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Worst Car Wednesday: Chevy Citation-This Success Became A Mess

What started out as the American car revenge on Japanese economical, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder sedans quickly turned into a mess. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had never attempted to do this type of car. A car with maximum space, small size, and a high degree of quality. We guess it could only do two as the quality was almost nonexistent. What initially was a success quickly became a mess. A classic disaster for Worst Car Wednesday.

Each division contributed to the X-car’s development which was a first

1980 Chevy Citation sedan | GM

We aren’t focussing on just the Chevy Citation alone but the whole mess of 1980-85 “X-cars” as code-named by GM. The X-car family included the Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Olds Omega, and Buick Skylark. Each division contributed to the X-car’s development which was a first. Possibly because it was hard for each division to work in harmony with another. With one division responsible for one thing and another for something else, you could charitably call the end result a hodgepodge.

That was just one problem. Another was GM mandated a tightened development time to get the cars out quickly. That’s because it was getting its ass kicked by Toyota, Nissan, and the rest of the Japanese onslaught. Testing was abbreviated which also contributed to the X-car being junk.

At least initially the Citation was a success

Chevy Citation Coupe | GM

At least initially it wasn’t a failure. Far from it. The first year the Citation, available as a coupe, and two- and four-door hatchback sedans, sold more than 800,000 units. Part of what helped sell it was the press. It got advanced examples to test and write about. What they received were hand-built cars with the fit and finish far above what consumers would receive once it went into production.

Then the troubles really began. Just within 1980, many X-cars started rusting. Interior bits fell off as well. Transmissions failed, engines shook themselves to death, and a litany of other issues got the media’s attention before year two. Last-minute changes right before production began had only made matters worse. Rear suspension welds began giving up soon after launch.

The NHTSA demanded GM recall the whole slew of X-cars

Oldsmobile Omega-Top, Buick Skylark-Bottom | GM

None of these issues matched the problems with X-car brakes. The rear tires would lock up under normal braking. This caused an avalanche of accidents and complaints. X-cars were known for swapping ends with ease during braking. Quickly, the NHTSA stepped in. It demanded GM recall the whole slew of X-cars. Instead, GM body blocked the feds. 

A tiny group of manual transmission X-cars eventually got some attention. Only 47,731 received adjustments to proportioning valves to decrease locked up rear brakes. The brake problems persisted. GM resisted. Eventually, it recalled another 240,000 X-cars across all GM divisions in 1983. The feds weren’t impressed.

So the NHTSA went to the US Justice Department to file a lawsuit against GM. It asked for mandatory recall of all 1980 X-car production. The lawsuit put GM in the spotlight. GM ultimately prevailed but the safety and quality issues of its X-cars were bad press. It heightened negative public perception. 

Citation sales kept slowing with only 50,000 selling in 1985

1980 Chevy Citation sedan | GM

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Citation sales started dwindling with the 800,000 sold the first year dropping to 100,000 by 1983. Sales kept slowing with only 50,000 selling in 1985. But GM wasn’t through with the X-car platform.

It modified the X-car package to create the Chevy Celebrity and Pontiac 6000. These were better if a bit blander. Still, it was far from highlighting GM engineering excellence. The whole corporation began seeing customers walk away in droves. Negative reports continued cementing a reputation as a company unable to engineer and then build anything approaching Toyota. 

GM is doing a much better job across the board today. But that crap-quality hangover persists. GM will never shake the reputation it earned. Though its troubles started well before the X-cars they have become a textbook example of how Detroit went downhill. While the X-cars have faded from consumers’ memories, their bad engineering, assembly, and quality problems are fresh in every car buyer’s minds to this day.

1981 Chevy Citation sedan sitting in a field… | GM