Twenty-five truly terrible cars

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Subaru 360 (1968-1969)

1968 Subaru 360
1968 Subaru 360. Photo © Subaru

The road to success is strewn with failure -- and nowhere is that truer than the automobile business. Here are twenty of the worst cars ever sold in America, presented in chronological order.

Subaru actually advertised the 360 as "cheap and ugly" (seriously -- watch the ads here), an attempt, no doubt, to ride the counter-culture sentimentality that made the Volkswagen Beetle such a hit. What Subaru did not realize is that sentimentality requires affection as a prerequisite, and as the 360 made the Beetle seem fast, safe and comfortable by comparison, affection for the Subaru was in short supply. The 360's sub-1000 lb. curb weight exempted it from what few safety standards the US had at that time; a 1969 Consumer Reports article (PDF here) said the 360 was "unacceptably hazardous," ending with "It was a pleasure to squirm out of the Subaru, slam the door and walk away." Ouch, babe.

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Volkswagen 411 (1971 - 1974)

1971 Volkswagen 411
1971 Volkswagen 411. Photo © Volkswagen

With the runaway success of the Beetle -- a car Volkswagen had already tried, and failed, to replace with the Type 3 Fastback and Squareback -- the Germans figured the American market was ripe for a luxury-oriented VW. It was a brilliant plan that might have worked were it not for VW's complete misunderstanding of the US luxury market. Americans associated luxury with size, power, and prestige. Which of these characteristics did the 411 possess? None -- it was small, slow, and came from a brand associated with unwashed hippies. The 411 did, however, have an automatic transmission, which managed to sap what little acceleration the 411's tiny air-cooled engine could muster, along with a complicated fuel-injection system that eliminated the simplicity which had endeared the Beetle to US buyers. The 411 disappeared after a few years.

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Chevrolet Vega (1971 - 1977)

1971 Chevrolet Vega
1971 Chevrolet Vega. Photo © General Motors

The Chevy Vega should have been an American success story. In terms of size, style, fuel economy and handling, the Vega was a perfect challenge for the imports, but the car's new technology turned out to be its downfall. GM developed a new automated rust-proofing system that, as it turned out, didn't penetrate the car's cracks and crevices; the front fenders would rust almost as soon as the car left the showroom, with the doors, rocker panels, and the front suspension soon to follow. The engine used an aluminum block with a cast-iron head, and when it overheated (which it did on a fairly regular basis thanks to an undersized radiator) the cylinder block would distort, damaging or destroying the engine. GM eventually fixed the Vega's problems, but by then it was too late: Americans had discovered Toyota, Honda, and Datsun.

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Fiat 126 (1972 - 2000)

Fiat 126
Fiat 126. Photo © Fiat

Most of us are familiar with the new(ish) Fiat 500; fewer have seen the original, a car from the 1950s that served as Italy's Volkswagen Beetle. The 500 was tiny and ridiculously underpowered, but like the Beetle, it helped to put a war-torn country on wheels, and by the early 1970s its job was done. So why did Fiat feel the need to inflict its successor on their fellow countryfolk?

The 126 retained not only the 500's rear-engine layout but it's completely inadequate two-cylinder engine, which put out just 23 horsepower -- enough for a ride-on lawnmower, but not a car. It had a swing-axle suspension, the same setup that had a tendency to flip the Chevrolet Corvair onto its roof, so any attempt to get the 126 up to its alleged 65 MPH top speed could prove fatal; the only upside was that the noisy engine and lack of sound insulation meant that the occupants would never hear the crash that killed them. Note how happy the women in the photo look: That's because they aren't driving their Fiat 126.

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Bricklin SV-1 (1974 - 1976)

Bricklin SV-1
Bricklin SV-1. Photo: Unknown. Is it yours? Email me

The SV-1 was businessman Malcolm Bricklin's concept for a car that would be sporty, efficient, and safe -- except it turns out you can't have all three of those things in one car... and in the case of the Bricklin, you couldn't even have two. The SV-1's integral roll cage, 5 MPH bumpers, and heavy door beams added so much weight that the Bricklin needed a V8 engine, which killed the fuel economy. The plastic body panels were prone to thermal expansion, which made it difficult to fit them to the car properly, especially since the factory was in the cold confines of New Brunswick, Canada. The cool gull-wing doors opened on a dreary interior built with craptastic AMC-sourced gauges and switchgear. It has been estimated that Bricklin lost $10,000 on every $5,000 SV-1 they sold, and the company folded two years after production began.

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AMC Pacer (1975-1980)

1976 AMC Pacer
1976 AMC Pacer. Photo © American Motors

On paper, the Pacer was brilliant: A compact car with the width that Americans liked, advanced aerodynamics, a strong body shell, and giant windows for fantastic visibility. Yes, glass is heavy, but that was okay -- the Pacer was going to compensate with a lightweight Wankel rotary engine supplied by General Motors. Everything was going swimmingly until GM suddenly canceled the Wankel engine project right smack in the middle of the Pacer's development. The Pacer was stuck with AMC's own cast-iron straight-six and V8 engines, which ballooned the weight and killed the fuel economy. The Pacer was launched just as Americans were developing a taste for small, light-weight imports, making the Pacer seem even less desirable. Were it not for the movie Wayne's World, the Pacer might be complete without merit.

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Hyundai Pony (1975-1990)

Hyundai Pony
Hyundai Pony. Photo: Hyundai

Hyundai got off to an inauspicious start in the US with the Excel, but things were even worse for Canadians, who were punished with Hyundai's earlier effort, the Pony. While the Excel was a Mitsubishi design, the Hyundai was done in-house; the South Koreans hired engineers from British Leyland, the very same people who designed the worst cars ever seen on British roads. Their enthusiasm for making wretched cars remained intact: The Pony was brimming with old-fashioned technology, including a manual choke and a fiddly point-breaker ignition which required adjusting every few thousand miles. And the Pony used rear-wheel-drive -- exactly what you don't want for those snowy Canadian winters. One good thing about the Pony: It was incredibly rust-prone, so most of them crumbled to pieces before their owners could go completely bonkers.


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Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare (1976 - 1980)

1976 Dodge Aspen
1976 Dodge Aspen. Photo © Chrysler

Chrysler's "F-body" cars were introduced as replacements for the indestructible Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant, but the nearly-identical Aspen and Volare turned out to be as bullet-ridden as their predecessors were bullet-proof. Both cars met with critical acclaim but then went on to suffer a string of recalls that nearly sunk Chrysler. Rust was the biggest problem -- most first-year owners were treated to one or more sets of new fenders at Chrysler's expense -- but the emissions-choked engines were troublesome as well, with a string of updates to the ignition and fuel systems that never did solve their hard-starting problems. After just five years, the Aspen and Volare were replaced with the front-wheel-drive K-cars.

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Renault LeCar (1976 - 1985)

1976 Renault LeCar
1976 Renault LeCar. Photo © AMC/Renault

It is 1976. America, a land of straight roads and big V8-powered cars, is just dipping its toe in the waters of downsizing and imported cars. French automaker Renault wants a piece of the action, so what do they send over? The Corolla-sized R18? The V6-powered R30? Non, non, monsieur -- they send the underpowered runt of the Renault family, the 55 horsepower R5. Renault addressed the car's potential issues by sticking a chic "Le Car" decal on the door, a label that stuck until the sheet metal rusted right out from under it. Though the LeCar looked delicate, it was actually a very safe car, if only because it rarely stayed in working order long enough to make it to the scene of an accident. The most amazing thing about the LeCar is that it stayed on sale for nine years. Maybe that's how long it took them to sell the first batch they imported.

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Oldsmobile Diesel (1978 - 1985)

1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88
1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Photo © General Motors

Then as now, diesel engines seemed like an excellent solution for rising gas prices. European marques like Mercedes and Volkswagen were already using them with great success, and diesel had a bright future... until General Motors got involved. Oldsmobile developed diesel V6 and V8 engines which they proceeded to install in several models, a clear indication that they were suffering delusions of adequacy. The engines were mind-numbingly slow and unbelievably noisy, with an idle that sounded as if they were grinding their own internals to bits. That noise often turned to serene silence as the engines packed up with alarming regularity, though they were just as often beaten to the punch by the under-engineered and failure-prone THM-200 automatic transmission. The engines were so bad that GM had to wait until an entire generation of car buyers had gone to their eternal rest before introducing another diesel car.

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General Motors X-Body (1980 - 1985)

1980 Chevrolet Citation
1980 Chevrolet Citation. Photo © General Motors

The X-Body -- best known as the Chevrolet Citation, but also sold as the Buick Skylark, Pontiac Phoenix, and Olds Omega -- was big news for GM. Everything about these cars was new, from the front-drive transverse engine to the twist-beam rear axle. This was a time when American brands still ruled the American market, and buyers flocked to the showroom to buy these futuristic cars -- the Citation alone sold over 800,000 units in its first year. But then the bugs started to show up, everything from brakes that shook the entire car to power steering that only worked in one direction, and the X-body cars quickly became the most frequently recalled cars in American history. After doing their best to solve the problems, Chevrolet changed the name of the Citation to "Citation II", a move that, amazingly enough, fooled nobody. Honda and Toyota seemed to have no problems building trouble-free front-wheel-drive cars, and once-loyal GM buyers made a beeline for the imports.

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Lada Riva (1980-2012)

Lada Riva
Lada Riva. Photo: Lada

The Lada Riva is unique in that it was well on its way to lousy before it was built. The Riva started life in the mid-1960s as the Fiat 124, a car that was good fun to drive on the days it wasn't a) broken or b) rusting right out from under you. But then the Italians sold the design to the Soviets -- specifically to VAZ (Volzhsky Avtomobilny Zavod, Russian for "Bureau of Self-Flagellation"), who modified it for Russian use with thicker metal, worse brakes, and a crank starter (clearly, they were familiar with the quality of Italian cars). One would expect them to upgrade the questionably reliable mechanical bits, but -- surprise, surprise -- they did not. The Russians then decided to show the world what communism could accomplish by exporting this car as the Lada Riva. Turns out that most of the countries where it was on sale kept their capitalist economies. Funny, that.

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Cadillac Cimarron (1982 - 1989)

1982 Cadillac Cimarron
1982 Cadillac Cimarron. Photo © General Motors

In the early 1980s, driving a Cadillac was still seen as a sign of success, an apparent problem that General Motors saw fit to solve with the Cimarron. GM had had great success with the Chevy Nova-based Seville, so it made sense to build a car based on the budget-priced Cavalier -- except this time there was little re-engineering or re-styling done to differentiate the two cars. The result was a vehicle that appealed to neither traditional Cadillac customers nor the BMW and Mercedes buyers that the Cimarron was supposed to attract. Oh, sure, the Cimarron's budget price did bring in new customers, but the car's thorough crappiness ensured that most would never buy a Cadillac ever again. GM made a valiant attempt to save the Cimarron by adding a V6 engine and updated styling, but by then it was too late -- the Cimarron was a flop that took the entire brand down with it.

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Plymouth Prowler (1997 - 2002)

Plymouth Prowler
Plymouth Prowler. Photo © Chrysler

When Chrysler introduced the Plymouth Prowler concept at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show, the crowd went nuts -- and when they announced it was going into production, then lost their minds. A brand-new street rod from a mainstream automaker -- how could things go wrong?

Once people got a chance to drive it, they found out.

Street rods traditionally have big, noisy V8 engines, but the Prowler used the V6 from Chrysler's LX-series of full-size cars. It put out a mere 215 hp and was only available with a four-speed automatic; there was no manual on offer. While its acceleration wasn't bad -- a Prowler could just beat a Neon to 60 MPH -- it was quiet and serene, two things a street rod should not be. Chrysler bumped up the power in 1999, the Prowler's best sales year, but car fans went back to building their own street rods, which were invariably louder and more interesting.

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Yugo GV (1985 - 1992)

1988 Yugo GV
1988 Yugo GV. Photo © Yugo

The Yugo was introduced in 1985 with a price tag of $3,990, making it the cheapest car sold in America -- not an auspicious start. The GV ("Great Value!") was based on the Fiat 128, a car which had already failed once in America, and building it in Serbia certainly didn't make it any better. The styling was outdated, the engine could barely keep up with traffic, and build quality was abysmal, even by American standards. Emissions problems essentially euthanized the Yugo GV in 1992; at the end, some distributors were offering retailers a buy-three-get-one-free deal. In 1999, NATO forces bombed the Yugo factory, supposedly by accident (the intended target was a weapons plant)... but I bet there were a few former Yugo owners on that flight crew.

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Ford Aspire (1995 - 1997)

1995 Ford Aspire
1995 Ford Aspire. Photo © Ford

In the late 1980s, Ford did a thriving business with the Festiva, a Mazda design built under license by South Korean automaker Kia. Their corporate heads swelled with success, Ford and Kia figured they could design the Festiva's replacement all by themselves, and the Aspire was the devastating result. Not only did the Aspire lack a small size that gave the Festiva its appeal, but it was truly appalling to drive, completely lacking the light, nimble feel typical of small cars. Sales were tragic, and most buyers quickly decided they aspired to a different car... something without a Ford badge on it.

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Ford Excursion (2000 - 2005)

2000 Ford Excursion
2000 Ford Excursion. Photo © Ford

As the SUV craze hit its peak, Ford delivered this monster-size Suburban fighter, based on their Super Duty pickup. The Excursion established that yes, there was such a thing as too big. The Excursion was so huge that Ford had to install a beam between the front frame rails to ensure it would run into other cars instead of over them. Excursion buyers could choose between a large but thoroughly inadequate V8, a V10 that delivered single-digit fuel economy, or a diesel that made enough noise to wake an entire suburb. For long trips, it was often cheaper to fly to your destination than to drive the Excursion. Lucky for Ford that the Hummer H2 came along, otherwise the Excursion might have become the symbol of American excess.

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Hummer H2 (2003 - 2009)

2003 Hummer H2
2003 Hummer H2. Photo © General Motors

The Hummer H2 seemed like a good idea at the time: The country was riding a wave of post-9/11 patriotism, soldiers were the new rock stars, and people loved the idea of driving a clone of the Hummer H1 our boys were taking into battle. (They also loved the tax deductions, since the H2's three-ton curb weight classified it as a commercial vehicle.) But the H2 quickly became a symbol of selfish excess: It got miserable fuel economy, its clumsy handling made it accident-prone, and it would decimate other cars (and their occupants) in the resulting collisions. The fact that GM introduced the H2 about the same time it was recalling and destroying the electric EV-1 didn't help their image any. Sales dried up when gas prices spiked, and the profitable H2 quickly turned from an asset into an embarrassment. GM attempted to sell the Hummer nameplate, but -- surprise, surprise -- found no takers, so instead, they shut down the brand entirely.

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Suzuki Verona (2004 - 2006)

2006 Suzuki Verona front view
2006 Suzuki Verona. Photo © Jason Fogelson

Right around the turn of the century, Korean automaker Daewoo -- the company that in the late 1980s turned the wonderful Opel Kadett into the awful Pontiac LeMans -- decided to try selling cars in the States, an experiment that ended in tears for both the company and its customers. A few years later, an updated version of the Daewoo Leganza reappeared as the Suzuki Verona (a consequence of General Motors having part ownership of both companies), now with a straight-six engine stuffed between its cheap steel wheels. Fragile plastics and unsupportive seats upholstered with something that looked like gift-box flocking were the best aspects of the interior, which itself gave only an inkling of the awful driving experience that awaited those brave (or gullible) enough to turn the key. Suzuki canned the Verona after just three years, and the rest of the company followed it down the drain.

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Volkswagen Phaeton (2004 - 2006)

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton
2004 Volkswagen Phaeton. Photo © Volkswagen

Three decades after the 411, VW decided to take another shot at a luxury car with the Phaeton, a close relative of the Audi A8. The Phaeton was a brilliant luxury car, arguably better than the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-series. But while Americans had no problem paying $80,000 for a Benz, they couldn't imagine spending that much on a Volkswagen -- let alone $100,000-plus for the top-of-the-line twelve-cylinder version. And with VW's reputation for indifferent build quality, nifty electrical gizmos like wood covers that dropped over the A/C vents when the climate control system was shut off looked like the prelude to a post-warranty apocalypse. VW pulled the Phaeton from the US market after just three years.

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Ssang Yong Actyon (2005-2011)

Ssang Yong Actyon
Ssang Yong Actyon. Photo © Ssang Yong

Some people say the Pontiac Aztek is the ugliest car ever made, but it's a Rembrandt compared to the vehicles produced by South Korean manufacturer Ssang Yong. Believe it or not, this is the most flattering view of the Actyon, showing the deformed grille and headlights that look as if they were crying (a likely outcome if the Actyon were to see itself in the mirror). I'm sparing you the visual trauma of the rear view, which appears as if Ssang Yong's designers welded together two completely different cars and filled in the gaps with Bondo. One would hope the Actyon has other redeeming qualities, but it does not: It's miserable to drive and holds its value about as well as used chewing gum.

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Jeep Compass (2007 - present)

2007 Jeep Compass
2007 Jeep Compass. Photo © Jason Fogelson

Chrysler capitalized on the SUV craze by expanding the Jeep lineup, but the Compass may have taken things a bit too far. A close relative of the Dodge Caliber -- which was marketed as a car, not an SUV -- the Compass was ugly and underpowered, with a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) that emphasized the worst aspects of its ill-mannered four-cylinder engine. The platform was developed when Chrysler was owned by Daimler, which was apparently under the impression that Americans were okay with wishy-washy steering and sloppy handling. (Turns out, we weren't.) Under Fiat's ownership, the Compass was rejuvenated with a new interior, a decent engine, and styling that resembled the Grand Cherokee. Today's Compass is actually a pretty decent vehicle (and a strong seller, to boot). But for a while, the Compass looked poised to take down the Jeep brand.

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Volkswagen R32 (2008)

2008 Volkswagen R32 left-front view
2008 Volkswagen R32. Photo © Aaron Gold

When VW brought the original all-wheel-drive R32 to the US in 2004, it was a runaway hit -- but in 2008, they got it totally wrong. For starters, US-spec R32s were only available with a twin-clutch automatic transmission, which was faster on paper than the 6-speed manual offered in Europe but less fun to drive in practice. They also canned the Recaro racing seats used on the Euro-spec R32, offering wide buckets in their place. The subtext of these two changes was that Americans were too lazy and fat to get a proper R32, but VW figured die-hard fans would go for it anyway, so they tried to fleece them with a $10,000 price premium over the GTI. That was too much even for the loyalists, and VW had a tough time shifting the limited run of 5,000 cars.

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Smart ForTwo (2008 - 2015)

2008 Smart Fortwo right-front view
2008 Smart Fortwo. Photo © Aaron Gold

There are many areas of the planet where the Smart ForTwo makes perfect sense, but that big ol' land mass in the northern hemisphere between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans ain't one of them. Americans didn't need a car that can fit sideways into a parking spot. They could have certainly used a small car that got 50 MPG, except the Smart didn't get 50 MPG -- it got 36 MPG. And it used premium fuel. Which made it as expensive to drive as a bigger car that got, say, 32 MPG. As if this wasn't enough, Smart fitted the ForTwo with the world's most annoying automatic transmission, and then set it free on streets full of Hummer H2s and Chevrolet Suburbans. Oops. (Update: Smart has since introduced a much-improved version of the Fortwo.)

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Aston-Martin Cygnet (2011 - 2013)

Aston-Martin Cygnet
Aston-Martin Cygnet. Photo © Aston-Martin

When it was first announced, we thought it was an April Fool's joke. When we saw the photos, we thought someone had gotten creative with Photoshop. But no, it turned out to be true: Aston-Martin, the signature British exotic brand and James Bond's badge of choice, was going to sell a version of the Scion iQ microcar.

Need I even explain why this is such a tragically ridiculous idea? No, probably not, but I will anyway: The IQ (and therefore the Cygnet) was a stubby little city car with a 1.3-liter engine. It was completely devoid of driver appeal, and even the advantage of Japanese build quality was nullified in the Cygnet since Aston-Martin built it in the UK. Though cheap for an Aston, it sold for three times as much as the Toyota-branded version. (Aston-Martin didn't try to sell the Cygnet in the US.) This is the Aston that James Bond would drive if he found himself unemployed, destitute, and impotent.

Why would Aston-Martin do something so ridiculous? The idea was to raise their fuel economy profile in keeping with European standards. The flaw in this plan was that it required people to actually buy the car. Aston was hoping for 4,000 sales per year; instead, they moved only a hundred and fifty in total and gave up trying after two years.