Junkyard Find: 1986 Dodge Aries SE Four-Door Sedan

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Lee Iacocca's Chrysler Corporation sold K-Cars in the United States for the 1981 through 1989 model years, saving itself from near-certain bankruptcy in the process. These cars are becoming difficult to find in the Ewe Pullets of the land, and I hadn't written about a true K in the Junkyard Finds series since way back in 2019. Today, we'll look at a K sedan that survived 36 years before being retired in California.

After a decade of fuel shortages and general malaise, Detroit (and Kenosha) knew that American car buyers still loved soft-riding, roomy sedans with comfy bench seats but needed them to be more efficient. For the 1980s, GM created the X-Cars, Ford offered Fox sedans and American Motors had the Concord. Chrysler did perhaps the best job of recreating the occupant experience of, say, a Plymouth Satellite sedan in a vehicle that got twice the fuel economy.

Look at that interior! Cloth-and-vinyl seats that felt like Grandpa's La-Z-Boy, the automatic shift lever on the column where God intended, and an utter lack of pretentious European coldness or punitively sensible Japanese practicality. It was (sometimes) hard to believe that this was a four-cylinder compact with front-wheel-drive.

Though the extended Chrysler K Family had many members (including minivans and Maseratis) and stayed in production deep into the 1990s, there were just five true K models sold in the United States: the Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, Dodge 400, Dodge 600 and Chrysler LeBaron (though not all the LeBarons and 600s were genuine Ks).

The Aries and Reliant sedans were the real sales heroes of the K family during the 1980s. Like the Dodge/Plymouth Colt or Omnirizon of the same era, the two generally had identical sticker prices and were distinguishable from each other only if you looked closely at grilles and emblems.

1986 was the first model year in which every Aries and Reliant got electronic fuel injection. The 2.6-liter Mitsubishi Astron aka "Hemi 2.6" engine (optional in the Aries and Reliant through 1985) was gone, replaced by a 2.5-liter Chrysler. This car has the base 2.2, rated at 97 horsepower and 122 pound-feet.

The 100-horse/138-pound-foot 2.5 cost an extra $279, or $782 in 2023 dollars.

The emissions sticker tells us that this car was originally sold in California, and that its first owner paid $99 extra ($277 now) for the equipment that made it meet the Golden State's smog requirements.

The SE was the top Aries trim level for 1986, and the MSRP for this car started at $7,759 (about $21,737 after inflation).

This car almost certainly cost a lot more than that. The three-speed automatic transmission listed at $504 ($1,412 in today's money), for example.

The air conditioning was $757 ($2,121 today), but at least the AM/FM stereo radio was standard equipment in the Aries LE and SE.

We can assume it would still be on the road today, had it not been hit in the right rear. It doesn't take much to total a car with a triple-digit resale value.

My personal K-Car experience hasn't been as positive. A decade ago, I endured enjoyed the misfortune character-building experience of a Denver-to-San Francisco journey with the K-It-FWD 1987 Plymouth Reliant 24 Hours of Lemons race car (feel free to send nastygrams to Car and Driver about whatever terrible glitch jankified the formatting in those articles, by the way).

Hey, that cash back just about covers the A/C and automatic!

The dance moves of the Dodge Boys in this commercial seem more appropriate for the 600 coupe, or maybe even the Lancer Turbo.

Naturally, you can't discuss the Aries without sharing one of the earliest viral videos of the Internet Era. I recall angrily futzing with video codecs in order to watch the file I'd laboriously downloaded of this spoof Aries commercial, circa 2000.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

1986 Dodge Aries in California wrecking yard.

[Images: The Author]

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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Abraham Abraham on Jan 18, 2024

    When cars had one simple mission: get me where I’m going. Now they have AI powered touch screens, remotely monitored and lojacked, weight 6000 lbs, have 22 air bags, 104 CPU’s and 800HP. To do exactly the same thing.

  • John Clyne John Clyne on Jan 21, 2024

    I thought there were three levels of Aries available? America? The SE & the LE?

    these were all over the roads when I started driving. However I couldn’t afford new at the time because my employer didn’t pay a living wage? I was looking for a second hand version but they were either dog eared from heavy use or were smoker’s cars. Neither of which I wasn’t willing to own? A neighbor had one & it was well worn with lots of dents & bumper stickers. Later another daughter turned it into an ashtray on wheels. It was used up by the time they sold it.

    • Theflyersfan Theflyersfan on Jan 22, 2024

      I remember the America edition was the last gasp models before the Spirit and Acclaim were released. I recall they were sold at a cut-rate price with some standard features that used to be options, which makes sense because I'm sure the tooling was long since paid for and they were making decent money on each one.

  • Ras815 Their naming scheme is almost as idiotic as having a totally separate Polestar brand for EVs that look exactly like...de-badged Volvos. But you can tell it came from the same idiocy.
  • Dukeisduke "The EX naming convention is used for the automaker’s new and upcoming EVs, the EX30 and EX90."Only upcoming when they can figure out the software.
  • SCE to AUX I've always said that consumer/business pressures will reign in government decrees, as they have in the past in places like California. That state has moved the goalposts many times for "ZEV" mandates.But the problem is the depth of politicization of the EPA. Mfrs need continuity and long-term commitment to requirements, not living on a 4-year political cycle of who's in the White House and Congress. Your President - whomever that is - isn't going to be around forever.Ironically, backing off the gas means handing a greater lead to Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid, (and possibly H/K/G). The whiners have begun heavy investments whose ROI will be extended by years, and their EV sales will reduce even further.It's like the coach granting his players less practice time because they're tired, while the other team stays fit - that's how you lose the game.
  • Dukeisduke The administration is slowly dribbling out details of the change - it's like they don't want to piss off environmentalists, the auto manufacturers, or the UAW. John McElroy covered this very well in today's installment of Autoline Daily: AD #3751 - 2024 U.S. EV Sales Could Grow 43%; China Price War Spreads To ICE; U.S Vehicles Biggest Ever, Also Lowest CO2 - AutolineAlso, even though vehicles in the US have gotten larger, heavier, and more powerful (thanks to the shift away from sedans to trucks and SUVs), according to a year-end report by the EPA, in 2023, average fuel economy was at its highest ever, and CO2 emissions of new vehicles were at their lowest ever ( The 2023 EPA Automotive Trends Report: Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Fuel Economy, and Technology since 1975, Executive Summary (EPA-420-S-23-002, December 2023 ).
  • Golden2husky How about real names instead of alphabet/numeric soup?