AN EARLY IMPORT FIGHTER THAT ONLY EMBARRASSED
c.2013 New York Times News Service
General Motors’ first front-wheel-drive compact models — the Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Citation, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix — arrived for 1980 with great promise. Known by GM’s internal code as the X-body models, or X-cars, the four models replaced larger rear-drive sedans that included the popular Chevy Nova.
Built to meet growing demand for more efficient cars and federal regulations mandating higher fuel economy, the X-cars represented a daring break from Detroit engineering conventions of the time. This leap contributed to their departure, as spectacular failures, by the mid-1980s.
Although some 20 inches shorter and 500 pounds lighter than their predecessors, the X-cars offered roomier cabins, especially in the Citation and Phoenix hatchback body styles; the Skylark and Omega came as two- and four-door sedans. There were two engine choices: a 4-cylinder made by Pontiac and a new Chevrolet-built 2.8-liter V6.
Ford had taken a more conservative approach with its Fairmont compact, introduced for 1978, retaining rear-wheel drive and conventional sedan and wagon designs. Chrysler would introduce its K-cars for 1981, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. Toyota’s first front-drive compact, the Camry, arrived for 1983 with a hatchback profile similar to the Citation.
The automotive press, impressed by test drives in factory-prepared X-cars, poured on the superlatives: Motor Trend named Citation its Car of the Year. Road & Track gushed, “This may be the best car to ever come from Detroit.” Car and Driver called the cars “revolutionary.”
The Citation became America’s best-selling car for 1980, with 811,000 sold. The spotlight quickly dimmed, however. Reports of dreadful assembly quality, faulty steering and brakes, fuel leaks and other maladies were accompanied by numerous recalls. Citation sales dropped by half for 1981, and the decline steepened from there, plummeting to 63,000 in 1985, its final model year. The Olds Omega and Pontiac Phoenix were canceled the year before.
GM at least acknowledged the problems. An April 1981 news wire story said: “F. James McDonald, president of the General Motors Corporation, says that GM’s popular X-cars are plagued with uneven doors, shabby paint jobs and other problems that do not match the quality standards of foreign competitors.”
GM would adapt much of the X-car hardware, with improvements, to build more successful front-drive models. And the X-car V6 engine, in various forms, powered millions of GM vehicles for another three decades.