Home Cars Downsized Dreams: The Untold Downfall of American Compact Cars

Downsized Dreams: The Untold Downfall of American Compact Cars

Vukasin Herbez February 16, 2024

One of the most common American automotive stereotypes is that domestic manufacturers always insist bigger is better. However, the recession of the early ’70s and the surge of Japanese and European brands showed that not all customers wanted big sedans or wagons. Some were perfectly happy with small, much more fuel-efficient cars.

During this time, American car brands produced numerous compact models. Some were genius and innovative while some were just badge-engendering and forgettable. All have their place in the history of the American car industry and the hearts of millions of buyers. We looked back at the most interesting classic American compacts. These were cars you loved, hated, and even missed. But they all have one thing in common – they all tell the story of the rise and fall of this once-exciting segment. Let’s get started.

1972 Amc Gremlin X Via Mecum
Photo Credit: Mecum

AMC Gremlin

Introduced in 1970 on April 1st, the AMC Gremlin looked like an April Fool’s joke. Competitors laughed at its compact dimensions, odd rear end, and diminutive engines. But very soon AMC was laughing all the way to the bank. The Gremlin was a sales success and the first American subcompact car. In the late ’60s, American manufacturers offered big, heavy models but sales of compact imports like the Toyota Corolla or VW Beetle started to rise. AMC noticed the trend and began developing a small, subcompact model that would be cheap yet offered lots of room inside and decent driving dynamics (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Mecum

When the Gremlin was first introduced, it received mixed reviews. But it soon became popular, especially with younger audiences. In fact, in the decade of platform shoes, The Eagles, and shag carpets, Gremlin became one of the symbols of the generation and a very influential model that inspired all American manufacturers to offer small economy cars.

1981 Chevrolet Citation X 11 Hatchback 50814
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Citation X-11

Even though Chevrolet built several compact models before the Citation X-11, this model is highly critically acclaimed for its unusual performance and handling. The Citation X-11 is a compact front-wheel drive hatchback produced from 1980 to 1985 and had a somewhat powerful V6 engine including muscle car looks. It could be best to describe this car as a fine line between an American hot hatch and a late-model muscle car since it features aspects of both segments. The Citation was a modern model that Chevrolet needed to fight off imports. It came in a wide range of flavors and featured a 2.8-liter V6 engine with 135 hp (via Hagerty).

Chevrolet Citation X 11 2 Door Hatchback Coupe 2 1.jpg
Photo Credit: GM

Even though it doesn’t sound like much today, it was solid power for the time. Also, the X-11 had a few more tricks up its sleeve like sports-tuned suspension, sharper steering, and better brakes. The X-11 can be differentiated from the outside by its unique bulged hood and trim details. Magazine testers of the day spoke highly of the X-11 as much more than a more robust engine and appearance package. Unfortunately, this model is lost in the corridors of time and forgotten by all but die-hard Chevrolet fans.

Ford Pinto 1
Photo Credit: Ford

Ford Pinto

In the ’70s, domestic car manufacturers answered the changing market climate and rising popularity of compact cars with several homegrown models. One of those cars was the Pinto, which didn’t become famous even though it sold millions. It became famous because it was downright dangerous. Introduced in the early ’70s, the Pinto was very popular due to its low price, reasonably good-looking design, and long list of options. It was equipped with economical four and six-cylinder engines and the car’s overall quality was decent. So what was the problem (via Mother Jones)?

Photo Credit: USA Today

While engineering the car, Ford somehow left out protection for its rear-mounted fuel tank. The fuel tank was below the trunk and behind the rear bumper. On most cars, a vital cross member protects the fuel tank in case of a crash. However, the Pinto lacked this feature, which became apparent when people started getting killed in fiery crashes caused by leaking fuel tanks. Families of people killed or hurt in such incidents sued Ford, and eventually, the company spent millions settling the court cases. Despite improving the design of the Pinto afterward, the model was soon discontinued and the Pinto went into history books as the “car of death.”

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Photo Credit: Hagerty

Chevrolet Corvair

In the late ’50s, Chevrolet presented the Corvair, a revolutionary compact car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat-six engine. This was a big step for Chevrolet since the Corvair sat opposite other vehicles from the company and featured different concepts, technology, and design. The American car industry was intrigued when Chevrolet presented the Corvair. It was a compact car when they were rare on US soil and mainly produced by foreign brands. It had the engine in the back rather than in the front like all other domestic vehicles. Third, it was a six-cylinder boxer, not a straight six or V8 as everyone expected. Overall, it was a bold and unusual move by the usually conservative Chevrolet (via Corvair).

Photo Credit: Pinterest

For a couple of years, it looked like everything was okay with the Corvair and sales were good until a book called “Unsafe at Any Speed” hit bookstores across the country, causing significant problems for GM. The book’s author, Ralph Nader, was a consumer advocate who came in possession of classified documents showing that the Corvair was the reason for many car accidents, even several with fatal outcomes. The engine in the back of the car caused Corvair to have problematic handling. Chevrolet was aware of that but wanted to avoid investing money in additional stabilizer bars and suspension modifications. Soon the book gained publicity and the public demanded the answers as more and more people reported crashes with the Corvair. Ultimately, sales of the Corvair were slashed and the model was discontinued in 1969.

Photo Credit: Haul N Ride

Dodge Omni

Back in 1977, the American car industry was rapidly changing. The decade of fuel shortages, tightening emissions, new safety standards, and import cars claiming a significant percentage of the US market was about to end. Domestic manufacturers were forced to adapt to the new conditions and the big, thirsty, V8-powered cruisers of the ’50s and ’60s were gone. The new models were small with front-wheel drive, four-cylinder engines, and far better fuel economy. The Dodge Omni was a popular compact model that was the right car for the late ’70s and the changing economic climate. Or was it? Consumer Reports claimed that the Omni was very unsafe to drive. This was because of its vague steering, bad brakes, and poor road holding (via HFM).

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Consumer Reports even claimed the car was dangerous to drive since the steering was so bad that the driver was unsure what the car was doing. From this distance, it could be too harsh for the experts but didn’t affect the popularity of the Omni. In its 13 years on the market, Dodge sold over three million examples of this compact car with lousy steering and potentially dangerous road holding. This shows that not all bad cars are failures. Sometimes, they are still strong sellers despite their flaws.

Chevrolet Vega Hatchback Coupe 61.jpeg Copy
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Vega

By the late ’60s, Chevrolet experienced a lot of negative publicity and problems regarding its compact cars program because of the Corvair. Production on the Corvair ended in 1969 but long before that date, Chevy started working on a next-generation small car that would be more conventional yet better in every aspect. So in late 1970, the brand-new Chevrolet Vega was introduced as a 1971 model. The Vega was a compact but modernly styled model with three basic body styles – a two-door coupe, a two-door sedan, and a practical three-door wagon. The front end resembled the design of the 1971 Camaro with a similar grille, headlights, and bumper. However, the most interesting detail was the engine, a 2.3-liter four-cylinder available in two power levels, 90 and 110 hp, for 1970. Both units had lightweight construction and decent performance regarding their size and class (via Motor Trend).

1972 Chevrolet Vega Wagon Yenko Stinger Ii 2
Photo Credit: AMCM

In 1975, Chevrolet even introduced an exciting but not-so-successful Vega Cosworth model, which featured a highly revolving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin-cam motor with 110 hp. Although it wasn’t fast or firm, the Vega Cosworth was attractive due to its black and gold paint job and unique wheels. Despite strong sales, the Vega had some quality problems with the engines and was notorious for many rust issues. Production ended in 1977 after more than two million examples were built and sold.

Valiant V 200 Sedan
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Plymouth Valiant

The legendary Plymouth Valiant was one of the best and most interesting classic American compact cars. The car was introduced in 1960 but its development started in early 1957 after Chrysler realized they needed a small model to compete with the VW Beetle. The company invested lots of time and money into the new project and the result was interesting. With striking styling, smaller dimensions and engines, and a lower price, Chrysler deliberately presented the car in Europe. The Valiant was styled after many Chrysler concept cars from the late ’50s and looked more expensive than the rest of the compact car market in those days. The vehicle had a unibody construction and standard suspension, which included front A-arms and leaf springs set up in the back (via Valiant).

1960 Valiant 01 02
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Under the hood was the Slant Six engine, which was new in 1960 and later became one of the most durable engines Chrysler had ever built. In the Valiant, it was available in two forms – 170 and 225 cubic inches. The Slant Six characteristic became one of Valiant’s most significant selling points. The car had decent performance and good fuel economy, even by today’s standards. The Valiant nameplate stayed in production until the late ’70s. Still, the first generation sold between 1960 and 1962 remained the best and the most sought-after, not only for its design and appearance but also for its excellent driving characteristics. Compared to the Ford Falcon, the Valiant looked much bigger despite similar performance and had more power and equipment.

1963 Studebaker R2 Lark Superhero Front Right Side View Promo.jpg
Photo Credit: Hemmings

Studebaker Lark

The Studebaker car company was one of the biggest car companies in America. As an independent manufacturer, Studebaker wasn’t a part of GM, Mopar, or Ford but was a sole player on the automotive scene. For decades, Studebaker was a popular economy car choice, but after the Second World War, things started to change. The company’s popularity began to fade, and Studebaker was eventually forced to close its doors in 1966 (via Hemmings).

1963 Studebaker Lark Daytona
Photo Credit: Hemmings

But before that, the company produced two exciting models. One was the Avanti, a futuristic-looking coupe with big ambitions. The second was the Lark, a compact economy model with a wide range of body styles and engines. Today, the Lark is forgotten as a model. Not only was it one of the first compact cars from a domestic car company, but it was also one of the most successful cars for a while. The Lark was built from 1959 to 1966 in three generations. Most cars featured straight six engines but V8 power was also available.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442

Ever since the original muscle car era ended in the early ’70s, Oldsmobile tried to recapture the magic of the original 442 muscle car. Behind that long name lies a compact, front-wheel drive Calais two-door with a highly tuned four-cylinder engine that produced 190 horsepower from 2.3 liters. This doesn’t sound like much power today but this car was introduced almost 30 years ago when 200 horsepower was considered high power. The little Cutlass Calais 442 W41 could accelerate rapidly and beat much bigger and more expensive cars thanks to its low weight, race-tuned suspension, and gearbox (via TTAC).

Olympus Digital Camera
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Unfortunately, production was limited to only 204 examples needed to homologate the car for the SCCA racing championship. Despite its excellent performance, the W41 was soon forgotten, but it did influence other manufacturers to present similar compact and potent cars. With this little and forgotten Oldsmobile, we had the Chevrolet Cobalt SS or Dodge Neon SRT-4.

1976 Amc Pacer X
Photo Credit: CCS

AMC Pacer

The Pacer is a car that is equally loved and hated but is still legendary and recognizable. It was AMC’s effort to produce a compact car but it turned out to be less compact than its competitors and had numerous flaws. Today, we’ll cover only the design aspect of this infamous model (via Hagerty).

1975 Amc Pacer X 04
Photo Credit: Auto WP

After the success of the Gremlin, the Pacer was conceived to be more extensive and advanced, but its design was repelling. The large glass areas were practical but also looked like bubbles. The front end was far from beautiful and the silhouette was egg-shaped, which was strange and unheard of at that time.

2006 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Coupe.jpg
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Cobalt SS

Although discontinued, the Cobalt SS will be remembered as one of the best and most potent four-cylinder cars. Available as a supercharged, turbocharged, or naturally aspirated model, the best SS was the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder introduced in 2008 (via The Drive).

2008 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Photo 203004 S Original
Photo Credit: GM

The engine delivered 260 horsepower, which was astonishing by today’s standards and more than the competitors. This edition of the Cobalt SS also had considerable tuning potential so getting even more power from this engine was easy.

Dodge Neon Srt 4 Photo 6322 S Original
Photo Credit: Car Domain

Dodge Neon SRT-4

Nobody ever considered the Neon SRT-4 a high-speed car, but the little Neon can top 153 mph driven flat out. Introduced in 2003, the Neon SRT4 was one of the best and cheapest performance cars in America at the time (via Car and Driver).

2004 Dodge Neon Srt 4 4 Dr Turbo Sedan Pic 20702
Photo Credit: Car Domain

The compact, inexpensive, and bland Neon was turned into a pocket rocket thanks to a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 230 hp, which propelled Neon to 5.4 seconds from 0 to 60 mph time. The Neon was one of the last memorable compacts ever produced in the USA.

Dodge Spirit R T 1
Photo Credit: Dodge

Dodge Spirit R/T

The Spirit was Dodge’s economy model introduced in the late ’80s but then Dodge presented the R/T version and things got very interesting. The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder, which produced only 90 hp, got a turbo upgrade and put out an impressive 224 hp and 218 lb.-ft of torque (via Hemmings).

Dodge Spirit R T 5 03bb00000dde0a69
Photo Credit: Pinterest

For the 1991 model year, this was a hefty power level from an economy car. The newfound power raised the performance to a whole new level. The Spirit R/T could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, Corvette territory in 1991.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Plymouth Neon ACR

Everybody knows about the excellent, turbocharged Neon SRT4 from the early 2000s yet that car wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fantastic and forgotten Neon ACR produced for just two years in 1996 and 1997. Back in the ’90s, the Neon was one of the best compact cars America made. Dodge’s engineers realized that the chassis had the potential to be something more than just a grocery getter (via Autopian).

4fzx9ov Scaled
Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Neon ACR was a race-prepared Neon with a twin-cam engine, four-wheel disc brakes, a different speedometer, and stiffer suspension. The name ACR was short for American Club Racer, and soon, the Neon ACR was the favorite car of amateur racers on track weekends.

Photo Credit: Carsot

Oldsmobile Achieva SCX

Despite the minimal sales of the original W41 Cutlass in 1991, Oldsmobile knew that the 2.3-liter four-cylinder had the potential to be more than just a footnote in Oldsmobile history. When the Cutlass Calais was discontinued in 1992 and replaced by the all-new Achieva, engineers decided to introduce another W41 model to further develop the concept of a compact front-wheel drive sports car. So for the 1992 and 1993 model years, Oldsmobile offered the SCX W41 model, the last W-named performance version ever built by the company (via KBB).

Vluu L100, M100 / Samsung L100, M100
Photo Credit: Car Domain

The SCX W41 was heavily based on the previous model and featured the same 190 hp, 2.3-liter engine, which revved to 7,200 rpm. The design and interior equipment were improved and there were some changes to the suspension and brakes. The five-speed manual gearbox developed especially for this model was the most significant improvement. The SCX W41 was the quickest car in its segment but regardless of its qualities, it still flew under the radar of most enthusiasts and sold just 1,600 examples.

Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 Coupe
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Cavalier Z24

Although the Cavalier Z24’s performance stats are nothing compared to modern cars, back in the late ’80s, this was a pretty hot car in the compact class. It was available as a coupe or convertible. If you opted for the Z24 package, you got a 2.8-liter V6 engine with a whopping 125 hp on tap. This meant the Cavalier Z24 was one of the fastest compact cars and could even challenge the mighty Camaro in a stop-light drag race (via GM Authority).

Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 Coupe 2
Photo Credit: GM

The design was also reminiscent of the Camaro of the same vintage and the Cavalier Z24 proved popular amongst the high school kids who couldn’t afford the Camaro Z28 or similar performance machine.

1985 Dodge Shelby Charger. Mecum 12.jpg
Photo Credit: Mecum

Dodge Shelby Charger

With front-wheel drive, a Dodge Omni platform, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Shelby Charger was not the typical muscle car. However, it did provide pretty vivid performance, decent power, and good acceleration times, and combined two of the greatest names in all of American performance – Shelby and Charger. Based on the Dodge Omni GHL, the Shelby Charger shared a drivetrain and a 2.2-liter turbo engine, which pumped out 175 hp (via Hemmings).

1985 Dodge Shelby Charger. Mecum 9.jpg
Photo Credit: Mecum

This was loads of power for such a small and light car, and the Shelby Charger could accelerate to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, making it one of the fastest-accelerating American production cars for 1987. Despite their famous name and good performance, Shelby Chargers aren’t that collectible now. Still, they deserve more recognition and respect since they are a part of the American performance portfolio from the ’80s and the cheapest way to obtain a genuine Shelby.

Chevrolet Nova Sedan 3
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Nova

Unfortunately, we’re not talking about the classic late ’60s Nova, a well-known and popular model. Today, we’re discussing the 1985 to 1988 Chevrolet Nova, a forgotten and obscure compact model. You’re probably right if you’ve seen this car before. You’ve probably seen it before with a Toyota badge on the grille (via Car Info).

Chevrolet Nova Liftback
Photo Credit: GM

Built in California at a plant shared between Toyota and Chevrolet, the Nova was Chevrolet’s version of the Toyota Corolla. It was a clever plan. To fight imported cars, Chevrolet imported and sold them as its model. However, despite decent initial sales and the highly praised Twin Cam version, the market simply forgot about Novas.

Ford Exp 1
Photo Credit: Ford

Ford EXP

This two-seater was introduced in 1982, marking Ford’s attempt to fight affordable foreign sport coupes. The EXP was a genuine two-seater, the first two-seat Ford model since the 1957 Thunderbird. However, it was produced with small four-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive (via Driving Line).

Ford Exp 56
Photo Credit: Ford

This killed the Ford’s ambition of making EXP Mustang’s little brother. However, it was an exciting car and an excellent attempt by Ford in the ’80s.

Chevrolet Spectrum Hatchback
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Spectrum

The Spectrum, produced from 1985 to 1988, was another compact car that Chevrolet rebadged and sold as its own. Designed by famed Italian Designer Giorgetto Guigiaro, the Spectrum was an Isuzu Gemini (via Chevrolet Club).

Chevrolet Spectrum Hatchback Chevrolet Spectrum Sedan
Photo Credit: GM

Under the hood was a 1.5-liter four-cylinder with 70 hp or a turbocharged version of the same engine with 111 hp. The later engine brought some performance to otherwise pretty ordinary Spectrum. After it was discontinued as Chevrolet, Spectrum appeared as Geo, another lost GM’s economy brand and solider until 1990.

Pontiac Lemans Hatchback
Photo Credit: GM

Late ’80s Pontiac Le Mans

If you think of the Pontiac Le Mans, the first thing that pops into your mind are the glorious mid-size models from the ’60s and early ’70s with V8 power. Le Mans had a solid reputation as an entry-level muscle car with great potential. But fast forward 20 years to the late ’80s and Le Mans’ reputation was ruined with the introduction of this thing – a compact front-wheel drive sedan or hatchback with less than 100 hp (via Autopolis).

Pontiac Lemans Gse Hatchback
Photo Credit: GM

To make things even funnier, bosses at General Motors decided to import the Korean-built Daewoo Le Mans, which was actually an Opel Kadett from Europe. Since Opel was a GM-owned brand and GM had stakes in Daewoo, this looked like the perfect solution. Interestingly, GM even offered Pontiac Le Mans in Europe so buyers could choose between Opel Kadett from Germany or the same Opel Kadett from America with a different badge. The Le Mans of the late ’80 wasn’t a big success and is a forgotten model today.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Pontiac Fiero

The story of the Fiero is one of the greatest “what if” tales of the American car industry as this compact sports car caused a big sensation when it was introduced in the early ’80s. Everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac but got a small sports car that Italians might build. It was bold for Pontiac to introduce a compact, rear-wheel drive car with the engine positioned in the center of the vehicle and pair it with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This was the most advanced American production model for the day’s standards. Customers were pretty hyped by the Fiero. With its calm, modern design and advanced technology, the initial response was great. For example, 1983 sales figures were over 130,000 examples. Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, and the early models were severely put together; engine power could have been better, and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car, and by the end of the ’80s, the Fiero was a solid compact sports car with 150 hp from its 2.8-liter V6 engine and improvements all around.

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