LeBaron and the 400

When Chrysler Corporation decided to run with the new front-drive Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400, it laid $290 million on the line.

First, it shows the huge cost of producing a new car in these inflationary times. And second, it shows that Chrysler Corporation can come up with a classy, competitive car for the times, despite the tale of woe in which the company has been the lead character for so long.

The two cars are Chrysler's latest effort to attract more buyers in the $8, 000 to $10,000 market area to the Chrysler pentastar.

The long-struggling carmaker should achieve some success.

Indeed, the 4-door LeBaron, base-priced at around $8,500 -- although the car I've been testing is listed at well over $10,000 -- is extremely comfortable on the road and is just as plush as the older rear-drive LeBaron it succeeds. Handling is quick and without undue effort. Cornering is sure-footed, even on sharp curves.

The LeBaron, which rides with a 99.9-inch wheelbase, is nearly 180 inches long, wide enough for 6 adults, and weighs about 2,500 pounds.

Indeed, it shows the mileage that Chrysler is getting out of the K-car concept. In other words, the LeBaron and 400 are larger versions of the front-drive Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, which Chrysler put on the road 16 months ago as '81-model cars. A wagon and convertible are due in the showroom in the spring.

The cars demonstrate that luxury can be wrapped up in a showy package by a company without any extra change in the till, let alone the big bills. They show that the Chrysler engineering department is still very much in business and that good things can come out of it, despite the loss of large numbers of personnel.

Driving the LeBaron is fun. The controls make good sense, and they're all convenient for the driver to reach and read. Simply, the instrument cluster is unobstructed -- and that's news.

Performance is sufficient, or perhaps even better than that.

The two cars carry an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 26 miles per gallon with the 2.2-liter engine and manual transmission. On the highway it runs up to 40. I was never able to do any better than 25 or 26, although admittedly I didn't run the car at a sustained, light-footed speed on an Interstate.

Both cars -- only the names on the outside are different as well as the superficialities -- should do a good job for the company.

Chrysler sales, in fact, were up in 1981 over 1980, running counter to the trend in Detroit, and Chrysler ended the year with some $300 million in the bank. However, slow production rates now have eaten up much of it.

Chrysler, still huffing and puffing to survive, has $300 million in federal loan guarantees left as part of the bail-out program voted by Congress. Lee A. Iacocca, the chairman, vows the company would return to the government handout line only as a last resort.

The cash-starved company is moving closer to selling off its profitable ($60 million a year) defense subsidiary in order to keep on running.

Meanwhile, base price for the 4-door Chrysler LeBaron is $8,502, but the options can push the figure up fast. The 400 starts at $8,043.

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