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Behind the Wheel

Chrysler's Ambitious Concorde Hits Turbulence on Takeoff

April 24, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's simply not within the human order of things to trade an extinct and cheesy Chrysler LeBaron for a collectible Ferrari. Or to attempt the same exchange for an equally inspiring Aston Martin. One also is best advised not to shop for the slippery look of a new Jaguar when one has an upside-down mortgage and spousal approval to spend only a lousy $21,000 from baby's college fund.

Still, $21K will buy a 1998 Chrysler Concorde LXi.

And with a hint here, a line there, this year's longer, larger and quite complaisant Concorde will arrive with all those wondrous looks of great cars of this and yesteryear.

Wheel covers are stub-spoked discs and could have been supplied by any midnight merchant with a key to Jaguar's delivery dock. A grating for a grille is a calculated filching from the 1958 Ferrari 250GT and the Aston Martin DB3 that grabbed Le Mans by the throat in 1953.

Overall, the second-generation shape of the Concorde is a futuristic pod, an elegant thing merging advanced aerodynamics with gentle arcs and a snout-down defiance that was the performance look of last year's Chrysler LHX show car. That should silence auto show-goers who believe concept cars are vehicles lost in space, representing little beyond stylists' egos gone amok.

"We wanted to capture the essence of the landmark cars," says exterior designer Mark Hall. Such as exhuming a museum piece for that determined snout, which sports a winged medallion resurrected from 1924 when it appeared on Walter P. Chrysler's first car. "But the major goal . . . was to give Concorde the look of a sporty coupe while maintaining the practicality of a sedan."

Daring has been a high priority at Chrysler since 1993. That's when the LH cars, the Concorde-Intrepid-Vision triplets from the Chrysler-Dodge-Eagle triumvirate, flattened the catcher and crashed across home plate. They borrowed a cab-forward design from Europe that increased interior room by reducing overhangs and shoving wheels far into the four corners. LH cars were lower, handled like no Chryslers before, and their styling broke more cookie cutters than Nabisco.

Only one drawback.

These large sedans weren't quite as sophisticated as their Asian attackers, and reliability problems became chronic. Plastic pieces fell off, and trim seemed to be glued no tighter than a wet Band-Aid.

Equally mournful problems came with our test car, an LXi with only 700 miles on the odometer.

* A plastic anchor cover sought asylum in our left ear the first time the seat belt was hooked up. Clipped back on, it popped right back out, clearly dissatisfied with its purpose in life.

* Thumbing the hand remote to open the trunk fell on deaf sensors. Or the button was electronically brain dead.

* On any station, in several towns, AM or FM, music and chat shows were accompanied by a gentle dinging sound. Like Brahms with a busy signal.

* Undersized side mirrors built blind spots that actually swallowed a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

* Chrysler brags about Concorde's ergonomic efficiency. The interior trunk release, for instance, has been relocated from inside the glove box to the left side of the steering column. But (a) putting it in the glove box was a head-scratcher in the first place; (b) repositioning it near the steering wheel, when every other car builder prefers it low on the driver's doorsill, only exchanges aberrations; so (c) where's the ergonomic efficiency if a driver still has to ponder and fumble to find the damned trunk release?

Although Concorde's interior flows as fashionably as its exterior, there's a definite suggestion of $3 beach ball to its plastics and vinyls--although that could well be one individual's sensory response to the test car's universally depressing color scheme of two-tone dung.

*

The silver lining is that Chrysler has worked wonders with chassis cross-bracing, hydraulic damping and rubber mountings to reduce road and engine roars to acceptable minima. (Although, when standing on the gas in search of a passing gear, the tormented shriek from the V-6 is just as noisy as we knew and loathed in earlier LH cars. Despite body-mounted door seals, wind noise remains a nuisance, and over 60 mph, you'll be pumping up the volume to hear traffic reports. And that infernal dinging.)

But to continue the good stuff: Golf players and those who brake for garage sales will love the Concorde's trunk, roomier by almost 2 cubic feet. It is huge enough for half a dozen golf bags. Packed lengthwise. Or a small armoire, two andirons and a brass coal scuttle.

Fuel consumption of 19 mpg in town, and 29 mpg heading for Santa Barbara, is 10% better thanks to cleaner streamlining and fuel-injection tweaks. Engine power has been increased by 25%, with a corresponding improvement in acceleration times. Handling, although a little dimwitted, is nevertheless precise and predictable, and will do nothing that makes one sit up straight and hyperventilate.

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