Thirteen Scariest Cars: Vehicles That Are Truly Terrifying to Drive

Thirteen scariest cars

Thirteen scariest cars

Today's cars handle so well that we often take it for granted -- but there are some cars that can be downright frightening to drive. Here are thirteen cars that have earned a reputation for scaring the stuffing out of their drivers.

Citroen 2CV

Citroen 2CV
Citroen 2CV.

The little French 2CV ("deux cheveaux" -- literally "two horses") was designed so that a farmer could drive a load of eggs across a plowed field and not break a single one. Its pillow-soft suspension had a sophisticated system of levers and springs that kept the car almost perfectly level front-to-rear -- but was only as les ingénieurs were having une bière and celebrating their success that they realized they forgot to do anything about side-to-side motion. Les oops! As a result, the 2CV leans so much in corners that it makes a '57 Chevy seem like a Corvette. Despite this schooner-like body roll and tires as thin as dinner plates, the 2CV actually handles pretty well -- then again, with two cylinders and 29 horsepower, it's not like it can get around the corners very quickly.


Chevrolet Corvair

1960 Corvair
1960 Corvair. Photo: General Motors

Most people know the story of the Corvair, subject of Ralph Nader's famous book Unsafe At Any Speed, but let's recount the details: The Corvair's rear-mounted engine shifted the bulk of its weight to the back of the car, which made it prone to oversteer (fishtailing) in sharp curves -- and once the back end went, it was nearly impossible to get it back. But that wasn't the worst part: In an S-shaped swerve, the rear suspension would cause the wheel rim to dig into the pavement and flip the car onto its roof. But wait, there's more! As an added bonus, in a front-end collision, the Corvair's non-collapsible steering column would crush the driver's rib cage. GM eventually fitted the parts that fixed the Corvair, but by then most drivers were too scared to buy one.


Dodge Viper

Dodge Viper
Dodge Viper. Photo: Chrysler

It is no coincidence that the Viper came on the market about the same time Jack Kevorkian was at the height of his fame. The original Viper had a 400 horsepower V10 and no traction control or antilock brakes. It was frightfully easy to give the car a bit too much throttle, spin out, panic, lock all four wheels and slide into a tree... and then burn your leg on the side-mounted exhaust pipe as you tried to flee the wreck. By 2008, the Viper's engine had grown to a truly frightening 600 horsepower, and yet electronic stability control -- a well-developed technology that helps keep the driver from losing control -- was conspicuously absent, which meant that one ill-timed twitch of the throttle foot could result in a rather painful and embarrassing death. Countless Vipers were lost to attrition, but Chrysler refused to fit stability control until it was mandated by law. The Viper may never be the same again.​


Jeep Wrangler

Jeep Wrangler
Jeep Wrangler. Photo: Chrysler

The Jeep Wrangler was designed for the worst possible off-road conditions, which meant that  on-road handling had to take a back seat. With its big, knobbly tires and solid-axle suspension, cornering fast in a Wrangler is a gamble -- it's anyone's guess as to which end of the car will break loose and slide first. Oh, and the Wrangler doesn't come with side airbags, since they are undesirable off-road, where tipping over is simply a minor nuisance. Sadly, the last redesign of the Wrangler (2007) fixed a lot of its handling ills -- it's still a mess, but it's nowhere near as scary.


Plymouth Hemi Cuda

Plymouth 'Cuda
Plymouth 'Cuda. Photo: Chrysler

Before you Mopar fans start sending me hate-mail, I am using the 'Cuda is a stand-in for a generation of frightening domestic muscle cars. Back in the 1960s and '70s, American cars had long menus of options, which meant that you could order a car with the most potent engine and the least capable brakes. The Barracuda could be had with a monstrous 426 cubic inch (7.2 liter) 425 horsepower V8 capable of propelling the car well past 140 MPH... and cast-iron non-assisted drum brakes that were completely ineffective over 70. The soft vinyl-covered bucket seats offered no lateral support, so if you didn't fasten your seatbelt -- and back in 1970, who did? -- a quick left-hand turn could send you sliding right into the passenger's footwell. At least the 'Cuda had a relatively stiff torsion-bar suspension; Chevy and Ford's muscle cars had soft coil springs that did little to arrest body lean, allowing the fenders to rub the tires with predictably unpredictable results.


Porsche 911

Porsche 911 RS
Porsche 911 RS. Photo: Porsche

There's a reason most cars don't have their engines in the rear like the 911 does: It's a terrible idea. Like the Chevrolet Corvair, Volkswagen Beetle, and several other cars on this list, the rear-engined 911 is prone to oversteer (fishtailing), but the 911's is of the lift-off variety. Let's say you're bombing down a racetrack or a country road and you suddenly lift off the throttle to slow down. In any car, this shifts weight off the back wheels and on to the front. If you happen to be driving a 911, and if if you happen to have the steering wheel turned, the front of the car will attempt to go in your desired direction while the rear end tries to go straight, and 'round you go, tushy-first into the weeds. Porsche didn't really tame the car until 1994, thirty years after its introduction -- and even then it was dicey until the introduction of electronic stability control.


Reliant Robin

Reliant Robin
Reliant Robin. Photo: Reliant

While Americans may not be familiar with the three-wheeled Reliant Robin, millions of Britons are -- though most might not recognized the photo above, as it shows the Robin sitting right-side up. Taking a corner at anything more than a jogging pace would result in the Robin tipping over onto its side. The fiberglass body rarely sustained damage; Reliant actually reinforced the front corners, fully expecting the Robin to be in a constant state of tipping over. How did the Reliant not get labeled as a death trap? Britain's arcane motoring laws classed the Robin as a motorcycle, which meant lower road tax and no need for an automobile driving license to operate one, so the Robin was popular with retirees, who aren't exactly speed demons.


Renault Dauphine

Renault Dauphine
Renault Dauphine. Photo: Renault

Cute, cuddly, and incurably French, the Dauphine may well have been part of a failed French plan to kill the American populace, one car-load at a time. Introduced to the US in the mid-1950s, the Dauphine's microscopic engine accelerated the car to 60 MPH in just over 30 seconds, which is considered quick...for an 18-wheeler. And if you weren't rear-ended to death by a two-ton Chevy Biscayne, the Daphine's rear-mounted engine and swing-axle suspension (a combination that crops up a lot on this list) would be happy to respond to steering inputs by spinning out and flinging the car rear-end-first into a tree. In Spain, the Dauphine's handling earned it the nickname "Widowmaker". The French plot to assassiner les Américains ultimately failed because the Dauphine's paper-thin sheet metal would rust within minutes of purchase.


Shelby 427 Cobra

Shelby Cobra
Shelby Cobra. Photo: Ford

Driving a 427 Cobra has been described as taking a ride strapped to the back of an engine. You'll note that there is no reference to tires or brakes. The Cobra started out as a British sports car with a relatively sane six-cylinder engine; Ford and Carroll Shelby shoehorned in a massive 7-liter 425 horsepower V8, and while they did upgrade the suspension and brakes, there was little to be done about the bias-ply tires of the era, which are a lot like modern tires if you replace the rubber tread with butter. Shelby later produced the Super Snake, called the "Cobra to End All Cobras", although it turned out to be the "Cobra to End All Cobra Drivers" -- Carroll gave one to Bill Cosby, and the car frightened him so badly that he gave it back. The next owner lost control, fell off a cliff, and ended up in the Pacific Ocean, killing both himself and the car.


Skoda Estelle

Skoda Estelle
Skoda Estelle. Photo: Skoda

By the mid-1970s, it was pretty well established that putting the engine at rear of a car is a pretty bad idea, and using a swing-axle suspension only makes matters worse -- but that didn't stop Czechoslovakian manufacturer Skoda from saving a few korunas by doing just that. Like most rear-engine cars, the Estelle had a tendency to fishtail unpredictably in fast corners; the good news was that the anemic 1.1 liter engine had a hard time propelling the Estelle to such speeds, often as not because it wouldn't start. The Estelle had a generous luggage bay under the front "hood", with plenty of space for a few bags of cement that would ease (but not cure) its handling ills.


Suzuki Samurai

Suzuki Samurai
Suzuki Samurai. Photo: Suzuki

Suzuki's little 4x4 earned its way to infamy in 1988, when the Samurai being tested by Consumer Reports tried to roll over in an accident avoidance test. CR published pictures of the Samurai tipping onto outriggers (which, unfortunately, were not available as a factory option). This resulted in a lawsuit by Suzuki over the language -- instead of saying that the Samurai was prone to rolling over, CR said it was prone to easily rolling over -- and a spate of jokes along the lines of "Have you seen the new version of the Samurai? The sunroof is in the floor."

Tatra 87

Tatra 87
Tatra 87.

There is a legend that the Nazis nicknamed the Tatra 87 "The Czech secret weapon" because it killed so many German officers on twisty European roads. First introduced in 1936, the Tatra 87 had a big air-cooled V8 stuffed into the back of the car, along with a swing-axle suspension -- the same combination that proved lethal in the Corvair and other vehicles. The Tatra was known for its speed and handling; the trouble started when you tried to combine the two, at which time the Tatra became as unstable as your average mental-ward occupant. The Tatra is said to be the inspiration for the Volkswagen Beetle, which copied its basic shape, its rear-engine layout, and its tendency to spin out, flip over, and kill its occupants.

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle.

The beloved Beetle had the same scary oversteer and roll-over tendencies as the Chevy Corvair, and it even had its own Ralph Nader book -- Small on Safety: The Designed-In Dangers of the Volkswagen -- which most people ignored. Along with the Beetle's fatally unpleasant handling, Mr. Nader also pointed out what he called "the Volkswagen ejector seat": If the Beetle was rear-ended, the seatbacks would bend backwards, giving unbelted occupants a clear flight path through the car's rear window. He also blasted the Bug for doors that would open in a collision and gas caps that would spray the scene of the crash with fuel. People were so frightened by Nader's book that sales of the Bug dried up immediately. Oh wait, that's what didn't happen.