Curbside Classic: 1980-1984 Pontiac Phoenix – A Short (And Feeble) Second Life

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(first posted 11/18/2015)    According to mythology, the phoenix is a very long lived bird that is cyclically re-born, arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Well, the Pontiac Phoenix was neither long lived nor cyclically-reborn. There were only two generations, totaling seven years, and the second one went down in a ball of (X Body) flames. The name was tarnished permanently, and the Phoenix never arose from its ashes again.

Not only did the Phoenix have an ignoble end, the second generation FWD version was also by far the weakest-selling of its stablemates, which makes finding one today a rare occurrence. It’s been four years since I shot the coupe; now finally I’ve found a hatchback to complete the pair of rare birds and tell its sad tale.



Chevrolet Citation 1980

It would appear that Chevrolet and Buick were the prime beneficiaries of GM’s bold step into the world of mass-market FWD cars. The Chevy Citation got no less than three body styles; the very popular five and three door hatchbacks, and a notchback coupe. The hatchbacks, especially the five-door, was seemingly exactly what America was looking for; a bigger, roomier, more powerful VW Rabbit, the car that really made Americans aware of the benefits of modern FWD packaging. It was a smash hit, selling 811k units in its extended first model year. And then of course, bad things started to happen. The rest is history, one we’ve documented here.

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Buick’s FWD X cars took a very different styling approach, looking almost like perfectly scaled-down big Buicks. But it worked, and it too sold very well, if not in the Citation’s loft realm. 1980 saw 266k units sold, and unlike the Citation, it actually improved in 1981, with 263k units sold in a much shorter normal model year. And the Skylark seemed to be a bit better built, although that may just be a matter of luck with those theta got a relatively good one, like I did.

Oldsmobile 1980 Omega-01

The Olds Omega had to make do with the Skylark’s bodies, with a subtle bit of effort to distinguish it as a different car. It sold reasonably well the first two years, but still well behind the Skylark, and then dropped rapidly starting with 1982. The Omega was always the most invisible of the X cars; maybe that’s why I’ve yet to find one on the streets.

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Pontiac was given one of each to make do as a Phoenix. The only thing that distinguishes the hatchback form the Citation, other than different front and rear ends, are the round wheel openings (shared with the Skylark) and the lack of that upturn on the bottom of the rear-most side window. Which is not a good thing, visually-speaking, although some will undoubtedly differ. It makes the whole rear end look droopy, and all-too similar to the Aero-back Buick and Olds A-Bodies.

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The Citition’s kick-up is a better solution. To each their own. It’s probably not the main reason the Citation outsold the Phoenix 5:1, but every little bit counts.

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The Phoenix did score some bigger tail lights.

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As well as a modest version of the traditional Pontiac beak. One imagines the mythical phoenix with something a bit more…presence.  Under the hood, the Phoenix was the same as all the X-cars, with a choice of the raucous iron Duke 2.5 L four, making 90 hp, or the much more pleasant if somewhat roarty 2.8 V6, with 110 ponies. By 1982, an HO version of the V6 with 135  hp was optional on the new SJ model.

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If I had to guess, this Phoenix coupe most likely packs an Iron Duke. Survivors like this are often grandma’s cars, and we know what she would have gotten.

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The Phoenix coupe is a pretty dull little number; it looks so anonymous that it might be one of those cars used in an ad that has been doctored up to not look like any real car. Or maybe it’s just that they’re so uncommon. Generic small GM coupe. No distinguishing marks, officer; I couldn’t identify the car…just a small white two-door.

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If it had been an SJ coupe, that wouldn’t have been a problem. But then these were incredibly uncommon; I really can’t remember ever seeing one back in the day. It and the Olds Sports Omega are the unicorns in the X Car family.

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These X cars were such a big deal in 1980-1981; GM finally built a groundbreaking modern FWD car. One so small on the outside, yet so surprisingly big on the inside. It turned the traditional American car equation upside down. These were the most revolutionary mainstream American cars since…just about ever. If only they hadn’t arrived half-baked.

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The Phoenix was not shy in using Pontiac’s multi-hole design theme in its interior, which was becoming as ubiquitous (and over-used) as the beak. It had its qualities; just not any real quality in these cars. the Citation and Phoenix interiors were bean-counted to the anti-hilt, although this obviously well-cared for example looks as good as the day it came off the line, if not better. The seats and door panels in this high-trim LJ model reflect the extra bucks the original owner spent to feel just a hint of that Pontiac magic. They probably traded in a 1969 Bonneville for it. The high gas prices when these came out were a case of perfect timing.

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The rear seat was of course roomy; shockingly so for so small a car. Compared to the previous generation RWD X cars, getting a better back seat and dropping many hundreds of pounds and a few feet in length was a miracle. Now if only the reliability had been equally miraculous.

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The Phoenix lasted all of four model years; in its last, 1984, it mustered less than 23,000 sales. The Phoenix crashed in the flames of the X-car fires, worse than any of its stablemates. Pontiac never really seemed to have a proper theme for its version; was it sporty, economical, or? It was a difficult time for the brand, but its replacement, the N-Body grand Am, went a long way in fixing that image issue. Pontiac would re-invent itself for the 80s and 90s with sporty flair, for better or for worse.

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But not with the Phoenix. It was left to molder in its toxic ashes.