Let’s be honest: no manufacturer ever sets out to build a bad car, but sometimes the inevitable just happens. A lot can change in the time it takes to bring a car from concept through production, and sometimes too many accountants get involved with the design process. Other times, new models just have impossibly big shoes to fill, like the younger brother trying to match the success of his older sibling (the Manning family excluded, of course). And sometimes, what works in Berlin simply doesn’t work in New York.
Here are five examples of cars that “seemed like a good idea at the time”, but turned into failures for the manufacturer. If you own one, spare me the hate mail; as I’ve said all along, you can have good examples of bad cars just as easily as you can have bad examples of good cars.
There are plenty more than what I’ve listed here, so let me know what you think I may have missed.
The Pinto’s mission was simple: provide car buyers with an inexpensive and fuel efficient alternative to the Volkswagen Beetle, Toyota Corolla and Datsun (now Nissan) B210. By all accounts the Pinto wasn’t a bad car, and even came with a German built 2.0 liter motor. It wasn’t a bad car, that is, until it was hit from the rear. A design defect allowed the Pinto’s gas tank to rupture in a rear impact accident, occasionally engulfing the car in flames. Ford knew about this, but their actuaries projected that lawsuit payouts would be less costly than a design revision; ultimately, they were wrong, and Ford suffered huge losses (and a decade long loss in credibility) when the story broke. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the Ford Pinto helped lead to stricter standards for motor vehicle safety testing.
The Chevy Vega, like Ford’s Pinto, was supposed to be a domestic alternative to foreign economy cars. It was even good looking, and more than a few autowriters of the day compared it to a 3/4 scale Camaro. Unfortunately, it was saddled with one of the worst production engines in automotive history, even though a great deal of R&D went into its development. The 2.3 liter motor was notorious for oil consumption due to leaking valve stem seals. The coolant system required regular maintenance, and overheating (a common problem if coolant levels weren’t checked regularly) caused the head to warp. As if Vega engine problems weren’t bad enough, early cars were prone to rust through atop the front fenders, on the rocker panels, at the windshield A pillar and at the door bottoms. Chevrolet made production changes to address all these issues, but buyers saw it as too little, too late. After a six year production run, the Vega name faded into automotive history in 1977.
Honda del Sol
Maybe it was trying to follow in the footsteps of its older brother, the legendary CRX, but the del Sol may have been proof that even Honda makes mistakes from time to time. Fans will praise it for it’s looks and open air feel, but detractors will pan it for its lack of space, anemic engines, questionable build quality and economy car handling. Honda pulled the plug on the del Sol after just five years, and the subsequent launch of the S2000 and a much improved Civic Si restored our faith in Honda’s ability to build entertaining cars.
Marketed as “the Caddy that zigs”, GM soon found that a catchy slogan and fresh styling wasn’t enough to make buyers overlook serious quality issues. Built by Opel in Rüsselsheim, Germany, the Catera is living proof that even Germans can build bad cars. Early models had tire wear issues, thanks to an abundance of negative camber dialed in at the factory to meet European handling expectations. Cateras were notorious for oil cooler failures and for timing belt tensioner failures, which led to unplanned marriages between pistons and valves. Even though GM fixed the problems with the Catera in 1999, sales never recovered and the car was killed off in 2001, after a five year run.
Saturn SL Series
When Saturn launched as an “all new” car company in 1991, I had great expectations for the brand. After all, who doesn’t like an underdog story, and a startup automaker taking on the best of the Japanese imports was the feel good story of the year. And then I actually got to drive a Saturn, and it immediately shut down any expectations I may have had for the brand. The initial cars weren’t really bad, they just weren’t good; in fact, bland is about the kindest word I can use to describe the early SL models. If you liked to drive, there wasn’t anything to draw you into a Saturn showroom until the introduction of the badge-engineered Saturn Sky in 2006. By then it was too little, too late, and the promise of an all new car company with an all new approach to the business died in 2009.