The cars we loved.
The air was pretty much out of the muscle car balloon of the ’60s and ’70s by the time the new Challenger/Sapporo twins rolled into Dodge and Plymouth showrooms. It was 1978 and after a four year absence, a new Dodge Challenger had surfaced with a Japanese accent.
Never mind that a rebadged Mitsubishi four cylinder coupe would all but erase whatever reputation the storied Challenge of just a few years ago had created. For Plymouth’s part, it was a bold marketing move to leave its Japanese name Sapporo intact. For Chrysler, flaunting the pair’s Japanese roots and the odd names had no downside because for many younger buyers Japanese made equaled reliability. Besides, it would not be years until the anti-import movement would happen in America, just in time for Chrysler’s fortunes to sour. Despite that, the name probably did not help sales of the Sapporo. Also, Plymouth was never really associated with luxury and was not most people’s first choice as a peddler of a smaller sized personal luxury cars.
Japanese built and rebadged Mitsubishi’s had become sort of saving grace for Chrysler in the ’70s and ’80s. Mitsubishi showed America’s third largest car company how to build small cars that people might actually want. Not that they were standing in line to buy Colts and Arrows, but the new Challenger and Sapporo would help Chrysler meet new stringent EPA rules while helping it get a foothold in the emerging premium smaller car market.
The Challenger and Sapporo were nothing more than lightly disguised versions of Mitsubishi’s Galant coupe (called Lambda in most Asian markets). With Chrysler’s pair, they were able to differentiate the models as a sporty coupe that aspired to be what the old Charger was and a more luxury oriented Sapporo that would follow along the lines of the Cordoba. Of course the smaller pair had no 6 or 8 cylinder power options, but instead featured a rather large SOHC 2.5L four cylinder rated at 105 hp. A smaller 1.6L used in the Plymouth Arrow (Mitsubishi Lancer) made 77 hp. The 2.5 was so big for a four, that Mitsubishi developed special balance shafts to tame the vibration inherent in the buzzy engine. They even called it a HEMI at one point! The vibration mounts would be the first such in a car sold in America and would go on to be the basis for almost every balanced shaft used in cars afterward.
Generally the press gave the Challenger /Sapporo twins good reviews when they were able to divorce themselves from the odd or mis-appropriated names. The larger engined cars developed a reputation for being quick and their live axle rear suspensions were a setup familiar to most American performance car enthusiast. Top versions of the (Mitsubishi) Sapporo GSR sold as in Japan had independent rear suspensions and turbo engines. No such tech for the sport oriented Challenger was available in America.
On the plus side, the styling was considered modern and crisp, in much the way the Nissan 200SX would be a year later. Today, the Challenger/Sapporo might be considered ugly (the 200sx as well), but it has an appeal to goes beyond it’s crisp modern lines. The only real styling link to the old Challenger was in the form of pillarless side windows and maybe four headlights. Other than that, a ’76 Challenger looked completely alien next to a 77 model. Plymouth tried moving the Sapporo in the direction of the Cadillac Seville at one point by offering white wall tires, moonroofs and plenty of gadgetry like hidden radio antennas and all manner of power options.
The Japanese transplant even tried an interpretation of the popular landau roof in the form of a vinyl targa band on the most luxurious models of the Sapporo. After that experiment failed, Chrysler could only watch as more buyers went for the Nissan 200SX and Toyota Celica-Supra. Chrysler’s attempts to make the pair more attractive in the marketplace resulted in them trying to make them look as conventional as possible. Major changes occurred mostly inside with the dash resembling what would come later in the pairs replacement, the Conquest.
The small changes were not enough to improve sales. As a result the cars were dropped after 1983 to make way for the audaciously wild Conquest/Starion pair. Chrysler developed a new sports coupe on its own to sell in Dodge dealerships called the Daytona and for Plymouth called the Laser. Oddly enough the Conquest would be sold strictly as the top sports coupe under the Chrysler name. The new sport coupe pair would result in a new manufacturing partnership from Chrysler and Mitsubishi called Diamond Star Motors (DSM). The American DSM factory was located in Norman Illinois and churned out the replacements for the Starion/Conquest (Eclipse/Laser/Talon), the Galant sedan and a host of Chrysler products.