The Plymouth Reliant (or Reliant K, as it was sometimes called) and its twin, the Dodge Aries was one of the first two so-called "K-cars" (the other one being the Dodge Aries) manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation, introduced for the 1981 model year. The Reliant replaced the Plymouth Volaré/Road Runner, which was the short-lived successor automobile to the highly regarded Plymouth Valiant. The Aries replaced the Dodge Aspen as Dodge's family car with "mid-size room" in a size and front-wheel drive format commonly associated with compact cars. Though technically a compact car, the Reliant's spacious interior and six-passenger seating gave it a mid-size status from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Ford and Chrysler would compare the K cars with the Fairmont and Tempo. The Aries was sold as the Dart in Mexico.
The two cars are largely credited for helping Chrysler recover from bankruptcy. They also raised the standard for quality for American automakers in general. The Aries was Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1981. The Aries sold almost a million units in a single generation.
After much publicity, the much-heralded Aries and Reliant twins made their debut in 1981. In response to the notoriety of the new cars, Chrysler added a small "K" emblem to the rear. The Aries 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. Unlike many small cars, the K cars retained the traditional 6 passenger 2 bench seat with column shifter seating arrangement favored by many Americans. The Aries was powered by a then-new 2.2 L I4 SOHC engine, with a Mitsubishi "Silent Shaft" 2.6 L as an option (curiously this engine also featured hemispherical combustion chambers, and all 1981 Aries equipped with it featured "HEMI" badges on the front fenders). Initial sales were brisk, with over 150,000 units sold in 1981.
Changes for 1982 included a new hood ornament (changed from a Dodge badge mounted flat on the hood to an upright Chrysler Pentastar), roll-down rear door windows vs. the former stationary glass with rear quarter pop-outs, a counterbalanced hood, and black painted valve cover on the 2.2L engine (vs. the former blue). In 1984, the hood ornament was removed and the Chrysler Pentastar moved to the grille. Also, the tail lights received chrome trim, and the interior received a padded dash and new black instrument cluster with round gauges. The first major changes occurred in 1985, when the Aries received a new front fascia, featuring a new "crosshair" grille and a new rear fascia featuring five-section taillights. A new trim line, the top-tier LE ("Luxury Edition"), was added (it also replaced the Custom trim level on the wagon).
Significant powertrain changes were made for 1986. The 2.2 L engine's carburetor was replaced by a new throttle-body electronic fuel injection system, while a new 2.5 L four-cylinder engine, also fuel-injected, was added to the option list, replacing the Mitsubishi 2.6 L. The four-speed manual transmission — previously offered as standard equipment — was dropped.
The Aries underwent only minor changes throughout the rest of its production run. The SE trim line was dropped after 1986, while the LE and base trim remained the only trims till the end of production. The base trim line was renamed America in 1988, offered as relatively inexpensive, basic transportation. 1988 was the last year for station wagons. The Aries was replaced by the Spirit, with the sedan and 2-door only being sold for 1989.
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 radically new front-wheel drive design powered by a four cylinder engine. Rather than offering the fastback styling popularized by the Maverick and Duster compacts, or hatchbacks, they were offered as 2 and 4 door notchback sedans and wagons that were called boxy or "generic car" styling. Like the Valiant and Dart, they also 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. By contrast, the K-cars would be accepted as adequate and relatively reliable, if not exciting cars. They racked up 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 would not replace its family-sized Fairmont 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.
Sometimes in marketing, the Reliant was advertised as the "Reliant K", to emphasize the importance of the K-platform. The nameplate was similar to the "Valiant" name of the first Plymouth compact car that preceded the Volare, except for the first two letters. A small "K" badge was also added after the word "Reliant" to the rear of the car. The Reliant was Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1981. It was built in Newark, Delaware, Detroit, Michigan, and Toluca, Mexico.
After being launched in 1981, sales of the Reliant and Aries got off to a bad start; this can be attributed to Chrysler's inadequate preparation. Early advertisements for the K-cars promoted the low $5,880 base price. Rather than honoring that by 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 their mistake and began building more base models. After this, sales of the Reliant skyrocketed.
The Reliant was available in standard "base", mid-level SE, and high-end Custom (later renamed LE) trim levels. Unlike the coupe and sedan, the station wagon was not available in base trim. "Custom/LE" Reliant wagons came standard with exterior woodtone siding, although it could be deleted if the buyer wanted it to be. All models except base could be ordered with front bucket seats rather than the standard bench.
The Aries was one of Chrysler's most successful products, along with its twin, the Plymouth Reliant. They were based on the Chrysler K platform, which the media referred to as being Chrysler's only hope to save itself from bankruptcy. This car would spur Chrysler and many other automobile manufacturers to adopt front-wheel drive in many of their future models. They also raised the standard for quality for American automakers in general. The Aries and Reliant were strong sellers and were instrumental in Chrysler's financial recovery. Engineering work on the K-car began in 1976 after former Ford Motor Co. executive Hal Sperlich began working at Chrysler after having been fired by Ford.
The Chrysler K platform became so well known in pre-production that the production Aries and Reliant were known even by the most uninformed consumers as "K-cars". This was made easier by the fact that the constituent models had badging on the rear that read "Aries K" or "Reliant K" to emphasize the importance of the K-platform.
Initial sales of the K were slow, due to poor planning on Chrysler's part. Early advertisements promoted the low $5,880 base price. Instead of base models, Chrysler was building cars with options like automatic transmissions, A/C, and upgraded wheels and tires. Customers visiting showrooms did not buy; they expected the price they had seen advertised, and found cars costing hundreds or thousands more. Fortunately, Chrysler quickly realized the error and started building bare-bones Aries and Reliants, and sales went strongly from that point onwards. The wagons were not available in base trim.
A station wagon version was available, one of the roomiest in its class. These would be replaced by the minivans (introduced in 1984) after 1988.
The K-cars were produced in Newark, Delaware, Toluca, Mexico and Detroit, Michigan. The last, a 1989 Aries, rolled off the assembly line on August 25, 1989.
Although many would call the Aries (and its twins the Plymouth Reliant and Chrysler LeBaron) "compact cars" they were so generously sized inside they were classified by the EPA as mid-size. They were the smallest "compact" cars to have 6-passenger seating with a 3 seat per row setup, similar to larger rear-wheel drive cars such as the Dodge Dart and other front-wheel drive cars such as the Chevrolet Celebrity. Chrysler famously marketed the car as being able to seat "six Americans."
Changes through the years
Changes for 1982 included a revised hood ornament (changed from a Plymouth logo to a Chrysler Pentastar), roll-down rear door windows vs. the former stationary glass with rear quarter pop-outs, a counterbalanced hood, a Pentastar trunk medallion, and black painted valve cover on the 2.2L engine (vs. the former blue). Changes for 1983 were limited to a blacked out grille. In 1984, the hood ornament was removed and the Chrysler Pentastar moved to the grille. Also, the tail lights received chrome trim, and the interior received a padded dash and new black instrument cluster with round gauges. For 1985, the Reliant received a substantial restyle, with new, rounder front and rear fascias. This included new head & tail lights and a new grille that was the same height as the headlights (rather than going all the way up to the hood as with previous model years). The base engine was a transverse mounted Chrysler designed 2.2 L (135 cid) in-line four-cylinder with an electronic 2 barrel carburetor (later replaced by a fuel injection system in 1986), rated at 82 hp (61 kW). Transaxles were a 4-speed floor shift manual or a 3-speed automatic with either a floor or column shift. A Mitsubishi motor was optional, and cars so equipped for 1981 were badged as 2.6 HEMI. Reliants equipped with this engine accelerated 0–60 mph in the 13 second range. The Mitsubishi 2.6 L G54B engine was a popular option, but driveability and reliability problems led to the Mitsubishi engine being replaced by a fuel-injected Chrysler 2.5 L I4 for 1986. For 1987, the coupe's fixed rear windows got a small pivoting vent at the trailing edge of the rear doors. Also for 1987, the base model was renamed America in the U.S (this was later done to the base models of the Horizon and Sundance). After 1987, only minimal changes were made through the end of the production run.
The last Reliant rolled off the assembly line on August 25, 1989. The 1989 Reliant was a carryover from the 1988 model year. Only the America trim was available on these models. No station wagon models were sold in 1989. The Reliant was replaced by the Acclaim for 1989, with the coupe replaced by the Plymouth Laser liftback.
Base: 1981–1987 (87 Rare) Custom: 1981–1984 SE:1981½–1986 LE:1985–1989 America LE 1988–1989