Chevy Citation or Pontiac Aztek: Which GM Five-Door Do You Love To Hate Less?

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Greetings, future Autopians. I’m writing this from the past, last Friday, to be exact. So whatever the news was that you’re all talking about this morning hasn’t happened to me yet. I hope it’s something good.

Let’s first have a peek at last week’s Shitbox of the Week results:

The XT6 wins, and let’s all be honest about why: this manual shifter:

What’s certainly good is that I’ve got some USDA-certified Grade A crap to show you, courtesy of the netizens of Opposite-Lock, that marvelous not-quite-always-off-topic car forum that rose like a magnificent phoenix from the ashes of the old Kinja blogs, and more recently served heroically as Carpathia to DriveTribe’s Titanic. I told Opponauts that I wasn’t going to have much time to shop for cars and asked them for help, and boy howdy did they come through! Thanks to one and all for the suggestions. I was spoiled for choice.

So let’s see what our crack team of advisors has found for us today:

1980 Chevrolet Citation – $1,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.8 liter V6, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Spokane, WA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Runs, but electric cooling fan is out, so won’t drive far

According to the seller, this car started out as an Avis rental car, and was used in print and television ads for Avis in 1979/80. I did a little digging to see if I could find the ad, but came up empty-handed. (Maybe I should “Try Harder.”). It’s common knowledge to never buy a used rental car, because you know how you drive rental cars and you assume everyone else does the same, but for a car that was last turned back in when Reagan was President, I don’t think that warning matters much anymore.

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But for anyone who has ever been disappointed to be handed the keys to a Nissan Versa at the rental counter, just imagine being stuck with one of these beauties. The Citation was Chevy’s latest and greatest in 1980, and although it sold like hotcakes (more than 800,000 sold that first year) and met with critical acclaim (Motor Trend’s 1980 Car of the Year), it didn’t take long for the bloom to come off the rose, and for all those owners to realize the Citation was a gigantic piece of junk. Not only was the build quality and reliability subpar (which is really  saying something for 1980 Detroit), but the front-wheel-drive chassis engineering was half-baked, and the car suffered from horrible torque-steer and rear wheel lockup under hard braking. Recall notices flew thick and fast into owners’ mailboxes, and sales tanked.

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Really, this car has no business looking this good in this day and age. Most Citations looked tired and haggard by the late 1980s, and by 1995 or so, they had all but disappeared. This one must have been stashed away in a garage and forgotten for a couple of decades. I hate to think of anyone considering a Citation as a “classic,” but I guess there’s an ass for every seat, and if someone really wanted the nicest Citation left, this might well be in the running.

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The odometer in this car probably still works, but it has a yellow flag over the first three numbers that says “CATALYST.” What little information I was able to find says that these flags popped up at a certain mileage to tell the owner that the catalytic converter should be replaced. I tried to find out at what mileage that might happen (50,000? Less?), but couldn’t get a straight answer. I did find instructions on how to reset it, but it involves disassembly of the dash, presumbaly to prevent owners from resetting it themselves and ignoring the converter maintenance. Also note the Federally-mandated 85 mph speedometer, with 55 clearly indicated. When we say “malaise era,” kids, this is what we mean.

[Editor’s Note: This 2.8-liter V6 was considered an absolute pile when under the hood of a Jeep Cherokee XJ, though Chevy folks seem to think it’s fine. I always find it interesting when one motor is great in one application but just doesn’t hold up in another. -DT]

2004 Pontiac Aztek – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Rochester, MN

Odometer reading: 162,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but transmission is going out

Twenty-four years is a long time. Kids whose parents hadn’t even met yet when the Citation rolled off the assembly line could have been old enough to receive this Pontiac Aztek as a college graduation gift. GM spent those two and a half decades learning how to make a proper front-wheel-drive family car. And also the Aztek.

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What’s remarkable is how much of the old Citation’s basic architecture made it this far. The 3.4 liter V6 in this Aztek is the same engine family as the Citation’s 2.8 liter V6, stroked and bored, fuel-injected, and refined. The suspension is still McPherson struts in the front and a beam axle in the rear (at least on 2WD models like this one). The Aztek, and basically every other front-wheel-drive GM vehicle for decades, was an evolution of the old X-body Citation.

The Aztek’s styling is, of course, controversial. Personally, I have always liked it, particularly the earlier versions than this one with the gray plastic lower body cladding. But I also know I am nearly alone in that opinion. Again, there’s an ass for every seat.

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Speaking of seats, this Aztek “has seen a lot of use” and “has stains on the floor and seats.” Best not dwell too much on the precise meaning there. It does still have all the “active lifestyle” goodies such as the detachable cooler:

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and waterproof storage bins:

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But I do wish the seller had cleaned them out a bit better before taking photos. I do not want to know what is in that black garbage bag. [Editor’s note: It’s dog shit]. 

The slipping transmission is of course a problem, though these have been known to limp along for a long while after they should have dropped dead. And it may be a whole lot rustier than it looks; remember that the bottom third of the bodywork is plastic, and we have no way of knowing what horrors lurk beneath.

This really is a choice of the lesser of two evils, I realize: a still-somehow-nice example of an absolute disaster from day one, or something decent but hideous and nearly used-up. But just imagine standing in front of these two cars with your worst enemy. You get first pick of the keys. Which set do you grab?

 

Quiz Maker

All Images: Sellers
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114 Responses

  1. Having owned a Citation, I’ll vote for old time sake. Agree with darn near everything about it. The suspension was good though for blasting down back country gravel roads since it was near impossible to bottom it out. Everything else sucked. Brakes were “prayerful”, bc you had to have God’s help to stop quickly. The 2.5L Iron Duck, I mean Duke engine sucked. Oil, coolant, you name it leaked. It ate belts every 5K. The AC was probably the best feature as it never needed service and was ice cold at idle. Kept the car till it cracked a piston at 99K.

  2. My favorite Citation story: my friend’s dad took Chevrolet to small claims court over the repairs on his new-ish Citation. He prepared a whole presentation, but at the start of the proceeding the judge just looked at the Chevy rep and said, “This is an X-car, right? I have one of those. You’re going to want to settle with this man.”

  3. The X- car also used the diagonally split braking system, one port of the master cylinder fed the left front brake and the right rear brake. Between the Citation and the Aztek, I think I’d prefer to ride my bike.

  4. You set this up just so the Aztek might win something for once. Right?

    I was a passenger in a Citation when the throttle stuck and the brakes locked up simultaneously on the freeway. Good thing it spun so we hit the barrier ass first. That stupid motor was still revving furiously from the stuck throttle as we crawled out of the wreck. The ensuing fireball gave us some vindication.

  5. Speaking as the former owner of an ’81 Buick Skylark (the Citation’s sibling), and someone who drove several Azteks as rentals the choice is clear. Even with all its hideous flaws the Aztek is at least a somewhat useful transportation device, while the X-car is an irredeemably awful piece of junk (although I will unreservedly acknowledge the visual appeal of the X-11).

  6. Question on something I’d missed before:

    What’s the color of the Aztek? Chocolate Milkshake?

    In my mind’s eye, Azteks are always either bright red or Tonka yellow, which at least wins them a couple of points. But this is just awful.

  7. I’d have to go with the Aztek. First, its shortened U-Platform is a precursor to first-generation Vue/Torrent/Equinox. The Thetas were pretty good cars, though my Saturn benefitted from Honda’s L66.

    I don’t mind the Aztek’s looks that much, and the people who owned them generally liked them. On the practical side, there should be plenty of spare parts in the local junkyard, including a transmission. Anyone with some decent mechanical skills and a willingness to put in the work is much more likely to have a decent car than if they chose the Citation.

  8. Hey, don’t knock the Citation.

    Back in 90 or so, fresh out of university and broke, I bought a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix which was the Pontiac equivalent. I believe I drove that car for about 2 years until it literally broke in half. (Well, I was jacking it up to change the oil and the floor and sill were so weak, it more like folded in the middle.

    Needing a “new” shit box, I found a guy selling a Chevy Citation for 500 Canadian. He told me that there was something wrong with the engine, but that the car was all there. He was right, it was a very plain jane blue citation with the 2.8 litre v-6 in it. But the body was in a hell of a lot better shape than my old phoenix. Turned out, it just needed an ignition rotor and it ran like a top. The car had an AM radio, the V6 and a rear window defroster. That was about it. I was commuting from Hamilton to Toronto each day, so that put a lot of miles on the car real fast.

    But it was DEAD SIMPLE to fix. Factory rotors were like 28 bucks each I recall. I changed brakes, a steering rack, fuel pumps (it ate those), alternators, a fuel tank, a radiator, a transmission and two, countem two engines on it. I did all the work myself in my parent’s garage. I probably put 300,000 kilometres on it and sold it in 1997 for 500 bucks.

    Anyway, I didn’t give a shit about the car as the blue paint had faded to silver and it was getting a bit rusty around the edges. I parked it wherever, I drove on the highway every day, the car endured every insult that came its way and never so much as a door ding. (It’s always the cars you don’t car about that never get so much as a scratch.) No theft insurance, no collision, just liability. It was also a great way of determining if a young woman was the real deal or not. If she sort of stopped in her tracks upon approach to my car and screwed up her face when she saw “blue thunder” and said, “THAT, you expect me to ride in THAT” I knew right away that this was a sign from God. On the other hand, if she happily jumped in, I knew she was the kind of woman to hitch up a wagon with.

  9. I remember my parents having a citation back in ’83. I think it was an ’81 model but I was little so not sure if I’m correct on the years. I remember we had a Chevy Chevette that was traded in for the Citation but it ended up getting totaled in Indianapolis when someone ran a red light and hit on the passenger side door where I was sitting. We must’ve gotten a lot of money from the insurance payout because my dad went all out and bought a brand new, don’t get jealous here, a brand new ’84 Renault Alliance! Believe it or not, that Renault made it to 320,000 miles before it died. I’m voting Citation all the way! It may be just a piece of crap Citation but at least it’s not an Aztek.

  10. I may have solved the catalyst replacement interval mystery. I found a maintenance schedule that indicates the catalyst should be changed every 90,000 miles:

    https://ds.texasfamilyautoservice.com/service-schedule/detailview/chevrolet-citation-1980-6596-17069-46901&mileage=90000

    I also found several PDF files of the owner’s manual that state that “EMISSIONS” should appear on the “speedometer face” when the catalyst needs to be replaced, or O2 sensors should be replaced on California Emissions cars. It would not surprise me in the least if GM got both the message and its location wrong in their own manual.

    The owner’s manual also states that the first catalyst replacement should be done by the Chevrolet dealer free of charge.

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