Curbside Classic: 1981 Chevrolet Citation X-11 – A Diamond In The Mud

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The Chevrolet Citation didn’t just earn a GM Deadly Sin award here, it was deemed GM’s Deadliest Sin ever. In retrospect, Roger Smith himself probably deserves that. But never mind; dig around in the muck that the Citation quickly found itself in, and there’s genuine sparkles of brilliance to be found.

Although Citations arrived with numerous shortcomings (and more were just down the road), the X-11 hatchback coupe was the great (formerly white) hope for a leading-edge all-American world-class sports sedan, rather in the vein of a Saab 900 or so. Sadly, it too got sucked up in the GM quicksand of the times.

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The X-11 version arrived along with the rest of the Citation family in April of 1979, which made for an extra-long selling season, and helps explain a model year sales tally of some 800k cars. A truly spectacular start, to a car that was widely seen as the most advanced American car just about forever.

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Seriously; the Citation and its X-Body siblings redefined the American car, with FWD, an extremely space-efficient package, hatchbacks on most body styles, light weight, good performance (with the V6) and efficiency, as well as superior handling. Fun to drive; practical to own. Affordable price. International-influenced styling. The ideal new-sized American car for a new American era, one in which gas prices were projected to keep escalating forever.

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It was exactly what the car magazines had been telling Detroit to build for ages. They all had fallen in love with cars like the Saab 99/900, which offered essentially exactly the same list of qualities. It was a mantra that had been chanted for decades, and after a few very embarrassing stumbles like the Vega, GM was finally going to get it right. Compact cars don’t have to be penalty boxes! Oh; what a revelation. And they can fulfill all the needs of most car buyers, without any significant compromises? What’s the world America coming to?

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The Citation was a truly remarkable car for one of the Big Three to actually build instead of just teasing us about endlessly with concepts and lip service that never really amounted to anything. And of course, the X-11 package—which was also available on the club coupe—with its sports-tuned suspension, wider wheels and tires, a few other goodies, and when teamed up with the (optional) brand new 115 hp 2.8 liter V6, had world-class qualities; well except for a few key missing ones, including the ones that ended up biting the early years’ Citation in the ass generally.

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The gushing advance reviews of the Citation X-11 have often been held up as a classic example of GM pulling the wool over journalists with specially-prepared “ringers”. Well, there may be a bit truth in that, but there’s also truth in the fact that the Citation’s objective stats where top-notch, and in many/most metrics decidedly better than anything even closely to its price range. Yes, it really was as fast as a Saab Turbo…

The common X-Car issue of rear brake lock-up was not noticed to be severe, with Road and Track noting “the driver needed to modulate the brake pedal to prevent early lock-up, but had little trouble doing so”. It would appear that the X cars with handling packages and the wider wheels and tires had less of a lock-up tendency. I drove a 1980 Skylark so equipped for almost two years, and never found it problematic in that regard. Yet it clearly was an issue on many of the X cars. And most of the other issues that led to a record number of recalls (no less than nine) were quality issues, not anything to do with the Citation’s fundamental design and performance, which could be was truly exemplary for the times, in a properly equipped one.

The Iron Duke four was always a noisy, rough and wheezy lump, although it did what it needed to do for those with very modest expectations. But the lack of a modern, smooth OHC four, like all of the import competition sported, was truly an unfortunate omission, especially since the Citation was quite light, starting at 2,391 lbs. and would have performed perfectly adequately with one.

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The 115 hp V6 made the Citation quite lively, given that 1980 was in the depth of the Malaise Era. 0-60 in (just) under 10 seconds with the four speed manual was excellent for the times; lots of V8 cars couldn’t equal that in those days. Unfortunately, the cable shifter for the four speed manual transmission left something to be desired. The overdrive 0.81:1 ratio of fourth gear was also a compromise; a five speed would have really been ideal.

Clearly GM was very stressed by the huge development costs of the X-car program, especially considering it came on the heels of the B/C body downsizing of 1977, and the A body downsizing one year later. GM’s mammoth across-the-board downsizing was the largest industrial investment program in the US since WWII. But shortcuts are inevitably self-defeating.

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Another area where GM really cut costs was in the interior. It all looked very cheap, and aged poorly. The ambiance of a car is very important. Hard plastic can work, but when it’s everywhere, and thin, and with nasty textures and rough edges and poor fits, it is just depressing. When that subjective experience is combined with repeated other quality issues, breakdowns, and recalls, it’s understandable how these cars came to be so hated so quickly. GM essentially destroyed America’s chance to adopt advanced European-style design and technology with the X-car’s poor quality. Just as it did with the Olds 5.7 diesel. And…

But there’s no denying that the Citiation’s hatchback was roomy and versatile. Did the Citation’s problems also lead to America’s general dislike for hatchbacks?

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Although the 1980 X-11 package was a good start, it really shone in 1981. A 135 hp HO version of the 2.8 V6 was now standard, which improved performance considerably, with 0-60 was in the 8.5 second range, excellent for the times. The F41 suspension was further tweaked; a handsome set of alloy wheels wearing fat Goodyear Eagle GT P215/60 R14 radial tires really improved the looks and handling, and the functional powerdome hood let folks know that the good times were back, as it harked back to similar hoods gracing Chevy’s classic muscle cars in the past. The X-11 was the re-incarnation of the Nova SS and such, but with vastly better packaging, handling and efficiency (25 mpg).

An X-11 could circle a skidpad with .85G. That was a revaluation for a lot of American car drivers as well as sporty import drivers caught unaware.

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This is how the featured car looked some five or six years ago when I first shot it. It’s gained some body work and a paint job, but lost its front filler panel. Maybe new ones are being sought; they might be hard to find, possibly.

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The hood emblem has received the red letter treatment. The 135 hp version presumably had a slightly more aggressive cam, an improved induction system although still with a two-barrel carb, and a very roarty exhaust system with twin outlets. It had a nice almost Dino-ish crackle when it approached its 5500 rpm redline.

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The 1981 X-11 was an attractive performance package, especially considering its affordable price and the lack of anything vaguely competitive from the other domestic manufacturers, and anything comparable performance-wise from the imports was considerably more expensive. An X-11 would literally run rings around the 1981 101 hp BMW 320i, which started at $13k, almost twice what an X-11 went for.

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The 1982 version of the X-11 did benefit from the steering rack being relocated from the firewall to the front suspension subframe (like all X-bodies and the new A-body derivatives), improving precision, reliability and eliminating that unfortunate feedback from the front subframe. But unfortunately, the HO V6 engine lost some of its edge in 1982, due to tighter emission standards. Although the advertised hp rating remained (suspiciously) at 135, more tellingly, torque dropped from 165 ft.lbs to 145 ft.lbs. Performance suffered accordingly, with the 0-60 sprint now back in the 9.2 second range.

In 1985, fuel injection replaced the carb version, but this was now just the injected version that would eventually replace the carb version (LB6), and not a true performance engine. Power was down again, to 130 hp, although there were compensations from being fuel injected, including a wider torque band, better driveability and improved economy. 0-60 was still about 9.2 seconds.

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The X-11’s brightest day in the sun was 1981, and it was a relatively short day, as was the Citation’s in general. I don’t have yearly breakouts, but I strongly suspect X-11 sales peaked in 1981. And over its six years of availability, only a very modest 20,574 were sold. The Citation’s almost instantly-earned bad rep undoubtedly poisoned the well for the X-11, even though all Citations were much improved after the first year or two.

So much promise; so much disappointment. The X-11 deserved better, a car that could hold its own with some of the best sports sedans in the world. Leave it to GM to once again give us a glimpse of brilliance but then tarnish it with immature development and poor quality. Par for the course for GM in the 1980s?

 

Related:

CC 1980 Chevrolet Citation: GM’s Deadliest Sin

Vintage Reviews: Citation X-11