Compact cars became popular during the 1960s in America, by the 1970s their popularity grew astronomically. Rear wheel drive compact cars like the Chevrolet Nova, Ford Maverick, and many others thrived during the 1970s. For the 1976 model year, the Chrysler corporation released its all-new rear-wheel drive compact cars, the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare which were built on its brand new f-body platform. Both were almost identical cars in both exterior and interior appearance with mild trim and appointment differences between the two. The Aspen represented a giant move forward over its predecessor the Dodge Dart which was built on the Chrysler’s A-body platform. The Dart was stodgy by comparison and was generally considered a barebones car for thrifty buyers who wanted inexpensive and reliable transportation.
The 1976-1980 Dodge Aspen was much sportier in comparison to the Dart and much more modern looking with its better sculpted body panels. By the mid-1970s rear-wheel drive compact cars became more formal in appearance and looked like smaller versions of upscale larger cars than thrifty compact cars. This all started with the introduction of Ford’s extremely popular 1975 Granada which was a formal looking rear-wheel drive compact car that looked like a smaller version of Ford’s full-size LTD. Buyers really took to the new compact car persona, and Granada sales figures were fantastic.
Dodge gave the Aspen a Granada-like very formal front-end design with very pronounced vertical front grille. The Aspen was available different trim levels in the following configurations: 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan, and 4-door station wagon which had a rear hatch that opened upwards like a small 2-door compact car instead of a traditional side opening door or flip-down rear door. The Aspen had a modern look for its era that was attractive to a lot of buyers. From 1976-1979 it only received the very slightest exterior changes from year-to-year. For 1980 it received two square headlights to replace its two round headlights and a more modern look in the front and back of the vehicle.
The 1976 Dodge Aspen and 1976 Plymouth Volarie won Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” award beating out some solid competition including the 1976 Cadillac Seville. Overall the exterior looks of the Dodge Aspen were attractive and a breath of fresh air. This exterior styling it would foreshadow Chrysler’s mid-size rear-wheel drive M-body platform cars which would debut 1 year later for the 1977 model year. The M-body platform was based on the Aspen’s F-body platform and would share many of the Aspen’s parts, including its doors. Unfortunately the Aspen and the Volare got a bad reputation due to recalls and quality issues however these were remedied in a timely fashion but not before the Aspen’s reputation was marred causing declining sales. Chrysler’s M-body cars on the other hand had a much better reputation and were extremely reliable cars that were produced for many years until the end of the 1989 model year.
The Aspen’s interior was very modern and looked much more upscale than most of its competitors and it predecessor the Dart. For a compact car it was roomy and could fit up to 6 people when equipped with a front bench seat. When equipped with front bucket seats the Aspen’s interior looked fairly sporty. Additionally, never before had a Dodge compact car had so many standard features and available options, the Aspen could even be equipped where its interior had the appearance of a genuine luxury car. Overall the Aspen was a roomy car with plenty of trunk or cargo space, today it would be considered a full-size car. The Aspen also had an improved ride and better handling when compared to its predecessor and had the civilized ride qualities more like a mid-sized car than the compact car it was.
The Aspen when compared to other compact cars of its era generally had engines with more horsepower and torque. The Aspen in all its body styles was available with the following engines: a 90-110 horsepower 225 cubic-inch (4.1 liter) straight six cylinder engine, a 120-166 horsepower 318 cubic-inch (5.2 liter) V8, and a 150-195 horsepower 360 cubic-inch (5.9 liter) V8. Aspen transmission choices were a 3-speed manual, 4-speed manual, and 3-speed automatic depending on model year and application. The 360 V8, was only available with a 3-speed automatic.
The Aspen was also available as a muscle car in the form of the 2-door 1976-1980 Aspen R/T which included flashy exterior decals, louvered side rear windows, and spoilers. It was only available with the 318 and 360 V8 engines. Dodge took things to the next level by offering for 1978 “Super Coupe” which was only offered with the 360 V8 and included all the goodies standard with the Aspen R/T, but had a better tuned performance suspension, fender flares, 15-inch wheels replacing the R/T’s 14-inch wheels, performance tires, and the removal of most the Aspen R/T’s chrome trim. Overall the Super Coupe was a great looking late-1970s muscle car. For 1979 the Super Couple did not return but all the Super Coupe’s additional items became an option package for the 1979 Aspen R/T.
However the most Radical Aspen was the 2-door 1978 Aspen A43 Street Car Package which had NASCAR race car treatment that included louvered side rear windows, flared fenders, front chin spoiler, a massive deck-lid spoiler, 15-inch wheels, a 360 cubic-inch V8, two large 360 cubic inch hood decals, hood pins, and even NASCAR style windshield retention clips and rear window retention bars. Only around 145 were built to honor NASCAR driver Richard Petty which is why there was a “43” decal on both side doors which was Petty’s racing number. It was the closest thing to a genuine NASCAR race car that could be purchased from the factory and driven on public streets. It may have looked like it could go 180 mph but the reality was it’s 175 horsepower 360 V8 gave it a top speed of just below 120 mph.
Even with the Aspen’s issues, the good far out weighed the bad, it proved to be a successful car with 825,797 produced over 5 model years. Had the Chrysler corporation corrected these issues before production, the Aspen may have been even more successful. Never-the-less the Aspen was a solid car that offered a lot of car for the money. The Aspen and it’s Volare brother were the last Chrysler Corporation compact cars to offer V8 power and have rear-wheel drive.
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