General Motors had a lot of great hits, but it had plenty of failures too. Like the kid from a good home and with plenty of pocket money that picks up bad habits and ends up on the wrong side of the law, GM’s failures often receive a lot more scorn because they should have known better. The following are a collection of underdone, overwrought, underwhelming, and over-the-hill GM cars that often (and often deservedly) receive a lot of scorn. Today, let’s look at the glass half full and see to it that whatever redeeming qualities these vehicles had are recognized.
Chevrolet’s first subcompact was the cute Vega, offering mini-Camaro styling and an aluminum-block four-cylinder engine. It was the latter that was instrumental in turning this promising little car into a reliability disaster. Despite rampant engine failures, the Vega lasted 7 long years on the market and the related Monza and its badge-engineered cousins lingered until 1980. On the plus side, the Vega (and related Pontiac Astre) eventually received more reliable engines, they were always more fun to drive than the Pinto and the wagon was quite a looker.
Released to much critical acclaim and huge initial sales figures, the Chevrolet Citation (and its fellow GM X-Body compatriots) suffered from extensive quality and reliability issues, causing it to rack up recall after recall and burn many, many buyers. Torque steer issues and the low-tech four-cylinder aside, these weren’t bad to drive – Citation X-11s with the H.O. V6 and uprated suspension were actually quite fun – and the basic bones ended up being used for the successful GM A-Body. The Citation and Phoenix’s hatchback body style was also very practical.
While the Vega and Citation were falling apart in owners’ hands, Chevrolet was selling the humble and much less ambitious Chevette. Based on the global T-Car platform, GM offered the venerable subcompact for a whopping 11 years with very few changes. Lacking the sporty variants offered on the Vega, Monza and Cavalier, the Chevette was sold as basic transportation. Solid, reliable and utterly dull, the Chevette was always one of the cheapest cars on the market.
The Saturn Ion represented yet another half-baked effort by GM in the compact segment. To replace the aged S-Series, GM utilized the new global Delta platform shared with the Opel Astra and Chevrolet Cobalt. But despite an all-new platform, the Ion was uncompetitive, suffering from an odd and plasticky interior and an overall lack of refinement. GM quickly rushed some mechanical and visual changes, but the Ion never posed a threat to the segment leaders, although the supercharged Red Line was a hoot to drive.
Cadillac was yet another GM division upon which a lackluster compact car was foisted. A hastily rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier, itself not a particularly stellar effort, the Cimarron was a cheap and dirty way to give Cadillac a luxury compact. Ultimately, Cadillac’s attempt to bring in younger buyers failed and the Cimarron sold poorly and damaged Cadillac’s image almost as badly as the disastrous engines used by GM’s luxury division in the 1980s. If you wanted a really nice Cavalier, the Cimarron was your car and later models did receive ever so slightly more distinctive styling and a more powerful V6.
Sometimes doing things differently doesn’t pay off, as the first-generation front-wheel-drive GM minivans proved. Futuristic styling and clever dent-resistant composite plastic panels made the “Dustbuster” minivans one of the segment’s more unique offerings, but Chrysler continued to dominate the segment. Although these quirky vans were less practical and had worse visibility than the Mopars, they were fairly reliable and were competent dynamically, especially the later examples with the 3.8 V6.
GM’s second-generation minivans were much more orthodox, eliminating the plastic panels and space-shuttle styling. But the U-Body platform would take a daring turn with the 2001 Aztek crossover. It’s fairly safe to say that had these Pontiacs been less, shall we say, hideous, they would have sold a lot better. Cheap plastic interior and so-so dynamics aside, the Aztek was very versatile. Alas, GM’s good designers must have called in sick and thus Pontiac’s first crossover was saddled with awkward proportions and messy lines. Sales fell well short of expectations despite the rising popularity of crossovers, and the Aztek was retired for 2005.
The Vega, the Aztek… If you struggled to say something nice in the previous two instalments of this series, you are going to have a momentous struggle today. Look through the rust and the engine smoke, though, and tell me if you see a silver lining on these cars.