Most carmakers – Honda and Toyota are the possible exceptions – need a year or two to get the bugs out of their newest models. I learned that lesson the hard way with my 2000 Ford Focus, and several car magazines have been burned by giving prominent awards to new cars that turned out to be legendary lemons:
1971 Chevrolet Vega: Motor Trend Car of the Year
The Chevy Vega is on everyone’s short list for Worst Car of All Time. It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oily smoke was when it was being towed.
That’s not to say the choice of the Vega as 1971 Car of the Year doesn’t make sense in context. This was the year Ford and Chevy introduced new small cars and compared to Ford’s Pinto, the Vega at least seemed better. The Vega handled more precisely, was available in more body styles, and, with styling cribbed straight off the Camaro, looked more attractive. The Vega’s aluminum engine block even seemed like a technological leap forward.
However, the aluminum block’s unlined cylinder bores scored easily and the (usually misaligned) iron cylinder head let oil pour into them. Every element of the Vega’s chassis was built about as flimsily as possible and the unibody structure’s metal was usually attacked by rust mere moments after being exposed to, well, air. It’s been 38 years since the Vega appeared, and the stink still won’t wash off.
1980 Chevrolet Citation: Motor Trend Car of the Year
When GM’s front-drive compact X-cars–the Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix—went into production in April 1979, everything seemed foolproof. The X-car was front-drive, the two available engines were old-school pushrod designs, and the interior was Detroit chic with flat seats and plastic door panels. At the time, it seemed like a breakthrough—finally, an American-made Honda Accord.
Things started going terribly wrong as soon as the X-car got into the hands of consumers. While staring down 60-month payment books, Citation owners were having trim bits fall off in their hands, hearing their transmissions groan and seize, and finding that if they listened closely enough they could hear their cars rust. At times it seemed the suspension in some X-cars wasn’t even bolted in correctly, as the ride motions grew funkier and funkier while the steering developed an oceanic on-center dead spot.
As GM’s first front-drive compacts, the X-cars were significant vehicles: They slaughtered GM’s reputation for a whole generation.
Car and Driver cops to some undeserving “10 Best” winners, too – though, I must admit, I walways liked the unfortunately named Merkur XR4Ti.