From Car of the Year to Laughingstock
The Chevrolet Citation
Twice before, General Motors had failed to tackle import competition.
In 1960, the Chevrolet Corvair was launched to rival the Volkswagen Beetle, but it developed an undeserved reputation for being unsafe. Things went better with the Japanese-rivalling 1971 Chevrolet Vega, thanks to a Motor Trend Car of the Year win, but it was known for poor reliability.
In 1979, there was great internal excitement surrounding the new front-wheel-drive X platform, which would underpin the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix to rival the Honda Accord. Lancias were purchased and dissected to teach GM how to make a proper front-drive platform, but intense pressure to get the car to market as quickly as possible meant that the development process was shortened as much as possible.
The most famous car to use the X platform was the 1980 Chevrolet Citation. Nearly perfect, hand-built preproduction examples were delivered to the press, who raved. Both the 5-door and 3-door hatchbacks were practical and spacious, and the X-11 coupe could reach 60 MPH in under ten seconds. 811,540 were sold in the first year, which was over three times that of the Vega in 1971. However, while the press received good examples of the cars, customers didn't.
Before the second year of ownership started, rust appeared on most cars, and trim, bolts, and clips freed themselves from the interior. Neither of the Citation's engines were quiet, so the front subframe was attached to the body with rubber to drown out the noise, which gave the car a flimsy feeling. The transmissions were prone to leaky hoses that resulted in engine fires and a recall.
Furthermore, the rear brakes were frighteningly prone to lockup, with resulting crashes being reported to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The government pressured GM to perform a recall, but GM resisted and "repaired" cars continued to spin during emergency stops.
In 1983, after approximately 240,000 cars recalled and thousands of complaints filed, the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against GM, forcing the complete recall of every 1980-model-year car. 1981 sales were nearly half that of 1980 sales, and 1982 sales were about one-third that of 1981 sales. Production ended on 21 June 1985 and a total of 1,642,587 were sold; half of the production run was completed in 1980.