Chrysler's best-selling K-car adds a touch of Europe for '85

In 1981 it took the market by storm, and now the 1985 versions of Chrysler Corporation's K-car, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, look like winners again.

It's the car that really saved Chrysler. What it did was commit the longsuffering carmaker to front-wheel drive and enabled it to pass the federal fuel-economy requirement with ease. Neither General Motors nor the Ford Motor Company can meet the federal government's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, yet Chrysler expects not only to meet the 271/2 m.p.g. figure for '85 , but to exceed it as well.

''The 'K' quickly became the best-selling new car in Chrysler's 60-year history,'' reports John D. Withrow Jr., vice-president of product development.

''More than a million people bought them even though they didn't know whether Chrysler was even going to be around for service,'' adds Mr. Withrow.

As for '85, the most obvious changes are the aerodynamic curves, or rounded surfaces, both front and rear; in other words, a fresh, contemporary European look with a new grille, black headlamp bezels, and integral park-and-turn side marker lights.

While the West German automaker may not appreciate it, the front end of the new Chrysler K-car has the mark of a Mercedes.

Obviously, it cannot really be compared to the prestigious products that come off the line of the Stuttgart car producer. The rear end reminds one of the back side of a Swedish-built Volvo.

In reality, the revamped look of the K-car is only skin deep because the company didn't want to do too much to upset an obviously successful vehicle. What it did want to do was polish up the ''K'' and give it a fresh crack at the car buyer.

Chrysler is using more galvanized steel, fiberglass, and other plastics with chip-resistant primer for better adhesion and reduction in stone damage. It also has gone to 100 percent base-coat/clear-coat paint for higher luster and more durable finish.

The seats have new cushions and rear recliners, while the NVH factor (noise, vibration, and harshness) has been reduced. Engine horsepower is up by 17 percent and torque by 10 percent. This means better performance with the Chrysler-built 2.2-liter engine than last year.

The Chrysler K-car comes in three body styles: 2-door, 4-door, and wagon.

Handling is even better than the first-generation K-car because of work on the suspension. Gas-pressurized shocks and struts are used on the optional heavy-duty suspension, You'll get a stiffer ride, but first-rate handling.

I've just driven a 4-door Dodge Aries from New Orleans to Boston, a 1,600 -mile jaunt. The drive was pleasant, except for a few slight bugs that didn't do much to scratch the image of Chrysler's ''miracle car.'' One minor problem - the light for the high beam at the left of the dash is hidden by either the steering wheel or the driver's left hand on the wheel.

On average, the Aries returned around 27 miles to a gallon of fuel.

Base sticker price of the Aries with a Chrysler-built 2.2-liter, 4-cylinder engine is $7,321, but that is only for starters. The $11,277 price tag on the test vehicle includes air conditioning at $768; 3-speed automatic transmission, What the carmaker calls a ''popular equipment discount package'' adds $715 (power steering, tinted glass, 13-inch whitewall tires, tape stripe, light group , etc.).

Trunk dress-up (that's the carpeting, I suppose) is $53, floor mats front and rear are $47, and tilt steering column, $114. Don't forget the destination charge, state sales taxes (perhaps), registration fees, and the like.

But does anyone really study the so-called Monroney sticker on a new car, anyway? Oh well, as someone once said, it's only money.

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