The second generation of GM's X-cars is far better than the first

It may be the most-maligned car in recent automotive history. Mention the General Motors X-car and distinct images pop into mind: bad brakes, unending litigation, a carmaker under fire.

Introduced in April 1979 as a 1980-model automobile, the compact X-car had trouble right from the start.

Thus, in order to escape some of the finger-pointing by the nonbuying public, GM's Chevrolet Division opted to call its '84-model X-car the Citation II. Having just driven one for some 700 miles, I'd say the highly negative X-car reputation no longer fits.

Handling and performance of the Citation II, in fact, are real eye-openers. While you may not like the design, it's hard to fault the handling and ride.

Indeed, today's version of the Chevrolet X-car feels absolutely solid, provides a dependable response when the accelerator or brake pedals are hit, and steers with a predictable precision when you move the wheel.

After a lengthy test drive, hammering the brakes whenever the opportunity allowed, hitting the accelerator pedal hard, and switching from lane to lane (again, when the traffic allowed), I find it hard to relate the current Chevrolet X-car to the early-model Citation, which the federal government continues to pressure GM to recall.

But no matter what happens in the ongoing legal action against GM, the X-car won't be long for this world, anyway. Because of all the fuss, the X-car is being phased out. Both Oldsmobile and Pontiac are dropping their own versions for 1985, while Buick and Chevrolet are expected to follow suit a year later.

Like the rear-engine Corvair in the late 1960s, it was a bad experience all around for GM.

The big automaker had dropped the sturdy Chevrolet Nova for the sharply higher-priced, lower-powered X-car, just as Chrysler Corporation had replaced the durable, highly touted Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant with the less successful Aspen and Volare, which were cheaper cars to build than those they replaced. Both companies felt the sharp sting of consumer wrath.

In its lawsuit against General Motors, the Justice Department charges that some 1.1 million 1980/81-model GM X-cars had defective brakes, but GM denies the charge.

On the eve of its introduction in the spring of 1979, GM made a long list of rapid-fire changes in the X-car even before the first one went on sale.

Also, ''We had some bad welds in some of the cars in the rear suspension,'' said Elliott M. Estes, president of GM at the time.

Over the years there have been a number of recalls.

The X-car was the first front-wheel-drive application in a small-size car marketed by General Motors. Front-drive Cadillac Eldorados and Oldsmobile Toronados have been around for nearly 20 years, but the engineering for that size of car is entirely different than for a car the size of the Citation.

Standard engine in the Citation II is a port-injected 2.5-liter L-4 with a V- 6 available as an option. Citation II: A good car at last, but it's obviously a few years too late.

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