By on December 10, 2019

Night Court was ranked No. 21 on the Nielsen ratings and Nike execs were contemplating what eventually became the “Bo Knows” campaign when Chrysler’s Ultradrive automatic entered production in Indiana.

Boasting four speeds and a protective limp-home feature soon to be the butt of jokes, Ultradrive was Chrysler’s go-to FWD tranny for many a year. As you read yesterday, the original four-speed version will end production in 2020. Yet memories linger… perhaps even yours.

Ultradrive variants soon sprung forth, including a unit destined for all-wheel drive minivans. There was a version intended for early LX-platform rear-drivers and body-on-frame SUVs, too, but that gearbox didn’t make it very far past the recession. In 2007, a six-speed unit debuted in the Chrysler Sebring and is still in use today beneath the Dodge Grand Caravan and Ram Promaster.

Today we’re considering only the original four-speed version that found a home in front-drive Chrysler, Daimler-Chrysler, and Fiat Chrysler products, continuing to the present day in the four-cylinder-only Dodge Journey. There’s decades of vehicles to choose from, and one of those offerings might hold a special place in your heart.

Which Ultradrive-equipped vehicle, in your opinion, was the best? Personal experience might guide your vote, and that’s okay. We like stories here.

While your author’s past contains just one Chrysler product, that vehicle would have contained an Ultradrive had he chose the V6-powered Duster model over the basic five-speed/four-cylinder Sundance. Elsewhere, luckier men enjoyed — at least to some degree — the LeBaron and Laser, Daytona and Spirit, New Yorker and Acclaim, Sebring and Avenger, Neon and PT Cruiser, Dynasty and Shadow, a slew of LH-platform sedans and a triple-shot of cloud cars. Don’t forget the bevy of vans that ferried a generation of Americans to school.

Time to select an Ultradrive winner. Is there one?

[Images: Chrysler, Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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32 Comments on “QOTD: The Ultimate Ultra?...”

  • avatar

    I only have one. Back in the early 2000s, I was at the Chrysler Quality Engineering Center, where we had come across a number of Ultradrive transaxles being torn down on benches. We asked the Quality Engineer what was going on with them.

    He advised us they were being broken down for failure root cause analysis. Another vendor who was travelling with us advised him he had some 200K miles in his Sundance. The engineer just about passed out from shock and asked the fellow to bring his vehicle by for verification, as he’d never of a unit surviving that long.

    I would have forgotten about that event if it weren’t for the sudden and dramatic change in demeanour from quite nerdy quality engineer to being absolutely overwhelmed and a little unhinged by that news. He must have been heavily invested in that transmission’s success. I’m glad finally sorted that tranny out. I’m surprised the 4 speed is still in production.

    PS: I remember when the Lepelletier 6 speed system came out. My colleagues said to too expensive and too complex for anything other than luxury cars. I wonder what they would say about all these 8 and 9 speeds now.

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe it was a four-cylinder Sundance? When you said “Sundance”, I wondered if these things tended to survive longer in lower horsepower, lower torque vehicles where they were under less stress.

      • 0 avatar

        The 4spd Ultradrive in the Sundance was only available in the 3.0 V6. The 4 cylinders only had the 3spd unit from my recollection. The later Cloud cars had the Ultradrive with 4 or 6 cylinder engines.

      • 0 avatar

        I honestly have no idea, I only met that fellow once. We just happened to have his company’s electrical parts on our assembly. We went there to review warranty claims against our parts.

        But they were assembly line damaged parts (probably handling), not failed parts, and so were written off as “accum’s” (accumulated scrap). It was more of a formality and courtesy call to show solidarity by us teir-1 suppliers – they like that since some suppliers don’t seem to give a damn.

        The whole event was completely by chance since it wasn’t scheduled. But since both suppliers happened to be together, it gave us a chance to kill two birds . . .

  • avatar

    Is it true that the LH in the LH platform stood for “Limp Home”?

    Also, now you get the “Read all comments” button with only *one comment* showing? You guys must be hungry for clicks.

    What’s next? “23 Terrible New Features on Cars”? (That’s a real clickbait link I found, and it goes to Forbes, of all places)

    • 0 avatar

      “You guys must be hungry for clicks.”

      you honestly think the “read comments” button counts for that? that doesn’t trigger a page view so no, it’s not done for ads. It’s probably a standard part of whatever WordPress version they updated to. Jesus, you people whine a lot.

  • avatar

    My parents owned two Mopars as daily drivers over the last 50 years. First was a ’78 Omni/Horizon that found itself parked out back more than on the road. My dad gave Mopar another chance in 1994 with a 2-year-old Dynasty with the Mitsu V6 and the Ultradrive.

    Four transmission rebuilds/replacements later, he said “never again” and swore off Chrysler products. Forever.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I had a 2000 Sebring LXi with it. I got the car with under 90k miles and I have no idea if it had been maintained. But it had a litany of other issues. I recall being concerned about the transmission because back then as far as I was concerned all Chrysler transmissions were suspect.

    I bought it from a friend (who I talked into buying it new) with the intention of fixing up and reselling. It wasn’t in bad shape by any means, but it had some issues that needed to be resolved. Not the least of which were the wheels which I really liked being unable to hold any air for more than 24 hours.
    I wanted to love that car, but it was a bit of a pain and I was glad to see it go when I sold it. I have always thought it was really handsomely designed.

    When was the last time you saw any version of this car on the street? Eclipse/Talon, Sebring, or Avenger? BAT has an Avenger for sale right now, but we used to be waist deep in Eclipses and they have all seemed to disappear from the road.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a 1996 Avenger V6 purchased new. That car had an otherworldly paint color. It was silver with a very faint blue, which was ethereal in person. I liked that car a lot. The back seat was super generous.

  • avatar

    My parents have a family friend who runs a Chrysler dealership so their vehicles for the past 20 years have all been dodge/Jeep/Chrysler variants. Current is a V6 challenger and a 14 ram pickup.

    With the transmission noted above, they had a 97 Concorde LXI and 2 2001 300Ms. The Concorde and one of the 300Ms made it to 300,000+ km with no issues. The other 300M had some major problems but none of which involved the transmission.

    So my vote has to go to the 300M or maybe simply that platform in general.

  • avatar

    Mom and dad have had several of these. Mostly in the minivans but one in a Dynasty. Of the hundreds of thousands of miles between all of them they had issues with one going out at 85k miles, and another at 168k miles.

    We had one in a Stratus and it was still good when we traded it with 167k miles. The 2.7l motor, not so much, but the transmission was good.

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’95 Intrepid, which I still remember fondly, but I did have to rebuild the transmission at roughly 110k miles (probably not helped either by the extra power of the 3.5 over the base 3.3, or being issued to a teenaged driver).

    That said, the Prowler also used the Ultradrive (a rear-mounted Ultradrive, even!), and while that’s one of its weaker points, probably, it’s still easily the most interesting vehicle to use that transmission.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    The 1999-2004 Chrysler 300M (and Intrepid/Vision/LHS) was a great car for its time…while it ran.

    For me, the ultimate Ultra is the Buick Park Avenue Ultra, which wasn’t as nice to drive as the 300M and didn’t have quite as nice an interior, but would give you 200K+ miles of faithful service if properly maintained.

    • 0 avatar

      My parents had 2x 2001 300Ms, at the same time, no less. One was problem free for probably 350,000 km, the other ultimately made it to similar mileage, but with numerous fairly major repairs along the way. This is with equally meticulous maintenance on both vehicles.

      Luck of the draw.

      • 0 avatar
        Mike Beranek

        I’ve owned a first-gen Intrepid and and 8th-gen LeSabre. While the LH was a great car, especially in the handling department, I was happy to trade it in before it got too far above 100k. I knew that valve train was getting loose and was in no mood to spend several grand fixing a French motor.
        The 3800’s valve train never breaks, ever, which is one of the most endearing features of the engine.

  • avatar

    Just FYI, pretty much *every* Chrysler-designed auto transmission since 1989 has been an Ultradrive variant. The FWD 41TE and 62TE are, as well as the longitudinal 42LE. The RWD 42RLE, 45RFE, 545RFE/65RFE, and 66/68RFE are all Ultradrive-based.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    It’s no secret I am a 300M guy. I still think the design looks good, but having heard stories about transmission issues with these cars I was strict about not letting any shop add fluid to the transmission. I only owned the car for a couple of years and never had any issues. I’m thinking it was around 10 years old when I sold it.

    Generally, my 300 was roomy and easy to see out of, but it felt cheap on the inside. The dash looked rubbery and the clock surround was just this oddly shaped piece of plastic grafted on. The shift-pall was wrapped in leather and baseball-stitched but the reverse lockout button was hard, cheap-feeling plastic. The console itself was also made out of long, cheap looking (and feeling) plastic pieces as well and there were all sorts of places they could have used better materials.

    Car interiors have come a long way over the last 20 years and I’d love to see what they could do with that space today. I bet it’d be great.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure what other Chrysler vehicles through those years might float my boat. None of the mid-sizers really appeal to me and I’d always opt for a manual in any of the little cars .

  • avatar

    I think they went into a lot of nice driving, attractive, well packaged cars: 1st gen cloud cars, LH, and I think the biggest winners overall were the ’95-’99 vans.

  • avatar

    I had an Inferno Red 2001 Intrepid R/T that I liked a lot. Was quick for the time, handled well and had an enormous interior with plenty of room for activities.

  • avatar

    I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car with UltraDrive. That said, I like Dynasty because they were just so unashamedly retro and outdated even when they were new. I thought the LHS and New York LH cars with the formal rear roof lines were a handsome mix of modern and retro. I owned a Stratus, but it was a 5-speed manual.

  • avatar

    Steph, the 2WD Explorer is RWD, not FWD.

    The new Escape Hybrid, like the old one, is going to be a mainstay of Uber and taxi fleets. It and the RAV4 Hybrid will have the lowest TCO of any CUV in high-utilization service.

    We’ll see how the Explorer powertrain does in terms of reliability. If it’s as reliable as previous Ford powertrains, then it’ll probably peel off a bunch of Highlander Hybrid owners who aren’t interested in the neutered, four-cylinder 2020 Highlander Hybrid.

    The Aviator is just silly d!ck-waving.

  • avatar

    The best has to be the ’95 minivans. Those totally upended the segment; the first real competitors all appeared three or four years later. Of course, the worst thing about them was the Ultradrive.

    My favorite Ultradrive-equipped car would be the 300M Special, but I’m not going to pretend it was a reliable or durable car.

  • avatar

    The best car with an Ultradrive is one that isn’t so equipped. LOL. The best Ultra to me is the 97-2005 Park Ave with supercharged 3800 goodness!

  • avatar

    My uncle has a 2009 Journey with 3 rows and the 4 cyl/Ultra drive auto.
    I’ve driven the car twice, it’s super sluggish but I guess Chrysler got the reliability on check after a few years. At 155K miles that Journey still has the original transmission.

    My favorite Ultradrive equipped car would be a 1990-1993 Imperial or a 2004 300M Special

  • avatar

    My sister has a 99-ish 300M with over 250,000 miles on it – hey wait how did Night Court slip to 21?

  • avatar

    My only experience of this transmission was when one of my wife’s friends bought a PT Cruiser back in the early 2000s and she let me take it for a spin. I really don’t remember much about the driving experience, other than it was pretty meh. The transmission was part of that – it just sort of worked, and the car went forward, but it certainly was far less fun than the other convertibles I’ve driven, like Miatas or even Chrysler Sebrings.

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