Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volaré
One of the stranger facts in American automotive history is that, in 1976, Chrysler was able to sell the F-body Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré as "compact cars" with a straight face. To put these cars into a more modern perspective, the coupe version of the Aspen is 198.8 inches long. A brand new Chrysler 300C, on the other hand, is only 196.8 inches long--the "compact" Aspen is two inches longer than a modern full-size luxury car. That station wagon to the right, meanwhile, checks in at 201.2 inches, which is only an inch shorter than a base trim Escalade.
At the time, of course, none of this was unusual. A year later, GM would release the New Chevrolet, spearheaded by the "downsized" 212-inch long Caprice, and people would marvel at how small it was. Indeed, this collective hallucinatory perception of space-time would eventually lead to Disco Demolition Night and the War on Drugs.
The problem with the Aspen was not its size, at least not at first. On the contrary--the Aspen was the smallest full-size four-door domestic station wagon you could get at the time. It would take another three years and another gas price hike for the likes of the Chevrolet Citation and the AMC Eagle to show up; the Chevy Monza, Ford Pinto and AMC Pacer, though all available in station wagon trim, never came in four- or five-door versions. It also wasn't the styling, which was fairly handsome for the time; in fact, it had substantially more glass than its A-Body predecessors and wasn't anywhere near as garish and disco-tastic as its competition. Indeed, the Aspen was attractive enough to become the next victim of the Motor Trend "Car of the Year" curse.
What ultimately sunk Aspen into the bog of eternal stench and nearly led Chrysler to experience a Battle of Dobro Pole-style meltdown was the poor build quality of the first Aspens. Stuck with a moribund product line of big, thirsty and expensive cars that nobody wanted (sound familiar?), Chrysler hastily tossed the Aspen out the door, tacking on its new and unproven Lean Burn electronic spark advance system on top of it. The result was numerous recalls, rusted fenders, confused mechanics and a radioactive reputation that nearly doomed Chrysler to bankruptcy. Though Chrysler was able to solve most of the problems that plagued the Aspen by 1978, it was too little, too late.
What's truly unfortunate is that, once Chrysler worked out the bugs, the Aspen and its F-body brethren were actually decent cars. The Aspen R/T, for example, marked the beginning of Chrysler's budding obsession with creating performance versions of ordinarily underperforming cars; the result was a car that could hang with the contemporary Camaro and Mustang II. There was the Monteverdi Sierra, which took the Volaré and turned it into a high performance Italian sedan; if this sort of Italian-Chrysler fusion sounds familiar, it probably should. The Dodge Diplomat, one of the most ubiquitous squad cars of the 1980s, was based on the M-body, which was nothing more than an Aspen with more modern sheetmetal.
To help drive home what Chrysler was hoping to accomplish with these cars, here are a couple of commercials--enjoy the irony of an "economy" wagon getting 25 MPG "highway", or saying "Hey, hey! That's my Dodge!":