Originally published in Examiner.com January 5, 2010
1991 Dodge Spirit R/T; Dodge photo
There’s something delightfully wicked about a mundane four-door family sedan being muscled out and loaded for bear. It’s the automotive concealed weapon, the shoulder holster under a three-piece suit. It’s Ward Cleaver learns Tai Kwon Do. It’s the 1991-’92 Dodge Spirit R/T.
You remember the Spirit R/T, don’t you? Perhaps not. The R/T’s sales volume was far below that of the Taurus SHO despite the R/T’s ability to out-accelerate and out-corner Ford’s sport sedan. But the Spirit R/T is worth remembering.
Based on the ordinary Dodge Spirit sedan, which was yet another iteration of Chrysler’s K-car platform that spawned everything from the Plymouth Horizon to the Dodge Caravan, the Spirit R/T was admittedly living on borrowed time. In 1991, its styling, with its “formal”—almost vertical—rear window, pleased Lee Iacocca and the rest of the Sinatra generation, but was miles from the cab-forward designs just around the corner. The suspension, with MacPherson struts up front and a beam axle at the rear, was dated as well. And its turbocharged 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine was hardly fresh out of the box.
Chrysler engineers, however, had been fiddling with that engine and turbocharging for at least half a decade and had learned lots, not the least of which was to ask Lotus Engineering for help in designing a new head for the 2.2. Lotus wrought a cross-flow 16-valve head, with exhaust on the front of the transverse-mounted four cylinder replacing the eight-valver with both intake and exhaust against the firewall. The head had a pent roof, with a narrow valve angle and a central spark plug. The small, light valves allowed a 6500 rpm redline.
Boost came from a Garrett TB03 watercooled turbocharger, intercooled and feeding an 8.5:1 compression ratio. Absorbing a few horsepower but adding greatly to liveability were a pair of balance shafts mounted in the oil pan. Backing up the engine were Getrag gearsets in the Chrysler five-speed box. No automatic was offered. The engine was rated at 224 bhp at 6000 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm.
Ward Cleaver the Spirit R/T may have been, but Dodge wasn’t going to let him go out in a Robert Hall suit. The R/T was available in monochrome red or white. It also wore a unique front fascia with foglights, and a tiny rear deck spoiler. Wheels were body color 15×6 cast aluminum mounted with P205/60-R15. ABS was optional with the standard four-wheel discs. The Spirit R/T had full instrumentation, including an oil pressure gauge and voltmeter, as well as well-bolstered sport buckets, but the interior was criticized as outdated and plain.
On the road, the Spirit R/T was crude. Stiff springs and tight shocks caused the R/T to be “nervous, unsettled and even clumsy,” according to Car and Driver. “When cornering on bumpy pavement, limitations of the K-car-based chassis…become evident,” noted Road & Track, who also criticized lurching caused by the soft mounting of the engine.
Still, it was fast, and it liked being thrown around. In head-to-head testing by Car and Driver, the R/T clipped off the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds, compared with the SHO’s 15.2. The Spirit was also faster around the skidpad and quicker through the slalom, and even had better fuel mileage. Multi-car tests by other magazines had similar results.
The Spirit R/T got new five-spoke alloys for 1992, but was replaced by the Dodge Intrepid for the 1993 model year. The engine lived on, however, in the Daytona IROC R/T introduced in midyear ’92. Only a couple thousand Spirit R/Ts were built in the two-year run, and though seldom remembered now, we expect the R/T will gather small crowds at car shows of the future. In the meantime, however, 14.5 in the quarter ain’t bad, especially for Ward Cleaver.