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Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant: There's a special place in hell for the cheap, bland K-Car, writes Peter Cheney.

After reading The Inferno, I came away impressed with the nuanced cruelty of Dante's hell, where punishments were related to earthly transgressions - like the cheating spouses who were condemned to spend eternity in each others arms.

Which got me thinking about the design of automotive hell, which should have a multi-level layout, much like Dante's. The less egregious car sinners, like signal neglectors and Porsche snobs, would inhabit the upper regions. Tailgaters and the like would be lower down, simmering in pits of used crankcase oil. And at the very bottom would be a special punishments unit for the worst automotive sinners of all - drunk drivers, texting starlet crashers, and finance crooks who spent their earthly existence at the wheel of Ferraris bought with stolen pension funds.

They would pay for their sins by doing endless laps of the underworld in a 1988 Dodge Aries.

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Of all the lousy cars I've ever driven, the Aries took the cake. It handled like a shopping cart, the brakes had the grip of an arthritic 90-year-old, and the engine sounded (and performed) like a worn-out vacuum cleaner. But that's not what made it the worst car I ever drove. The Aries' defining quality was its sheer, all-encompassing dullness. It had the ambience of a dentist's waiting room. Its engineering was subpar. Its styling was so stupendously mediocre that I imagined the designers tossing 1000 rental cars into a giant Cuisinart, then shaping the Aries from the beige paste that flowed out. The car sucked, but not in an interesting way.

On the upside, the visibility through the tall windows was pretty decent. Given the Aries braking, handling and acceleration capabilities, you needed every advantage you could get. It wheezed up to highway speed, and decelerated like a lake freighter, thanks to the cheapo brakes. The steering was light but utterly numb - I've driven video games with more feel.

The 1988 Aries was cheap to buy. And you got what you paid for - a rust-prone, poorly carbureted box with the suspension of an oxcart. This was one of the cars that helped bring Chrysler to its knees. After driving the Aries, I realized just how bad things were at the once-great Chrysler corporation, which was founded in 1925 by the legendary Walter Chrysler. Now it was being milked by the likes of Lee Iacocca, a marketing specialist who exploited Chrysler's brand equity to sell badge-engineered junk. The Aries was just one in a series of modular vehicles known as the K-Car - aside from badges and cheap trim differences, they all looked and drove the same.

So in my automotive underworld, the damned may occasionally switch from the Dodge Aries to the Plymouth Reliant. Same car, different badge - that's the hell of it.

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