(first posted 10/16/2015) Though the downsized Caprice/Impala had been an enormous success since being introduced in 1977, market conditions were changing quickly as the 1970s came to a close. In the span of a few short years, the smaller full size cars began to feel too inefficient once again. Luckily, Chevrolet had decided that a significant mid-cycle refresh was in order for the Caprice/Impala to maintain sales momentum.
GM should be given a lot of credit for undertaking such a comprehensive program after just three years. The sheet metal on all B- and C-body cars was reshaped for improved aerodynamic efficiency. Additional weight savings were implemented, and the larger engines were dropped across the board. These were the moves of a confident market leader, aimed at retaining or increasing their commanding lead in the lucrative large car segment.
The difference in appearance between the 1979 and 1980 Caprice/Impala was really quite striking, especially when compared side-by-side. One of the biggest changes was to the roofline and rear window on the coupes. While the 1980 coupe was surely cheaper to produce, given the shared rear window with the sedans, I for one was sorry to see the unique bent-glass treatment disappear. The new look was still handsome, but the distinctiveness of the earlier design was gone.
In spite of their best efforts with the B- and C-bodies, the sands were shifting right under The General’s feet. The combination of another gasoline shock in 1979, along with aggressive government fuel economy standards, made even the freshly reworked big cars seem suddenly obsolete.
Segment sales certainly reflected this harsh new reality, with all the full size players dropping anywhere from 34% (Buick LeSabre) to 82% (Chrysler Newport), in an overall new car market that had decreased 17%. Even with the extensive modifications for 1980, the top-selling Caprice/Impala was not immune from the carnage, with sales declining to 236,815 for the model year, a 60% plunge from the strong 1979 numbers! The only comfort for the bow tie division was that its 1980 big cars outsold Ford’s by 95,801 units.
Clearly 1980 was a milestone year in which many new car buyers dramatically shifted their preferences. Smaller cars took a larger share of the market. Smaller engines in the big cars were another attempt to extract more mileage, but the trade-offs were significant.
In an unusual test scenario concocted by Chevrolet’s PR team, Motor Trend compared a 1980 Chevette to a 1980 Caprice with the standard V6. The goal was to show how close the big car could come to matching the efficiency of the small car, especially under American cross-country driving conditions.
As you would imagine, undersized power plants made both these cars painfully slow. The Chevette crawled zero-to-60 in 16.5 seconds, while the V6 Caprice only managed a glacial 18.5 seconds zero-to-60. Ironically, mileage was not spectacular either, with both cars falling well short of their EPA mileage estimates. Especially embarrassing was the fact that the painfully slow Caprice V6 only scored 1 MPG better on the EPA cycle than the 305V8 had the previous year! The logical conclusion from the test was that neither the V6 Caprice or the Chevette were the best choices—rather it made the new Citation seem like the real winner. Too bad that one turned out so badly…
In January 1980, my father’s 1978 Caprice company car came due for replacement, and he decided to stick with a full size Chevy. I had loved the ’77 and ’78 Caprice Classics that Pop had enjoyed, and I was excited to see the modifications made for 1980. To me, the changes made the car seem fresh and up-to-date, and I was happy to get first hand exposure to the new one.
Pop’s 1980 Caprice was two-tone dark blue over light blue like the Impala featured in the sales catalog. Other than the fancier trim on the Caprice, this is roughly what his car looked like. However, rather than the unusual looking geometric Custom Wheel Covers shown on the catalog car, Pop’s had the standard Caprice wheel covers.
Pop’s 1978 Caprice came equipped with the “special custom” interior, but he wasn’t a huge fan of the velour seats. So for 1980 he ditched the cloth, and got a 50/50 split bench in dark blue vinyl. The Impala interior featured in the catalog was finished in the same dark blue color as our Caprice. It was handsome, though very hot in the New Orleans climate, especially the vinyl seats!
Unfortunately, there were two major issues with Pop’s 1980 Caprice that were an ominous preview of what was to come from GM as the decade progressed. First, the build quality had declined dramatically compared to the ’78 Caprice. Trim was misaligned both inside and out. The right rear door never fit right or closed properly. Squeaks and rattles were noticeable and annoying.
The other big problem was under the hood. The largest engine available to consumers in the 1980 Caprice/Impala was the 305 V8. According to the EPA, the 1980 Caprice/Impala 305 was one MPG more efficient than the 1979’s top engine, the 350 V8. However, in real world driving my father found that it used roughly the same amount of gas as had his previous 350-powered ’78 Caprice. Granted he drove with a lead foot and pushed the 305 hard, but still…
So while mileage seemed unchanged, there was a noticeable decrease in performance. The 305 felt more sluggish than the 350, and it also had an annoying hesitation when accelerating from a stop. I drove the 1980 Caprice as a newly licensed driver in the early 1980s, and I had to learn to adapt to the sluggish take-offs (surge, choke, surge) when proceeding across intersections after a stop sign. Compared to the Caprice, my mother’s ’79 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight with the 403 V8 was truly a rocket!
Part of the magic of the downsized GM big cars from 1977 was that they proved to American buyers that “less is more.” Smaller, nimbler and more efficient designs were actually as quick, if not quicker than the cars they replaced, while being just as comfortable. No wonder they were a smashing success. Unfortunately, throughout the 1980s, succeeding generations of newly shrunken and/or reputedly more efficient GM cars seemed to offer less than before, including this Caprice with its smaller optional engines. “Less is less,” especially when it costs more money, never makes for a compelling sale, and thus started what would be a dismal decade for The General. While the 1980 Caprice refresh was a CAFE-compromised swan song for a great design, who would have dreamed that it would be one of the best products to come from GM for the entire decade?