By Charles Krome
Most gearheads know that Chrysler’s first go-round as a government-funded entity—for all the gnashing of teeth it caused—actually led to a number of very important product innovations that completely changed the course of the auto industry: The introduction of wide-scale platform sharing and the debut of the modern-day minivan. True, Chrysler wasn’t the very first to begin using the former or selling the latter, but it was the company that proved both could be successful in mass-market applications here in the U.S.
Less well-appreciated is the fact that the Chrysler of that era also helped launch the FWD sport compact segment with vehicles like the 1979 Dodge 024 and Plymouth TC3. The cars were among the first batch of Chryslers launched after the gas-crisis years in the mid-1970s, and were essentially the “sporting” versions of the somewhat more mundane Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, themselves Americanized versions of Simca products. (Simca? Google it.)
The 024 and TC3 had a nice run through the middle of the next decade, with Chrysler slowly but surely transforming them into true performance vehicles. The Dodge was even rebranded as a new “Charger,” and with input from a certain Mr. Carroll Shelby, the last of this breed could run from 0-60 in less than seven seconds—quite an accomplishment for 1986. (The two cars also went on to a short-but-sweet second life as products “manufactured” by Shelby.)
Then, to build on the modest success brought by the TC3 and 024 and their variants, Chrysler debuted the Dodge Daytona (and its more premium sibling, the short-lived Chrysler Laser), both of which were introduced late in 1983. As mentioned, the Omni and Horizon had been developed primarily in Europe and for European customers, while the Daytona was fully a part of the U.S.-backed Chrysler renaissance, sitting on a modified version of the high-volume K-car platform and becoming a performance flagship for the company, complete with enough cutting-edge-for-its-time technology to earn comparisons to the space shuttle.
The 1984 Daytona initially offered two engines, including a turbocharged 142-hp I4, and was available with a fairly strong handling package. And while you have to take these things with a grain of salt, the Daytona “Turbo Z” did make the Car & Driver 10Best list the year it launched, with writers saying:
Take a Chrysler 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine—the small-block Chevy of the Eighties—add a Garrett AiResearch turbocharger and Bosch port-type fuel injection, and drop that into a much refined, tautened, and streamlined version of the K-car chassis, and you have a Dodge Daytona Turbo. With certain differences you also have a Chrysler Laser, but the Laser is the boulevardier in this dynamic duo; we want to talk about the Dodge, which was clearly designed to kick ass and take names. It is a 1984 performance car. The Camaro and Firebird—which have become very nice, very fast cars, in 1984 trim—are large, heavy versions of 1968 performance cars. They break no new ground. They make no statement about automotive enthusiasm as it is today and will be tomorrow. The front-drive Daytona tells us that there’s hope for car enthusiasts, even if the A-rabs [sic] should decide to turn off the tap again. Chrysler has taken pieces familiar to all of us in various bread-and- butter products and turned them into a sleek, fast sports coupe that can hold its own on any road in the country.
Unsurprisingly, Shelby & Co. got involved with the Daytona as well, first with a handling upgrade and then with a second-gen turbo capable of 174 hp. A V6 and more powerful turbo I4’s followed, as the Daytona line expanded to include a variety of trim levels—including IROC, R/T, C/S, Z and ES configurations, alone and in various combinations—with the lineup culminating in the Daytona R/T, which packed 224 horses worth of turbo power. (The actual Daytonas that ran in the International Race of Champions series holstered 355-cubic-inch V8s, but weren’t exactly street legal.)
Yet even as the Daytona continued to get faster and better, its sales peaked in 1989, and it was out of production by 1993. Worse, it was essentially driven out of the marketplace by Chrysler itself, as it was effectively replaced by a cheaper, “softer” triumvirate sourced through the automaker’s partnership with Mitsubishi. Which at least has the benefit of forging an important part of the ol’ circle of life—sport-compact edition—since the threesome included the Plymouth Laser, Eagle Talon and, yes, the Mitsubishi Eclipse.