Fabulous Flops is a monthly series profiling some of the spectacular failures in the automotive industry. The automotive industry is by nature an innovator, but sometimes those innovative ideas are taken out of the oven before they are done cooking, others fall victim to poor timing. Today we are profiling Chrysler's two terrible piston-equipped children, the 2.2L four-cylinder engine and the 2.2L Turbo I four.
During the course of automotive history, we’ve seen automakers take the engineering that goes into building an engine and turn it into something of an art form. The end result usually is nothing short of something brilliant.
For example, Ferrari has given us microscopic engines that somehow produce massive horsepower numbers and still have at least eight cylinders. Then there’s Alfa Romeo, who have built engines so beautifully detailed they’ve somehow managed to make the innocent act of raising the hood of one of their cars into something totally adulterous. Detroit during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s managed to produce the most heroic symphonies the word had ever heard from their massive V8s. On the subject of Detroit, remember the old 2.0 liter, forced-induction Ecotec four-cylinder from General Motors? That really was nothing short of a 21st century small-block Chevy.
Those are just a few highlights from the century-plus long automotive footage reel, though. Watch the whole film in its entirety and you’ll find that there have been many an instance where an automaker strives to push engine — uhhh — engineering to the outer edges of the envelope only to fall flat on its face. And while it’s certainly true that GM has succeeded in this century with building a great four-cylinder engine, you certainly couldn’t say the same for Chrysler in the closing quarter of the 20th century.
For those of us who had to suffer through the K-Car years and the subsequent fallout, the mere mention of the name LeBaron or New Yorker codgers up images of some bland, front-drive car with a nasty paintjob and electrical issues. Okay, yes, I know Chrysler was more concerned with building affordable, efficient cars that would pay the bills back then. Yes, sure, some of them were sort of reliable and not completely terrible, but the K-Platform derived Chryslers were all cars devoid of the rather admirable, plucky Pentastar personality that made the original Hemi Challengers and Road Runners such magical machines. In my eyes, the fact the platform spawned a billion soulless children and carried on relatively unchanged for over a decade is one of the many great automotive mysteries.
It’s even more mysterious when you consider people actually bought them with Chrysler’s horrible 2.2 liter four-cylinder engine. I’ll admit Chrysler seemed to have all of its stars aligned and ducks in a row when they were designing it. First, they benchmarked a fairly solid 1.7 liter engine they had bought from Volkswagen to use in the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon/Talbot Horizon triplets. After that, they grouped together a team of guys that was led by Willem Weertman, who worked on the old warhorse Slant 6. How the 2.2 became the end result then is a huge letdown.
The original Chrysler 2.2L four was more or less born from the VW 1.7L four used in the Dodge Omni.
For starters, the 2.2 had an aluminum cylinder head and an iron engine block, exactly like the 1.7 liter VW motor. This was by no means a bad design and was advanced for an American four-pot in its day, however Chrysler failed to understand the mixed metallurgy required additives to the coolant that would prevent a total meltdown — additives they decided to forgo for production and subsequently forgot completely. American buyers, who were then used to a four-cylinder motor that required very low maintenance, weren’t exactly ready for the high demands of the aluminum/iron design either. As a result, cylinder head gaskets had to be replaced as often as the driver would change his underwear and the cylinder heads themselves would eventually crack.
Then there was the terrible carburetor and distributor chosen for use on the 2.2. The carburetor came from Holley who by no means makes bad carbs, but on the day they built the ones chosen for use on the early 2.2 liter motors, they must’ve forgotten everything. The design was an electronic progressive feedback, two-barrel design that only lent itself to stalling when you wanted to go, wheezing when you did, and bizarre burps of power at random intervals. The distributor in particular was a rather nasty device because the shaft support bushing was so cheap it would wear out in such a fashion that the rotor would eventually hit the distributor cap, which would then break. The end result of that, well, is obvious.
The 2.2 also had a rubber timing belt which would break between oil changes and the whole thing only produced an underwhelming 84 horsepower. As for torque? Let’s just say your grandmother is probably capable of a higher amount of twist if you handed her a torque wrench.
The Dodge Shelby Charger used a tuned version of the 2.2 that produced all of 107 horsepower. How's that for power?
Chrysler knew the engine left plenty of room for improvement, so it didn’t take very long for them to set about changing things. For 1983, they fiddled around with the pistons and the aluminum head and wrung a whole 10 more horsepower out of it. Poor Carroll Shelby also had to use a modified version of the 2.2 in the front-drive, Horizon-based Shelby Charger. His tuned 2.2 managed to just barely break the 100 horsepower mark. Then in 1984 Chrysler installed throttle body fuel-injection, which bumped the power up to 99 and actually had few advantages over the terrible Holly carburetor.
1984 also was the first year Chrysler built the laughable 2.2 Turbo I motor. What Chrysler did for the Turbo I was take the 2.2 and, well, put a turbo on it. That sounds like it could’ve made a bad motor decent and that would be true if they had fitted it with something all well-built turbo engines have — an intercooler. The decision to save a few bucks by not installing an intercooler on an turbocharged motor that was, in turn, based on an engine that already had cooling system issues meant that the Turbo I was one of the least reliable engines Chrysler had ever built. Take a Turbo I-equipped LeBaron up a decent grade of a hill and you were guaranteed to boil your coolant into oblivion.
So, in 20/20 hindsight, the Chrysler 2.2 and 2.2 Turbo I were flops, perhaps not in sales, but from a reliability and engineering standpoint. To Chrysler’s credit, they tried to at least rectify some of the issues that plagued the Turbo I when they rolled out the 2.2 Turbo II, which actually had a factory intercooler. The Turbo III and Turbo IV 2.2 motors that succeeded it also were fairly respectable performance motors. The Turbo IV in particular was responsible for making the old Dodge Spirit R/T the fastest North American production sedan money could buy when it was new.
* * * * *
Do you have a nomination for a Fabulous Flop? Drop an email to Flops@CheersandGears.com with your nomination. Make sure to share this with your friends on Facebook or Twitter using the buttons below.