The 13 High-Performance Chrysler Cars (and SUVs) You Forgot Existed

Detroit's Pentastar brands are no strangers to performance.

Mention Mopar muscle, and usually you'll conjure up images of rumbling Hemi-powered Barracudas and modern-day supercharged Challengers smoking their rear tires and snorting angrily. Those are but two chapters from Chrysler's long performance history, however, which stretched well beyond the muscle-car halycon days and into the '70s, '80s, '90s, and naughts. Hell, today, Jeep and Dodge sell a flotilla of 700-hp-plus Hellcat-engined models, from the Challenger to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. More, we assume, are on their way, so while you wait for more overpowered Chrysler-sourced goodness, here are a baker's dozen of the Pentastar's most potent machines that time—and perhaps you—might have forgotten.

1985-87 Dodge Shelby Charger Turbo

Before there was the Omni GLH ("Goes Like Hell"), there was the Shelby Charger, first in a long line of Carroll Shelby-ized front-wheel-drive Chryslers. Introduced in '83 with engine, suspension and gearing tweaks—not to mention the famous "pizza" wheels—the first-gen Shelby Charger could match a Cobra in the corners, if not the straights. Lee Iacocca had told Carroll he wanted something like the Ford big-block V-8; the closest Shelby figured he could get to that edict was turbocharging Chrysler's corporate 2.2-liter four-cylinder. Character differences aside (in terms of the engines, we mean), an overboost function helped squeeze 150 horsepower and 168 lb-ft of torque from the little four-cylinder in ten-second bursts. That was enough to punt the Shelby Charger Turbo to 60 mph in just over 8.0 seconds, warp speed in those dark days. The Shelby's engine noise, turbo lag, and torque steer were off the charts, but the Charger Turbo nonetheless turned the ten-year-old L-body into an honest-to-goodness thrill ride.

1986-89 Chrysler Conquest TSi

In the days when Japan started kicking Detroit's ass at building decent cars, Chrysler had Mitsubishi build a home-team version of the Starion coupe, which was rebadged as the Conquest. (Trivia: This was one of a handful of Mopars to be sold as a Dodge, a Plymouth, and a Chrysler as part of an agreement known as Diamond-Star Motors.) The top-of-the-line Conquest TSi had a 176-hp turbo four and sprinted to 60 mph in just under 8.0 seconds, good enough to run with the contemporary Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7 Turbo while handily out-pacing the Nissan 300ZX Turbo. For some reason, the car (again, sold in multiple versions) never caught on, no matter which of the Diamond-Star member badges were affixed to its rump. Good as it was, the Conquest was out-sold by the K-car-based Dodge Daytona—and if that's not the ultimate insult, what is?

1987-89 Dodge Lancer Shelby

It's hard to believe today, but the Dodge Lancer really was America's great hope to take on Europe's best sport sedans in the late 1980s. The Lancer was pretty talented out of the box, but that didn't stop Chrysler bigwig Lee Iaccoca from again calling on his old pal Carroll Shelby for some image enhancement. Shelby fitted the Lancer with a new turbo, intake, injection and intercooler that added 29 horsepower for a total of 175 ponies. He also replaced nearly all of the suspension components and swapped the rear drum brakes for discs. The result was a car that could run with the BMW 535is and Mercedes 190E Cosworth 2.3-16, provided you could stand the engine noise and the extreme torque steer under acceleration. Those foibles were easier to swallow when you considered the Lancer Shelby's $17,000 price tag, which undercut its European competitors by half.

1987-89 Shelby CSX

By the late '80s, turning Chrysler K-car-based relics into serious sportsters had become Shelby's bread and butter, and the CSX might have been his finest work. Based on the humble Dodge Shadow, the CSX had Shelby's by then expected mix of more turbo, more suspension, and more brake. The CSX was fast, sticky, and delightfully twitchy, although poorly-thought-out steering and throttle inputs could make it a real handful to the uninitiated. And like other Chryslers of the time, it was noisy and rattled like—well, like a baby's rattle. A new variable-nozzle turbo quelled turbo lag and put the CSX back in the headlines for '89, even as the new Diamond-Star cars (Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon, and Plymouth Laser—see below) were busy redefining the sport-compact universe. Still, is there a better example of a car being transformed from excrement to exotic? Not that we can think of.

1989 Shelby Dakota

With gas prices falling and interest in trucks on the rise in the late '80s, Shelby was directed toward Chrysler's taller products. He quickly returned to his roots of stuffing big engines into small places, replacing the Dodge Dakota Sport's V-6 with Chrysler's venerable 318 (5.2 liter) V-8. Swapping the fan's belt drive for an electric motor boosted output by 5 horsepower to 175, and torque stood at a healthy 270 lb-ft. With its 3.9:1 rear end, the Shelby Dakota could smoke its rear Eagle GT tires as and when needed. A heavy-duty suspension and a billion Shelby decals rounded out this limited-run, single-model-year truck. GM and Ford soon jumped on the bandwagon with the 454SS, Syclone and Lightning sport pickups, so clearly Carroll was on to something.

1990-94 Eagle Talon TSi AWD

In 1990, Mitsubishi redefined the concept of compact performance with its Eclipse GSX. With its slick body shape, turbocharged engine, and all-wheel-drive, the Eclipse single-handedly democratized exotic-car performance credentials. Well, not single-handedly, because it was accompanied by the nearly identical Talon TSi, which was built by Chrysler's short-lived and never-quite-sorted-out Eagle brand. Between the Mitsu and the Eagle, the former got the better interior while the latter got the better tires. More importantly, Mitsubishi got all of the credit for the cars' brilliant engineering, and deservedly so. Subaru WRX? Mitsubishi Evo? Volkswagen Golf R? All of those all-wheel-drive pocket rockets owe a little something to the Diamond-Star cars, including the Talon.

1991-92 Dodge Spirit R/T

If ever a car deserved to toil in anonymity, the Dodge Spirit is it. The R/T version, however, is worth noticing. It used Chrysler's unloved 2.2-liter four-cylinder, albeit with a Lotus-engineered 16-valve head, a turbo, an intercooler, and bottom-end balance shafts, which boosted output to a hard-to-believe-at-the-time 224 horsepower! Those ponies were capable of yanking the Spirit by its front tires to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, meaning the Spirit R/T could show its taillights to the Ford Taurus SHO and Mitsubishi Galant VR-4. The Dodge boys had so much faith in the Spirit R/T that they flew a pair to Italy for journalists to drive during the Lamborghini Diablo press preview. If the Dodge's handling was just as good as those benchmark sedans' moves, its refinement was nowhere close. Oh, and the Spirit's geriatric styling had about as much sex appeal as Donald J. Trump in a bathrobe.

1992-93 Dodge Daytona IROC R/T

The International Race of Champions (IROC, not to be confused with today's old-timey Race of Champions) was a Chevrolet Camaro stronghold for 15 years. When Chevy dropped out of the series in 1990, Dodge wasted no time in picking up the contract and pasting the IROC name—by then synonymous with Camaro—onto the freshly-facelifted Daytona coupe. With the addition of the 224-hp turbo engine from the aforementioned Spirit R/T, the car once known as the Daytona Shelby Z became the IROC R/T. It was ridiculously quick (zero to 60 mph in under 7.0 seconds) and a rocket on the track, amazing capabilities for a K-car-based design with a strut-type front suspension and a beam axle in the rear. Its only major downside was its ride quality, which was so hard that contemporary testers feared the Dodge might set off its own airbag if triggered by just the right road imperfection.

1992-94 Plymouth Sundance Duster

In 1992, the Ford Escort GT and Honda Civic Si had established themselves as solid low-cost enthusiast cars with appealing styling to match their zesty moves. By comparison, the awkwardly upright Plymouth Sundance looked dowdy and cheap. So, Chrysler resorted to a time-honored Detroit trick: Adding horsepower! The automaker stuffed the Voyager minivan's 141-hp 3.0-liter V-6 under the Sundance's hood and, ahem, dusted off the Duster name to create the Sundance Duster. With a five-speed manual transmission, the new-age Duster scooted to 60 mph in a respectable 8.4 seconds. Sticky Goodyear Eagle GT+4 tires represented the car's lone handling improvement, but they were enough for the Duster to keep pace with the 'Scort and the Civic. What the Chrysler lacked in panache (read: everything) it made up for in value: At $9,849, it undercut the Ford and the Honda by two grand.

1998-03 Dodge Dakota 5.9 R/T

It had been ten years since Carroll Shelby figured out that Chrysler's LA small-block V-8 would fit under the Dakota's hood, so you have to wonder why Chrysler waited for the following-generation truck to drop in the 360-cubic-inch version. Still, the results were just what you'd expect from 250 Magnum-ized pushrod-actuated horsepower in a relatively small truck: Lots of exhaust rumble and lots of tire smoke (the latter thanks to a front-heavy weight balance). The surprise was that the Dakota actually handled pretty decently provided you add the necessary disclaimers (for the time, for a truck, etc. ). People loved the idea of a home-grown muscle truck, but sales skidded as the novelty wore off.

2005-06 Chrysler Crossfire SRT6

One of the few somewhat good things to come out of Daimler's ownership of—um, we mean, "merger of equals" with Chrysler was the Crossfire, a close relative of the Mercedes SLK dressed in a mini Chrysler 300 costume. The high-performance SRT6 got an AMG-sourced 330-hp supercharged V-6 and a top speed of 158 mph, making it the fastest car Chrysler had ever made. However, with a price tag that started around $45,000, the SRT6 also was Chrysler's most expensive model. SRT at least did the job right, and the Crossfire SRT6 could run with the Porsche Boxsters, Mercedes SLKs and BMW Z4s it was positioned against. As a whole, the Crossfire never really caught on, and the SRT6 got only a very small slice of that tiny pie. After just two years it was gone. But, hey, it was a Chrysler-badged AMG!

2006-08 Dodge Magnum SRT8

What car enthusiast, then or now, wouldn't want a 425-hp station wagon? The Dodge Magnum answered that call, if only briefly, between 2006 and 2008. It was the manliest wagon since, well, ever. Forget your parents loading you and your siblings into a wood-sided Country Squire for the long cross-country trek to Grandma's. Forget wood paneling! The Magnum's Hemi V-8 was ready to light up a set of tires at a moment's notice, and the Mercedes-derived chassis had enough talent to make the Magnum dance like no mere muscle wagon could. Too bad, then, that this hi-po wagon launched just as gas prices were hitting all-time highs and American consumers began to feel the squeeze of the coming economic crunch. Chrysler sold only 4,130 examples over three glorious years, and the SRT8 died with the rest of the Magnum lineup. We suggest you find one, and hang onto it for dear life.

2006-10 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8

By 2006, Chrysler was throwing its 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 into any engine compartment it would fit in. Turns out, the V-8 fit in the homely Jeep Grand Cherokee. Of course, making a 420-hp engine behave in an SUV required a lot of engineering effort, and the SRT crew worked wonders with the two-and-a-half-ton GC's suspension to make it turn and stop nearly as well as it went. We loved it. It was like an all-weather sport sedan (or wagon) more than an SUV. Whereas most of the cars elsewhere on this list died, never to see the light of day again, the Jeep SRT8 survived for a second generation, and lives on today as the 707-hp Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

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