Vintage R&T Review: 1978 Pontiac LeMans – GM’s Second Downsizing Act Goes -Mostly- Okay

After successfully downsizing their full-sizers in 1977, it was time for GM’s intermediates to face the shrinking process for 1978. In September of ’77, R&T reviewed those efforts in the form of the new Pontiac Grand LeMans.

The decade had started with a bit of schizophrenia from GM. The launch of their much-tauted Vega compact was to answer shifting trends, while the remaining lineups got larger than ever. A recession and energy crisis later, all of Detroit was transitioning towards efficiency. This meant crucial changes in the traditional way of doing business for the Big Three.

The success of the downsized ’77 full sizers was a promising new chapter for GM. The cars were nicely styled, and had efficient interiors and packaging, all while delivering the goods the public craved. The new intermediates aimed to achieve similar results.

Out of the gate, the new A-Body intermediates successfully met their intended goals. Despite reduced dimensions, the new models had similar interior space as their antecessors, weighed a good 500-900 pounds less, and offered better fuel efficiency. The greenhouses were glassy and upright, with increased height for better passenger comfort. Their styling across the board was rational but still showed some brand distinction, with echoes of the ‘sheer look’ popularized by the trendsetting Seville.

That said, GM’s future troubles showed through when reading between the lines. R&T tested Ford’s new Fairmont in the same issue, and a significant difference was found between the two automakers’ approach: Ford’s new models successfully interpreted the attributes customers desired from imports, meanwhile, GM’s products felt like shrunken versions of their former selves. In other words, there was nothing extraordinary about the A-Bodies’ underpinnings.

Under the reduced dimensions, engines, gearboxes, and suspensions were conventional GM fare. Interior ergonomics and materials were familiar as well, although somewhat better laid out. At this point, there’s no way of avoiding the A-Bodies fixed in-place rear door windows. R&T is polite and calls the decision ‘bold,’ although it struggles with the logic behind it. GM’s defense was that it was a smart way to save weight and add rear shoulder room. Considering the corporation’s later trajectory, it just seems like an engineering brainstorming idea that sounded too good to GM’s bean counters.

In the article, Chuck Jordan seemed rather satisfied with the LeMans’ distinctive styling and there’s also talk about how each of GM’s divisions was trying to keep some mechanical identity. Then again, the Sloan ladder had collapsed by then, and telling one division’s products from the other was getting mighty difficult. Was the new LeMans a decent intermediate? Yes. But was it a decent Pontiac? That’s never really questioned, but hindsight tells us the division was facing serious identity issues.

All said, while we can see signs of future trouble, GM’s new intermediates found much favor with the public. Troubled times were coming, but GM was king of the hill for the time being.


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978-81 Pontiac LeMans – Green With Envy