How fares Chrysler's array of 'comeback cars'?

If Chrysler Corporation comes up with a couple more cars like the Omni-Horizon and the "K," maybe it can forget about rebates, assuming, that is, that the auto market turns around in the new-model year.

The Plymouth Horizon TC3 Turismo, a flashy little European-inspired, front-drive coupe with a functional rear spoiler, continues to turn eyes on the highway.

Like its sidekick, the Dodge Omni O24, it was crafted by Italy's DeTomaso, who also created the sporty Pantera which Ford Motor Company sold a few years back.

Unlike some other cars on the road today, the TC3 Turismo is a study in understatement, rather than a lesson in garish overplay.

The suspension is sporty and tells the rider he is not commuting on a cloud. But this only adds to the image of the car. The wheelbase is 2 1/2 inches shorter than the Omni-Horizon sedans. The base engine is the same as on the sedans -- a 1.7-liter, overhead-cam, 4-cylinder power plant placed crosswise beneath the front hood. Beyond the base engine, however, there is an optional 2 .2-liter engine for more "go" on the road.

The roofline is lower than the sedans.

To the car's discredit, however, is the awkwardly angled steering wheel; yet a driver can get used to anything in a car if he drives it long enough.

Fuel economy ranges from the mid-20s to the mid-30s, depending on where and how the car is driven.

Now, besides the successful Omni-Horizons, both sedan and sport, the 1981 K-cars, Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, are helping the struggling carmaker stay on the road -- to recovery, it hopes.

While Chrysler Corporation has been flirting with oblivion for the last few years, it did manage to turn a modest profit in the second quarter of this year -- $11.6 million -- compared with the devastating losses of the past. For the year, however, the company is still expected to rack up another blob of red ink, although calendar-year 1982 could be a decided turn for the better.

The point is, Chrysler Corporation is still in business, and many observers had been predicting its demise for the past several years. Chrysler is staking its future on the success of the K's, plus the cars now in the pipeline, and so far the outlook is good.

Chrysler will unveil a number of new cars in the fall, including an extended line of the K's as well as a new front-drive Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400. Further, it has a convertible in the wings, plus a mini-pickup truck for '82, a sports car on the way, a diesel, and more.

The base engine for all K-cars is the Chrysler-built 2.2-liter in-line "4" with overhead cams. The more-powerful Mitsubishi 2.6-liter power plant is an option for the driver who wants more comph.

The Dodge Aries station wagon is a just-right-for-the-1980s-type vehicle that makes full use of inside space while keeping the outside dimensions and weight low. By comparison, the K-wagon is lighter than either the Chevrolet Citation or Ford Fairmont, although its base price is higher than both. In fact, it doesn't take much push to get the price up to $8,500 or even $9,000, even if the base happens to be under $7,000.

Inside noise is low, a welcome fact if you have to drive a long way with a full load in the back. I found the car "hit bottom," however, when I struck a dip in the road, especially over a bridge on my route home. Solution: Take another route, I guess.

Fuel Economy is impressive -- better than both the Citation and the Fairmont. The tank capacity is 13 gallons US.

The K-car will seat five and the carrying capacity is high, especially with the rear seat laid flat. Too, it's a snap to load the back.

Unfortunately, the rake of the driver's seat back cannot be adjusted, a negative mark on a long trip.

Interestingly, the Aries wagon I've just been driving was in far better shape than the first K-car sedan I drove some months ago. The wagon, in fact, shows the big emphasis being exerted by the carmaker to maintain quality, even to the point of producing fewer cars than the demand might call for.

Yet even with the new stress on good work, there is always room for more care. The adhesive inside the car was shoddy in some spots, especially around the windshield where it was anything but smooth. Also, the glove box is minuscule -- a common complaint in so many cars these days.

Several of the criticisms I found in the first K-car I drove were not present in the wagon; thus, I can only conclude that Chrysler is trying harder these days, even if the total commitment of the domestic auto industry to quality still has a way to go.

Nonetheless, the K-cars show how far Chrysler Corporation has traveled over the last few years as it tries to meet the imports head to head.

To give a push to the long-harried carmaker, the federal government will buy more than 3,000 K-wagons for the US Postal Service, a contract worth some $15 million to Chrysler.

The K-car wagons vie not only with some of the domestics, but also with such imports as Toyota and Datsun, Honda and Subaru. While the K-car Aries and Reliant provide more inside space than, say, the Toyota Cressida and Datsun 810, the Japanese cars show a high commitment to finish and that special import "feel" that the domestics are trying to find.

Even so, the K-cars, plus the additional K's in the fall, are good news to Chrysler Corporation and should continue to do their job, provided the carmaker remembers to "do the job right."

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