If a research company conducted a scientific survey of Americans' opinions of the worst cars ever sold in this country, I would bet the top results would be made up of some combination of the usual suspects--the Yugo; the AMC Pacer and Gremlin; the Chevrolet Vega and Chevette; and the Ford Pinto. Those six stinkers are justly famous for their automotive ineptitude and would likely dominate the list. But I would guess that, trailing just behind those all-stars, the Chevrolet Citation and its General Motors X-car brethren would slot in a solid seventh on the definitive list of automotive awfulness.
My head tells me that this popular disapprobation is well-justified. The X-cars were deficient in many of the criteria that cars are judged upon--namely, they drove poorly, they weren't well-built, and the design was fundamentally flawed. Add to that list of negatives the huge investment GM made in the X-car, the public's sky-high expectations for the car, and, paradoxically, the X-car's strong sales early in its life.
The net result was that GM paid billions of late-1970s dollars to give an entire generation of American car buyers an incredibly convincing first-hand lesson that American cars weren't worth buying. If, as I've argued, General Motors spent three solid decades trying to dissuade customers from buying its family sedans, the X-car can be seen as the most effective effort in that campaign. By any logical set of criteria, the X-car deserves its inclusion in Epic Fail Week. In fact, it should arguably be the headline act in this tuneless concert of shameful failure.
Regular readers of Car Lust can feel free to begin rolling their eyes here, because what's coming next is as predictable as chilly weather in Antarctica. You see, while my head is convinced, my heart thinks the Citation and its much-maligned siblings are interesting, pretty little cars that don't deserve the level of abuse they have endured. The court of popular opinion has already tried and convicted the Citation, but I'd like to reopen the case and defend the poor, cringing X-car.
So, here are the three primary planks of my pro-X-car platform, using the Citation as a proxy for all X cars:
Snicker if you like at this statement, but the automotive landscape was very different 30 years ago. In the late 1970s, the American automotive industry was embroiled in its second major gas shortage, rocked by strict new safety and pollution legislation, and besieged by more advanced import competition.
Volkswagen had just released its revolutionary new Rabbit, which brought to the masses the space- and gas-efficiency advantages of transverse-mounted engines and front-wheel-drive. The Rabbit was right for the times and was an instant hit. Not surprisingly, other imports quickly followed suit. Even today, more than 30 years later, the vast majority of passenger cars on the road in the United States use the Rabbit's once-revolutionary configuration of a transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive.
Meanwhile, despite the growing clamor for efficient small cars, the American carmakers continued to build the huge rear-wheel-drive cars they knew how to build and sell. Their response to the import invasion of the small-car market for much of the decade was to rely on small rear-wheel-drive cars like the Pinto, Vega, Gremlin, and Chevette.
Surprisingly, considering its reputation for conservative design, GM took on a leadership role in this period in designing more rational, more efficient, and simply better American cars. In 1977, Chevrolet debuted the all-new Impala/Caprice, which looks huge to contemporary eyes but was a vast improvement over its predecessor in minimizing weight and size while maximizing interior space, fuel economy, and performance. The very next year, the new Chevrolet Malibu hit the market; it offered similar advantages over its bloated predecessor. These were two large steps forward, and their success can be judged not only by the number of cars sold, but by the number that remain on the road today. In the early 1980s, GM would also introduce new, more capable versions of the Corvette and Camaro/Firebird, and an efficient two-seat commuter sports car.
The new X-car was the most important, the most audacious element of this major product refresh--not just on its own merits, but as the basis for the later, more compact J car (which would become, among other things, the Chevy Cavalier and this week's original Epic Fail, the Cadillac Cimarron). As America's first mass-produced, front-wheel-drive family car in the Rabbit mold, the X-car was breaking brand new ground. The powertrain configuration wasn't the X-car's only forward-thinking element--the Citation and Phoenix were both also available as five-door hatchbacks (!) that offered mammoth load-carrying capability.
Consider this for a moment. Chevrolet claimed the five-door Citation's exterior dimensions were no larger than the small Monza sports coupe, which is impressive enough. But it's even more impressive when you consider that within that relatively petite package, the Citation offered as much passenger space as the larger Malibu and as much trunk space as the full-size Impala/Caprice. That's with the rear seats up; fold them down, and the Citation transformed into a proto-minivan. Now consider the Citation's domestic competition at launch--the antediluvian Chrysler Aspen/Dodge Volare and Ford Fairmont. The Citation was pretty momentous car at launch.
The Citation was so revolutionary that Car and Driver devoted a cover and 16 full pages of editorial coverage to the Citation and its brethren, including a technical breakdown, a first drive report, a styling analysis, and even a spotter's guide. That page count expands to 21 when you include the cover and a Corvair commemorative piece that looked back at the Corvair through the lens of the Citation's debut. GM contributed 16 pages of X-car advertising--one page for the Oldsmobile Omega, one page for the Buick Skylark, six pages plus a foldout for the Pontiac Phoenix, and a full eight pages for the Citation. All told, an astonishing 37 of the May 1979 issue's 198 pages were related to the Citation or its siblings.
With the benefit of hindsight, much of C&D's breathless prose reads as dark irony--a fact that has probably caused the editors of that august publication some face-palm moments in the ensuing years. Still, it's instructive to read what they thought of the car at the time.
The cover screamed, "REVOLUTION! GM blows everybody into the weeds with the new front-drive compacts!" After driving a Pontiac Phoenix for a few days in real-life conditions, Rich Ceppos said:
"For once, the hardware is as good as the hype ... if you've noticed an absence of cricism, then you're getting an idea of just how good these cars turned out ... this leads me to conclude that the GM X-cars really don't have any hidden vices ... the fruits of (GM's) considerable labor are sweet indeed ... GM has redefined the popularly priced small car, and nothing will ever be quite the same again."
History has proven that hilariously wrong, of course, but my point is that when it debuted, the Citation was a revolutionary, groundbreaking car.
2. The Citation Was a Good-Looking Car
If you read the content above while maintaining a straight face, congratulations! I'm about to put your composure to the test by arguing that the Citation was actually a really nice-looking car. Seriously, I look at the Citation and I lust a little bit. Please, please hold off on pelting me with rotting produce until I have a chance to explain myself.
I love hatchbacks. I love three-door hatchbacks, I love five-door hatchbacks, and I suspect I'd love a 13-door hatchback if somebody made one. I love the way hatchbacks swallow cargo, but what I really love about hatchbacks is the slick, smooth, fastback roofline.
I also love the square-jawed, honest, late-1970s/early 1980s Chevrolet look. I love that look on the Impala, I love it on the Malibu, and I love it on the Citation. I can even deal with it on the Cavalier and the Celebrity. There's just something fundamentally right about those lines in a way that Chevrolet has never really been able to capture since.
So, in combining that Chevrolet look with three- and five-door hatchback bodystyles, GM created the perfect storm for my car lust. I think the Citation is a very handsome car, especially in hot-rod X-11 trim. Judge me if you must, but all I know is that there's a perfect bronze Phoenix five-door that is semi-permanently parked on the other side of our neighborhood. I drive blocks out of my way to see it.
If you're still with me, congratulations again--I'm about to strain your credulity once again. The Citation was respectably quick for its time, and the X11 variant was pretty speedy. Not a ZL1 Corvette or an IROC-Z Camaro, perhaps, but in this dark time the X11 counted as a ray of performance hope.
Even in X-11 trim, with a heavy-duty suspension, the Citation wasn't exactly an agile mountain-road carver in the Lotus Elan sense. But compared to family sedans of the time, the X-11 had quite a bit of grip, sticking at .78 G on the skidpad at a time when only real sports cars approached or exceeded the .80 mark. The suspension didn't handle bumps well at all, torque-steer clouded the steering feedback, and the brakes weren't fantastic, but on smooth pavement the car had lots of grip. About the handling, C&D said, "This thing slingshots around corners like a bat on instruments." I'm not really sure what that means--an agile baseball bat? a mechanical flying rodent with modern avionics?--but it certainly sounds impressive.
The X-11 was at its best in a straight line. I've waxed euphoric a few times about the low-tech but eager GM 2.8-liter V-6 that provided a pleasing combination of torque and muscle-car burble. That 2.8 packed a torquey punch and a pleasing burble in the the late-1980s and early-1990s mini-muscle car Z24, and it transformed my Dad's company-supplied Cutlass Ciera from a sow's ear to a silk purse. That happy little engine made its debut in the Citation, and the high-output, 135-horsepower version appeared in the 1981 X-11. Married to a four-speed manual and armed with a high 6,500-rpm redline, the little V-6 pushed the Citation from 0-60 in the low 9-second range and made the car sound and feel much faster than that.
Perhaps that doesn't sound fast, and today it's not. But in those dark days, the Citation X-11 could run with an Audi 5000 Turbo and was only about a second behind a BMW 528i. C&D compared a Buick Skylark X-car, with the lower-output 2.8, against an Audi 4000, Saab 900, and a Honda Accord. The Skylark smoked the other three cars in a straight line, though C&D rated it as the least-fun car of the four.
Perhaps the best part of the hot-rod X-11 package was the breathless advertising. One ad featured the screaming headline "It works" with the subhead "It gives you goose bumps." Perhaps not, but the prototypical 1980s hypey incomplete sentences in the ad copy gave me hives. Some of the choicest bits follow--the emphasis is mine:
"Perhaps you're here because of X-11's heart-stirring looks. The aluminum alloy wheels, the hood scoop, sport mirrors, X-11 stiriping. ... Whatever the reason, you're in now. And now you're off.
"X-11 streaks you across the overpass. Its high output V6 working its innards to the max (!). Readily taming this piece of pavement. ... The conquest over, Citation rests. Yet is ready at a moment's notice to perform again. And you. You contemplate the excitement it takes to give you goose bumps. Because now they just won't quit."
Between working its innards to the max and readily taming the overpass, I'm not sure I'm cut out for the high-stress Citation lifestyle. After watching my Citation resting after its conquest and contemplating my stubborn goose bumps, though, I would appreciate a few sentences that included subjects as well as predicates.
Okay, so the Citation was revolutionary, it was (arguably) attractive, and it was (even more arguably) a decent performer. So why is the Citation remembered as one of the worst cars of all time? Well, like so many interesting but flawed GM cars before and later, the Citation was crippled with engineering that wasn't fully baked before the car was released. For example:
- As one might expect with an early front-wheel-drive car, torque steer was a major problem with the Citation, especially when equipped with the V-6. Wikipedia alleges that C&D's early feedback was so positive because its test examples had been customized to mask the production cars' torque steer. I have no idea if that's true, but it explains the press' enthusiastic early response.
- The X-cars had a well-documented tendency to lock their rear wheels under braking, resulting in instability and spins. C&D picked up this problem, and it turned out to be a major issue for road driving safety as well as a handling quirk on the test track. The issue even prompted an (ultimately unsuccessful) lawsuit from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
- Build quality was uneven at best; even press cars displayed alarmingly poor fit-and-finish. One C&D test Skylark was badged as both a Sport Coupe and Sport Sedan. That same car, in what appears to be the magazine's very first long-term test, racked up clutch, electrical, alignment, fuse, and internal finish problems in only 24,000 miles. Remarking on the locking rear brakes, Ceppos said, "Just as the engineers predicted, the rear brakes have bedded themselves; they no longer wrench the car sideways into an atomic death-skid during all-out stops. The right rear wheel is still an early locker, however." That's true damnation with faint praise.
- The Citation and the other X-cars were recalled many, many times in its short six-year run--not exactly the kind of press an automaker needs for its brand new, revolutionary automobile.
More than anything, the Citation and the other X-cars represented a tragedy. Had the cars lived up to their billing, had the engineering been fully baked, had the cars displayed both the initial build quality and lasting reliability of the Japanese competition, the world might be very different today.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the effect of selling flawed cars to nearly a million customers in the first year of production alone. Add in the fact that GM spent $1.7 billion (nearly $5 billion in today's dollars) on the X-cars for tooling alone. Then consider the psychological factor. GM swung for the fences with its innovative small cars, but it hit into a highly publicized double play. Was that hugely expensive ambitious failure a cause of the tepid small-car engineering we've seen from American automakers in the decades since?
Perhaps not. But imagine, just for a moment, that the X-cars had been a sustained sales, quality, and customer satisfaction success rather than retired in ignominy and dwindling sales. Might we have a stronger, more innovative, more risk-taking domestic auto industry? Again, probably not, but it's interesting to think about.
The vast majority of the photos come from How Stuff Works' Citation page. I scanned in my own copy of the C&D cover, and the final picture of the white five-door Citation comes from Flickr user Dave_7.