1996 Chrysler LHS

By November 10, 1999
1996 Chrysler LHS

We must admit to jury tampering when it comes to the Chrysler LHS. Our first excursion occurred with Chrysler President Bob Lutz behind the wheel, bobbing and weaving along the twisted asphalt that threads the hills surrounding California's Napa Valley.

Traditional American luxury cars aren't supposed to handle like that. The LHS proved taut and sure-footed, even when charging a corner at twice the posted speed. It's hard to imagine this as the heir to the old Chrysler Imperial, which wallowed like a land yacht at every opportunity.

The LHS can trace more direct roots to Chrysler's large sedans–Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Chrysler Concorde, collectively dubbed the LH models. They helped rewrite the book on automotive styling with their sleek, “cab-forward” shapes, and their exceptionally rigid chassis. The emphasis is on man, not machinery. With LH models, such as the Concorde, that means a full-size interior in a midsize body. With the LHS, well, you're talking roominess on the order of a limousine.

The LHS made its first, striking appearance at the January 1992 Detroit auto show in concept car form. It resurfaced a little more than a year later in production trim, carrying two separate designations. The base New Yorker version was designed for those more comfortable with a traditional Detroit ride, soft and relatively floaty. The upscale LHS was meant to appeal to those who understand the appeal of firmer-riding European makes, such as BMW and Mercedes. Much to Chrysler's surprise, most buyers started opting for the more expensive LHS, prompting the automaker to abandon the once-revered New Yorker nameplate for 1996.

Chrysler's flagship sedan has a rich and formal appearance, but in keeping with its new attitude, the automaker has banished such outdated trappings as vinyl roofs, opera windows and wire wheels. Gone too is the front bench seat. In line with its European inspiration, the LHS is a true 5-seater, a break with domestic tradition that should disappoint few.

Does the LHS deliver what its looks promise? Here's what we found.

Walkaround

There are those who will lament the disappearance of Detroit's old luxury look. Gone are the hard, angular lines, the bustle-back trunks and etched opera windows. If the Imperial defined this post-war generation, the LHS is the car for the New Age. This is still an American car, no mistaking that, but the LHS is a handsome sedan that can stand proud at the country club parked next to a procession of luxury imports. That's all the more of an achievement when you consider other recent attempts by Detroit to create a new luxury look.

The LHS is long and wide and visually well-balanced. The moldings and door handles are flush and modern-looking. The aggressive rake of the windshield gives this sedan an almost sporty feel, but the overall look is refined and elegant.

If God is in the details, the most subtle refinements are what truly define the success or failure of an automobile. The switch to larger, 16-in. wheels is one of those details. Another is the car's curving C-pillar–the LHS's rear window frame–which provides a rich, formal look. Unfortunately, that feature combined with a high rear parcel shelf, also reduce rear visibility, one of the sedan's few real weaknesses.

Interior Features

As we noted, the hallmark of cab-forward design is its incredible roominess, front and back. Built on the same 113.0-in. wheelbase as the Concorde, the LHS body has been stretched by nearly 8 in., three of them added to the rear seat area, the rest sequestered in the trunk. The LHS is a car you could use to haul around the starting squad of NBA All-Stars. With the LHS, there is only one minor drawback to this design. By moving the passenger compartment forward, the driver's left foot now rests a bit awkwardly on the wheel-well hump.

The leather seats in our test vehicle were sumptuous and rich–what they used to call the Italian look–and they provided good support. It's a nice combination–firm enough to feel the road, with enough lateral support to keep us in place on tight turns, but still comfortable, even after four hours behind the wheel.

While Chrysler designers have been able to abandon many of the old rules that once defined an American luxury car, one dictum seems as immutable as an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not build a luxury car without wood. In this case, rather cheesy-looking plastic woodgrain. The strips on the door and instrument panel lined up, but it seems Chrysler paid little attention to making sure they matched visually. It's too bad, for the result cheapens what is otherwise a rich-looking interior.

The instrument panel is simple and well laid out, with easy-to-read analog gauges. Our test car's controls were easy to reach and switches operated with a comforting click. High praises for the optional Infinity sound system. A CD player is a must in an upscale car these days.

If you read many reviews, you're likely to see the letters NVH used repeatedly. They refer to Noise, Vibration and Harshness, three areas where automotive engineers are devoting much of their attention these days. When the LHS made its debut, it fell a bit short, particularly on a car-to-car comparison with such Japanese competitors as the Lexus ES300. Chrysler has spent a lot of time and money trying to silence the interior of LHS, with noteworthy results. Interior noise levels are distinctly lower than they were when the car came out, though it still doesn't sit at the head of the class.

Driving Impressions

If you're the type that counts cylinders, the LHS will immediately come up short. The only engine is a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6. And indeed, it's no match for the Northstar V8, or the Ford 4.6-liter V8 that powers the new Lincoln Continental. But don't sell Chrysler short. At 214-horsepower, the LHS V6 is no wallflower. It's peppy and responsive enough for all but drivers who like zero-to-60 mph times in the 7-second range. And if fuel economy matters, chalk one up for the LHS. Its V6 is far more miserly than the V8s offered elsewhere. Particularly at this price.

Under normal driving conditions, you'll find the 4-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission is smooth and seamless. But shifts do become a bit abrupt when you've got the accelerator pedal pressed to the floor.

Like the seats, the LHS tries to find a balance for its ride feel. The solution may not satisfy everyone, particularly those used to the firmer feel and sharper response of a BMW, but for most, there's a good compromise between comfort and handling. There's a bit of body roll in aggressive cornering maneuvers, and we noticed a bit of squat and dive during hard acceleration and braking.

Steering is light, but direct, and the car tracks precisely where it's aimed.

Braking is adequate, with little fade after repeated hard stops. Still, this is one area where improvement wouldn't hurt. There is no such thing as excess braking power.

The LHS offers traction control as an option. It's a low-speed system which means it will only operate during initial acceleration. Still, it's a useful feature, especially if you live in snow country.

Summary

You're not likely to confuse the LHS with a luxury sport sedan from Europe. But there's no pejorative in that. Chrysler's top-line sedan helps redefine a market segment that clearly was due for some much-needed change. If the LHS is the first in a new era of American luxury cars, Detroit has a solid future.

The LHS is a vehicle that sets out its own rules and, with only a few exceptions, lives up to them with style and grace. And its price, thousands below cars like the Cadillac Seville, Lincoln Continental and even the Oldsmobile Aurora, makes it look even better.