Chrysler Laser beams in on front line of innovation

It's fast, comfortable to ride in all day, and the price is right. At a base price of $8,648 - $10,546 for the XE - the high-tech Chrysler Laser , companion car to the Dodge Daytona, boasts 2 plus 2 seating and a sport suspension, plus a computer-controlled, fuel-injected engine. Base power plant is the Chrysler-built 2.2, rated at 98 horsepower, although a far zippier turbocharged version - standard on the higher-priced XE - is rated at 142 hp.

The turbo engine, in fact, compares easily with a V-8. I know because I've just driven a Laser XE more than 3,000 miles. Also, the turbo has a water-cooled turbine end shaft bearing, first on a US production car, which increases turbo durability.

A new all-electronic instrument cluster with multi-color graphics is an exclusive in the Laser XE.

If the car was fun to drive on the back roads of southern California, why not give it a real test and take it across country, I thought. The only limiting factor was that it had to be done in five days.

Fair enough, Chrysler agreed, and my teen-age daughter and I sank down into the seats of a 2-door hatchback Laser XE, with the Pacific Ocean to our backs, and pointed the car east. To make the trip as easy and uneventful as possible, the car had supportive ''enthusiast'' seats and 15-inch Goodyear Eagle GT tires.

The Daytona/Laser duo are built in one of Chrysler's two St. Louis assembly plants, among the most high-tech-oriented units in the business today. Chrysler spent $96 million of the $270 million development bill for the Daytona/Laser to bring the plant up to date.

The refurbished St. Louis assembly plant is designed to close the quality gap , not only in its cars, but also in the thoughts of US car buyers. Many Americans still feel Detroit-built cars don't measure up.

Chrysler is counting heavily on the Daytona/Laser, not only to convey an image of sportiness and top quality, but also to add another boost in its drive for defect-free transportation.

Is the revitalized automaker taking a big chance in spending so much money on this car?

Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca doesn't think so. He points out that the firm also went out on a limb with the convertible a year ago - and came out strong. Now the whole domestic automobile industry is falling in line. Even Sweden's Saab showed a turbocharged cabriolet, a prototype design-study car, at the Frankfurt Motor Show in West Germany last month.

What Chrysler is trying to do, says Iacocca, is stay in the front line of innovation rather than revert to the rear. The striking ragtop, as well as the new Daytona and Laser, are part of its plan.

Indeed, the ocean-to-ocean performance of the Laser was flawless. When I last drove a Chrysler-built product from sea to sea in 1977, a spanking-new Dodge Omni, a plastic cover on the dashboard fell off and there was no way to fix it at the time.

No car, of course, is without some blemish. A chatter showed up in the Laser's speedometer, for example, which was disconcerting at times. And the rear hatch door developed a rattle about halfway across country. Neither was any big deal.

Whether whizzing along Interstate Route 15 in southern Utah, zigzagging through Zion National Park, or cutting through Colorado's Vail Pass (11,000 feet), the car maintained its speed with precision (cruise control can't be beat on a long-distance trip). No matter what the elevation, there was no change in the Laser's performance, nor was there any obvious wind noise around the side glass.

I did discover, however, that the engine would sometimes ping under strain. In some circumstances, I suspect, super unleaded fuel might be the way to go. A gentle foot on the accelerator would minimize the knock.

The firm suspension did its job beautifully on all types of road surfaces. Despite 500-600 miles a day, our weariness was kept to a minimum. Even for the driver, however, the final day - 750 miles from Toledo to my own driveway - was, as my daughter put it, ''a bit much.''

As for mileage, we averaged 24.7 miles for the entire trip - not a bad figure in my book.

Is the Chrysler Laser and its Dodge twin, the Daytona, an extension of the K-car?

Chrysler's Iacocca shudders at the thought, insisting the two new sports cars are not K-body derivatives although he admits they use some of the same components. What difference does it really make anyhow? The cars work well; and besides, they don't look anything like a Dodge Aries or Chrysler Reliant, no matter how hard you look.

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