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How Eagle Cars Work

The 1988 Eagle Premier lasted only one production year in America.

Symbolizing power and nobility since Roman times, the name of America's national bird has been used over the years on products ranging from pencils to potato chips -- and cars, of course. In fact, no fewer than six different automakers operated under the Eagle flag before World War I, four in the U.S. alone. Durant Motors produced its own Eagle in 1923-24, and Chevrolet used the name for its deluxe models of 1933. In the late '60s, Eagle was a natural choice for the competition cars built by the All-American Racers firm of driving legend Dan Gurney.

As a make, however, the only Eagle pertinent to this book is the one established by Chrysler Corporation from the remains of American Motors Corporation. Chrysler bought AMC from Renault of France in 1987, mainly to gain the lucrative Jeep franchise. But it also inherited the rights to use the Eagle name on cars, which had descended to AMC through a series of mergers and takeovers.

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This line of succession began with Jeep-builder Willys and its Aero-Eagle passenger cars of 1952-54. Willys (and Jeep) were then bought by Kaiser (see entry), which evolved into the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation acquired by AMC in 1970. Later, AMC briefly sold a Jeep Eagle, a fancy CJ-7, then put the Eagle name on its new 1980 line of four-wheel-drive passenger cars.

Besides this name, Chrysler also inherited AMC's dealer body -- which posed a problem. Those dealers were used to selling cars as well as Jeeps, and most still needed cars to sustain their business despite rising Jeep sales. Accordingly, most AMC operations -- dealers included -- were rolled into a new third Chrysler division called Jeep-Eagle, with Eagle now a full-fledged car make. To avoid "cannibalizing" sales from Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth, Eagle was to be an upscale brand aimed at the fast-growing import market, where it would presumably win customers from the likes of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Amid grand predictions for early success, Jeep-Eagle opened its doors for model-year '88. There was no question of continuing the outmoded AMC Eagles (which died early in the model year), nor the small, problematic Renault Alliance and Encore that AMC had built in Kenosha since 1983. That left just two remnants of the former Renault regime: the midsize V-6 Premier and the compact four-cylinder Medallion. Both were front-drive Renault designs like Alliance/Encore, but had been rushed to the U.S. just before the Chrysler buyout in a last-ditch effort to reverse sagging AMC sales.

Medallion was a French import, basically a "federalized" Renault 21. Premier was a Canadian-built notchback based on the European Renault 30, complete with surprisingly dull styling by Giugiaro of Italy.

Both these cars became 1988 Eagles by the mere substitution of a new (and rather handsome) badge, but they sold no better as such, being conventional for Renaults but still too quirky for most Americans. Workmanship was also wanting, especially on the Medallion, which made a fast exit after 1989.

Premier lasted through 1992, but only because Renault insisted that Chrysler keep building the car after taking over AMC. Chrysler tried hard to satisfy this condition, but it was a tough job, and Premier production peaked in calendar '88 at some 59,000 units. Sales then went fast downhill despite the 1990 addition of a Dodge duplicate reviving the Monaco name.

The Eagle Medallion fared slightly better as an opening offering, lasting until 1992.

Drawing a tighter bead on "import intenders," Chrysler shifted Eagle to contemporary designs from Japanese partner Mitsubishi. All were "badge-engineered" front-drivers, and all but one were built in Japan -- namely the subcompact Summit sedans sold from 1989 (cloned from the Mitsubishi Mirage) and the short-lived early-'90s "mini-minivan" Summit wagon (based on Mitsu's Expo LRV).

The Eagle Vision was an attempt at an American-made "European" style sedan.
The Eagle Vision was an attempt at an American-made "European" style sedan.

The one "domestic" in the Eagle flock was the sharp Talon sports coupe, which bowed in early 1989 as a spinoff of the new 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse and Plymouth Laser. All three versions were built in Illinois at the new Diamond-Star Motors plant that Chrysler and Mitsubishi had just set up as a 50/50 joint venture. But though Talon was an enthusiast's delight in top-line all-wheel-drive turbocharged form, it was really a Japanese car and thus another Eagle beyond our scope.

A true American Eagle finally appeared in the new-for-'93 Vision. Though this, too, was built in Canada, it was designed in Detroit as one of the "cab-forward" LH sedans setting a bold new direction for Chrysler styling. Befitting Eagle's mission, Vision was conceived as more "European" than the Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid, but in the way of corporate cousins it achieved this largely through appropriate styling details and features. Like Intrepid, Vision bowed in regular and premium models, respectively labeled ESi (3.3-liter pushrod V-6) and TSi (twincam 3.5 V-6).

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Far more than most home-grown four-doors, Vision was a credible Euro-style sports sedan, though it was no BMW. At best, performance was brisk rather than thrilling, but handling was crisp and responsive thanks to the wide-stance LH chassis with all-independent suspension. The TSi even boasted standard all-disc antilock brakes and, from 1994, speed-variable power steering.

Vision also had the appealingly swoopy cab-forward shape that combined with a long 113-inch wheelbase to provide unusually spacious seating for five. Road noise was annoyingly high and some interior trim looked none too classy. Overall though, Vision was an impressive package, earning Consumer Guide® "Best Buy" honors (along with its Chrysler LH stablemates).

Unfortunately for product planners, Vision sales were disappointingly modest, running a poor third to Concorde on only 30-40 percent of Intrepid's volume. Production was around 30,000 for model-year '93 and stubbornly stuck to that level through '95. Price was a likely factor in this lackluster performance. Though Vision was carefully pitched between its LH sisters, Eagle dealers complained it was tough to sell because customers thought it overpriced.

Chrysler countered that Visions came with more standard equipment than comparable Intrepids and Concordes, and urged dealers to make sure customers understood that. If buyers did understand, they didn't show it, for production of the 1996-97 models sagged to about 15,500 combined.

It also didn't help that the car itself was little changed, though the '96 ESi received two worthy upgrades in standard 16-inch wheels (replacing 15s) and Chrysler's new AutoStick feature that allowed the automatic transmission to be shifted somewhat like a manual. But the '97 Visions were virtual reruns, and Talon sales were languishing, too.

With all this, no one was surprised when Chrysler dropped Vision after '97 and Talon after model year '98, thus ending a nameplate that had seemed a good idea 10 years before, but just didn't pan out. A prime motivation was Chrysler's desire to cut overhead by trimming its dealer body, which it did over the next few years by combining Jeep-Eagle stores with Chrysler-Plymouth outlets wherever practical.

It proved a timely move. Sport-utility vehicles were Jeep's stock-in-trade, SUV sales were booming, and Jeep's image was forever golden. As a result, the new Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep dealers were generally more-profitable than they'd been as either C-P or Jeep-Eagle stores. Company accountants cheered.

The Eagle Talon saw its last model year in 1998, as the Eagle name was dropped.

In the end, Eagle failed because neither Chrysler nor the public knew quite what to make of it. A hodge-podge lineup and spotty promotion implied Chrysler wasn't fully committed to the nameplate and also left consumers confused about what an Eagle was -- if they knew the name at all.

The cars were far from losers, yet no model achieved the desirability or clear image of import competitors and even some domestic rivals. Eagle was no Edsel, but Chrysler should have remembered a lesson from that unhappy Ford experience: Respect for any car is always earned, never bestowed.

For more on defunct American cars, see:

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