The Dodge Charger Hellcat’s rise to the top of the sport sedan segment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though many were shocked when Dodge had the audacity to build a 707-horsepower grocery-getter, the American automaker has a long-history of catching the automotive industry off guard.
Though few still remember the legend, the Hellcat isn’t the first time Dodge shockingly overthrew Germany’s finest to become king of the sport sedan segment. BMW, Mercedes, and Audi were unquestionably the gold standard of tire-scorching, corner-carving four-doors. But in 1991 and ‘92, Dodge completely embarrassed the German triumvirate with its budget-friendly, front-wheel drive Dodge Spirit.
With body colored bumpers, fog lights, ground effects, and a rear spoiler, the Dodge Spirit R/T appeared to be just another run-of-the-mill sport package available on select models to make owners feel like they were truly driving something special.
Actual performance features included in such packages were usually at a minimum, but many auto manufacturers started to offer them as their popularity soared in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Chrome had lost its luster long ago, and monochromatic color schemes and black trim were all the rage. But that was usually the extent of most sport packages. Apparently Dodge failed to receive the memo.
The Dodge Spirit was introduced in 1989 on Chrysler’s AA platform with a 2.5 liter TBI four-cylinder engine that produced 100 horsepower. In the late ‘80s, that was sufficient juice for an entry-level midsize sedan. There certainly weren’t expectations for anything more.
One quick glance at the Spirit’s profile, and it’s abundantly clear that a cardboard box was its primary styling inspiration. Its mundane looks and low-budget platform suggest the Spirit was never built for performance. But that wasn’t going to stop Mopar engineers from trying.
Dodge certainly did its best to troll both domestic and European automakers with the release of a Spirit R/T model in 1991. With a five-speed manual transmission and a dual overhead cam 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine producing 224 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque, the R/T was certainly no ordinary sport sedan.
Performance-oriented shocks with increased spring rates were added along with a larger diameter rear sway bar. While these improvements were made to help reduce torque steer, the power was arguably too much for the chassis to handle. Both Mopar and Lotus worked together to build the R/T’s Turbo III engine that featured an intercooled Garrett turbocharger with maximum boost set at 11 pounds per square inch.
Though the Spirit was chastised for its subpar suspension and pedestrian looks, even Car and Driver raved about Spirit’s explosive engine and called it a “superstar powerplant” in a March 1991 comparison test against the Taurus SHO and Lumina Z34. The Spirit R/T could hit 60 miles per hour in a blistering 5.8 seconds and sprint a quarter mile in 14.5 seconds with a 97 mile-per-hour trap speed. Unlike other turbocharged cars of its era, the R/T didn’t run out of breath after reaching triple digit speeds and would peg the speedometer past 140 miles per hour.
Astonishingly, it was the quickest four-door sold in the U.S. during its two-year production run and the fastest mass-produced sedan in the world. The handmade BMW E34 M5 ($59,905) and Alpina B10 ($109,500) sedans were reportedly faster, but the R/T could be had for only $17,820 and deliver almost identical performance.
The Spirit R/T was only offered in white or flame red with body-colored 15-inch aluminum snowflake wheels. Subtle “DOHC Intercooled Multivalve” decals on the front-door side moldings were the only hint of the Spirit’s unsuspecting sleeper potential. With 1,208 models built in 1991 and only 191 in ‘92, the R/T is a low-production model that somehow failed to catch the attention of collectors and enthusiasts. Perhaps it’s the unimaginative styling or front-wheel drive architecture, but the Spirit R/T continues to fly under the radar just as it did on the streets.