1991 Dodge Spirit R/T: Ward Cleaver strikes back

1991 Dodge Spirit R/T

1991 Dodge Spirit R/T: Dodge photo, author archives (click to enlarge)

There’s something delightfully wicked about a mundane 4-door family sedan being muscled out and loaded for bear. It’s the automotive concealed weapon, the shoulder holster under a three-piece suit. Its Ward Cleaver does tai kwon do. It’s the 1991Dodge 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 the original SHO sport sedan. But the Spirit R/T is worth remembering. It was based on the ordinary Dodge Spirit sedan, itself a yet another iteration of Chrysler’s K-car platform that spawned everything from the Plymouth Horizon to the Dodge Caravan. By 1991, it was admittedly living on borrowed time. The styling, with its “formal”—almost vertical—rear window, pleased Lee Iacoca and others 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. The engine, a turbocharged 2.2-liter four, 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. What Lotus wrought was a cross-flow 16-valve cylinder head, with exhaust on the front of the transverse-mounted four cylinder replacing the 8-valver which had 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 a relatively high—for a turbo—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 was a set of Getrag gearsets in the Chrysler 5-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 may have been, but Dodge wasn’t going to let the R/T go out in a Robert Hall suit. The R/T was available in a monochrome—with a few accents—red or white, a front fascia with foglights shared with the V-6-powered Spirit ES, and a tiny rear deck spoiler. Wheels were body color 15×6” cast aluminum mounted with P205/60R15. ABS was optional with the standard 4-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

That’s not all for which the R/T was criticized. It was praised, profusely in fact, for its performance. In head-to-head testing by Car and Driver, the R/T clipped off the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds, comparing well to 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.

What’s not to like? The Spirit R/T was crude, test track numbers not translating well to the road. Although the R/T had stiffer springs and tighter shocks than lesser Spirits, on the road, the R/T was “nervous, unsettled, 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.

The Spirit R/T got new 5-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 model 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.

  • BJ Killeen

    Great article, JM! Keep up the good work!