As the philosopher Joan Jett once sang, “don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation.” We all love terrible cars, sometimes even for the right reasons, but there are cars out there that have been unfairly maligned for years. This is their redemption post. If you think we’re wrong (we aren’t) or you have a car worthy of a second look, let us know in the comments.
My main man Ralph Nadar did the Chevy Corvair dirty in his incredibly influential 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed. Its remembered as a stinker, but in actuality this baby was an air-cooled, rear-engine beauty with an independent suspension and unibody construction. The car was a hit when it debuted in 1959, selling nearly 26,000 units in the first two days. Chevy attempted to prove the Corvair’s bona fides by running six standard cars through the notoriously tough terrain of the Darién Gap, which separates Panama from Colombia. Only two made it to the other side, but considering these were family cars taking on 60 miles of jungle and danger, that’s a pretty good ratio.
Then Nadar used the Corvair to needle the automotive industry about the death traps Detroit was pumping out on the regular. While the book focused on the industry as a whole, the Corvair suffered from the fall out. But the Corvair lives on in our hearts as one of the most influential American cars every produced, according to Jason Torchinsky, anyway.
We’ve been defensive of the Ford Pinto before, and you know what? We’re going to do it again. It wasn’t a bad car. It was Lee Iacocca’s answer to the cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles from Europe and Japan that were eating the Big 3's lunch throughout the gas crisis decade. While automakers like Chrysler were sticking with their land-yachts the visionary industry innovator was offering the public something new. It was an engineering marvel, rushed from development to production in just 25 months — an unheard of feat for the era.
Ford was ordered to pay millions to a family after a disastrous Pinto crash where a rear-end collision cause fuel to spray into the passenger compartment, killing one and severely injuring another. Then in 1977, a Mother Jones journalist found Ford had callously calculated that letting a few people burn to death was cheaper than fitting the Pinto with an $11 part to prevent said fiery deaths. The company was forced to recall nearly a million vehicles and Iacocca was axed after decades with the company.
But was it such a death trap? Later investigations have found the Pinto didn’t explode any more or less than other vehicles on the road at the time. A Rutgers Law Journal report found the total number of Pinto fires, out of 2 million cars and 10 years of production, was all of 27. In the words of the great Mike Spinelli from our own humble blogspot:
In fact, measured by occupant fatalities per million cars in use during 1975 and 1976, the Pinto’s safety record compared favorably to other subcompacts like the AMC Gremlin, Chevy Vega, Toyota Corolla and VW Beetle.
But feelings don’t care about facts. After a decade of production and 2 million cars on the road, the Pinto was put to rest. In death, the Pinto became the butt of many unoriginal jokes over its explosive nature for decades afterward.
Ah, the bathtub on wheels. Readers of a certain age will immediately recognize the Mirth Mobile. Back in it’s heyday the Gremlin was an incredibly cheap, small and ready to take on the imports of the Malaise Era with the same tiny fury as the Ford Pinto, just with a little less grace. It beat the Pinto to market two years early, for a Spring 1970 launch. In 1972, AMC introduced a V8 version...just in time for the OPEC Oil Crisis.
It was a little ahead of its time, as it came out just before American learned to love smaller cars again. And even then, the Gremlin wasn’t all that fuel efficent. It didn’t help that in 1972, AMC introduced a V8 option just in time for the OPEC Oil Crisis. And how did it drive? Our own Elizabeth Blackstock explains:
So, where’d the tragic reputation come from? The wheelbase was so damn short that only pint-sized drivers could comfortably sit behind the wheel. While it could clock a 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds, the fact that the Gremlin was basically a repurposed Hornet meant that it wasn’t really designed to handle that well. It was nose-heavy, and the shortened rear springs saw the car jump around if you braked too hard or went around a corner too fast—y’know, the things that make you feel like a race car driver.
Still, this little bathtub was cheap, cheap, cheap and, while its styling was controversial (it was basically a Hornet chopped up and rushed to market) the Gremlin’s styling has its fans, which includes your humble author.
One thing is for certain: This is not a vehicle that was half-assed. Indeed, Ford really put its whole ass into the Edsel, intending to create a new brand that would slot between cheap Fords and slightly nicer Mercury cars.
While this vehicle introduced both self-adjusting brakes and automatic lubrication which would be widely adopted by the entire auto industry, it wasn’t really its own brand. The Edsel was cobbled together with Ford and Mercury parts and built on those assembly lines. It suffered quality problems and its controversial styling didn’t help. A recession sealed the Edsel’s fate and it became such a huge flop for the company that Edsel was cemented for decades as a colloquial term for failure.
Another fallen solider from the U.S. energy crisis, the Chevette was GM’s first real stab at building a fuel-efficient vehicle similar to imports after making its name on big luxury vehicle. At a fleet average of just 12 mpg, GM’s fuel economy was the worst in the biz when the crisis hit OPEC oil embargo hit in 1973.
This car was small and kinda sucked, but that’s actually what makes it revolutionary, as MotorTrend pointed out:
That the Chevette’s legacy would be one of motoring misery is almost a shame. The Chevette is a rarity among malaise-era vehicles in that it is not a victim of its own hubris, but rather that of everyone and everything around it. The Chevette was never supposed to be a great car. It was designed with mediocrity in mind, and mediocrity is exactly what it reliably delivered—for far too long, unfortunately.
And yet the Chevrolet Chevette, set in its proper historical context, is the small pin on which the world’s largest corporation pivoted. It was a major change for a company that seemed unchangeable and a harbinger of the industry’s future. Too bad it was such a lousy car.
GM made key manufacturing updates to prevent any Vega-like rust problems and managed to sell the Chevette for $500 less than the Vega. The simple car was ridiculously sturdy, bucking the trend of poorly-built ‘70s hatchbacks.
For such an (intentionally) lousy car, GM sure sold a lot of them; in its two-decade run, 2.8 million Chevettes hit the road.
Another supposedly awful car that we love on this supposedly awful website (I’m detecting a pattern here.) The Pontiac Fiero sure looked fast, but it’s definitely not. The only engine GM offered on the first gen was the infamously pokey Iron Duke 4-cylinder, after all. It had crummy brakes that would lock up, no power steering and really crummy fuel mileage.
However once the Fiero overcame its Freshmen lows, Pontiac began really investing in quality and power upgrades. The first mass-market mid-engine American car saw a V6 option added to the line up. Pontiac updated the brakes, Subsequent years saw upgrades to styling, suspension and performance that made the Fiero a hot commodity indeed.
Cheater Diesel Volkswagens
This is a case where the car got a bad rap from some bad choices made by its manufacturer. Dieselgate was all anyone could talk about a few years ago, but after major fines and tiny hits to its brand, Volkswagen is chugging along as if it never happened. It’s diesel business in the U.S., though, is no more.
But these weren’t just good cars — they were great cars. Even TDI owners who took the buyouts knew this. Before Dieselgate the majority of Sportwagens sold were diesel variants. And in the year of the bonkers car market 2022 the few remaining TDIs in the U.S. were listing for some $20,000 over MSRP. Last year a dealer offered me $20,000 for my own seven-year-old TDI, which is about what I spent for it new. So while casual observers of the automotive landscape might think TDI vehicles are cars non grata, those who know? Know.
Truly, there’s nothing like a Pontiac Aztek. This weirdly proportioned vehicle has been the butt of countless jokes but it’s not what is on the outside, but what’s on the inside that counts. While design by committee may have doomed the Aztek, the vehicle was also ahead of its time, as our own Patrick George wrote back in 2018:
But the Aztek got one thing very right: essentially it was a front- or all-wheel drive minivan underneath, dressed up to look like some rugged off-roading SUV. In that way it was an early example of the crossovers that now dominate the U.S. car market.
There’s no forgiving that face, but the Aztek was way ahead of the curve. At the very least it deserves some credit for that today.
GM ended production of the Aztek which made way for the Chevy HHR which...yeah.
I like my eggs like I like my headlights: fried, but slightly runny. Sure its underpowered when compared to the 911, but that was the point: to develop a Porsche more accessible to the proletariat. While the current Boxster does away with those pesky power problems but, much like the Miata, it still can’t quite shake it’s reputation as a hairdresser’s vehicle from the haters.
Much like the Pinto, the 5000 was a car killed by the media misunderstanding the issue with the car. The popular news program 60 Minutes hosted an entire segment about the 5000 called “Out Of Control” about the 5000's supposed unintended acceleration issues. While the idle-stabilizer would occasionally surge, the real problem was a smaller brake pedal close to the gas, a la many European cars at the time. U.S. drivers would mash the gas instead of the brake, leading to a few crashes. However, the fear mongering of news in the ‘80s was total enough to send sales of the 5000 plummeting. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later exonerated Audi and the 5000 when it was found 60 Minutes doctored the transmission on a 5000 for the segment.
The Nissan Juke and its even wilder Nissan Juke Nismo were not for everyone. But that was its charm—instead of being an amorphous gray blob of a CUV at least Nissan attempted something different. It’s a boldness you don’t often find in this automaker especially. The Juke also offered entertaining driving dynamics and a ton of standard equipment.
Moral of the story is: Be weird, let the haters hate and when you’re too weird to build anymore your fans will remember you in slideshow form.
The one time GM tried to make a nice car in the ‘90s, and no one cared. The lineup for Oldsmobile in particular and GM in general were pretty sedate. In one last attempt at style, the Cadillac G-platform based car came with creature comforts like a Bose sound system and a unibody frame, plus a V8 under the hood. It was launched without any Oldsmobile badging however — strange to leave your own branding off of one of your actually good cars, but GM is gonna GM. Bad marketing and a boring, cheaper second-gen Aurora led to this lovely auto’s downfall. While the first gen sold a respectable 139,000 units the second gen was only half that much. When Oldsmobile shutdown in 2004 it was still building Auroras.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Bet you thought you weren’t going to see this one. YOU WERE WRONG. The PT Cruiser was a fine car, no better or worse than any other Chrysler product of the era. Former Jalop Jason Torchinsky has a theory for why its so completely hated in the public’s mind in a Redemption Garage post entitled “Let People Enjoy Things:”
But you just don’t hear anyone having the same sort of vitriol for the early 2000 Neons as they do the PT Cruiser. I drove these things a number of times back in the day and there was really nothing especially shitty about them that I can recall, at least in the context of early 2000s Chrysler products.
The reason, I think, that the PT Cruiser gets so much attention is due to the simple fact that people actually remember it. And the reason they remember it is because of the most important part of the PT Cruiser: the styling.
Look, say what you will about the PT Cruiser, but it sure as hell wasn’t boring. And, really, it’s not like you were giving up that much for the novel styling: it was a tall, very usable four-door small wagon, with good room inside and a comfortable, upright seating position, decent for the era power (150 horsepower from its 2.4-liter four, and there was even a turbo GT version that made around 230 HP), and you could get it with a manual. That manual shifter even had a nifty white cue-ball knob, which fit well with the rest of the slightly-retro interior design.
The Prius was quite the divisive car when it first came to U.S. shores in the early 2000s. Back then, there was a perception that Prius owners were haughty, holy-than-thou types of car owners. Readers of a certain age will certainly remember the Smug Alert episode of South Park. And while the Prius was groundbreaking, introducing hybrid engines to a country in the early throws of the SUV craze. Sure, it was also pokey and a little ugly, but it’s what you bought if you gave a damn about the environment.
But even now that eco-conscious drivers can buy a fully electric vehicle or a hybrid that doesn’t look like a running shoe, the Prius continues to pull in the public. It’s now quite the attractive regular car with multiple trims and variants available to buyers.
GM’s Ignition Switch Vehicles
I’m not saying cars that can potentially kill their passengers are actually good — definitely not. Cost saving in the face of preserving human life is a bad look, no matter who you are. However, the suite of small vehicles GM fitted with those bad ignition switches were indeed good, if you overlook the whole, you know, deadly crashes thing.
How did I come to this conclusion? Simple — these vehicles were some of the last small, affordable sedans available not just from the General, but from any American brand. The Saturns, Chevrolet Cobalts, Pontiacs and others in the staggering amount of recalled cars were the kinds of vehicles that once set up young customers as loyal brand standard bearers. But there’s more money in SUVs and light trucks. GM has followed Ford in mostly banishing affordable small vehicles from their line up and that is a damn shame.
I personally owned a 2004 Saturn Ion (yup, I’ve owned both an ignition switch vehicle and a cheater diesel.) It was perfect for a poor college student and ran like a tank for eight years before a fuel pump problem proved too costly to fix for what the car was worth. Still, that car was bullet proof all those years. Sure, it was trying to kill me the whole time, but what’s a little mechanical failure between friends?
Were these cars sexy and exciting? Hell no, but at least they were accessible to lower income folks and didn’t perpetuate all of the problems an SUV-filled world causes. That’s not much comfort, however, to the 124 people killed by these faulty ignitions, or their families. Neither is the $594 Million GM had to pay up in lawsuit settlements.