Jim Kenzie's Top 10 car flops
Jim Kenzie picks 10 car ideas from recent years that make him slap his forehead.
Edsel: the mid-size semi-luxury car launched by Ford in 1958 and named after the son of Henry, is not merely a one-word metaphor for automotive disaster.
The name transcends motordom. It has come to represent sheer awfulness across all subjects.
As in, Heaven’s Gate is the Edsel of movies, Nickelback is the Edsel of rock ‘n’ roll and Celine Dion is the Edsel of female singers.
Many of you are likely too young to remember the Edsel. Lucky you. In fact, you might never see an Edsel these days, except at a vintage car meet. Even sightings of American Motors Corporation’s Pacer and Gremlin are pretty rare.
So I have compiled my list of the Top 10 worst cars of recent times.
Most are from the past decade, although I have stretched back a bit farther, because thanks to ever-more-clever market research and the conservatism demanded by the multi-billion-dollar bet that any new car represents, we don’t get too many true turkeys any more.
Lots of dull, boring cars, sure. But not too many genuine forehead-slappers, those spectacularly bizarre “what-were-they-thinking?” vehicles.
There aren’t any hard and fast criteria here. Some are aesthetic disasters, which, I admit, is very subjective. Some weren’t even sales disasters, although most were. My sole true criterion is that I find it difficult to believe that a group of adults could stand around any one of these in the styling dome or conference room, throw both thumbs up in the air and say, “Yeah! That’s the ticket!”
I’m sure you have your candidates. I’d be happy to hear about them. In the meantime, in no particular order, here are mine:
Porsche Cayenne (2002-present)
I could have put every SUV in here. If you’re not towing a boat, regularly fording axle-deep streams, or climbing the Rockies every weekend, driving a 3,000-kg truck that needs its own dedicated oil well is just plain stupid.
But the Cayenne does have a bull’s-eye painted on its butt.
Now, I’m not the only one who gets on the Cayenne’s case. Go to any “ugly cars” website and it’s likely to be there.
However, it’s not on my list for its questionable aesthetics. Also, I cannot complain about its abilities â€“ it goes like stink, and can climb walls. (Not to mention it has made several boatloads of money for Porsche.)
But there’s just no way a Porsche badge should ever have been glued onto a 3,000-kg Volkswagen truck.
Someone will burn in hell for eternity over this one.
Suzuki X-90 (1996-1998)
It was billed as the “urban off-roader.” Wow.
A two-seater SUV? Double wow.
It has a Tee-top, and was also available in rear-wheel drive. Triple wow.
The X-90 was initially a concept vehicle and somehow it received public acclaim â€“ enough acclaim to prompt Suzuki to put it into production. But when British bad boy Jeremy Clarkson called it “the worst vehicle ever,” it rapidly went out of production.
Toyota Previa (1991-1997)
A mid-engined minivan?
Ah yes, aimed at families for whom ultimate handling precision â€“ the prime reason for using a mid-engine layout, i.e. the Porsche Boxster â€“ was paramount.
Don’t know about you, but when I’ve got a track day scheduled, I always take my minivan …
Never mind that shoving the engine under the floor raised the centre of gravity to eyeball level. That sure helped handling.
The engine under the front seats was alleged to enable easy access to change the spark plugs. Just fold that conveniently hinged front seat, and clamber all over that nice clean carpeting with your greasy mechanics’ boots on.
Needless to say, there was no room under there for ancillaries like alternator, air conditioning compressor and the like. So a separate shaft ran forward from the nose of the crankshaft to drive all those gubbins that were located under the hood! Where, of course, the engine should have been.
What’s more, this layout meant that nothing but a four-cylinder would fit, when the bulk of the minivan market favoured a V6.
Installation of a supercharger was a complex and expensive solution to the Previa’s lack of power, but it made its fuel consumption even worse.
Previa was replaced by the dead-nuts-conventional Sienna. And not a moment too soon.
Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005)
Some people think U.S. President Barack Obama should force General Motors into bankruptcy for the Aztek alone.
Actually, there was a kernel of goodness under its ugly skin. People who bought them actually liked them â€“ they never saw the car once they were inside anyway, and it was a pretty useful vehicle.
Aztek was primarily a failure of market research â€“ more accurately, a failure to listen to market research â€“ and corporate cost-cutting.
The concept car actually looked pretty cool. When presented to focus groups, the response was always, “keep it cool-looking,” “don’t put on body cladding,” and “keep it cheap enough so the young people who are its intended customer base can afford it.”
Nope, nope, and nope, respectively.
Designers were forced to stretch and prod the sheet metal to fit over the existing GM short-wheelbase minivan platform; it doesn’t take very large changes to completely destroy the proportions and stance of a vehicle.
And this did.
On went the cladding, and also tiny wheels that looked like casters inside those huge blistered fenders.
And early production models were loaded, so they cost a bundle.
In its last couple of years of production, the cladding was monochromed, the wheel size was increased and its price was cut.
But the damage was done.
Subaru Baja (2003-2006)
The Baja was essentially an Outback station wagon with the back end chopped off and replaced with a small pickup box.
It seemed like a good idea â€“ to combine the utility of a pickup truck with the comfort and driveability of a passenger car.
The Chevrolet Avalanche and Ford Explorer Sport Trac tried essentially the same concept, but both came at it from the truck side, and both were reasonably successful.
Coming at it from the car side like Subaru did? Not so much.
You’d think weekend gardeners and dog lovers would have eaten this thing up. An aftermarket company even made a fairly cool cap for the back end.
But I guess it just didn’t make a macho-enough pickup statement.
It died a quick, painful and somewhat merciful death.
Honda del Sol (1993-1997)
There was a time when Honda could do no wrong. Then came the del Sol. The Civic-based two-seater succeeded the CRX hatchback coupe, which enjoyed two generations of cult-like success.
“Del Sol,” of course, is Spanish for “of the sun,” relating to the car’s removable Targa-type roof panel.
You’d have to think: a car as much fun as a CR-X but open to the elements? How could anyone, let alone Honda, screw that up?
Screw it up they did.
Somehow, they took the nimble Civic platform upon which the CR-X had also been based, and made it flaccid and boring.
I’m not sure if the roof-ectomy might have compromised the structural integrity that is so essential to a great-handling car. You’d think, though, that given it was not a full convertible, it had a roll hoop and fixed rear window glass â€“ that shouldn’t have been a huge problem.
Maybe they just softened the suspension in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience than just the sporty car crowd.
For better or, in this case, for worse, the del Sol did seem to attract an awful lot of female buyers.
Not that there is anything at all wrong with that. But the CR-X appealed to a lot of female buyers too, and it was a vastly more entertaining car to drive.
With its ancestry, how did the del Sol end up so far off the mark? A question for the ages.
Ford Taurus (1996-1999)
Alex Trotman was the Teflon car company executive â€“ nothing stuck to him.
Most of Ford’s major late-20th-century disasters â€“ Contour/Mystique, the Red Carpet Leasing program â€“ occurred on his watch.
Yet he took his $50-million golden parachute and went back to Scotland, and everybody blamed his successor, Jac Nasser.
Among the most costly errors during Trotman’s reign was the 1996 Taurus.
How do you take one of the most successful Fords of all time and turn it into something even rental car companies were loath to touch?
Easy. Make it ugly.
They let a designer go nuts with a French curve, and this ode to ovality turned customers off. It didn’t help that they failed to keep the car mechanically up to date either.
The original 1986 Taurus was an absolute revelation, a handsome, modern car that handled remarkably well, at least by the standards of domestic sedans at the time. It was enough to eventually propel Taurus to top spot in U.S. car sales.
But as the likes of Toyota Camry and Honda Accord got better and better, Taurus stayed the same.
Which, in the car business, is tantamount to going backwards.
A minor facelift outside and a more extensive refresh inside for the 2000 model year weren’t enough to stop the slide. The Taurus went to that Big Scrap Yard in the Sky after the 2007 model year.
Lexus SC430 (2002-present)
This car is ugly, and goes downhill from there.
Yep, mainly due to the ride. Did they forget to put springs in this car? I only drove one once, briefly. I felt no need to suffer any more than was necessary.
Being a Lexus, the fit and finish are impeccable. The drive train is as smooth as a baby’s bum.
And it will probably last forever, which is a drawback here because it makes it harder to justify getting rid of the thing.
Ferrari Enzo (2003)
I realize I’m treading on a lot of toes with this one but this is a face not even a mother could love.
The Ferrari Enzo â€“ some say it should always be the “Enzo Ferrari”, the company founder’s name â€“ was produced to commemorate Ferrari’s first Formula One World Championship (with the steering wheel in the hands of Michael Schumacher).
Actually, the car was going to be produced whether it won or lost â€“ an alternate front end that didn’t look like a Formula One race car was ready to go if the race team fell short.
Too bad it won.
Initially, only 349 cars were built, and offered to existing owners of previous high-end Ferraris.
Another 50 were produced due to demand.
I gather the car was amazing to drive (I never actually got the chance).
A 400th example was built and auctioned off to raise funds for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in southeast Asia. It scored more than double the regular price.
Good on them.
Maybe handsome is as handsome does.
Mercedes-Benz R-Class (2006-present)
Mercedes-Benz owned Chrysler for almost a decade when it launched this car. You’d think it would have learned more about building minivans during that time. But Mercedes claims that the R-Class isn’t a minivan.
The concept car was dubbed GST â€“ a lovely connotation for Canadian buyers, but standing in this case for Grand Sports Tourer.
The marketing dudes called it a “Sports Cruiser”.
But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …
Mercedes-Benz was hoping for annual U.S. sales in the 50,000 range. It got about a quarter of that.
Somehow, the idea of a Mercedes-Benz SUV worked; the idea of a Mercedes-Benz minivan, even if functionally it made a lot more sense than the SUV, didn’t.