The cars we loved.
Have you ever noticed how some cars just seem to fit into the fabric of things because they were so common? The Dodge Shadow /Plymouth Sundance pair was that type of car in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. In a time when Chrysler seemed to be doing just fine, the Shadow/Sundance was doing its part in helping the company stay afloat, or so it seemed. They were low-cost, entry-level replacements for cars ranging from the Charger and Horizon to the Renault Alliance.
Based on the trusty old K-car platform, the Shadow was seen generally as a scrappy underdog that stayed under. Just under the brow of critics that is who saw it as a low esteem car next to the Civic or Corolla. This was not just a Shadow/Sundance only bias, as cars like the Cavalier, Escort, Charade and Excel were viewed in the same way.
As such the Shadow and Sundance had small shoes to fill technically, but needed to sell in high volume. Components were more or less from the parts bins of the sometimes impressive Daytona and Lancer to keep costs down. Aside from the front grilles, options, trim levels and wheels, there were only things that distinguished the Shadow from the Sundance. At a quick glance they appeared identical.
Big Sales, Bigger Ambitions
In an attempt to attract more female buyers to what it was calling an upscale subcompact, Chrysler styled the Shadow/Sundance to resemble the larger LeBaron GTS/Lancer. The Lebaron GTS was dashing indeed, but hardly cause to pit the Shadow against the likes of the Honda Accord. Yes, believe it or not, Chrysler intended to compete with a range as vast a the smaller Corolla to the larger Accord.
The pair sold in nearly equal numbers, with the Dodge branded car being slightly more expensive due to more available options. Both coupe versions of the Shadow and Sundance were available as a convertible. At just under $15,000, there were among the cheapest drop-tops on the market (next to the Geo Metro). Part of the pair’s appeal was its low price, roominess and practicality. The 2 door coupe and 4 door sedans were actually hatchbacks, but appeared as standard trunks, something American buyers appreciated during a time when a hatchback was seen as low brow. Shadow/Sundance production was North American centered (Michigan and Mexico), but was sold in a few overseas markets. Aversion to the frumpy silhouette of the Shadow in Europe (Chrysler ES) may explain why it was a flop across the Atlantic. It seemed Europeans wanted their hatchbacks to be more obvious with a sleeker aerodynamic profile.
The car’s shape was very upright, giving it plenty of headroom. It may have been one of the most unsporting profiles of any small “sporty” coupe at the time, even in ES trim. Without the burden of trying to be dapper, the sedan may have been more successful from an aesthetic point of view. Small changes were made to the car’s appearance, mostly in the form of sealed aero styled headlights in 1989. Other than that, special trim packages often blurred the distinction between Shadow and Sundance.
In 1991 Chrysler took the pair up and down-market at once by capping off the low-end with a stripped down Sundance America and an upscale Shadow Highline Convertible. Shortly after, Plymouth brought back the Duster as a sparsely optioned, but fun to drive coupe. This angered MoPar purist, but the car sold well and rode and handled better than much of the competition in its price range.
Simple Proven Mechanicals
Early cars featured a clunky 5 speed manual and 3 speed automatic transmissions. The manual was improved in 1990 due to complaints about difficulty in shifting to reverse. Despite the quirks, Shadow sales continued in a forward momentum, often placing in the top 10 list for the model years it was available. In an odd development, improvements made to passive safety restraints resulted in the Shadow/Sundance not passing Canadian safety regulations. The automatic restraints made the pair outlaw north of the border. Currently some years of the pair cannot be sold across the border in either direction.
A new engine was planned, including a 1.8L and a 2.5 with input from Lotus. These were panned as Chrysler retreated to the 2.2L OHC in its parts bin. Turbocharging was an option from the factory or from Shelby. Dodge and Plymouth banded turbo cars still had respectable performance with 0 to 60 times in the 8 second range. The higher performance variants were usually sold as Shelby’s. The Shelby CSX and CSX-VTN were lightweight (174+ hp) legendary performers, thanks to Shelby tuning. As for the rest of the line, most of them were simple 2.2L four cylinder engines ranging from naturally aspirated 98hp up 140hp for the non-Shelby turbo cars. As the 90’s approached the factory turbo models would be dropped in favor of a Mitsubishi built 142 hp 3.0 V6. The new engine was smoother than the inline fours of the past but was slightly less powerful as the 2.2L turbo it replaced. The V6 was standard in ES models of the Shadow and Highline versions of the Sundance after 1990.
The Shadow/Sundance was Chrysler’s way to try to boost its EPA figures and to tap into the growing youth market – which it did. Considering how derivative it was from a parts point of view, it seemed unlikely that Chrysler would lose money of each car they sold, but somehow they did. It would not be until the arrival of the Neon in 1995 that Chrysler would actually make money from its high volume small car.