The hopes were so high. And the expectations even higher. GM was finally going to take the Honda Accord and the other Japanese in its class head-on. “We’re going to send those guys right back to their own shores” were the fighting words of Chevrolet General Manager Robert Lund. Yup. No doubt about it.
And you know how it worked out too: Honda and Toyota and Nissan and the others closed shop in the US, as they just couldn’t take the competition from GM’s new J Cars, and crawled in shame all the way back to Japan.
Or more like “The Start of the Long Road To Death for GM?”
The J cars were GM’s great last hope against the imports. The Vega never made a dent, except in GM’s reputation. The Chevette wasn’t all that bad at first, but the imports were all better to start with and quickly leapfrogged it. The X Cars were really more targeted to domestic car buyers, downsizing from big cars, in the hope they wouldn’t defect to imports. But the J cars were the line in the sand: here’s where giant GM was going to hold the lines, and start pushing back.
But they didn’t do all of their homework.
They did some of it, creating a family of cars that were reasonably attractive, if not exactly exceptionally so. And the initial impression in terms of quality seemed adequate. And the handling, something GM had figured out, was pretty decent. But it all fell apart in two main areas: weight and under the hood.
GM cheapened out and used too many X car components, which were heavier. That and a general lack of keeping the J Car on a diet resulted in it weighing much more than its target, the Accord; 2920 lbs compared to 2225. That’s a whopping 32% more. That was the kiss of death right there.
And instead of starting with Opel’s smooth 1.8 L SOHC engine and making it a bit bigger and better, they cheapened out again, and created a new 1.8 L cast iron pushrod four using some of the 2.8 L V6’s architecture. It was going to be cheaper to build. And it was guaranteed to make the J Cars slugs. Which they were: 0-60 in 16.5 seconds, for this sporty-looking J2000 fastback.
That was slower than all but six of the 77 cars R&T had tested for its “Road Test Summary”, and those six were all diesels!
So it looked decent, and the interior wasn’t too bad, and it handled well enough with the optional handling package (something the imports didn’t need to offer). But it was fatally flawed, weighing too much, which meant that performance and economy were always going to be uncompetitive, until a V6 or turbo was finally added under the hood.
And one more fatal flaw: no 5-speed transmission, which by this time was the standard in this class.
And so it went, once again with GM, bringing to market a hugely expensive new car program hamstrung from the get-go with a few key serious shortcomings. The result was that the J Cars were not competitive, and GM quickly had to start lowering their prices to move the metal. And that became the pattern with the J Cars and its successors right up to the end. They were sold at a loss because GM needed them to meet CAFE regulations. And that’s why they never invested what it took to make them competitive. Why bother?
The painful story in greater detail here: