

An interesting '55 footnote was "La Femme," a Custom Royal Lancer hardtop coupe painted pink and white. As the name implied, it featured custom accoutrements for m'lady, including a folding umbrella and a fitted handbag in the backs of the front seats. La Femme returned for '56, but response was minimal and few of these cars were produced.

Most '55 Dodge Lancers wore tiny chrome rear-fender trim suggesting fins. For '56 Highland Park offered sharply uplifted fenders, and Dodge wore them as well as any. Two-speed PowerFlite, the firm's first fully automatic transmission, had arrived with lever control in '54. Now it had pushbuttons in a handy pod to the left of the wheel.

Besides revised frontal styling and new interiors, Dodge '56 also advertised a stroked "Super Red Ram" V-8 with 315 cid and 218 horsepower, versus 189 for the returning 270. The evergreen six now offered 131 horses. Available across the board was the first of the now-famous "D-500" options. For '56 this was just a four-barrel carb that provided 230 horsepower.

However, a Chrysler historical publication also lists a four-barrel 315 with higher compression (9.25:1 vs. 8.0 elsewhere), good for 260 horsepower. Other '56 developments involved a new Lancer four-door hardtop sedan in each series, and a "spring special" Golden Lancer, a D-500 Custom Royal hardtop coupe with Sapphire White/Gallant Gold exterior and harmonizing white/black/gray interior.


Nineteen-fifty-six was a down year for all Detroit, and Dodge built 240,000 cars to again run eighth. But helped by torsion-bar suspension, all-new styling, and more power for '57, Dodge would climb to seventh on volume of nearly 288,000.

Carrying Exner's "second-generation" Forward Look, the '57 Dodges were longer, lower, wider, and more aggressive-looking, with a massive bumper/grille, lots of glass, and high-flying fins (ads called all of this "Swept-Wing" styling). Wheelbase stretched to 122 inches, where it would remain through 1961. The Hemi was again enlarged: bored this time to 325 cid. The result, depending on compression and carbs, was 245-310 bhp. The '57 D-500 option was a 354 from junior Chryslers, tuned for 340 bhp. The old six got another seven horses for its ultimate total of 138.



The D-500 package was Dodge's answer to the limited-edition supercars at sister divisions -- available for any model right down to the plain-Jane Coronet two-door. Shocks, springs, and the new-for-'57 front torsion bars were all suitably firmed up for what Motor Trend magazine called a "close liaison with the road" -- handling that put D-500s at the head of their class. V-8s delivered brisk-to-blistering go.

Even the relatively mild 245-bhp mill could scale 0-60 in about 9.5 seconds. For '58 the D-500 package replaced its complex Hemi with a less costly 361-cid wedgehead V-8. The wedgehead delivered 305 or 320 horsepower. Optional Bendix electronic fuel injection boosted power to 333, but it was unreliable and the few that were sold were probably replaced by carburetors.

A mild facelift with four headlamps and revised trim marked the '58 Dodges. The line was a rerun until February, when a spiffy Regal Lancer hardtop coupe was announced as one of the "spring specials" so long favored by Chrysler marketers. Some of its trim items were also available on lesser Dodges, including lancer-head grille medallion, blackout headlamp trim, and rather contrived bodyside/fin moldings.

Sensibly left alone were 1957's new Torsion-Aire Ride and optional three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission that had earned near-­universal praise -- and buyer approval. Both would persist at Dodge and throughout the corporate camp for many years.

Now in its final season, Dodge's 325 Hemi packed 252/265 bhp for '58. A 350 wedgehead offered 295 standard horsepower in Custom Royals and V-8 wagons. Although 1958 was disastrous for every Detroit make, Dodge fared worse than most. Model-year production plunged to 138,000 as the division barely finished ahead of Cadillac.

But Dodge shared in Detroit's modest 1959 recovery, building about 156,000 cars and rebounding from ninth to eighth in the volume stakes. Sales might have been better had it not been for a rather heavy-handed facelift marked by droopy hooded head-lamps and misshapen fins above suggestive thrusting taillamps. Revised interiors could be newly furnished with swivel front seats, semibuckets that pivoted outward upon opening a door.

The venerable flathead six was in its final year. V-8s, now wedgehead only, comprised a new 326 with 255 bhp for Coronets; a 305-bhp 361 for other models; and a big new 383 with 320/345 bhp. The last-named was that year's D-500 -- and not cheap. Both were thirsty, but it was the age of 30-cent-a-gallon gas and the market still craved performance (if not quite as much as before the '58 recession).


Most 1960 Dodge models, such as this 1960 Dodge Polara four-door sedan, offered a lighter body with quality performance. See more pictures of Dodge cars.

The '60s would see Dodge strengthen its position in the high-performance field, push upward into price territory left vacant by DeSoto's cancellation after '61, and diversify with compacts and intermediates.

Volume rose rapidly after 1964 to an annual average of more than half a million units, and the division set a new record with 633,000 cars built for '66. But competitors were up too, so Dodge's standing in the industry production stakes varied between fifth or sixth in its best years and seventh to ninth in the troubled years 1961-63.



Taking note of the growing buyer interest in smaller cars prompted by the '58 recession, Dodge entered the '60s with a much broader lineup divided into "junior" and "senior" groups. The former was the new Dart: sixes and V-8s on a 118-inch wheelbase save wagons, which rode a 122. Series were tagged Seneca, Pioneer, and Phoenix in ascending order of price and plush.

Phoenix offered a convertible, hardtop coupe and sedan, and pillared four-door; lesser lines were limited to wagons, two- and four-door sedans, and a Pioneer two-door hardtop. The senior line comprised V-8 Matadors and Polaras on the 122-inch wheelbase.

All 1960 Dodges employed unit body/chassis construction, new at Chrysler Corporation that year, and wore more-sculptured lines announced by bright, blunt, and busy front ends. Fins were still in evidence, ending well ahead of podlike taillights on Matador/Polara, near the rear of more conventional fenders on Darts.

Despite appearances, most 1960 Dodges were relatively light and thus offered good performance with reasonable economy. That was even true of base-engine models, which carried the larger, 225-cid version of Chrysler Corporation's new "Slant Six." Initially rated at 145 bhp, this durable workhorse would carry on into the early '80s. ­Dart's V-8 was the solid, reliable 318 with 230/255 horsepower. Matadors used a 295-bhp Chrysler 361, optional on Dart Pioneer and Phoenix. Polaras had a standard 383 (available for Phoenix and Matador) with 325/330 horsepower. Helped greatly by the Dart, attractively priced in the $2,300-$3,000 range, Dodge scored impressively higher sales: up over 200,000 for the model year to nearly 368,000, good for sixth on the industry roster.

Per well-established Chrysler practice, the '61 line included a Dodge version of a Plymouth product: the 106.5-inch-wheelbase Valiant compact, new for 1960. Called Lancer, it shared the Valiant's "unibody" structure and basic styling but stood apart with a horizontal-bar grille and slightly better trim. Also like Valiant, there were two Lancer series, 170 and 770, each with two-door sedan, four-door sedan, and four-door wagon body styles. The 770 added a hardtop coupe that was also new to Valiant for '61, as was the pillared two-door. Power came from the smaller, 170-cid Slant Six with 101 bhp. The 225 Dart engine was optional.

The Dart itself was substantially face-lifted for '61, gaining a deeply concave full-width grille cradling quad headlamps, plus curious reverse-slant tailfins. The senior Matador was dropped and remaining Polaras were restyled to be virtual Dart dead ringers. Engines mostly reprised the 1960 choices. Among these was Dodge's customary D-500 option, now a 383 with twin four-barrel carburetors and ram-induction manifolding (new for '60), good for an outstanding 330 horsepower.

In a Dart, that translated to about 10 pounds for each horsepower, a super power-to-weight ratio that meant 120-mph flat out and acceleration to match. Torsion bar suspension and oversized Chrysler brakes made it as roadable as it was quick. It was even quicker when equipped with the Chrysler 413, a ram-induction wedge delivering 350 or 375 bhp as a new Dart option, though price was high and availability quite limited.

However, Dodge sales dropped by over 25 percent for '61, reflecting increased competition and an overall industry downtrend. Lancer didn't sell well, but it was a stopgap anyway. A successor was in the works, so the only notable changes for '62 were a busier grille and a smart bucket-seat GT hardtop (replacing the 770 model).

Meantime, a brand-new 116-inch-wheelbase Dart in base, 330, and 440 series arrived, measuring six inches shorter and 400 pounds lighter than corresponding '61s. Topping the line was a sporty bucket-seat Polara 500 group, offering hardtops with two and four doors, plus convertible. Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner thought that if Americans liked compacts, they'd go for downsized "standard" cars, too. But he was about 15 years ahead of his time, and these cars sold as poorly as the Lancer -- aggravated by frankly odd Lancer-like looks.

But performance fans roundly applauded the smaller, lighter Darts, mainly because the big-block 413 returned with more muscle: 365, 380, 410, and a rollicking 420-bhp. Shoehorned into the lightest base-trim two-doors, these cars began terrorizing the nation's drag strips, thus renewing Dodge's "hot car" reputation and setting the stage for even wilder doings. In fact, ­big-inch Dodge intermediates won the National Hot Rod Asso­ciation Championship in 1962 and would reign supreme for the next few years on literally every quarter-mile. They were also strong contenders at Daytona.

But performance alone doesn't necessarily sell cars, and Dodge's total volume for '62 was down to about 240,500, off some 30,000 in a year when most rivals scored higher sales. Things would have been worse had it not been for the true full-size cars that were reinstated at midyear as the Custom 880. Effectively taking over for the now-departed DeSoto, they looked like the finless '61 Polaras they were, with '62 Chrysler-style "plucked chicken" tails and standard 265-bhp 361 V-8.


The 1966 Dodge Charger was introduced in the middle of the year.


While Plymouth struggled on with its related downsized "standards," Dodge increased wheelbase to 119 inches for 1963 -- and pushed performance. What had been called Dart was now just "Dodge," comprising 330, 440, and Polara series. As before, the last included a swanky bucket-seat 500 convertible and hardtop coupe. Styling was cleaner and more conventional, though the "face" was still pretty odd.



Engines remained broadly the same, but a bore job took the 413 wedge to 426 cubes and 370/375 horsepower. But the big news was the "Ramcharger," a super-performance 426 with aluminum pistons and high-lift cam punching out 415/425 horsepower.

Dodge did field a Dart for '63, but it was a very different car: a mostly new compact to replace Lancer. (The name change was a last-minute decision.) It was basically that year's redesigned Valiant with more crisply styled exterior and five extra inches in wheelbase (111 except wagons, still at 106). Sedans and wagons made up the 170 and 270 series, with convertibles offered in 270 and bucket-seat GT guise; there was also a GT hardtop coupe.

At the other end of the scale, Custom 880s returned with new lower-priced 880 companions, all bearing grilles with fine vertical bars. With so much new, Dodge surged past Rambler to grab seventh in the industry on record volume of over 446,000 units.

The '64 lineup was much like '63's, with facelifts that continued Dodge's move back to more-orthodox looks. Darts became livelier, as Valiant's new 273-cid small-block V-8 was added to the options list, bringing 180 horsepower. That year's Ramcharger was Chrysler's fabled hemi-head V-8, returning to the performance wars in a new 426 version with 425 horsepower -- but only for racing. The top showroom power options remained wedgehead 426s, now with 365 standard horsepower or 415 with high-compression heads.

But Hemi-powered Dodge/Plymouth intermediates provided plenty of entertainment anyway, dominating the NASCAR season beginning with a 1-2-3 sweep at the Daytona 500. In the production race, Dodge swept back into sixth for the first time since 1960.

For 1965, the Coronet name returned on a revamped midsize line with more square-cut styling and a 117-inch wheelbase for all models but wagons (116 inches). These were essentially the 1962-64 "standards" logically repositioned to battle popular intermediates like Ford Fairlane and Chevy Chevelle.

But there was also a much-altered 115-inch-wheelbase Coronet Hemi-Charger two-door sedan weighing just 3,165 pounds. Intended strictly for drag racing and base-priced at $3,165, it came with the reborn 426 Hemi, of course, plus heavy-duty springs and shocks, antiroll bar, four-on-the-floor manual transmission, and strong police brakes. Performance was more than ample: 0-60 mph in seven seconds or less. Buyers in less of a hurry flocked to a civilized new buckets-and-console Coronet 500 hardtop and convertible available with wedgehead V-8s up to 426 cubes and 365 horsepower.

Capping the '65 line was a completely redesigned group of 121-inch wheelbase Polaras and Custom 880s, plus a companion sports/luxury hardtop, the $3,355 Monaco. All shared chassis and body structure with that year's Chryslers and full-size Plymouth Furys. Their conservatively square basic shape was dictated by design chief Elwood Engel, who'd been recruited from Ford to replace Virgil Exner in 1962. The Dodges were distinguished by a "dumbbell" grille and delta taillamps.

After a modest '65 restyle, Darts squared up for '66, via new front sheet metal. Coronets returned in standard, Deluxe, 440, and 500 guise, also with blockier fronts as well as curvier rear fenders and wedgy taillights. Custom 880 was renamed Monaco, and the big bucket-seat hardtop became Monaco 500. Monacos and Polaras got wider taillights and crisper lower-body contours, plus Chrysler's new big-block 440 wedgehead with 350 horsepower as the top power option.


The 1970 Dodge Challenger attracted buyers with its powerful Hemi option, but sales dropped quickly beore the end of the year.

A midyear salvo in the division's 1966 "Dodge Rebellion" was Charger, essentially a fastback Coronet hardtop coupe with hidden-headlamp grille, full-width taillights, and a sporty four-seat interior with full-length center console and individual fold-down rear buckets. A mild 318 V-8 was standard, but you could order a mighty 425-bhp "Street Hemi," a new regular production option for all '66 Chrysler intermediates. Also on the Charger option sheet: manual transmission, "Rallye" suspension, and numerous luxury items.

In all, 1966 was a great year for Dodge. After easing to 489,000 units for '65, volume shot up to its aforementioned decade high, good for fifth in the industry. Dodge wouldn't rank as high again until '88.



For 1967, the Dart got an all-new unit structure on the existing wheelbase and lost its wagons. Styling was a bit curvier and more "important," though still pretty, if rather mainstream. Polara/Monaco also got a new structure: a full-size body/frame platform shared with that year's Chryslers and Plymouth Furys. Styling here was somewhat more contrived: lower and sleeker but with rear decks longer than hoods, plus a complex grille comprising a square vertical-bar section between openings split by horizontal bars. A belated facelift made Coronets look more like the Charger, which continued its '66 appearance but added two 383 V-8 options with 270 and 325 horsepower.

Continuing its performance push, Dodge issued a sportier Coronet for '67. Called R/T, for "Road/Track", it came as a convertible and hardtop coupe with a tuned 375-bhp 440 "Magnum" V-8, heavy-duty suspension, wide tires, and oversize brakes -- Dodge's entry in the burgeoning "muscle-car" market uncovered by the Pontiac GTO. A similar package was devised the following year for a new Charger R/T. The 426 Hemi remained optional for intermediates, still on a limited basis. Despite its appealing '67 line, Dodge fell back to seventh place on model-year volume of nearly 466,000 units.

Dart and full-size Dodges were face-lifted for '68, as it was time for Coronet and Charger to be fully revised. The result was the best-looking midsize Dodges yet: long and low, with rounded "fuselage" lines and pleasingly simple grilles. Charger again featured hidden headlamps, but was now a notchback hardtop with a semifastback "flying buttress" roofline.

Sporty models continued multiplying. Dart added a plush GTS hardtop and convertible with standard 340-cid V-8, an enlarged 273 with 275 horsepower. A big 300-bhp 383 was optional -- and bordered on overkill in a compact. Coronet offered the new budget-priced Super Bee, a no-frills two-door muscle coupe with special 335-bhp "Magnum" 383. These and the Coronet and Charger R/Ts made up what Dodge called the "Scat Pack." All wore "bumble-bee" tape stripes on their tails, and ranked among 1968's quickest and most-roadable performance machines.

Along with Chrysler and Plymouth Fury, the 1969 Polara/Monaco got "fuselage" styling of its own, but remained on a 122-inch wheelbase. Dart, Coronet, and Charger wore minor facelifts. Dart GTS was joined by a Swinger, a two-door hardtop with special trim, bright grille, and choice of 318 or 340 V-8s.

But the pride of Dodge's '69 fleet was unquestionably the Charger Daytona. Conceived for long-distance NASCAR races like the Daytona 500, it was an exercise in aerodynamics, marked by a unique bullet nose with hidden headlights and "bib" spoiler, plus a flush-window fastback roof and a huge trunk lid wing on towering twin stabilizers. All this made the Daytona about 20-percent more "slippery" than previous racing Chargers, which gave it an advantage of 500 yards per lap. Dodge built only 505 -- just enough to qualify as "production" under NASCAR rules.

­A Daytona won the Talladega 500 in September 1969, though that was partly because the Ford contingent didn't show. In 1970, the Daytona's and Plymouth's similar Superbirds won 38 of 48 major NASCAR races. For shorter races, Dodge also had a wingless, blunt-nose Charger 500.

Appearing with Plymouth's third-generation Barracuda for 1970 was a Dodge relative, the division's belated reply to the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and other ponycars. Fittingly named Challenger, it was offered with a Slant-Six as standard power, plus V-8 options of 318, 383, 440, and even the Hemi. Models comprised hardtop coupe and convertible in plain and sporty R/T trim. The hardtop could also be ordered as a Special Edition with padded vinyl roof and a smaller "formal" rear window. Priced attractively in the $3,000-$3,500 range and cataloging a broad list of options, Challenger sold very well its first year, but then tailed off rapidly. In 1970 sales, sixes outpaced V-8s, while hardtops outsold convertibles. Only about 10,000 SE coupes were built.

Specifications and dimensions for other 1970 Dodges were largely as for '69, but Coronets, Chargers, and Polara/Monaco received large "loop" bumper/grilles; Coronet's divided affair looked a bit swollen. More-massive rear bumpers also adorned the big cars, as well as Darts.

Charger offered a six for the first time, while the exotic Daytona, having proven its point, was dropped (leaving Plymouth to carry the colors with its similar Superbird). Ignition/steering-column locks, fiberglass-belted tires, dual-action wagon tailgates, and a long list of federally mandated safety equipment completed the 1970 story. As in 1969, Dodge remained seventh in industry output, though volume fell from 611,000 to 543,000 for the model year.



Dodge's path through the '70s was strewn with the same obstacles that made life difficult for all U.S. automakers in those years: a growing number of ever-stricter government regulations and a dramatically altered business climate stemming from the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74. The division was ill-prepared for both, its early-decade lines heavy with cars ­motivated by thirsty V-8s and wallowing on too-soft suspensions. Worse, Chrysler's steadily declining fortunes allowed most of these dinosaurs to hang on too long.

Indifferent workmanship only further dampened sales, which culminated in the corporation's near-demise during 1980. But by that point, Dodge was through its trial by fire and building nothing remotely like its early-'70s dinosaurs, save the 118.5-inch-wheelbase St. Regis sedan and the Mirada personal-luxury coupe.

It didn't take much corporate contemplation to dispose of the poor Challenger: clumsy, poorly built, and never a serious sales threat to Camaro/Firebird or even Mustang II (if you call that one a pony car). The overweight latecomer was put out to pasture after 1974, when only about 16,000 were sold. Collectors noted the rarity and desirability of convertibles, R/Ts, and big-inch engines after '71, and have been bidding up prices at auctions.

With the dawn of the first energy crisis, the brontosaurus-like Polara/Monaco also seemed headed for the automotive tar pits, but Dodge tried hard to save them via discounts and cash rebates beginning in 1974, Polara vanished after '73. A blocky new Monaco arrived for '74, similar to that year's redesigned Chrysler but still on a 122-inch wheelbase. In 1977, it became the Royal Monaco -- selling in decent numbers only by dint of police and taxi orders -- while the Monaco name replaced Coronet on midsize cars.

Given such disappointments, it's no surprise that Dodge increasingly depended on Dart sales through mid-decade. Giving the compact line new appeal for '71 was the fastback Demon, a double to Plymouth's new-for-'70 Valiant Duster with the same 108-inch wheelbase and choice of Slant Six, 318 V-8, and optional 340 V-8. The last was reserved for a sporty Demon 340 decked out with bodyside tape stripes, matte-black hood with dual dummy scoops, and wide tires on special wheels as part of a specially beefed-up chassis.

With its trim size and 275 horsepower, the Demon 340 was nimble yet spirited -- really the Dart GTS idea remade for changing times. But the name bothered some people, so Demon was prosaically retitled Dart Sport for '73, when all Darts gained a latticework grille and modest center hood bulge. The Sport 340 became a 360 for 1974-75, Dodge enlarging its small-block V-8 in deference to easier emissions tuning.

A memorable Sport option was the "Convertriple," which actually meant two separate extras: fold-down rear seat and sliding-steel sunroof. Ordered together, they made for something vaguely like a "three-way" car. Also making Dart more than just basic transportation were the plush Special Edition sedans and coupes of 1974-76. These offered vinyl tops, special emblems, velour interiors, and other extras for about $3,800.

The Dodge Omni (1979 model pictured here) touted practicality and affordability.

The ultra-reliable Dodge Dart remained a sales winner right to the end (mostly on the strength of workaday sedans), but its 1976 replacement called The Aspen was a letdown. In essence it was a slightly larger, roomier and heavier Dart, offering a wider range of luxury options -- much like the Granada was to Maverick at Ford.

Unfortunately, Aspen soon earned the dubious distinction of being the most-recalled car in history (along with its Volare twin at Plymouth), due to poor workmanship in general and early body rust in particular. (GM's X-cars soon wrested that sorry title.) But performance was good with the extra-cost 360-cid V-8 listed through '79, and furnishings were nicer than on most Darts. Aspen also revived a compact Dodge wagon, something Dart had lacked since its '67 redesign. There were ­pseudo-muscle R/T coupes and even a "finish it yourself" 1979 kit-car racer.

Despite its problems, Aspen was important for Dodge sales in the late '70s. It also exemplified one of the few things Detroit began doing well: putting big-car comfort in smaller packages (here, 108.7-inch-wheelbase coupes, 112.7-inch sedans and wagons). Aspen was advertised as the "family car of the future," which was hyperbole worthy of P.T. Barnum, but it would lead to the genuine article.

An unusual Aspen (and Volare) feature was its front suspension, which had torsion bars per Chrysler tradition, but situated crosswise instead of lengthwise. Some critics sneered that this was contrived merely so Chrysler could still advertise front torsion bars -- and that it had no real advantage for ride or quietness; a few even claimed it actually hampered handling. Regardless, the transverse bars did allow for better suspension isolation, which made for smoother going than in the Dart. Aspen's mainstay engines, 225 Slant Six and 318 V-8, were by now hoary affairs, but proven. And the thrifty six (which could yield up to 25 mpg on the highway with manual shift) was about as bulletproof as Detroit engines ever got.

If Aspen didn't realize its sales potential, the larger Dodges fared even worse. The midsize Coronet/Monaco became more like the equivalent Plymouth Satellite/Fury with each passing year (all were built nose-to-tail at Chrysler's Lynch Road plant in Detroit) and was hardly a bargain at prices averaging $100 higher. It was also thirsty, and styling was forgettable. The Charger was simply watered down amidst name shuffles. For 1975 it became a twin to Chrysler's posh Cordoba, a car even the Dukes of Hazzard wouldn't have recognized.

This midsize generation began with fuselage-style '71 Charger coupes on a 115-inch wheelbase and 117-inch Coronet sedans and wagons. By 1978, they'd been heavily face-lifted once -- for '75 -- and trimmed to Charger SE and Magnum XE coupes, plus assorted Monacos and Monaco Broughams.

The reason for thinning those ranks was Diplomat. Launched for 1977, it was much like Chrysler's new LeBaron: a reskinned Aspen/Volare platform with coupes, sedans, and wagons on a 112.7-inch wheelbase. Diplomat sold well from the start, and its more sensible design made the old-style intermediates unnecessary. The Coronet-turned-Monaco was thus transformed after 1978 into the St. Regis, all but identical with Chrysler's "down-sized" R-body Newport/New Yorker sedan. The Cordoba-like Charger vanished at the same time; the related Magnum hung on through '79.

Then the smooth Mirada took over as the personal-luxury Dodge. Mounting the Diplomat platform, it was a close cousin of 1980's new second-generation Chrysler Cordoba. One of the few true hardtop coupes left by that time, it bore a striking front end recalling the "coffin nose" of the late-'30s Cord 810/812 -- and the previous Magnum. Good looks won Mirada a lot of good copy in "buff" magazines. And considering how things had changed since the muscle-car days, it was decent­ly quick -- if you ordered the optional 185-bhp 360-cid V-8, Dodge's hairiest engine that year. Unhappily, this was another one that was just a shade too late to be of any real value, and Mirada's annual production averaged less than 7500 units through swan-song 1983.

Capping Dodge's enforced product renewal in the '70s was the L-body Omni, a sensible, front-drive subcompact announced for 1978. It was cut from the trend-setting pattern of the Volkswagen Rabbit, and was even powered at first by a slightly larger version of VW's single-overhead-cam four (also mounted transversely). Omni wasn't quite as much fun to drive, but had the same boxy, four-door hatchback styling and high practicality. Along with Plymouth's near-identical Horizon, Omni was one versus 99.2). Called 024, it won an immediate following, even managing a few conquest sales among import buyers seeking a sporty and nimble 2+2 that was easy on the pocketbook.

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.

Dodge dealers bemoaned losing the 600 convertible, but at least their Daytona sports coupe had no more in-house competition from Chrysler's Laser after 1986. Both models had arrived for '84 on a much-modified 97-inch K-car chassis topped by slick, "fast hatch" styling.

Corporate finances at the time dictated they be virtually identical, but the Daytona outsold Laser from the start, probably because it was geared more to Dodge's typical clientèle. Daytona also had an edge with three models to Laser's two: initially base, Turbo, and the racy Turbo Z, the last distinguished by ground-hugging lower-body extensions, discreet hatch lid spoiler, and big wheels and tires.

With the sort of evolutionary improvements found in all Chrysler products in this decade, the Daytona rocked along at around 50,000 units a year through 1986. By that point it was available with a stroked and fuel-injected 2.5-liter four as base power, plus a T-top option (shared with Laser) and a "C/S" handling package named for Carroll Shelby, the old friend Iacocca had persuaded to "heat up" certain Dodges, as Shelby had done with Mustangs when both worked at Ford back in the '60s.

To compensate for the lost convertible, Dodge dealers got a restyled '87 Daytona. It boasted a smooth, hidden-headlamp "droop-snoot," and was offered in base, luxury Pacifica, and hot-rod Shelby Z models. Pacifica carried the familiar 146-bhp turbo 2.2, the Z a hot 174-bhp "Turbo II" engine; even the base model could be ordered with the 146-bhp unit as part of a C/S performance package.

For 1989, Pacifica was replaced by ES and ES Turbo, the latter powered by a new 150-bhp turbo­charged 2.5, and the Z was retitled Daytona Shelby. There were several styling and equipment adjustments, including standard four-wheel disc brakes across the board. Of interest to weekend racers was the C/S Competition Package for the base Daytona -- basically the Shelby model with special exterior, 2.2-liter "Turbo II" power, and "maximum performance suspension" but few creature comforts so as to realize a 200-pound weight savings.

All Daytonas sported a more-ergonomic dashboard and standard driver-side air bag for 1990, when the blown 2.2 received a new Variable Nozzle Technology (VNT) turbo­charger that provided no more horsepower but did make driving much smoother.

That year's base and ES models also offered Daytona's first V-6: the 3.0-liter (181-cid) 141-bhp Mitsubishi unit fast-spreading throughout the corporate camp. was replaced by ES and ES Turbo, the latter powered by a new 150-bhp turbo­charged 2.5, and the Z was retitled Daytona Shelby. There were several styling and equipment adjustments, including standard four-wheel disc brakes across the board. Of interest to weekend racers was the C/S Competition Package for the base Daytona -- basically the

Though Daytona generated only about a third as many sales as Mustang or Camaro, it symbolized Dodge's return to performance better than anything else in the line. And its sportiest models gave away little in acceleration or handling to those heavier, more-powerful rear-drive pony cars -- proof that Chrysler engineering was still to be reckoned with.

Bowing alongside Daytona was a very different '84 Dodge: America's first "garageable" van. Aptly named Caravan, it was essentially a tall K-wagon on a special 112-inch wheelbase. Caravan had a very roomy interior that offered seating options for up to eight. Quick-release anchors made for easy removal of the second and third bench seats for cargo carrying.

Front drive and astute packaging conferred a lower ride height than any rear-drive van, which eased entry/exit and contributed to a carlike driving position. In fact, aside from sitting a little higher and farther forward, driving a Caravan was much like driving an Aries wagon.

This as much as attractive pricing made the Caravan (and Plymouth's twin Voyager) an instant hit, generating upward of 200,000 annual sales. A fair number were windowless Ram Van commercials, but most were passenger models -- initially base, SE, and woody-look LE.

Extending Caravan's appeal -- literally -- was the 1988 addition of 14-inch-longer "Grand" models on a 119.1-inch wheelbase. At the same time, the 3.0 Mitsubishi V-6 joined the options list, bringing 144 horsepower and a welcome gain in towing capacity over the four-cylinders.

The main 1989 developments were optional availability of Chrysler's new 150-bhp turbo­charged 2.5 four on standard-length SE and LE Caravans -- somewhat surprising for this sort of rig -- and "Ultradrive," a new electronically controlled four-speed automatic option for V-6 LEs and all Grand Caravans.

But Ultradrive had a shaky start, garnering some bad press that it was flawed. Chrysler stonewalled publicly while working quickly and quietly to amend the problems. The next year, Caravans offered a new 3.3-liter overhead-valve V-6 option: the first all-Chrysler engine since the 2.2-liter K-car four and the first in a family of corporate power plants for the '90s.

Unquestionably, Caravan (and Voyager) was Chrysler's biggest coup of the '80s. For once, Detroit's perennial number-three outfit had delivered the right product at the right time.

Dodge revived the popular Charger name with models such as this 1982 Dodge Charger.

Though Dodge canceled the 600 ES sport sedan after 1984, it didn't abandon the idea; it just substituted something better: the H-body Lancer (reviving the early-'60s compact name). This was another new Dodge similar to a new Chrysler, in this case the LeBaron GTS, but Lancer stood apart with the cross-bar grille then being adopted throughout the division (which must have confused Chrysler 300 enthusiasts) and by being offered in a more-overtly sporting ES rendition.

All that may be said of the GTS applies equally to Lancer -- except sales, which ran about a third less. One suspects the Chrysler name and its luxury aura did more for GTS than the Dodge name did for Lancer despite similar pricing. Perhaps recognizing this, the division issued a bespoilered Lancer Shelby for 1988 with the 174-bhp "Turbo II" 2.2 and racy body addenda similar to those of the earlier Pacifica and Shelby Lancer limited editions. The '89 ES was sportier, too, gaining the new 150-bhp turbo 2.5 as standard equipment. But the H-body would prove something of a short-timer and would not return for 1990.

More successful was the P-body Shadow, intended to replace the aging Omni but introduced for 1987 as an additional, more-ambitious small sedan. Dodge wanted you to think of it as a ­junior BMW, but it was really more junior Lancer, with the same rounded "aerosedan" styling in three- and five-door notchback body styles on the Daytona wheelbase.

K-car heritage was again evident in the Shadow chassis and drivetrains. The latter initially comprised the usual turbo and "atmospheric" 2.2-liter fours teamed with manual five-speed and automatic TorqueFlite transaxles. Unlike Plymouth with its similar Sundance, Dodge fielded enthusiast-oriented ES models with uprated suspension and a few "Euro" touches. For 1989, the corporate 2.5-liter "balancer-shaft" four was a new option for base models, and the 150-bhp turbo version was standard for ES (replacing the blown 2.2). The latter was also included in a new Daytona-style competition package for three-doors, along with handling suspension, bigger wheels and tires, "aero" body skirting, rear spoiler, and bucket seats. A minor facelift and reworked dashboards arrived for all 1990 Shadows; ES was treated to standard all-disc brakes, and its now-optional Turbo II engine was updated with a VNT blower.

Yet for all the emphasis on sport, it was the workaday Shadows that carried the sales load. And that load was considerable: over 76,000 for the first model year. Plymouth moved a like number of its Sundances.

The reason Omni didn't fade into the Shadow is that it was too good to lose. Despite relatively few changes after 1981, it averaged a remarkable 100,000 sales each year through 1983 and 58,500 or more thereafter.

The turning point was 1981, when the K-car's 2.2-liter "Trans-4" became optional for both Omni and the 024 coupe, improving acceleration and quietness with little or no loss in mileage. A smaller Peugeot-built 1.6-liter (replacing the VW 1.7 for '83) was technically standard through 1986, but almost nobody bought it. Likewise the stripped 1981 "Miser" models, which disappeared after the following year.

Sustaining the L-body line through its 1990 swan-song were an increasingly better-equipped Omni and ever-sportier coupes. The coupes began at mid-1982 with an overdecorated 2.2-liter model reviving the famous Charger name, signaling Dodge's return to interesting cars. The base 024 became a Charger for '83, and the 2.2 was joined at midyear by a dashing Shelby Charger with tuned 107-bhp engine, very stiff suspension, racy body add-ons, silver paint, and big blue stripes evocative of Carroll Shelby's late-'60s Mustang GTs. A wider choice of colors was offered for '84, and other Chargers acquired a nose job and the Shelby's cleaner rear-roof styling. The next year, the Shelby took on the blown, 146-bhp 2.2 to become the Turbo Charger.

But by 1987, a profusion of sporty Daytonas and Shadows were crowding all Chargers out of the market, so production ceased that March. The Shelby Chargers were fairly rare: about 30,000 for the five model years.

Omni, meantime, kept getting better, picking up a more-­modern dashboard for '84 and additional standard features most every year. Workmanship improved too. The aging 1978 design should have been an increasing liability in the marketplace, but Chrysler took advantage of tooling costs long since amortized to keep prices down and sales up.

The company went even further for 1987 by replacing all Omnis with just one fully equipped "America" model, appealingly priced at $5799. Options were limited to reduce overhead and insure higher, more-consistent assembly quality -- another cue taken from Europe and Japan. Value-minded shoppers rushed to buy, taking more than 152,000 -- more sales than the entire Omni/Charger line had ever generated in a single year. Chrysler paid heed and put Aries/Reliant on the "America plan" before closing out the original K-cars after 1989. With that, Omni sales fast declined after '87, but the L-body hung on into model-year 1990, when the America badge was dropped and a driver-side air bag added.

A short-lived exception to such crushing sensibility was Dodge's GLH, basically the wolfish Shelby Charger in sheepish Omni dress. The initials, attributed to Ol' Shel, meant "Goes Like Hell." It did. The debut '85 was sprightly enough with its 110-bhp engine, but the turbocharged 146-bhp GLH-S of 1986 was a genuine terror, though it suffered terrible torque-steer; one tester observed the accelerator functioned like a "lane-change switch."

Still, like the Shelby Chargers, this Omni was great fun -- crude but invigorating in the best muscle-car tradition. And as only a few thousand were built for 1984-86, the GLH/GLH-S bid fair as future collectibles.

Arriving for 1988 was Dynasty, a sort of latter-day Diplomat on the front-drive C-body platform of that year's new Chrysler New Yorker. The only body style was a square-lined unibody four-door on a 104.3-inch wheelbase, available in standard and uplevel LE trim levels.

Unlike the Chrysler, though, Dynasty's standard engine was the corporate 2.5-liter four with 96 horsepower, a bit weak for the 3000-pound curb weight.

Fortunately, the Daytona's 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V-6 was optional. Changes for '89 were confined to a slightly more-powerful, 150-bhp V-6 option teaming with Chrysler's new Ultradrive automatic, plus optional security system, two-position driver-seat "memory" feature, and all-disc antilock brakes (the last phased in during '88). The 150-bhp Japanese option was ousted by Chrysler's own 3.3 V-6 for 1990, when all Dynastys gained standard driv­er-side airbags.

Billed as a "contemporary family sedan," Dynasty made no gesture toward sport, but it didn't have to. With base prices of $11,500-$12,500, it offered fine value in a roomy, traditional-style car of the sort that still appealed mightily to many people. And numerous they were.

Despite its unpretentious nature, Dynasty became Chrysler Corporation's most-popular car line. Model-year '89 production, for example, was close to 138,000 -- many for rent-a-car companies but a fine showing all the same.

Though Aries was down to two- and four-door Americas for 1989, their heir apparent bowed as the family Dodge for the early '90s. Called Spirit, this notchback sedan was built on the same 103.3-inch-wheelbase A-body platform as Plymouth's new Acclaim, and thus spelled the end for the like-length four-door 600.

The now-expected trio of base, luxury LE, and sporty ES models was offered, the last with a standard 2.5-liter turbo four, the others with the nonturbo version of that engine. Dynasty's 3.0-liter V-6 was optional only for ES, again teamed with Ultradrive.

Spirit styling echoed Aries', but was smoother and more "grown-up." ES was identified by body-color front- and rear-end caps and rocker extensions, plus integral fog lamps. Spirit returned for 1990 with standard driver-side air bag (Chrysler was now pushing hard with this laudable safety feature), no-cost all-disc brakes for ES, and numerous detail improvements.

Considering where it began, Dodge fared remarkably well in the '80s, resuming its traditional performance role within Chrysler Corporation while remaining the firm's only "full-line" nameplate and thus its best-selling one. In another return to tradition, Dodge finished the decade a solid sixth in the industry, compared to a lackluster eighth in 1982.

Dodge then retreated to seventh in volume through 1994, passed by Mercury amid new woes for Chrysler Corporation and a timely shift to more salable new products. Still, sales declined only as far as some 260,000 in 1992 and were back above 342,000 two years later. By 1996, Dodge had replaced every car in its lineup -- and many of its trucks, too.

The 1992 Dodge Viper -- especially in red -- was a very popular model for Dodge.

Signaling the start of this product revolution was that stunning 1989 showmobile, the two-seat Viper RT/10 roadster. A stark but potent creature, it was freely created in the image of Carroll Shelby's legendary Cobra. But the real movers behind it were Chrysler president Bob Lutz and chief engineer Francois Castaing, who wanted to show their company was capable of far more than K-cars and minivans.

To no one's surprise, showgoers pleaded for Dodge to make a Viper they could buy. In May 1990, Chrysler said it would oblige them. But more than just an exciting image-booster for Dodge, this low-volume sports car would be the first test for the streamlined "team approach" to vehicle development that Lutz and Castaing wanted to implement companywide. Though the concept car had to be entirely reengineered for production on just $50 million, the showroom Viper was on time and on budget. Sales began in May 1992, just 36 months after project approval, a new record development time for a production MoPar.

If not exactly cheap at $50,000, the Viper cost far less than other contemporary "exotics" -- or a genuine Cobra. Raw power and colossal acceleration were its reasons for being. Though based on a forthcoming truck engine, Viper's unusual new all-aluminum V-10 (hence RT/10) was engineered with assistance from Italy's Lamborghini (then owned by Chrysler). It wasn't a sophisticated mill, what with pushrods working two valves per cylinder, but it was huge: no less than 8.0 liters, a massive 488 cid. The result was a mighty 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. With mandatory six-speed manual transmission and standard limited-slip differential, the Viper could rocket from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds and rip through the standing quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at 108 mph.

Unlike other recent Dodges, Viper had conventional rear-wheel drive and classic all-independent double-wishbone suspension. This was, after all, a "pure sport car," as Shelby called such machines, which also meant few concessions to civility. For example, brakes and steering were powered, but nothing else. There were no exterior door handles -- and no windows, either; just clip-in side-curtains. The top was a rudimentary canvas toupee that didn't ward off rain too well. It did, however, trap much of the V-10's prodigious heat, which was noticed even at speed with the top off and the takeout rear window removed. Trunk space? Barely enough for a gym bag. Yet des­pite its stark furnishings and lightweight body panels made of plasticlike materials, the Viper ended up a bit heavier than planned at around 3400 pounds, though that partly reflected a very stiff, separate tubular-steel chassis.

But why sweat the details? The Viper was all about fast fun on sunny days -- not to mention looking great, as the voluptuous show-car styling survived completely intact. That included a nonstructural "sport bar" behind the cockpit and exposed functional side exhaust pipes that were wonderfully "retro" but could fry errant legs and sounded quite odd. Huge disc brakes provided terrific stopping power within handsome tri-spoke 17-inch aluminum wheels. Ultra-wide Z-rated tires helped provide super-sticky cornering, though power-sliding oversteer was ever available with a well-timed slam on the hammer. Yet unlike the scary Cobra, the Viper was easy to drive fast and well.

A lot more people wanted Vipers than Dodge could build -- which was exactly how Chrysler wanted it. The exoticar market was notoriously fickle, so why build too many Vipers too soon and risk depressing resale values? Production was slow to start anyway. Seeking top-notch quality for the costliest Dodge ever, Chrysler retooled its Detroit New Mack Avenue plant for turning out Vipers only as needed, which meant mostly by hand. Still, initial quality was somewhat less than world-class, and only 162 Vipers were built as '92 models, all painted bright red. But teething troubles couldn't dim the Viper's luster or the public's lust for Viper.

Viper roared into 1993 with only two changes: black as a second color choice and available dealer-installed air conditioning. Though some 3000 cars were planned that model year, unexpected molding troubles with the big one-piece front end held actual volume to about 1000. But the problems were soon fixed, and '94 production nearly tripled to 2892. Full factory air became optional that year, the transmission got an electric reverse-gear lockout, and color choices expanded to yellow and Emerald Green. The '95 was unchanged except for price, which Chrysler reluctantly raised by a relatively modest $1500.

A Viper paced the 1991 Indy 500, with Carroll Shelby himself driving the prerace parade lap. Though sales were still a year off, Dodge's new hot rod hardly needed this publicity, as "buff" magazines were breathlessly reporting every facet of its show car-to-showroom progress. And in fact, Viper wasn't the first choice. Dodge had bought pace-car privileges to promote its new '91 Stealth, an upscale V-6 sports coupe available with all-wheel drive and up to 300 turbocharged horses. But aside from styling, the Stealth was a Mitsubishi design built in Japan, and a Japanese pace car just wasn't "politically correct" for the premier American race. Dodge relented, prepared a Viper prototype to fill in, and relegated Stealths to the background.

This model is from 1984.
This model is from 1984.
The now 10-year old Caravan was in bad need of an upgrade in 1991.

Among other new '91 Dodges was an unexpected high-power edition of the workaday Spirit. Also branded R/T, it was strictly a showroom lure, as only some 1400 were built through 1992. Base price was $17,871, a weighty $4000 above the costliest standard Spirit. Under the hood sat a maxed-out 2.2-liter "Trans-4" with a new twin cam cylinder head and other modifications that yielded an amazing (and very peaky) 224 horsepower. Manual five-speed was the only transmission, and Dodge threw in necessary chassis upgrades, including the rear disc brakes newly optional for lesser '91 Spirits. You also got a dechromed exterior in red, white, or black, adorned with a ­subtle deck lid spoiler. Though it looked another torque-steer terror, the Spirit R/T handled with fair finesse, if no less noise than an Omni GLH. And it was undeniably quick, with 0-60 times of well under seven seconds.

There was nothing odd about the new '91 Shadow convertible, which carried on from the ragtop 600. This time, though, Dodge left construction chores to American Sunroof Corpor­ation. Cost concerns dictated a manual top, and the conversion slimmed back-seat space, but the regular "Highline" model started at $12,995, and a sporty ES edition sold for very little more. At the other end of the line, Dodge revived the "America" ploy for three- and five-door Shadows priced from just $7699. Power steering was one of their few standard "luxuries," and the only engine offered was the lowly 93-bhp version of the tried and true 2.2.

Like Chrysler's other '91 minivans, Caravan got a timely and very adept update marked by smoother sheet metal, a new dash (complete with glove box), and optional all-wheel-drive for 3.3-liter V-6 models. Even more laudable was first-time availability of antilock brakes, initially limited to the upper SE and LE trim levels. Also bolstering Caravan's appeal were a standard driver-side airbag as a '91 running change, followed by America's first integrated child safety seat as a 1992 option. A passenger airbag and side-guard door beams arrived for '94, when LE and ES Grand models could be ordered with a torquier 3.8 V-6 making 162 horsepower. All this did nothing but help sales, which improved from about a quarter-million for 1991 to over 300,000 by '94 -- and that was just Caravan. Even after 10 years, America still preferred Highland Park's minivans above all others.

There was little left to do for the Daytona, short of a total redesign. With its humble K-car origins and disco-era looks, it was just too old by the early '90s to stand comparison with a host of newer-design rivals for refinement or quality. Still, Dodge tried to inject some of the Viper's venom, starting with a "High-Torque Turbo I" engine for 1991. Standard for the Shelby and optional in lesser Daytonas, it made only two more horses but a useful 30 extra pound-feet of torque over the previous 2.5 turbo. The raucous VNT 2.2 vanished, but wasn't greatly missed.

A slightly smoother look with exposed headlamps arrived for 1992 Daytonas, as did optional rear disc brakes. Dodge now sponsored the International Race of Champions, so the world's best drivers vied for "top gun" honors in Daytonas instead of Chevy Camaros.

A new top-line IROC model was thus no surprise, though its mild 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V-6 arguably was. More interesting was the IROC R/T, a midyear '92 replacement for the Daytona Shelby packing the 224-bhp "Turbo III" engine from the Spirit R/T. Aside from that and deliberately limited production -- only some 800 or so -- this R/T was much like the regular IROC. But none of this racy stuff could stop Daytona sales from freefalling, and the model was belatedly retired after measly '93 model-year volume of 9677 units.

The Dodge Intrepid, including this 1993 model, was the most affordable of the LH trio, costing the same price Dodge Dynasty, which it replaced.

By this point, Dodge was ready to join C-P Division in introducing a succession of new models to rejuvenate its lineup for the late '90s and beyond. The changeover would be orderly but quite rapid, reflecting the efficient work of the "cross-functional platform teams" recently established in the image of Team Viper. As a result, Spirit, Shadow, and Dynasty were left to fade away with no further changes of note after 1992.

All these cars had served Dodge well, but the new stuff was far better. First up was Intrepid, one of the much-discussed 1993 "LH" sedans. Though ostensibly a midsize, it was close to full-size, offering bountiful interior space thanks to a lengthy 113-inch wheelbase and radical "cab forward" styling. The related Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision had this too, but they targeted different ­buyers with their own visual cues and model/equipment mixes.

Intrepid was the most affordable of the LH trio, but also the most-aggressively styled, with a Viper-inspired face, sharper roofline, and a bolder rear end with "Intrepid" writ large on a wide central backup lamp. The base model used the corporate pushrod 3.3 V-6, tuned for 153 horsepower. The sportier ES substituted a new overhead-cam 3.5-liter unit with 24 valves and 214 horses.

All Intrepids came with four-speed automatic transmission, dual airbags, a wide-track chassis with all-independent suspension, a fair helping of standard amenities, and worthy options like antilock brakes. ES achieved flatter, more-responsive handling with a firm "touring" suspension and wider tires on 16-inch alloys (versus 15-inch steel rims). It was also sportier inside, with shift console and ­higher-grade trim. Best of all, Intrepid cost about the same as the dull old Dynasty it replaced, the base model arriving at just under $16,000.

With all this, the standard-bearer for the "New Dodge" got off to a strong start, attracting over 81,000 sales for model-year '93. Intrepid jumped above 155,000 for '94 on the strength of standard air conditioning, a newly optional power moonroof, eight more horses for the 3.3 engine, and the advent of speed-variable power steering.

The spotlight then turned to Neon, which bowed in early 1994 to signal the end of Shadow for '95. Plymouth naturally sold it too, as in Omni/Horizon days, only Chrysler didn't ­bother with separate names, which saved some tooling and marketing money. In fact, Dodge's Neons differed from Plymouth's only in the color of their badges: divisional red instead of blue.

Such clever thinking was a hallmark of Neon's new "PL" platform, and was passed on to consumers as attractively low list prices: as early ads said, "about 95-hundred to start, 12-five nicely loaded." That was for the debut four-door sedan in bare-bones form. The nicer Highline and Sport versions cost a bit more; similarly priced Highline and Sport coupes arrived in the fall. Unfortunately, Chrysler's cost-consciousness also produced rather bargain-basement trim even for an economy car, though it also allowed room in the budget for standard dual airbags and niceties like cupholders and floor console.

Neon continued Chrysler's move to cab-forward styling (as suggested a few years earlier by a Neon concept car). Propor­tions were scaled down to a 104-inch wheelbase, which was still quite long for a subcompact and thus made for another ­relatively cavernous interior. Yet there was a winning cuteness to Neon not found in the bigger LH cars, particularly the ­friendly "face" with oval headlamps and a simple horizontal grille that almost seemed ready to grin. Announcement ads played up this charm with a fetching one-word headline: "Hi!"

Dodge built some 179,000 Neons as '95 models, but close to 131,000 for calendar '94. The latter is perhaps a more-accurate gauge of the car's popularity given its early introduction. The only engine at first was a new 132-bhp 2.0-liter overhead-cam four designed and built by Chrysler. A 16-valve twin cam version with 150 horsepower was gradually phased in for Sport models.

Transmissions comprised the usual manual five-speed or optional three-speed automatic. Though far from quiet, Neon was great fun to drive, thrifty, pretty reliable, and even speedy: a brisk 8.9 seconds for Consumer Guide®'s base-engine five-speed sedan. In all, Neon was a huge step forward from the old "Omnirizon," proof that Chrysler could still build an appealing small car on its own.

Next on the Dodge menu was a Spirit successor called Stratus, which went on sale in early 1995 as a lower-priced version of the new "JA" Chrysler Cirrus sedan introduced some six months before. Hewing to the new corporate formula, Stratus delivered wide-track cab-forward sleekness on a 108-inch wheelbase, plus standard antilock brakes, dual airbags, even air conditioning.

Like Intrepid, there were base and sportier ES models. Engine options began with another new all-Chrysler engine, a twin cam multivalve 2.4-liter four with 140 horsepower. ES sported a Mitsubishi-based 2.5-liter V-6 with 164 horse­power.

Both these engines mated solely with four-speed automatic. The 132-bhp Neon engine with five-speed manual, a combo that proved livelier on the road than it looked on paper, was standard for all Stratus models. Prices were appealingly competitive at just under $14,000 for the standard Stratus and some $17-grand for the better-equipped ES. Roomy, responsive, and rock-solid, Stratus met a very favorable reception, and Dodge happily built over 58,000 for model-year '95.

Though Chrysler was now starting to sever ties with Mitsubishi, its longtime Japanese partner loomed large in the 1995 Avenger. A spiritual successor to Daytona, this was little more than a sporty coupe based on Mitsubishi's midrange Galant family sedan, with rather sedate styling on the same 103.7-inch wheelbase.

Most American-market Galants were now built in Illinois, so Avengers were too, even though Chrysler had sold its interest in the plant to Mitsubishi. Chrysler did contribute to Avenger's styling, but though designers tried hard for a cab-forward look, it was less evident here than on the company's all-American products.

At least the front maintained a Dodge identity by wearing the make's trademark crossed-bars grille motif. Once again, there were base and ES models. Respective power was the single-cam Neon 2.0-liter and the Mitsubishi V-6 (engines shared with the Stratus ES). The V-6 was limited to four-speed automatic.

At $17,191, the ES cost some $4000 more than the standard Avenger, but the extra money was well spent, bringing anti-lock brakes (optional for base), fatter tires on 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, rear spoiler and other goodies. Yet even this Avenger was no excitement machine -- just ­another pleasant, competent, Japanese-style car that bordered on anonymity. Most critics judged Avenger a big step forward from the weary Daytona, but that was surely damning with faint praise.

Dodge finished up its linewide makeover with a brilliant new second-generation Caravan for 1996. Viper had been around only five model years by then, yet was now the oldest car in the fleet. Dodge had indeed remade itself with unusual speed.

Not that Viper was neglected. By 1995, in fact, team leader Roy Sjoberg could claim over 1100 changes to the snaky sports car since the first '92 roadster. New ones joined them for '96, starting with 15 more horsepower (to 415 total) and an extra 23 pound-feet of torque (to 488). Higher compression and a hotter cam were responsible, as was eliminating the distinctive "shin burner" side exhausts for a less-restrictive setup routed beneath the car to a pair of center rear outlets.

In addition, curb weight lightened some 60 pounds by changing suspension components from steel to aluminum, a newly optional lightweight hard top afforded much-better weather protection than the skimpy fabric "bikini," and there were new color schemes featuring broad nose and deck stripes hinting at a racing program. Equally significant, production shifted to a new plant on Detroit's Conner Avenue, which promised improved workmanship. Partly because of the move, model-year production was deliberately held to just 500 units.

Another reason was the spring 1996 debut of a fixed-roof Viper fastback as an early '97 entry. Though it looked much like the roadster, the GTS coupe was claimed to be 90 percent new. Standard were power windows, adjustable pedals, air conditioning (at last!), and a redesigned dash incorporating dual airbags, features that also showed up on '97 RT/10s. And there was yet more muscle, as Viper's V-10 was both lightened and fully reengineered to produce 450 horsepower (at 5200 rpm) and 500 pound-feet of torque (peaking at just 3600 revs).

Dodge's racy-looking GTS had obvious competition potential, and Dodge realized it with a squadron of GTS-Rs designed for LeMans and other long-distance events. With factory backing and hard work by several outside teams, these Vipers proved almost unstoppable. In a trio of "three-peats" they claimed the FIA GT2 and GT World Championships in 1997-1999 and class victories at LeMans in 1998-2000.

At home, GTS-Rs won the 1999 American LeMans Series (ALMS), scoring a class win in each race they entered, followed in 2000 by overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Dodge then left international sports-car racing to focus anew on NASCAR.

Meantime, roadgoing Vipers kept evolving nicely. The '99s, for example, exchanged 17-inch wheels for 18s, added power mirrors and aluminum-finish cockpit trim, and offered genuine British Connolly leather upholstery as a new option. Also new that year was an American Club Racing (ACR) package for the GTS with five-point competition seatbelts, special suspension, unique one-piece wheels, and a low-restriction air cleaner that helped liberate an extra 10 horsepower.

The option wasn't cheap at $10,000, but weekend warriors loved it on their local racetracks, though they did without air conditioning, audio, and even fog lights Monday through Friday.

The package was improved for 2000 with adjustable monotube shock absorbers and a "performance" oil pan providing better lubrication of the mighty engine's innards. For 2001, both roadster and coupe got standard antilock brakes, a great advance for "active" safety, though another step back from Viper's original uncompromising nature. Colors came and went each season through 2002 and the finale of the basic 1992 design. By that point, Viper owners numbered over 14,000, each a happy soul no doubt.

Yet with fewer than 1500 sales per year, Viper was a bit ­player in the Dodge drama of the 1990s, when minivans, light pickups and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) increasingly upstaged cars in consumer affections. Indeed, Dodge was then selling way more cars than trucks each year -- a record million-plus in 1998-2000, about three times its nontruck volume. The same was true to a lesser degree for Chevrolet and Ford, but Dodge had fewer car models, so its total business depended relatively more on trucks.

Though Dodge remained far behind its rivals in truck sales, a series of successful products helped close the gap some. First up was 1994's all-new full-size Ram pickup, whose broad-shouldered styling and available V-10 power (related to Viper's) helped pull in almost three times as many orders as previous models.

A further sales boost came in 1998 with the "Quad Cab," an industry first adding two rear-hinged back doors to Ram's extended Club Cab for easier entry/exit. The idea proved so popular that rivals rushed to copy it. Dodge's midsize Dakota pickups also enjoyed much stronger sales after getting a Ram-inspired redesign (for '97) and their own Quad Cabs (for 2000) with four front-hinged doors. And after sitting on the sidelines for five years, Dodge launched the Dakota-based Durango for 1998 as a much more-competitive SUV than the ancient '70s-vintage Ramcharger.

As ever, though, Dodge's biggest strength was owning America's favorite minivan, its Caravans drawing at least a quarter-million sales each calendar year through 2000. Much of that success stemmed from the full redesign for 1996 marked by sleeker looks; roomier, quieter and stronger bodies; larger available engines with more power; and thoughtful new features like "Easy Out" back seats with built-in rollers and sliding rear doors for both sides, not just the right.

While the related Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country offered all this too, only Dodge tried for a measure of sportiness, fielding ES and Sport models with firmer suspension, youthful styling touches, even a manually shiftable automatic transmission.

Alas, heavy reliance on one product also remained Dodge's biggest weakness, aggravated by a growing public perception of minivans as uncool "soccer mom" transport. But though minivan demand did soften somewhat, Caravan sales weren't seriously affected. What did start to hurt was stronger competition, especially from Honda and Toyota, whose U.S.-bred minivans were stealing Caravan sales with superior workmanship and mechanical finesse.

Dodge responded with mostly new 2001 Caravans, but they didn't look that new and were more expensive, in part because Chrysler's controls on production costs, once the envy of Detroit, had become rather lax. With all this, Caravan, though sales dropped to some 242,000 for calendar year '01, still tops in class by far, but it is the lowest for Dodge in a decade. Then again, 2001 was a tough year for most businesses as the nation's decade-long boom economy ended and a frighten­ing war on terrorism began.

The low-priced Dodge Neon, such as this 1995 four-door sedan model, led in Dodge sales for most of the late 1990s.

Despite the market's growing preference for trucks, Dodge car sales were consistent and fairly strong in the late 1990s, totaling at least 360,000 each calendar year from '96 through 2000, after which the tally dipped to about 329,000.

Leading the pack -- though not as much as you might think -- was the subcompact Neon, drawing 110,000-112,000 yearly orders through 2000 as a Dodge. Sales of Plymouth-badged Neons ran 25-30 percent lower, largely because of the Plymouth badge, said some analysts.

However, Dodge also did more than Plymouth to woo the younger buyers most attracted to small, low-priced cars. For example, coupes appeared in both lineups for '96, as did an available 150-bhp twin cam version of Neon's 2.0-liter four, but only Dodge catered to weekend racers with a Competition Package featuring uprated suspension and tires, all-disc brakes, heavy-duty five-speed gearbox, tachometer, and other go-faster stuff.

What's more, it was optional for the workaday sedan (at $1575) as well as the sportier-looking coupe ($1745, including the twin cam mill). Dodge followed up for '98 with an R/T package, also available for both body styles.

This paired the twin cam engine and the Competition group's basic chassis bits with more heavily bolstered front bucket seats, a rear spoiler, fog lights, broad dorsal racing stripes, and large "R/T" decals. It ­didn't make a fire-breather like the big-block R/Ts of old, but it did make a fun ride even more so -- and quite popular among said weekend racers. But those were the highlights in the other­wise uneventful career of the first-generation Neon, which remained rather rough and rowdy next to newer rivals, especially those from Japan.

A full redesign for 2000 (arriving in early 1999) strove to enhance Neon's market appeal, yet failed to address basic shortcomings. The optional automatic, for example, was still an outmoded three-speed unit, and workmanship, though better, remained below par. Coupes were canned -- their sales had always disappointed -- but so was the twin cam engine. Sedans were restyled around little-changed dimensions but lost their playful look, and the single-cam engine was scarcely quieter. Buyers must have noticed all this, for Dodge Neon sales fell to just over 107,000 for calendar '01.

Pushing on for 2002, Dodge reinstated an R/T package and added an ACR option, both packing a tuned single-cam 2.0-liter with -- you guessed it -- 150 horsepower. Leather upholstery and front side airbags were newly available, too. So was a four-speed automatic transmission, ousting the three-speeder at last.

Neon saw little change after this, falling ever-further behind the best small cars through swan song 2006. In fact, with one exception (detailed below), the only news of note in this ­period was dropping the ACR option and tagging the midline ES as SXT for '03, then discarding the R/T after '04.

Despite so much sameness, sales held up surprisingly well, but only because fleet orders made up a high percentage. In the retail market, Neon appealed mainly as one of the cheapest cars in the class (around $13,000-$17,000), and it could be had even cheaper with the rebates and other incentives buyers expected.

Other Dodge cars also received only sporadic attention in the first years of the new century. With trucks so dominating division sales, it made sense to keep the product focus on high-margin minivans, pickups, and SUVs. One suspects, however, that Dodge and others only hurt their own car cause with this tactic, even if import brands seemed unstoppable in grabbing ever-larger slices of the nontruck pie.

The 1998 Dodge Intrepid, shown here as an ES sedan, shared no exterior body panels with Chrysler's related Concorde.

The minivan, pickup and SUV trends were evident by the late 1990s, when Dodge's first-generation Intrepid closed out with little further change: just more power for the '96 ES and the introduction of Chrysler's AutoStick manually shiftable automatic transmission.

The redesigned '98 Intrepids were something else, however: still "cab forward" outside and roomy inside, yet sleeker -- real "dream car styling" come true. Length and width increased a bit, but wheelbase was unchanged.

And unlike before, Intrepid shared no exterior body panels with Chrysler's related Concorde. Engines were new, too. The base Intrepid got a 2.7-liter V-6 with dual overhead camshafts and more ponies than the pushrod 3.3 it replaced. The sporty ES exchanged a single-cam 3.5 for a similar but more efficient 3.2, also with more power.

Both models came with front buckets and console, but even the ES, which added standard antilock brakes, wasn't the speedy backroads runner its looks implied. 

Dodge addressed that in early 2000 by adding an Intrepid R/T with wider tires on 17-inch wheels (versus 16s), an uprated suspension with thicker antiroll bars at each end, and a reinstated sohc 3.5-liter V-6 shared with Chrysler's new 300M.

Dodge now labeled this engine "Magnum 3.5," another nod to its muscle car past, but corporate planners mandated detuning that rendered it 11 ponies and eight pound-feet shy of the M. But the R/T was a bit lighter, and Car and Driver found it a bit quicker, clocking 0-60 mph at 7.8 seconds on the way to a 139-mph maximum. Handling? "These large sedans have always behaved like cars weighing and measuring one class smaller," C/D reported, "and the R/T provides even crisper turn-in and sharper responsiveness." Summing up, the editors allowed that while other Intrepids "never managed to deliver the performance that the aggressively sporting sheet metal promised… [the] R/T fixes that." And at a starting price of just $25,000, it was fine value.

But then, as with Neon, Dodge let Intrepid carry on with scarcely anything new to keep buyers interested. And some of the changes that did occur seemed retrograde; like replacing the R/T after just one year with a mundane SXT that had the same engine -- and with six more horses -- but offered neither AutoStick nor a handling-focused suspension.

It seemed a curious move for a "performance" brand, but the R/T had never been a big draw. Besides, the Intrepid still sold mainly as the large, comfortable family four-door it was; sportiness just ­wasn't much of a factor. With all this, sales were OK through 2002, but then slid steadily through end-of-the-line 2004.

Dodge had less success in the midsize field as the century turned, again due to a relative lack of change, plus increasingly stiff class competition. On a calendar-year basis, Avenger coupe sales languished in the low 30,000s through 1999, then plummeted to a mere 5500 units with the year-2000 changeover to redesigned '01 models.

The Stratus sedan ran in the mid to high 90,000s except for 1998, when it topped 106,000. But here, too, a good chunk of each year's production went to corporate and rental fleets to the detriment of Stratus' image and resale values on the retail market. Like Neon, these were competent, high-value cars, and Dodge struggled to keep them appealing with yearly touch-ups. But it wasn't enough, and finicky consumers found more to like at other dealerships.

The redesigned 2001 models aimed to lure them back with fresh styling, new features, and a more solid, refined driving experience within little-changed dimensions. Avenger was renamed Stratus coupe, but was still built in Illinois on a Mitsubishi platform, this one borrowed from the Japanese company's 1999-2000 Galant sedan and sporty Eclipse models.

Sedans remained purely Chrysler creations, evident in their cab-forward proportions, but production now centered solely in Michigan (some prior models had been sourced from Mexico).

Among the few shared features, other than the Stratus name, were a base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a smooth, rounded nose with Dodge's trademark "crosshair" grille motif. Models comprised price-leader SE coupes and sedans, a new two-door R/T with Mitsubishi's latest 3.0-liter V-6 (replacing Avenger ES), and a four-door ES packing Chrysler's 2.7-liter V-6.

Interestingly, both V-6s were rated at 200 bhp, perhaps to keep peace in the transpacific family. Automatic transmission was mandatory for sedans and optional for coupes in lieu of a five-speed manual. Enthusiasts were quick to note the V-6/manual combo, a first for Dodge's midsize coupe and not matched by sibling Chrysler Sebrings. Also available for the R/T was Chrysler's AutoStick feature, previously limited to ES sedans.

For all the changes, though, the new Stratuses were just more of the same: noticeably improved in many areas, yet still not quite good enough to threaten the competition's best. Sedans had standard all-disc brakes and offered curtain side airbags as a first-time option, but torso side airbags weren't available anywhere, and antilock brakes cost extra.

And though the manual R/T coupe promised the most rewarding drive, Road & Track damned it with faint initial praise, judging it merely "well equipped to take on the Toyota Solaras and Honda Accord coupes of the world." Car and Driver was more upbeat, finding the R/T "nearly as delightful to flog as its Mitsubishi [Eclipse] cousin."

In any case, the Stratus would be another Dodge allowed to coast along with minimal change until its time was up. The 2002 line acquired a value-priced SE Plus sedan, and a sporty R/T sedan bowed at midseason to add some image spice, offering a five-speed manual or AutoStick self-shifter in a tempting $21,400 package. But the hand of marketing was very heavy, and the main change for 2003 was badging price-leaders as SXT models.

The following year brought a mild facelift to help sedans look a bit more like the coupes, which dealers could hardly give away and were thus dropped after '05. Offerings then slimmed to just SXT and R/T sedans, a hint that change was in the wind.

A more aggressive and more expensive Viper from 2003.

After an 11-year run, the iconic Viper finally changed for 2003, fully redesigned with a more mature demeanor but an even hairier chest.

Initially offered as a newly named SRT-10 roadster, it spanned a 2.6-inch-longer wheelbase (98.8) and spread no less than nine inches wider, but was slightly shorter overall, thanks to trimmer front and rear overhangs. Styling, credited to former Toyota designer Osamu Shikado, was recognizably Viper but crisper, more squarish in proportions and, from some angles, more aggressive.

Enhancing the appearance was a full manual-folding soft top that dispensed with the fixed rear "sport bar" while improving convenience and weather protection versus the old afterthought "bikini" top. One simple latch released it for stowing in a well behind the cockpit, one reason for the longer wheelbase. Side exhaust pipes returned, but were now inside the rocker panels, shielded to meet noise regulations -- though that didn't prevent accidental fried legs.

The cockpit itself was vastly upgraded, gaining better-quality plastics, some needed seating space, and a more orderly dashboard with a speedometer calibrated to 220 mph (which Dodge said was deliberate). The pedals now adjusted electrically, and lined up in axis with the steering wheel, thus eliminating the old model's irksome pedal offset.

Despite these advances, most testers thought cockpit fit-and-finish weren't worthy of the price -- initially $80,795, plus a $3000 Gas-Guzzler Tax.

Construction again involved a steel chassis and a body made of composite-plastic and aluminum. This time, though the windshield frame, door-pillar hinges, and front-fender supports were rendered in carbon fiber to hold the line on weight, which ended up at around 3400 pounds curbside. The four-wheel ­double-wishbone suspension stayed roughly the same, but wheel diameter swelled from 18 to 19 inches, allowing larger four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Traction and/or stability control were still nowhere in sight. Dodge wasn't about to change the Viper's "purity" as a driver's car. The rear tires did change, becoming broader at the rear, with 345/30s over 13 inches wide replacing 335/30s.

Viper's trademark pushrod aluminum V-10 continued, but displacement went to 8.3 liters and 505 cid. Power and torque were initially mooted at 500 each, but pound-feet ultimately settled at 525, and fiddling took bhp to 510 for 2006. A mandatory Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox returned with its previous gearing. The rear-axle ratio was also unchanged (3.07:1).

Despite adding a measure of civility, the '03 Viper was even more of a rip-snorting muscle machine than its previous incarnation. Car and Driver reported 0-60 mph at just 3.9 seconds and a dragsterlike quarter-mile of 12.9 seconds at 121 mph. Handling remained trackworthy as well, C/D measuring a full 1.00g on the skidpad. Sure, the ride remained buckboard hard, the cockpit would still heat up like a sauna, and control efforts would again challenge Mr. Universe, but Viper fans wouldn't have it any other way.

In fact, Viper owners liked the new one so much, they snapped up the entire 2003 model run, some 1500 units, in just two weeks. No one else had a chance. That's because Dodge mailed out presale certificates giving existing owners first dibs. Dealers, obliged to honor these guarantees, wailed loudly when certificate holders came in demanding to buy at just a few dollars over invoice, thus depriving dealers -- and Chrysler Group -- of thousands in potential profit. Would-be first-time Viper buyers were doubtless plenty sore at having to wait a year. Oh well, it must have seemed a good idea at the time.


A new Dodge Viper would have been a sellout anyway, and demand remained strong, with 1782 sales in calendar 2004 and 1652 in '05. Few changes occurred until 2006, when the Viper coupe returned by popular request. Dodge had developed a 2003 Competition Coupe as a turnkey proposition for weekend warriors, but the production coupe -- also badged SRT-10, not GTS -- was rather different. In fact, Dodge made some changes to a prototype design after getting feedback at a national Viper club convention. Viper fans are nothing if not passionate.

The result appeared for 2005 with unique rear-quarter panels, windshield frame, door glass, rear fascia, and taillamps, plus a "double bubble" fixed roof and specific trunk lid. The coupe, though, could carry six cubic feet of stuff, four more than the roadster. Everything else was the same, including curb weight, so performance was virtually identical. Even so, Car and Driver found the coupe less prone to throttle-on tail sliding than the roadster. The editors also found it to be a more comfortable and thus more practical roadgoing Viper, even on day-long drives. Perhaps Dodge should have called it GTS after all.

The SRT in the new Viper's surname stood for Street and Racing Technology, a small in-house team recently formed to develop high-performance models for all Chrysler Group brands. SRT was a small but high-profile result of the controversial 1998 merger between Chrysler Corporation and Germany's Daimler-Benz (see Chrysler for more details), being comparable to parent Mercedes' AMG division.

SRT's second effort for Dodge was announced several months after the new Viper in response to the fast growing "sport compact" craze. Young, mostly urban enthusiasts had lately taken to transforming used Honda Civics, Acura Integras, and similar cars into striking custom street racers known as "tuner cars" or "sport compacts," implying a huge new market for performance parts and styling accessories.

Automakers began conjuring sporty versions of their workaday small fries to get in on this lucrative action -- and hopefully hook some new buyers for life. The little Neon was already known as a demon handler, having racked up a number of autocross and road-racing champion­ships, and it made a fine starting point for Dodge's sport compact contender, the SRT-4.

The biggest deal for the pumped-up Neon was swapping in a turbocharged version of the corporate 2.4-liter twin cam four to net a startling, and as we'd soon find out underrated, 205 bhp. Allied to mandatory heavy-duty five-speed manual gearbox and a sub-3000-pound curb weight, the intercooled engine could deliver 0-60 mph in a claimed 5.9 seconds, making this the second-fastest car in the Dodge lineup after the mighty Viper. Starting price was no less eye-opening at just under $20,000.

This was in line with SRT's aim of delivering maximum bang for the buck in a car ready for owner personalization. Even so, the SRT-4 was well-equipped, particularly for "stylin’'" on the street. A large "basket handle" spoiler was a must, but there were also fat 17-inch tires, chrome-tipped exhaust, discreet lower-body cladding, a bolder nose with working hood scoop, a deeper bumper, and a gaping Dodge crosshair grille.

The suspension was lowered and stiffened, and big disc brakes with ABS went behind standard alloy wheels. The cabin kept the street-racer theme with bolstered bucket seats, turbo-boost/vacuum gauge, 160-mph speedometer, metal-look accents, a unique three-spoke steering wheel, and a whimsical "cue ball" shift knob.

The 2005 Dodge Magnum upgraded the ho-hum Dodge wagons of previous years.

The Dodge SRT-4 was a wild and woolly beast: loud, hard-riding, and tough to drive well because of turbo throttle lag and so much power going through the front wheels. It was more at home on a smooth racetrack than on rough city pavement. The kids loved it, but they were about the only ones. Over-30 magazine testers found the SRT-4 unacceptably rude and crude, though great fun for about the first five minutes.

SRT added standard limited-slip differential for '04, as well as 15 bhp. The power boost wasn't very noticeable, probably because it had been underrated at 205 bhp in the first place. The farewell '05 edition offered an $1195 ACR package comprising an even firmer suspension -- "yeah, that's what it needs," moaned Car and Driver -- plus wider tires on 16-inch alloy wheels.

The ACR version took on four rival sport compacts in a C/D comparison test. It finished midpack despite having the best weight-to-power ratio, the most go (5.6 seconds 0-60, 14.3 seconds at 99 mph in the quarter-mile, 150 mph all-out), the best braking, and the quickest autocross time.

"This feisty little brute might have placed higher…were it not such a one-trick pony," C/D concluded. But winning isn't everything, and the SRT-4 did make an impression on Generation X-Box, even if the youngsters didn't buy many of them. Then, too, many single-purpose cars have become coveted collector's items, and that could well happen to the hyper-Neon some day.

Making an even bigger impression, at least on the public consciousness, were the replacements for the full-size Intrepid, the 2005 Magnum and '06 Charger. Reviving two such hallowed names gave some people pause, because the new Magnum was a station wagon, of all things, while the latest Charger was a sedan, not a slinky coupe like the one jumping around on TV's still-popular "Dukes of Hazzard." But Dodge correctly pointed out that wagons were starting to make a comeback of sorts and that coupe sales were generally "nowhere" in early twenty-first-century America.

There was no debating the new cars' worthiness, however, as both shared Chrysler Group's impressive new LX platform with the instant-hit '05 Chrysler 300 sedans. That meant a sophisticated chassis with rear-wheel drive -- the first "traditional" mainstream Dodge cars in 16 years -- plus all-independent suspension greatly influenced by new partner Mercedes' popular E-class. Equally laudable were four-wheel disc brakes and, save the base Magnum SE, standard antilock brake control and ESP antiskid/traction control. Still another surprise was the Magnum SXT with all-wheel drive, something no Detroit make had ever offered in the big-car class.

Big these new Dodges definitely were, both physically and visually. Wheelbase was a generous 120 inches, overall length around 200, width a brawny 74 or so. Styling emphasized this mass with low rooflines, high slab sides, and aggressive faces that could have fit a big Ram pickup. The designs polarized opinions, but Dodge had learned that trying to please the many usually ended up pleasing only the few. Moreover, the Charger/Magnum looked like no other cars around (300s excepted, of course). They were as bold a break with convention as cab ­forward was over a decade before.

Like sibling Chryslers, mainstream Chargers and Magnums relied on the corporate single-cam 250-bhp 3.5-liter V-6 allied to four-speed automatic transmission, with a 190-bhp 2.7 engine reserved for the base Magnum. But the real excitement was a brand-new Hemi V-8, a 5.7-liter/345-cid powerhouse making 340 horses and a burly 390 pound-feet of torque. Standard for both Charger and Magnum R/T, and linked to a five-speed automatic with sporty manual-shift gate, the Hemi gestured to fuel efficiency with its Multi Displacement System. Like GM's similar Active Fuel Management, MDS was designed to shut down four cylinders under light throttle loads to save a little gas. It didn't save much, especially since the Hemi encouraged a lot of foot-to-the-floor action, but it was better than nothing and was hard to detect doing its thing. As it turned out, the Hemi's EPA economy ratings were good enough to avoid triggering the Gas-Guzzler Tax, a potential liability for popularly priced vehicles.

Speaking of price, both lines showed up with base stickers in the $22,000-$31,000 range. Options were predictably ample. The Charger R/T pushed performance more than other models with two desired packages. A $1695 Road/Track Performance Group added 10 horses, uprated suspension with rear load leveling, firm-feel steering, and unique alloy wheels in stock 18-inch size, plus leather/suede upholstery and heated front seats. To this, the $2675 Daytona R/T package added a rear spoiler, 235/55 tires (replacing 225/60s), and broad swathes of matte-black finish on the hood and rear fenders, complete with reversed-out "Hemi" and "Charger" lettering, respectively. Daytona's colors also echoed the "Scat Pack" days, with the first 4000 finished in "Go ManGo," a coppery orange. The next 4000 were in "Top Banana" yellow. More colors were slated later, including the possible return of "Sub Lime" and "Plum Crazy."

Dodge's Charger/Magnum ads naturally played up the V-8 models, depicting humorous encounters with unwary folks who were smoked by the Dodge, then asked, "That thing got a Hemi in it?" The phrase was soon on people's lips from coast to coast.

Meantime, the small dedicated band of gearheads at Street and Racing Technology couldn't resist taking the R/T models to a higher level. The result was SRT8 versions for both the Magnum and Charger, each with a 6.1-liter (370-cid) Hemi pumping out 425 bhp -- the highest specific output in Chrysler V-8 history, said SRT -- and walloping torque of 420 pound-feet.

More than just a bore job, the 6.1 bristled with premium engineering, including its own block casting, flat-top pistons, ­higher compression (10.3:1 versus 9.6), larger ports, wider intake valves, sodium-filled exhaust valves, higher-lift cam, headers, and freer-flow intake and exhaust piping. SRT also lowered the suspension by half an inch from R/T spec, substituted harder suspension bushings, reprogrammed the ESP and transmission shift points, and bolted on 20-inch wheels. The SRT8 Charger was treated to a new rear spoiler and a hood scoop to help keep the engine bay cool.

Last but not least were specially ­appointed interiors, plus deeper front and rear fascias that made both SRT8s look even hairier than "ordinary" R/Ts. The price for all this wasn't exactly cheap, yet the SRT8s, wagon and sedan, were undeniable high-performance bargains, starting at just under $40,000.

Despite their size and two-ton heft, the new Hemi Chargers and Magnums were very fast on the straights, but also Eurosedan-agile through the curves. R/Ts could run 0-60 mph in the mid-five-second bracket and standing quarter-miles in the low 14s at just over 100. Who said the muscle car era was gone forever? SRT8s were more thrilling yet, doing 0-60 lunges in five seconds or less, sub-14-second quarter-mile blasts, and 0-100 mph and back to 0 in no more than 17 seconds. V-6s seemed like sluggards by comparison, posting 0-60s in the low nines, but they looked just as quick -- and mean -- as the Hemis.

Dodge must have been encouraged by the initial response. Magnum alone tallied nearly 92,000 sales from its mid-'04 launch through the end of '05, fewer than the Chrysler 300 but surprisingly good for a supposedly passé station wagon. The Charger seemed poised to do at least equally well.

Still, there's no denying that Dodge (Chrysler, too) seemed out of step flaunting such big, heavy, and thirsty cars in 2005. After all, that was the year many Americans first paid more than $3 a gallon for gas amid new concerns over world oil supplies, soaring demand for fuel-stingy gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles, and more strident calls by environmentalists for tougher fuel-economy standards to slow the pace of global warming. Though it's unclear how those factors will play out, you can bet they won't be going away anytime soon.

Dodge has hardly lost a sense of social responsibility. In early 2006 Caliber arrived as an early '07 model. A compact wagon to replace the Neon sedan, it was built on a new platform developed with Mitsubishi. Caliber marked another brave step for Dodge, blending macho Magnum style with four-cylinder efficiency in a trio of American-made "world" engines, all with twin overhead camshafts and de rigueur variable valve ­timing.

The base SE and SXT offered a 148-bhp 1.8-liter with manual transmission or a high-tech continuously variable automatic (CVT). Both also had an optional 158-bhp 2.0-liter, while the sporty R/T mated a 172-bhp 2.4 with CVT and standard AWD; a front-drive version with five-speed manual was scheduled to come later.

Caliber's tall-body styling over a 103.7-inch wheelbase provided good room for up to five adults, plus anywhere from 18.5 to 48 cubic feet of cargo space. With small-car buyers increasingly demanding upscale features, Caliber came sensibly calibrated with standards like curtain side airbags and options such as antilock brakes (included on CVT) models and ESP traction/stability control, plus the usual fancy trim, audio upgrades, and such.

Yet prices started just south of $14,000, very competitive with class rivals. For all this practicality, Dodge didn't forget leadfoots, planning the inevitable SRT4 version for a fall 2006 release. With a 2.4-liter turbocharged to no less than 300 bhp, the Caliber SRT4 upped the last Neon SRT-4 by 70 ponies. Due to extra girth, though, Dodge's claimed 0-60-mph time remained unchanged at 5.9 seconds.

Reflecting SRT's usual thoroughness, the hottest Caliber was set to boast a standard six-speed manual gearbox, a working hood scoop, big all-disc Charger/Magnum brakes, and a lowered suspension crouching over standard 19-inch wheels. Yet for all the go-fast goodies, the new SRT4 was rated at an estimated 28 mpg on the highway. The best of all worlds? Could be.

Also due from Dodge for 2007 is the much needed successor to the aging Stratus, plus attractive new truck models like the Jeep-based Nitro, Dodge's first compact SUV. There's also the prospect of a smaller-than-Caliber car for the European market, where Chrysler Group wants Dodge to be a major player.

Last but not least is the 2006 concept predicting a reborn Challenger pony car on a modified LX platform. The concept was first shown at the early 2006 car shows, and it made quite a stir. Said to be offered sometime around '08, it promises to be a strong, er, challenger to Ford's highly popular Mustang.

All in all, things look pretty good for Dodge at this point in the story. Though its truck sales softened a bit in 2005 -- mainly due to some buyers having second thoughts about thirsty SUVs -- car sales seemed healthy again, exceeding 300,000 calendar-year units in 2001, '02, and '05. While today is never a sure forecast of tomorrow, Dodge seems poised for further prosperity in the near future, especially with cars. After all, as the old adage says, nothing succeeds like success.