Following the release of the Simca Horizon, which was sold in Europe as an intermediate model between the 1100 and the Chrysler Alpine, Chrysler released the Horizon in the USA - a rather different car carrying a Plymouth badge.
Of course we could have called this car the Dodge Omni. It was the same car, badge-engineered to keep Chrysler's other dealers happy. At launch, the lads at Chrysler Corporation claimed the Horizon to be an entirely new small, front-drive car engineered in America, by Americans, for Americans.
But the cars were amalgams of European styling and engine components, Japanese names and American manufacture. At the time, some observers even called the Horizon/Omni a "re-furred Rabbit" (VW Golf), and the similarity was plain to see. But the overall length of 13ft 9in. and the 99in. wheelbase was greater than for any of its competitors. The same held true for its 66in. width.
Although the American-built Horizon was 9in. longer and significantly heavier than the Simca model sold the other side of the Atlantic, there was no disguising the fact that the two cars were basically one and the same.
This might be just a Unique Cars and Parts hunch, be we think the original design of the Horizon was carried out in Europe, either in France or at the Chrysler Technical Centre at Whitley, Coventry. This would have been logical, given Europe was streets ahead of the US when it came to building cars in this class.
At Last, An Economy Class Front Wheel Drive For The USA
For Americans, the biggest news was that the car used front-wheel drive. Prior to the release of the Horizon, front-drive in America was limited to the Toronado and Eldorado, away at the other end of the (price/luxury) scale. The Chrysler mini used not a V8, but a transverse four-cylinder engine from - guess who - Volkswagenwerk AG.
The engine came complete with four-speed manual transmission. For Chrysler, the engine had a 1.7- liter capacity and was imported "bare" to be built up with local components including a specially-made Holley twin-choke carburetor. At launch there were no plans for using the Rabbit-type Bosch fuel injection.
The 1.7-liter engine developed a claimed 75 bhp at 5,600 rpm, and a healthy 90lb. ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm. Compression ratio was a moderate 8.2-to-1, and mixture was adjusted by Chrysler's electronic Lean Burn system and electronic ignition. As an alternative to the four-speed manual VW transmission, Chrysler offered an adaptation of their own three-speed automatic. Final drive in either case was 3.48-to-1.
Along with the Volkswagen engine, the Horizon inherited Rabbit-type MacPherson strut front suspension with concentric dampers and coil springs, an anti-roll bar and negative scrub radius geometry. Power steering was an American option, while the rear suspension used trailing arms, joined Rabbit-fashion by a crossmember to act effectively as an anti-roll bar. Front disc brakes with semi-metallic pads were used, with conventional drums at the rear. There was no brake servo.
The Horizon was a roomy four-door hatchback with one of the best back seats around. As in most hatchbacks, the rear seat folded to extend the load platform when there were only two people in the car. The front seats were bucket-type, non-reclining as standard, and the driving position was as near-traditional American as it could be made with the steering wheel rather high and offset. Extra-cost options included air conditioning and AM/FM radio.
Most importantly, in most ways the Horizon felt like a real American car. The initial production targets were for 200,000 units tor 1978, rising to 300,000 for 1979. But the question remained as to whether the buying public would accept a Chrysler compact. It was never going to be a walk in the park, and Ford had already taken the initiative wit the Pinto, which was largely assembled in Canada, using engines from the plants in Europe.
There was also the looming government requirement that for the 1978 model year, the model "mix" of every manufacturer had to average 18 miles per gallon. Chrysler needed the Horizon, but they also need to cut some models adrift - gone were two full lines, the Plymouth Gran Fury and Dodge Royale Monaco, which tipped the scales the right way.
Early on, the cars had a shaky period after Consumer Reports magazine tested one and reported that it easily went out of control in hard maneuvering. This was a serious charge for a front wheel drive car, and was reported extensively by the mainstream media, including a witty heading in Time Magazine: Storm over the Horizon.
However, auto magazines reported no problems and indicated that the Consumer Reports test deliberately steered the car off course to see what would happen and did not approximate real-world driving conditions. The car weathered the tempest and went on to success.
One interesting aspect of the car was the mounting of the HVAC controls to the left of the steering wheel rather than in the center stack like in most vehicles. This meant that only the driver could adjust the interior temperature. It was a quirk not only found in the Omni and Horizon, though; many other Chrysler Corporation products (including the Dodge Charger and Chrysler Cordoba) and vehicles from other manufacturers (including Ford) came with instrument panels that placed the HVAC controls in this general location during the 1970s.
Chrysler's 2.2 L K-car engine appeared in 1981 as an upmarket option to the small Volkswagen engine. It produced 84 hp (63 kW) at first, rising to 93 hp (69 kW) and finally 96 hp (72 kW) by the end of production. The Volkswagen 1.7 was replaced by a Simca/Peugeot-produced 1.6 L I4 unit in 1983. This engine produced 62 hp (46 kW) and 86 lb·ft (117 N·m), and was only available with a manual transmission. The 2.2 L Chrysler was the only engine from 1987 onwards. The Omni and the Horizon finally ended production in 1990, and were replaced by the Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance (both introduced in 1987).
Interestingly, Chrysler invested in a number of significant changes that ended up being used for only one year; the cars gained larger exterior rear-view mirrors (borrowed from the departed M-body sedans), a driver's side air bag and a mildly redesigned instrument panel ... complete with HVAC controls finally moved to the center. As production was being wound up all tooling needed to produce the vehicle was sold to The TATA Group in India, and the car was produced there for several more years.