We find redemption for 10 vehicles that have long been written off as no good.
Reputation is as important for cars as it is for people. As such, we wanted to look back at some of automotive history’s consensus “bad cars” that might deserve reconsideration. Despite their tacky designs and poor sales, these cars have uniqueness on their side. And in many cases, their bad rap is thoroughly undeserved.
The Volkswagen Type 181, marketed in the US as the Thing, started out as Germany’s version of the Jeep in WWII then called the Küblewagen (note that the rugged Type 181 actually predated the jeep). The Type 183, the military version reborn, became the de facto ride for NATO in the 1960s and 70s. Volkswagen figured there was room for another jeep-like vehicle and began selling the Type 181 as a rough and ready recreational vehicle. The Thing lacked carpeting, reasonable safety features, or really any modern comforts aside from a radio one can barely hear thanks to that signature boxer engine rumble. The Thing isn’t practical, and it’s got a dumb name (it was called the Trekker in the UK and the Safari in Mexico). But even its lack of four-wheel drive, couldn’t hold this tough-as-nails transport from being a load of fun. Thanks to its Beetle roots, the Thing is easy to maintain. And most importantly, it looks cool. Not only is the Thing a convertible, but you can even fold down the windshield for more wind in your hair.
Back in the early 2000s, one of the biggest crazes among automotive designers was to harken back to the designs of the 1940s and ‘50s. The Plymouth Prowler, PT Cruiser (which we’ll get to in a moment), and the Chevy SSR and HHR gave modern glosses on classic designs with decidedly mixed results. The SSR was fashioned after the Advanced Design Chevy trucks of the 1940s and 50s. The initial 5.3L V8 wasn’t enough to make the heavy truck sporty, but a new 6.0L V8 gave the SSR a respectable 390 horsepower and a 6-speed manual in 2005. The SSR doesn’t look like anything else on the road. That might be a detraction for some, but SSR was always about style first and foremost. Take the automatic, retractable roof for instance, or the body matching tonneau cover, or the wood slats and carpeting in the bed. The SSR wasn’t a commercial success, but if you’re wanting to stand out from the crowd, there are fewer more surefire options around. Read more on the SSR here.
Like the SSR, the PT Cruiser was Chrysler’s answer to the retro fad. Unlike the Prowler or the SSR, the PT Cruiser wasn’t trying to emulate an OG dragster. Instead, the PT Cruiser recapitulated more practical and family-fun-oriented cars with a choice of a four-door hatchback or two-door convertible, even offering optional faux-wood side paneling. The PT Cruiser ended up with a polarizing design. Many felt it was too weird to park in their own driveways, while others gravitated toward its distinctive looks. While the Prowler, SSR, and HHR were largely flops, the PT Cruiser was a surprising success, even spawning several special editions over its ten-year production run.
The Pontiac Aztek is what happens when everyone on the design team gets equal input, and no idea gets vetoed. The 2000 crossover was a marketing executive’s idea of the perfect “active youth culture” vehicle. As such, the Aztek looked like it sprang directly from a Mountain Dew commercial. The front grille is comically busy. The sloping coupe-like backend cuts into cargo space. Despite being nestled in the heart of some executive’s demographic Venn diagram, the Aztek was a commercial flop.
But beneath its incoherent exterior is a highly functional crossover. The high greenhouse provided generous passenger and cargo space. It carried unique options like a built-in air-compressor, removeable cooler, and air-mattress so the Aztek could deliver on that “active youth” lifestyle pitch. And today, the Aztek carries the added bad guy chic of being Walter White’s ride in AMC’s Breaking Bad.
Okay, can we all take a step back and finally admit that we were wrong about the Nissan Murano Crosscabriolet? I mean, who hasn’t felt at one time or another that the only thing holding the Murano back from greatness was its lack of an open-top experience? Was this idea ahead of its time? Sure. Is it still ahead of our own time? Probably. But is there, among the infinite possible future worlds, one in which the Murano Crosscabriolet becomes an ironically cool aftermarket superstar? Who’s to say.
According to Nissan lore, it was nonother than CEO and future international fugitive Carlos Ghosn who’d come up with the concept for the Murano Crosscabriolet. Like Ghosn himself, the Murano Crosscabriolet was deeply misunderstood. Unlike Ghosn, the Crosscabriolet was never accused of massive tax fraud.
Does the BMW Z3 coupe actually look like a clown shoe? It doesn’t not look like a clown shoe that’s for sure. Though the Z3 coupe’s aesthetics came in for criticism, what wasn’t in question were its Bavarian bona fides. The Z3 coupe came only with the Z3’s larger six-cylinder engines, and even got an M edition version boasting 315 horsepower. Though it may not have been as agile as a Miata, but the Z3 coupe was a lot better than its “clown shoe” rep would have you imagine.
For a portion of the LeBaron’s second generation, Chrysler created a Town & Country trim that added fake wood paneling to the wagon and two-door convertible. So, while this look made sense in the early 1980s, with other vehicles like the Ford LTD and Jeep Grand Wagoneer doing the faux-woodie thing, the LeBaron Town & Country convertible looked goofy. And yes, today it still looks goofy. One of those questionable fashion choices from decades ago that will never become retro cool. And yet, that’s what makes the LeBaron Town & Country convertible the sneaky hipster choice. Driving this car today is like wearing your dad’s old polyester suit not to the Halloween party but to just a regular party, and just owning it. People will just assume you’re cool based on the hutzpah alone.
The Edsel line from Ford Motor Company is today known as perhaps the greatest automotive flop of all time. With millions invested in promotion and design, the Edsel was billed as a revolution in motoring by Ford. The resulting car, however, failed to deliver on that hype. The “car of the future” ended up being a mishmash of Ford and Mercury components. In other words, it was eminently ordinary. That is, aside from its front-end design. The grille featured a big oval in the center that some likened to a toilet seat. The Edsel line sold poorly and was discontinued after just two years of production.
But through the rose-colored glasses of 2022, we can look back and call the Edsel not ugly but distinctive. Indeed, the Edsel features a lot to appreciate from 1950s design. Copious chrome, long hoods, and longer rear decks, finely wrought interiors, and bench seating. Today, the Edsel is about as collectable as any car of the period with the added bonus of a classic story of corporate hubris. For more on the Edsel and other automotive flops, click here.
The Subaru Baja, produced from 2003 to 2006, was something of a call back to the Subaru Brat of the 1970s, the Japanese automaker’s answer to the El Camino. While the Baja was a more practical vehicle than the Brat, it’s only by increments. The Baja was basically an Outback that traded a wagon’s enclosed back end for a truck bed. The resulting look fit perfectly with Subaru’s try anything ethos. The Baja’s bed was just 41 inches, less than four feet, and even with the small passthrough wasn’t suitable for much more than a few two-by-fours or a pair of skis.
Unlike most of the other cars on this list, today’s secondary market is fully aware of the retro-cool the Baja carries. Given the short production run, the Baja carries a considerable premium on today’s used car market. The XT version equipped with a 2.5L turbocharged boxer is even more sought after. Finding one with the optional manual is even rarer still. It goes without saying that what utes like the SSR and Baja give up in practicality they more than make up for in cool factor. Plus, with new vehicles like the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz catching fire, there’s clearly a new and growing market for small trucks. For more on the greatness of utes, click here.
Generally speaking, car folks don’t like it when companies use the name of a much beloved car and slap it onto a new and unrelated vehicle. Take the Ford “Mustang” Mach-E as just one example. Another could be the fifth-generation Pontiac GTO. After a near thirty-year hiatus, GM brought back the nameplate of one of the most storied muscle cars of all time, the GTO. But instead of a clean-sheet project they brought over the Holden Monaro from Australia and slapped a GTO badge on it. Needless to say, many at the time and today don’t consider the fifth-gen GTO a true GTO. And not only was the new GTO not a “real” GTO, but it was (supposedly) ugly to boot. The fifth-gen GTO was discontinued after just three production years.
And yet, the fifth-gen GTO wasn’t a bad performance car. It carried first a 5.7L LS1 V8 and then a 6.0L LS2 V8 which gave the GTO 400 horsepower and 400 lb.-ft. of torque. With a time of 4.8 seconds from 0-60 and a 13.3 second quarter-mile run, a stock GTO was already fast and with an LS under the hood, ripe for aftermarket upgrading. Sure, maybe it is ugly… or maybe this GTO has just been misunderstood. Either way, the fifth-gen GTO deserves a second look.