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Malaise Era refers to the period of American-made vehicles in model years 1972 to 1983 when changing government regulations and customer preferences initiated a focus on fuel efficiency and emissions controls. American automakers had a hard time competing with the smaller, more efficient import cars.
This time corresponds with significantly increased oversight of the automotive industry by the US Department of Transportation in response to the 1973 oil crisis and 1979 energy crisis. The resulting vehicles were significantly less powerful and slower due to new emissions restrictions being applied to older, heavier vehicle designs which also often included aggressively detuning the existing large engine designs to meet regulations and deliver desired efficiency.
Before the 1973 oil crisis, the most popular cars were large, heavy, and powerful. In 1971, the standard motor for a very common model of car (the Chevrolet Caprice) was a 400-cubic inch (6.5 liter) V8, which achieved no more than 15 highway miles per gallon, and even less with any of the other optional, more powerful engines.
With skyrocketing oil and gas prices (the price of oil in the US had more than quadrupled) due to the OPEC oil embargo in late 1973, the much smaller, far more efficient Japanese and European cars dramatically increased in popularity, utilizing four-cylinder engines, unibody construction, and, most, front-wheel drive. American automakers' attempts at compensating were relatively poorly received, as the offered vehicles, including its homegrown compacts such as Chevrolet Nova, Ford Maverick and subcompacts such as Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, were still much heavier and less efficient.[a] Some manufacturers moved nameplates of full sized automobiles to a midsized platform. For example, Plymouth phased out its Satellite nameplate for the Fury after 1974, and its Dodge twin followed in 1977 when the Monaco nameplate was moved over. Ford also renamed its facelifted Torino/Montego platform as the LTD II and replacing the Montego with the Cougar nameplate (the personal luxury coupe was marketed as the XR7) since it was their flagship product. This included detuning the powertrain to meet emission standards, from the use of EGR valves, smog air pumps, and the early catalytic converter designs with a restrictive catalyst brick (usually a packed bed design), unlike the modern day variant using a monolithic brick. Detuned engines later gained electronic carburetors (used with an early variant of a powertrain control module which pre-dated OBDII) until the advent of electronic fuel injection by the mid-1980s, first with the muscle car survivors and later extended to full and mid-size automobiles. With full and midsized domestic automobiles, those optioned with an 8 cylinder engine were limited to a minimum of a 5 liter displacement, with the exception of a few manufacturers e.g. Cadillac which experimented with variable displacement and Chrysler Corporation which continued the production of its 5.2L with its remaining RWD passenger cars and light duty truck/vans. GM at this point in time phased out its gasoline-powered 5.7L (350 cid) option with its retail passenger cars, light duty truck/vans under 8500GVW except for the Corvette and its 9C1 police package fleet vehicles. Additionally, import automakers introduced North America only models that were somewhat larger (though not as large as most American brand models) to appeal to existing preferences. The larger sized imports, usually Asian marques especially the Japanese makes where the larger sized car was subjected to higher vehicle taxation in its own home market — usually a car model which is designed for the North American market e.g. a USDM Honda Accord, Toyota Corona, or Nissan Altima — with a larger engine displacement over 2.0L and a wider body (in North America body dimensions are not subjected to taxation unlike the Japanese domestic market tax regulations inclusive of its automotive tax codes where exterior dimensions are used to determine vehicle taxation) were considered acceptable by North American consumers when mass-market Asian automakers established their transplant assembly plants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico once the 1981 Voluntary Export Restraints was passed by the U.S. Congress.
With the 1979 energy crisis, oil and gas prices again increased significantly (doubling over a 12-month period), the automotive industry saw a further shift in customer preference to smaller, more efficient vehicles and American automakers began introducing a series of smaller, less powerful models to more directly compete against particularly the Japanese offerings.
There has been some disagreement over when exactly the "Malaise era" ended. Some feel that the era ended in 1983, with the advent of computer controlled vehicles, and turbos beginning to take a foothold on Japanese vehicles, while others put the end date at 1996, when OBD II computer controls were mandated federally.
- Detroit's Big Three, after the 1973 oil crisis, began phasing out base stripped down models of their full size automobiles where some production facilities transitioned to producing compacts e.g. a manufacturing plant which once manufactured full size Chevrolets (and other GM products of the same vehicle class) manufactured a compact car which was mass marketed and sold for a profit, such as Malibu or Nova (including its Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac corporate clones) which was cheaper to produce including luxury amenities; Ford Motor Company at the same time introduced the Granada/Monarch which was advertised at European imports where its TV ads refer to their product as a "half-priced Mercedes Benz".
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