The 1980s represented an era of downsizing and reinvention among Detroit automakers, and the continuing flood of Japanese imports. The early 1980s was also a period of aggressive marketing and risk-taking by the Japanese. Later in the decade, better-designed engines and electronic fuel injection brought some horsepower back to American-made cars while the Japanese reintroduced the economical two-seater roadster that revived the fun factor in driving a car.
Ford attempted to produce a two-seater sport compact car in the 1980s as Mazda introduced its two-seater Mazda roadster and Toyota launched its MR2. In 1982, Ford introduced the EXP and its sibling the Mercury LN7. The two-seater was a reconfigured Escort offered as a coupe and coupe. It was equipped with a 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine. Sales, however, were dismal. In 1989, Ford replaced the EXP with the Probe, another sport compact that should have complemented the larger Mustang. The Probe had a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine and short 99-inch wheelbase, but buyers saw the Probe as a cheap imitation of the Mustang and sales never took off.
The luxury-oriented Cordoba was a product of the 1970s and was on its last legs in the early '80s. The Cordoba perhaps best represents Chrysler's reluctance to embrace change. It was a large, inefficient car. Although the wheelbase shrank from 115 inches to 112 inches in 1980, Chrysler still equipped it with the old-school slant six or optional 318-cubic-inch V-8 engines. Sales plummeted from a high of 165,000 in 1976 to just 15,000 in 1982.
Chevrolet's Camaro for most of the 1980s was a shadow of its former pony and muscle car self. For 1982, it sported a radical and very seductive body redesign, but the 1970s fuel shortages and rising costs at the pump prompted Chevy to equip it with an embarrassing 2.5-litre four-cylinder as standard equipment. The famed 5-liter V-8 was available, but with only 165 horsepower.
Dodge and Plymouth
The Dodge Aries and its twin, the Plymouth Reliant, marked a modest improvement for the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s. Popularly known as K-cars because of their compact Chrysler platforms, the automakers designed the Aries and Reliant conservatively with front-wheel drive. Although marketed as a mid-size car, they rode on a relatively short 100.3-inch wheelbase. Under the bonnet was a Chrysler 2.2- or 2.4-litre four-cylinder or the 2.6-litre Mitsubishi in-line four.
Volkswagen successfully manoeuvred the compact Golf to replace the ageing Beetle by the early 1980s. Beetle production as an U.S. import ceased in 1978. By 1986, the Golf MkII rode on a 97.4-inch wheelbase and barely tipped the scales at 907kg. It featured a spunky 137-horsepower 1.8-litre in-line four-cylinder engine.
Toyota and Mazda
The model year 1984 marked a transition for the automotive industry as it began to regain some of its confidence after the disastrous 1970s. Toyota developed the MR2, a two-seater sports car. Ford failed with its EXP coupe, but Toyota recognised the MR2 should mimic the compact 1960s British sports car's ability be fun to drive. The MR2 sat on a 91.3-inch wheelbase and featured a 128-horsepower 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine. Mazda followed in 1989 with its MX-5 Miata with an even shorter 89.2-inch wheelbase, but less powerful 113-horsepower 1.6-litre engine.