The K-car platform was a key automotive design platform introduced by Chrysler Corporation for the 1981 model year, featuring a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, independent front and semi-independent rear suspension configuration—a stark departure from the company's previous reliance on solid axle, rear-drive unibody configurations during the 1970s. Derived from Chrysler's L-cars, the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni, the platform was developed just as the company faltered in the market, at first underpinning a modest range of compact/mid-size sedans and wagons—and eventually underpinning nearly fifty different models, including all-wheel drive variants—and playing a vital role in the company's subsequent resurgence.
The use of a common platform is a widely used practice for reducing the number of parts and engineering time. Before creating the K platform, Chrysler was building vehicles on a small number of common platforms (e.g. F/L/J/M and R); however, there were very few common parts among the different models. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca claimed that the huge number of parts in inventory and the complexity of building many completely different versions of vehicles was one reason Chrysler was losing money and directed the engineers to focus on making a larger number of common parts where they would not be visible to customers; this was already common practice in Japan and Germany and would help to make the K-cars profitable even at low prices.
Arriving on the brink of Chrysler's near-certain financial collapse, the new platform had a dramatic effect, helping Chrysler report a profit in October 1980 of $10 million ($35,516,963 in 2022 dollars ), its first profit in two years. A plethora of K-platform body styles and badge-engineered variants followed the original range, including the company's minivans and upscale Chrysler division models. The platform interchangeability saved production and purchasing costs, initially costing Chrysler $1 billion over three years to develop ($3,551,696,284 in 2022 dollars ), but only costing $50 million ($1,775,848,142 in 2022 dollars ) to generate the second group of badge-engineered variants, the LeBaron and Dodge 400. Within two years, the K platform vehicles accounted for roughly 50% of Chrysler's operating profits.
In 1984, The New York Times said, "Not only did [K-cars] almost single-handedly save Chrysler from certain death, they also provided the company with a vehicle that could be stretched, smoothed, poked, chopped and trimmed to create almost a dozen different models."
In 1984, David Lewis, an auto industry historian and professor of business history at the University of Michigan said no platform "in the history of the automobile industry has so dramatically allowed a company to survive in such a substantial way. No company has been down so low, in such difficult straits, and then depended on practically a single product to bring it back."
We talk about all these cars being K car derivatives, which is correct, but that doesn't mean they all have to have K car characteristics.
Through different selections of springs, shocks, tires, added sound insulation, improving rubber bushings, the character of the car can be changed quite dramatically. That has been the secret of being able to take a car of the K body compact class all the way up to the New Yorker luxury class.
L. Donald Gschwind
VP, Program Management
Following the 1973 oil crisis, compounded by the 1979 energy crisis, American consumers began to buy fuel-efficient, low-cost automobiles built in Japan. With the market for large V-8 engined automobiles declining, American domestic auto manufacturers found themselves trying to develop compact vehicles that could compete with the Japanese imports of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan in price and finish. Chrysler Corporation's answer to the import pressure was the K platform, which featured an economical 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive and used many modern weight-reducing measures, such as replacing metal styling parts with plastic interior and exterior components.
The K-cars (Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant, Chrysler LeBaron, Dodge 400, and, in Mexico, Dodge Dart) sold over 2 million vehicles from 1981 to 1988, and around 100,000 in their final year, 1989.
The manual transmission provided acceleration of 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in 10 seconds, while the automatic was between 13 and 14 seconds, similar to or better than most competitors, while fuel economy was rated by the EPA at 26 mpg‑US (9.0 L/100 km; 31 mpg‑imp) city and 41 mpg‑US (5.7 L/100 km; 49 mpg‑imp) highway with the manual transmission. All had a 100.1-inch (2,540 mm) wheelbase. The overall length of the two- and four-door models was 176 inches (4,500 mm). The wagon was 0.2 inches (5.1 mm) longer. The vehicles had an approximate 14-US-gallon (53 L; 12 imp gal) fuel tank. The coupe and sedan had approximately 15 cubic feet (0.42 m3) of luggage space; the wagons, 35 cubic feet (0.99 m3) with the rear seat upright and about 70 cubic feet (2.0 m3) when folded down.
Numerous improvements to the sound insulation and general feel were made for the model year 1983. In 1985, the Reliant, Aries, and LeBaron received a facelift, with a rounded front fascia, smoother hood, and bigger taillights. In 1986, the cars began using fuel injection on the 2.2-liter engine and a 2.5-liter engine replaced the arguably unreliable Mitsubishi 2.6-liter engine, which was notorious for leaking oil and generated nicknames like "Mr. Squishy" or "Bitsumishi."
They were initially very profitable, and Iacocca credited them with allowing the company to pay off its bankruptcy loans early.
The K-derivatives offered a large variety of engines, depending on year and model. Four-cylinder engines were initially equipped with carburetors; fuel injection was phased in beginning in 1986. Engine output ranged from 86 hp (64 kW) to 224 hp (167 kW). Most vehicles had the 2.2 L or 2.5 L Chrysler four-cylinder engine; however, from 1981 to 1985, a 2.6 L four and from 1987 to 1995, a 3.0 L V6, both made by Mitsubishi were offered.
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