From the February 1980 issue of Car and Driver.
Several staff members drove a small fleet of Eagle prototypes at the AMC press preview last summer and came back from Kenosha reeking of a kind of enthusiasm that’s usually reserved for European exotica. Only the week before I’d had lunch with AMC marketing vice-president Tom Staudt—a recent arrival from Chevrolet—and he was waving his arms in this snazzoid French restaurant, protesting the folly that had led his new employers to come up with what was simply the best idea in the history of Detroit and then only plan for production of 40,000 units in the first year. “Gee,” he complained, “Chevrolet could lose 40,000 cars in a year. This thing is so good that it demands a hundred percent effort by everybody involved!” Naturally, I was cautious. Automotive journalists—even ours—can be swayed by the fun and games and shiny new toys at a press preview, and automotive marketing directors are among the greatest self-hypnotists of all time.
But I got my chance soon. Our test Eagle arrived here on Hogback Road just as my friends were gathering from around the country for our annual outing on the Au Sable River, so I commandeered the little beastie and motored off into the autumn night for the 180-mile run up north to our camp. Before a week had passed I’d driven it over a thousand miles, at least half of those off-pavement, if not actually off-road. I hadn’t set out to prove anything. I wasn’t trying to find its limits. I just wanted comfortable, sure-footed transportation for a week of bad back roads and muddy Jeep trails, and I thought it would be nice to show off for my pals with the one truly new product out of Detroit in 1980. To say that I loved the Eagle would be the understatement of the year. When I got home, I bought 200 shares of American Motors stock. The Eagle had convinced me that AMC was a hot property.
The Eagle is not just a Concord with Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive. The Eagle is the Concord transformed, an utterly different car from anything AMC has ever offered us in the past. It is not an off-road vehicle. It is a luxurious compact car with four-wheel drive, a grown-up Subaru. I saw my first one at the annual Northwood Institute automobile show at Midland, Michigan. It looked like a tall Concord, but the tall feeling went away when I got behind the wheel. All three models—coupe, sedan, and wagon—were present there, and I quickly decided that the wagon configuration was the most appropriate for the Eagle idea. Somehow the coupe and sedan, with their vinyl roofs arid flashy ’51 Telefunken-radio trim, just didn’t have any credibility as four-wheel-drive machines. There’s a tidier sport option for the coupe and the wagon, which replaces much of the flash with black paint and seems to pull the shape together rather nicely, particularly on our test wagon, which is finished in a lovely fire-engine red.
If the Eagle started as a Concord, the Concord started as a Hornet, and we’ve always felt that the original AMC Hornet—especially the wagon—was one of the better-looking American cars. Strange, the Hornet was first introduced in 1969, and now, after a kind of uneventful cruise through ten years of high automotive drama, the Hornet/Concord becomes the Eagle and sets the woods on fire. Eagles are commanding full sticker price in Snow Belt AMC dealerships, and the mind-blowing success of the four-wheel-drive family sedan caused AMC first to double its original estimate of first-year sales, then—talk about high drama—announce that it was dumping the Pacer to concentrate those production facilities on building more and more Eagles.
Why? Is it just that America was waiting for a domestic manufacturer to bring out something as sensible as a Subaru, or is the Eagle more important than that? We’re inclined to support both views. Certainly, Subaru proved there was a vast untapped market for four-by-four family cars in the United States. But—and you’ll have to drive an Eagle to appreciate this—the Eagle does many things better than most American cars, just motoring along in situations where four-wheel drive isn’t even a factor.
Many observers see the Eagle as a logical outgrowth of AMC’s trailblazing experience with 4WD in Jeeps and Wagoneers, but the connection is more philosophical than mechanical. The Eagle is not a Concord with Jeep underpinnings, but an entirely new approach to 4WD for road cars in America. Actually, the basic Concord was more useful to AMC’s engineers than any existing Jeep/Wagoneer technology. The Concord’s double-wishbone front suspension (with coil spring and shock absorber mounted up on top, out of the way) was ideally suited to allow the necessary space for front half-shafts, and its rear leaf springs made it relatively easy to accommodate the larger wheels and added ride height of the new 4WD package.
Three things seem to contribute most to the surprising pleasure of driving an Eagle: first, stiffening the suspension by about 15 percent over the standard Concord; second, the optional (and superb) P195/75R-15 Goodyear Tiempo all-season tires; and third, the undeniable advantage of independent front suspension. Our Mr. Sherman adds that it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the front wheels pulling and the rear wheels pushing when you commit yourself to a banzai charge onto some slippery Interstate off-ramp. Another advantage of the Eagle’s full-time 4WD is enhanced braking performance, in that the limited-slip function (rear to front) of the one-speed transfer case also provides some anti-skid benefits by helping to balance fore-and-aft braking forces.
The Eagle, by virtue of its stiffer suspension and more aggressive tires, feels quite European. It is smooth and quiet to a fare-thee-well, but the tires and suspension contribute a feeling of tight, solid sure-footedness that just isn’t there in a standard Concord. The steering is about average, but in normal driving, the Eagle offers better control feedback and overall “feel” than any American Motors product in our experience, better than most American cars, period. The main limitation on handling and roadability in the Eagle is the standard 4.2-liter (258-cubic-inch ) six-cylinder engine, since you run out of power long before you lose traction—and this is equally true when slogging through the muck. The Eagle’s higher center of gravity might have been a liability, but seems to have been offset by the stiffer suspension, particularly the front and rear anti-roll bars.
The heady success of the Eagle can only be explained in terms of all-round automotive goodness, plus four-wheel drive, because it doesn’t feature the kind of beauty that would launch a bass boat, let alone a thousand ships. The exterior is tall gimcrackery, salvageable only if you have the foresight to order the sport trim option. The interior is better, provided you ignore the instrument panel, which appears to be a random collision of afterthoughts. The front seats are better than average for a Detroit product, though they still lack the range of adjustment available on the meanest of Japanese econoboxes. The rear seat is a little short under the legs but is acceptable otherwise. The best feature back there, however, is the ultra-simple, one-handed system for flopping the seatback down to increase load space—better than the Wagoneer’s, better than most. Our test Eagle was upholstered in a pleasant but impractical gray-tan plaid material that felt like high-quality wool and vividly showed every dog footprint and hint of human error. We’d probably go for vinyl in a vehicle of this kind. The very fact that the Eagle is so clearly designed for superior performance in unfriendly climes dictates that you’ll be climbing in and out with wet outer garments and dirty footgear. (As a matter of fact, we have some thoughts about that interior . . . but that comes later.)
Every Eagle comes with the 4.2-liter engine, three-speed automatic transmission, Quadra-Trac 4WD, and 15-inch wheels as standard equipment. There is no manual transmission available, which is okay by us. There’s a wide range of options listed for the Eagle: AM/FM radios, cassette decks, trailer packages, a self-leveling system, plus all the interior and exterior trim options that we’ve come to expect from Detroit. Scanning the list, it’s doubtful even the kitschiest customer could put together an order for a bad one, considering the combinations to be had, but the wagon with the sport trim option, Tiempo all-weather radials, and a light-trailer package was clearly the hot setup for us.
The wait for a new Eagle stands at six months as of this writing. Shades of the Honda Accord and GM’s new X-cars! The car is such a smash hit that we can’t help but wonder how successful it might have been with yeastier, more contemporary styling and the clout of General Motors behind it. It is quiet and stable at 75. It drives better than most American sedans at any price, and it offers the manifold advantages of full-time four-wheel drive combined with independent suspension in a true family car. If it suffers any liabilities at all—beyond its somewhat dated styling—they would be lack of power, some fuel-consumption penalty for the Quadra-Trac system, smaller interior dimensions than most recently introduced compacts, and typical American seats. Otherwise, it’s an absolute charmer.
This is the first time we’ve been so unanimously impressed with an American Motors product, and we’re all a little bemused by our own enthusiasm. So great is our affection for it, in fact, that we’ve decided to turn our red test car into a long-term project vehicle. As you read this, our project Eagle (Boss Wagon 4×4) is in California with Mr. Technical Editor Sherman, having a new interior installed, its engine breathed upon, and some additional development work done with its suspension. Our goal is to bring the performance of the engine up to the potential of the suspension and four-wheel drive and, at the same time, to optimize the handling and roadability on pavement without compromising its performance in mud and snow. This will probably be our most ambitious project to date, spiced considerably by the fact that for the first time, we’re working with a highly sophisticated four-wheel-drive system. As they say, watch this space. The Eagle has landed and is about to scream.
Here we have a rare phenomenon: The whole is way more than the sum of its parts. Little AMC, which you’ll agree is anything but America’s prince of technology, took one obsolete car line, jacked the body three inches skyward, stuck in enough gears and fluid couplings to make all the wheels drive, and called it Eagle. And the thing flies! It’s got to be the most impressive piece of automobile engineering in America today. What’s more, it drives well. There’s actual road feel in the steering wheel. The brakes work great. It goes straight down the highway. And it produces only a little more wind whistle and road noise than your average conventional car. The wagon version even looks right perched up on its tippy-toes. The only things I don’t like about the Eagle are its lack of a manual transmission, and the Modern American Funky interior it comes with. The seats in particular look like furniture you’d expect to find in a really wacko shrink’s office. All of which fades into insignificance the instant you’re confronted with bad roads or rotten weather. If you’ve got ten grand to spend on mobility insurance, this Eagle will do you a whole lot more good than State Farm. —Don Sherman
With derisive hoots. That’s how I met the news about AMC’s plan to build a four-wheel-drive Concord. I couldn’t think of a more whacked-out way for AMC to spend precious research-and-development dollars, especially in the face of the strong demand for efficient, front-wheel-drive econoboxes. Better to scrap the old Gremlin-cum-Spirit and get on with a proper program for the Eighties. Well, I was right about one thing. The Spirit can still use a good scrapping. But who’da thunk AMC was going to turn its semi-successful Concord into one of the best American cars around? And I’m pleased, pleased that AMC has finally built a car no one—not the company, not the buyers, not anyone—has to make excuses for. The four-wheel-drive system has transformed the Concord: It drives, rides, and handles like nothing else AMC has ever built. Yes, that silly dime-store-design interior is still there with its funny seats, anachronistic parcel tray, and such. But for the first time, in light of the Eagle’s overall personality, I’m willing to overlook the traditional AMC touches. —Mike Knepper
If I were a believer in . . . imaginative investment, I’d put some money on American Motors bulling through the thick and skating across the thin. All the way to survival and prosperity. Something has happened over there in Nash Land that’s going to take some getting used to. American Motors has suddenly found the handle for building cars people want to buy. The Eagle is already back-ordered for half a year, and AMC has just announced it has good sense. It will stop building Pacers altogether in order to gain more space for Eagle production. On pavement, the Eagle will pick ’em up and put ’em down with an aplomb never before felt in a four-wheel-drive whatever. Inside is serenity. It gets better. Nothing changes when the pavement ends unless you execute a triple-gainer into a ditch of canyonesque proportions. Then you might scream. But if it’s only normal tomfoolery like a high-crowned, hyper-washboard strip of endless blast-site gravel, you won’t know it from an Interstate. Hot damn! —Larry Griffin
1980 AMC Eagle
Vehicle Type: front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
Base/As Tested: $7549/$9535
Options: A/C, $513; AM/FM with CB radio, $399; sport package, $299; power windows and door locks, $289; rear-window defroster, $89; trailer-towing package, $82; convenience group, $75; heavy-duty suspension, $65; tinted glass, $63; light group, $39; protection group, $30; fabric upholstery, $25; heavy-duty battery, $18.
Pushrod inline-6, iron block and head
Displacement: 258 in3, 4235 cm3
Power: 110 hp @ 3400 rpm
Torque: 206 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm
Suspension, F/R: control arms/rigid axle
Brakes, F/R: 11.o-in vented disc/10.0-in drum
Tires: Goodyear Tiempo
Wheelbase: 109.3 in
Length: 186.2 in
Width: 71.9 in
Height: 55.0 in
Curb Weight: 3740 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 13.2 sec
1/4-Mile: 19.2 sec @ 71 mph
80 mph: 27.9 sec
Braking, 70–0 mph: 195 ft
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined: 16 mpg (est.)
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED