As the 1980s dawned, Detroit was waking up. Energy prices were starting to stabilize after OPEC’s actions in the '70s gave the four major U.S. carmakers a needed reality check. Buyers were discovering European and Asian cars that combined efficiency and performance. And Detroit’s engineers were digging further into their toolboxes to discover strategies to get more power out of smaller engines.
Carmakers responded with a raft of new models and trim lines promising driving excitement with European flair (which for Detroit in the ‘80s meant lots of blacked-out chrome). Some of those cars — like Ford’s Escort GT and the Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 — were successful enough to last for several model years. And then, there are the ones below, which... did not.
10 Mercury Lynx RS/XR3
Back when the Ford Motor Company had to come up with two of everything, the Lynx RS — later called the XR3 — was the Escort GT sold at Lincoln-Mercury dealers. The hot Lynx offered the same higher-output four-cylinder engines (and briefly a turbocharged version), same available metric-sized Michelin TRX tires, and same sport-themed decor (though the ‘85 and later XR3 had nicer wheels than the Escort).
But Lincoln-Mercury never sold many Lynx, and even fewer of the sporty ones. In 1988, Mercury dropped the Lynx and began selling a variant of the Mazda 323 as the Tracer, with no high-performance trim level available.
9 Plymouth Turismo
Chrysler brought back the Charger nameplate late in the 1981 model year as a performance package on the Omni-based Dodge 024 coupe, complete with the new 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine. This new Charger wound up being the foundation for Carroll Shelby’s return to auto-tuning, and attracted a lot of media attention and happy buyers.
And because it was the ‘80s, there was, of course, a Plymouth version. The TC3 coupe became the Turismo, with a slightly different front clip (identical after 1984) and graphics package, but the same interior, engine availability and suspension tuning as the Dodge version. However, the absence of an association with Shelby meant the little Plymouth was largely forgotten. The Charger/Turismo were both dropped after 1987.
8 Pontiac Lemans GSE
When Pontiac needed a subcompact car to replace the Chevette-based 1000, it looked to Germany and Opel’s acclaimed Kadett E. But because importing the little hatchback directly from Germany would have been too expensive, Pontiac chose a version made by Korea’s Daewoo, and gave it the storied LeMans name. And in 1988, Pontiac borrowed the aero bits and Recaro-inspired seats from the Kadett GSi, slipped the Sunbird’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood and created the GSE.
On paper, the LeMans GSE was a worthy competitor in the hot-hatch class. In reality, build quality was dreadful, the aero design was polarizing, and dealers couldn’t make nearly as much on a GSE as they could a Sunbird or a Grand Am. When the LeMans was facelifted in 1992, the GSE was dropped.
7 Buick Skyhawk T-type
GM’s J-car compact platform lasted more than a decade before being refreshed, and spawned variants sold by numerous divisions (including, infamously, Cadillac). This is one of the more obscure offspring of the “J” platform: Buick’s T-type treatment of the Skyhawk coupe (and later hatch), with very-'80s black accents, alloy wheels, a sport suspension and the optional 150-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Pontiac Sunbird.
As ‘80s performance cars go, the T-type was better than “pretty good,” and Buick’s status near the top of GM’s brand hierarchy at the time meant its interior appointments were a touch above other divisions. But by the mid-80s, performance car buyers were self-selecting out of Buicks not named “Grand National,” and the Skyhawk was grounded in 1987.
6 Buick Century Gran Sport
The Buick Regal Grand National is a performance legend. The notchback coupe’s turbocharged V6 made it briefly the fastest car in the GM stable, and it’s developed a devoted following, chronicled in numerous magazine articles and even a documentary. So, the marketing people at Buick probably surmised, what if the GN’s magic was applied to a different car... say, the front-drive Century?
The result was the one-year-only Century Gran Sport, featuring murdered-out black trim and a badge that looked a lot like the GN’s. Unfortunately, the 3.8-liter V6 under the hood was not turbocharged, so the GS’ performance didn’t match the bad-ass look. The Century T-type carried on the Century's "sporting" look, but the GS was out.
5 AMC Spirit GT/AMX
In the last years of its existence before its takeover by Renault and later Chrysler, American Motors proved extremely adept in turning one platform or component set into several models. One of the most entertaining examples of this was AMC’s last effort to revive the legendary AMX name. They did it by throwing black trim, big flares and spoilers on the Spirit hatchback, itself a variation of the Hornet/Gremlin that had been around for almost ten years.
The price of gas being what it was, AMC equipped the AMX with its venerable 4.2-liter straight-six, instead of the V8s found under the Javelin-based AMX a decade earlier. But serious performance shoppers were passing AMC by… and the AMX was dropped for 1981.
4 Chevrolet Citation X-11
The X-11 was Chevy’s attempt to bring some Z-28-type sports buzz to its new front-drive compact. The first-year X-11 in 1980 was low on visual drama (except for weird and extremely fake-looking rear air extractors) and pretty tepid from a performance standpoint. The next year saw a major makeover: blacked-out trim, handsome alloys, and a power-dome hood hiding a high-output edition of the corporate 2.8-liter V6.
Subsequent years saw the V6 pick up fuel injection, and Chevy sort out the build quality and braking issues that plagued the X-cars’ first few years. In typical GM fashion of the period, the Citation X-11 was a pretty decent sporty coupe by the mid-80s, but the bad press connected to the model made it radioactive. All of the X-cars were dropped after 1985.
3 Chrysler Laser
The two-year-only Laser represented the spiciest variation on the K-car platform that brought Chrysler back from the brink in the early '80s. The Laser (and its sister Dodge Daytona) offered sporty good looks and a full complement of '80s-current features, including digital instrumentation, driven by normally-aspirated and turbocharged versions of the corporate 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine.
The Daytona lasted for several years, including a stint as the official car of the International Race of Champions in the ‘90s. But while the Laser featured premium interior appointments, it still felt incongruous on the showroom floor with cushy Fifth Avenues and wood-paneled Town and Country wagons. In 1987, Chrysler stretched the Daytona chassis and used it as the base for its new LeBaron coupe and convertible, and said goodbye to the Laser.
2 Olds sportOmega
This was a one-year-only sports version of Oldsmobile’s X-car variant, with the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 2.8-liter V6 engines as its cross-divisional siblings. What set the sportOmega apart were its malaise-era-style large-format graphics and injection-molded front fenders, which pioneered a technique later used widely across the industry.
Well, the other thing that set it apart was its rarity. Fewer than 700 sportOmegas were built before the model was discontinued for ‘82... and it’s a safe bet would-be buyers didn’t exactly march on Oldsmobile’s Lansing, Michigan headquarters in protest.
1 Buick LeSabre Grand National
Perhaps a future list on this site will be titled “Ten Times Buick Tried To Go Hot-Rodding And Failed.” But until then, here’s the third Buick on this rundown, which also happens to be one of the rarest Buicks ever made. In 1986, Buick decided to certify the aerodynamic new LeSabre Coupe’s body for NASCAR, which meant the division needed to sell a version at least outwardly similar to the one on the track at Daytona and Talladega. So the division built fewer than 120 examples and sold them in the Southeast to gauge interest.
The LeSabre GN’s major outward difference was the insert that blanked off the rear quarter windows to improve airflow. Otherwise, every one was black with a gray interior, a deep front air dam, understated alloy wheels and Buick's (non-turbo) 3.8-liter V6. In ’87, Buick offered a T-type version of the LeSabre… and the B-body's Grand National experiment was over.