Yes, it was “reliable” in that it didn’t actually break down and leave them stranded, but it’s hardly a word that is applicable in the modern sense to a car that got a new short block, a new exhaust system and a new carburetor all within the first 24,000 miles. And the Vega’s fuel economy, which started out decent at 23.5 mpg, inexplicably soon plummeted to 16.7 mpg, coming up to a mere 19.1 mpg after the updated carb was installed.
Oh well; at least it didn’t start burning oil yet in that first 24,000 miles. That would undoubtedly come soon enough.
Another issue was its price: in order to get a 4-speed manual and half-way decent performance from the optional 110 gross/93net hp engine, along with a few other comfort and convenience items, the price shot up to well over $3200. That was a lot of coin in 1971, especially compared to the well-equipped Japanese.
In addition to the common driveability issues, causing poor idling, stumbling and stalling, the Vega’s engine was of course very coarse and loud. This was a well-known reality, although why GM allowed this is another question we won’t even touch right now. And then there was the sticky throttle linkage and the pervasive smell of fuel in the interior. And…
But R&T felt that their long-term tester was even louder and rougher than average. The response from the service manager when it was brought in for evaluation as well as other issues to address, the response predictably was “Oh, that’s normal. They all do that”. Meanwhile, the differential was beginning to howl…
Thanks to R&T’s pull with Chevrolet, a Field Service Engineer decided to take a look at it and agreed that the engine was a bit louder and rougher than usual, and got the short block changed out. Now it was just as loud and rough as the average Vega out there, or maybe they sent one with carefully balanced rotating parts so that now R&T had the smoothest Vega engine in existence?
The exhaust noise was also noted as objectionable, and the Service Engineer offered to swap that out for a revised unit. And eventually a new carb found its way under the hood too. All Vega buyers should have been so lucky!
Not surprisingly, the GM A/C system was praised highly. At 16,000 miles, the engine started pinging badly, so premium gas was needed. Mileage was still stuck in the high teens; hardly appropriate for an “economy car”.
Actually, the Vega did fail them once, when it refused to turn over. The circuit that prevents the starter from engaging when the clutch isn’t fully depressed failed. A helpful mechanic in the remote area they were in at the time bypassed that circuit to allow them to get back home. A few other interior bits and pieces failed or became obnoxious too.
The overall costs came out poor too, due to its high initial cost, depreciation, and poor fuel economy.
The verdict: a good chassis in need of a proper engine. And proper rust proofing, but that wasn’t of course an issue in Southern California.