The Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries are mid size cars introduced for model year 1981 as the first "K-cars" manufactured and marketed by the Chrysler Corporation. The Reliant and Aries were the smallest cars to have the traditional 6 passenger 2 bench seat with column shifter seating arrangement favored by customers in the United States (Chrysler marketed the car as being able to seat "six Americans"), similar to larger rear-wheel drive cars such as the Dodge Dart and other front-wheel drive cars such as the Chevrolet Celebrity. The Reliant was powered by a then-new 2.2 L I4 SOHC engine, with a Mitsubishi "Silent Shaft" 2.6 L as an option (this engine also featured hemispherical combustion chambers, and all 1981 models equipped with it featured "HEMI" badges on the front fenders). The Reliant was available as a 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan, or as a 4-door station wagon, in three different trim lines: base, Custom and SE ("Special Edition"). Station wagons came only in Custom or SE trim.
As rebadged variants, the Reliant and Aries were manufactured in Newark, Delaware, Detroit, Michigan, and Toluca, Mexico — in a single generation. After their introduction, the Reliant and Aries were marketed as the "Reliant K" and "Aries K". The Aries was sold as the Dart K in Mexico, and as the Michigan in Japan. The Reliant replaced the Plymouth Volaré/Road Runner, while the Aries replaced the Dodge Aspen.
The Reliant and Aries were selected together as Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1981. Initial sales were brisk, with both Reliant and Aries each selling over 150,000 units in 1981, with cumulative sales of million Aries and 1.1 million Reliant units over the nine-year run.
Chrysler was facing a grave financial crisis due to poor business decisions, lack of investment in new products during previous years, and external factors outside of their control as the 1970s ended. Lynn A. Townsend, chairman from 1967 to 1975, had pursued a hands-off policy of running the company, refusing to spend more than the minimum on new drivetrains or platforms as long as the existing ones continued to sell. Sales of the company's larger cars started dropping after the 1973 OPEC Embargo and an increased amount of company volume consisted of lower profit compact models. Chrysler also had a policy of producing cars regardless of whether a customer ordered them, which was in contrast to AMC, Ford, and GM who only produced vehicles for which they received orders. Soon, they were left with a backlog of unsold inventory which cost money to store and had to resort to the money-losing tactic of rebates to get rid of these excess cars. Compounding these difficulties were new Federal emissions and safety regulations during the 1970s which added more to the production costs of each car. Townsend retired in 1975 and left the reins to John J. Riccardo, who presided over a slowly-sinking company.
The following year, the compact Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare debuted as replacements for the dated Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant, but were rushed into production and ended up with a major string of quality control problems that led to them being one of the most recalled cars in US history. In 1977, Riccardo petitioned newly elected US president Jimmy Carter for a Federal bailout, but Carter would not consider the idea as long as Chrysler's present management was in charge. In January 1978, Chrysler released the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, a US adaption of the European Simca Horizon and the first domestic-built FWD subcompacts. They came out in a year when larger cars were in demand and dealers struggled to move them from lots, costing the hard-pressed company yet more money. Ford president Lee Iacocca was fired on July 13, 1978, and three months later, Chrysler offered him the position of company president. By this point, the smallest of the Big Three American automakers was close to collapse, struggling from the unexpected poor sales of the Omni, the fallout from the Aspen recalls, and the decision to discontinue full-sized Dodges and Plymouths in 1978, leaving it without a full-sized car in a year of strong sales for them. Since 1976, quality control on Chrysler vehicles had become worse.
Although the K-platform had been designed during 1978, the failing company could not afford by this point to put them into production. Thus, Iacocca and Riccardo decided to repeat the original 1977 request for government assistance, but since the Carter Administration would not offer any help until the existing management was removed, Riccardo stepped down as chairman and gave Iacocca the job. During a series of Congressional hearings, Lee Iacocca made his case for a Federal bailout of Chrysler, citing past bailouts of the railroad industry and aerospace company Lockheed as precedent. He argued that thousands of American jobs would be saved and the company had been consciously attempting to build modern, economical cars such as the Omni, but fate had dealt them a bad hand. Iacocca also stated that excessive government regulations were costing needless money. Congress approved the bailout after Chrysler detailed the plans for their new FWD platform and the first handful of K-cars trickled off the assembly line at Detroit's Jefferson Avenue plant in late 1980.
The Reliant and Aries were downsized replacements for the six-passenger Volare and Aspen, which in turn were modernized version of the original Valiant and Dart compact cars of the 1960s. Based on experience gained with subcompact Omni/Horizon of 1978, the roomier K-cars set out to build a family sized car with a front-wheel drive design powered by a four-cylinder engine. They were offered as two and four door notchback sedans and wagons and retained six-passenger seating on two bench seats. While the Chevrolet Citation introduced front-wheel drive in the 1980 model year to replace the Nova, its unusual styling and problems with recalls hampered its success. They achieved nearly a million in sales between the two original nameplates before being rebadged and upgraded, not counting the numerous stretched, sporty, or minivan derivatives. Ford did not replace its family-sized Fairmont/Granada/LTD with a front-wheel drive design until the 1986 Ford Taurus, while cars like the Chevrolet Cavalier and Ford Tempo would be marketed as upscale compacts rather than family sedans.
Initial advertisements for the Aries were done in red, white, and blue and emphasized American industry's desire to answer the challenge of Japanese products and also promoted the low $5,880 base price. Since Chrysler was so financially strapped, early promotional shots featured the same car, but with Dodge and Plymouth badges and trim swapped. In 1981, sales of the Reliant and Aries got off to a slow, but early start and can be attributed to Chrysler's inadequate preparation. Instead of producing a sufficient amount of base models, Chrysler was producing a larger number of SE and Custom models. When consumers arrived at Plymouth (and Dodge) dealers, they were shocked to find that the Reliant they were planning on purchasing would end up costing hundreds or thousands of dollars more. As a result of this, Chrysler corrected this and began building more base models then sales of the Reliant and Aries skyrocketed.
The Reliant and Aries were available in standard "base", mid-level Custom, and high-end SE (later renamed LE) trim levels. Unlike the coupe and sedan, the station wagon was not available in base trim. "SE" Reliant/Aries wagons came standard with exterior woodtone siding, although it could be deleted. All models except base could be ordered with front bucket seats rather than the standard bench. By 1987, though, bucket seats became standard and bench seats were optional without charge.
After 1987, the Reliant and Aries underwent only minor changes throughout the rest of its production run. The last K-car rolled off the assembly line on December 9, 1988. The 1989 Reliant and Aries were carryovers from the 1988 model year and only the America and Canada trims were available on these models. No station wagon models were sold in 1989. The Reliant was replaced by the Acclaim for 1989, while the Aries was replaced by the Spirit.
* For 1981, coupe and sedan production figures were not listed separately.
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