Bad cars come and go, but flops are forever.
As nouns go, “flop” is a good one—short, peppy, and to the point. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a flop as “an act or sound of flopping,” or “a complete failure.” It implies a cheeky, jovial kind of bad, a light-hearted crappiness of fate that goes beyond simple notions of success or defeat.
By the same token, in the automotive world, a flop isn’t necessarily a bad car. Bad cars come and go all the time, but flops are something more—they’re an unholy convergence of economic, corporate, and design conditions; a perfect storm of bad luck, bad planning, and— say what? —engineering. Four-wheeled flops don’t have to be miserable to drive or vomitous to look at (although it certainly helps); they just have to be a no-questions-asked sales disaster.
With that in mind, we give you the greatest vehicular face-plants of the past quarter-century. Welcome to the big, floppy machine—try not to touch anything.
Vector Motors founder Jerry Wiegert has been compared to P.T. Barnum, his company to Never-Never Land, and his cars to—well, most of the things said about his cars have been suspiciously positive or virtually unprintable. Such is the fate of the odd and boastful.
The Vector Motors Corporation was established in the early 1970s with the stated aim of producing an affordable American supercar. Its first running prototype, built in 1980, sported outlandish looks and a twin-turbocharged, 650-hp Chevrolet V-8. Wiegert claimed that the car, dubbed the W2, would see production the following year and cost $125,000. To no one’s surprise, the first customer Vector, a modified version of the W2 known as the W8, didn’t appear until almost nine years later. Just 22 cars were built, and by the end of production, list price approached half a million dollars.
Vector was acquired by an Indonesian manufacturing conglomerate in 1993, and Wiegert was forcibly removed from command. A host of abortive projects followed, including the Lamborghini-powered M12, a machine that British journalist Jeremy Clarkson once called “very probably the worst car in the entire world.” Wiegert recently regained control of Vector, and according to the company’s website, a new, 1800-hp “hypercar” is currently undergoing development.
We’ll leave it to you to interpret what that means. As Barnum once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens—nothing!”
Leave it to the Brits to floppify anything even remotely identifiable as a Honda product. The Sterling brand was created as a way for the much-maligned Austin Rover Group to reenter the American market, and on paper, it made sense: Take a Rover 800—which was really just a rebodied Acura Legend—rebadge it, and sell it through a network of independent dealers under a new, made-up brand. The hope was that such a plan would keep people from making any connection to the last U.S.-market Rover, a horrible little turd blossom called the SD1. Japanese reliability, British interior ambience, and a lack of preconceived notions? How could you lose?
Quite easily, as it turned out. Predictably, the problem lay in the car itself—the first Sterlings were nothing short of unreliable, hastily screwed-together nightmares. (Apparently, Japanese engineering doesn’t work if you assemble it with equal parts wood glue and indifference. Who knew?) When build quality improved a few years later, it was a case of too little, too late. Rover left America for the third time in 20 years in 1991, muttering something along the lines of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” America listened to its friends and didn’t call Rover back.
Chrysler’s TC by Maserati (1989–91)
Arrogance, thy name is Lee Iacocca. In the late 1980s, the Chrysler chairman and perpetual huckster turned a friendship with Alejandro de Tomaso, then president of Maserati, into the most shudder-worthy example of corporate avarice ever to roll off an assembly line. Chrysler’s TC by Maserati was little more than a Milan-built K-car with a few pricey underhood components and some styling hackery, a wrinkly grandmother dressed up in custom running shoes and ill-fitting hot pants. The Maserati trident plastered on the grille just added insult to injury.
To be fair, Iacocca’s brainchild wasn’t without its pluses. For 1989, the TC sported a 200-hp, 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a Maserati-designed 16-valve cylinder head. A five-speed Getrag manual was also available that year, and Fichtel & Sachs dampers took care of wheel control. But by and large, the TC was a dud. In 1990 and 1991, Chrysler ditched the turbo four for a Mitsubishi-built V-6, neutering the Italian connection even further. Just over 7000 examples were sold over the course of three years.
Comedian Patton Oswalt once called the Kentucky Fried Chicken Famous Bowls—a heap of corn, mashed potatoes, and chicken lumped into a plastic container—a “failure pile in a sadness bowl.” Consider the TC the vehicular equivalent.
Subaru SVX (1991–97)
Ah, the Italians. When in doubt, that cherished Italian maxim goes, design something beautiful. If you can’t be bothered to come up with anything beautiful, it continues, then at least design something desperately weird and pawn it off on someone else.
The SVX was most definitely a case of the latter. Subaru’s most distinctive car—and considering the company gave birth to the 356cc 360 and the three-cylinder Justy, that’s saying a lot—came from the pen of legendary Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Yep, the same man who gave us the BMW M1, the Mark I Volkswagen Golf, and the Maserati Ghibli also gave us this wacky-windowed wonder. Perhaps the lunch menu that day included a bit too much grappa.
The SVX was intended to be the car on which the “new” Subaru would be built, a revolutionary achievement that banished all thoughts of the marque’s often quirky past. A 230-hp, 3.3-liter, 24-valve flat-six lived under the hood, and a highly evolved, electronically managed all-wheel-drive system put power to the ground. Four-wheel steering was available in Japan, and Giugiaro’s sweeping lines resulted in a drag coefficient of just 0.29. Unfortunately, tech wizardry wasn’t enough to overcome awkward styling and a high (almost $25,000 in 1992) price, and sales never took off. The SVX was a good car dragged down into floptastic floppiness by the hubris of its maker.
Jaguar X-type (2001–08)
For a brief—and I do mean brief—period of time in the early part of this decade, this scribe worked at a Jaguar dealership as a parts guy. Most of my time was spent learning the million and one ways that an X-type could fall apart. Engines seized, interiors collapsed, transmissions exploded, and driveshafts—oh, the countless, countless driveshafts—ate their U-joints so regularly that you could set your watch by them. At a time when Jaguar reliability was finally approaching respectable, the all-wheel-drive X-type was the lone, laughable holdout. It was obnoxiously underbuilt, remarkably overpriced, and about as charming as a hernia.
The X-type was Coventry’s business-case company saver, an entry-level sports sedan for the wooden-drawing-room set. It was built on the bones of Jaguar parent Ford’s Mondeo/Contour, and it was intended to resurrect Coventry’s financial fortunes, providing the dignified marque with a way to snag young, affluent buyers. What the bean counters neglected to consider, however, was that young, affluent buyers are not lobotomy patients. A tarted-up economy sedan sold at luxury-car prices is still just a tarted-up economy sedan, especially if it tries to self-immolate every time you turn the key.
There was also an impossibly unpopular wagon version. The dealer that I worked for had one that sat on the lot for—I am not making this up—two years.
Lincoln Blackwood (2001–02)
Psst—hey, pal! Yeah, you! You wanna buy a truck, right? Tell you what I’m gonna do: Hows about we find you a special truck, one just for you and your refined tastes, see? You like luxury? We got luxury: This beauty may look like a crew-cab F-150, but it’s a Lincoln, and it drives like one, sure as I’m standin’ here. You look like a Lincoln kind of guy, you know that? You know Tony Soprano was a Lincoln guy? You want a cigar? I got some Cubans in my coat. Hold on.
Check out the cargo box: It’s lined in carpet and gen-yoo-wine stainless steel. That’s stainless —means it can’t be stained. You can’t carry nuthin’ heavy or dirty in it without uglying it up, but it makes for a nice trunk, see? And that bed cover? It’s power-operated! Opens to a 45-degree angle, it does! That’s real, honest-to-God imitation African wenge wood on the sides of the bed, there—them Lincoln folks photographed it and reproduced it in vinyl and everything, and I got a cousin Sal over in Jersey who says it don’t fade fer nuthin’, not even when you get some blood on it. Only 3000 of these dealies were made this year, and it only costs $52,000, and it only comes in black, and…
What? Why you walkin’ away? Was it somethin’ I said? I thought we had a deal! You want I should show you the LED lights in the trunk?
GMC Envoy XUV (2003–05)
On paper, the plan was ingenious: Build a retractable roof and a movable, watertight partition into the back half of an SUV. One minute, you have lockable, covered cargo space; the next, you’re hauling Christmas trees and grandfather clocks and hosing out the back half of the car. Makes sense, right?
Still, the General missed the boat on this one. The pickup-slash-SUV concept was sound—witness the success of the Chevrolet Avalanche—but for the Envoy XUV, the devil lay in the details. Strike one: The XUV was made by slicing and dicing an extended-wheelbase GMC Envoy, which is basically just a Chevrolet TrailBlazer, a.k.a. “The Mid-Size SUV That Time Forgot.” (Heavy, bumbling chassis? Check. Fisher-Price interior and the fuel mileage of a 747? Check.) Strike two: Whereas the Envoy was merely unattractive, the XUV was hideous. Strike three: Impracticality. Even with folding seats, an open roof, and a lay-down tailgate, the XUV couldn’t haul much more than an ordinary Envoy could. Thankfully, it was more expensive.
Oh, wait. That’s not good.
Chevrolet SSR (2003–06)
It’s a convertible. It’s a pickup. It’s a car. It’s yet another example of how the American people refuse to pay for anything even remotely corporate where hot-rod culture is concerned. Yep, that’s right: It’s the Chevrolet SSR, and we can hear you yawning already.
You would think that GM executives would have taken a lesson from the much-maligned Plymouth Prowler, an awkward-looking, underpowered, and overpriced factory hot rod that failed miserably following a relatively short production life. The SSR—an awkward-looking, underpowered, and overpriced factory hot rod that arrived just one year after the Prowler’s death—also failed miserably and in short order. What on earth prompted the General to retread such potentially floppy ground, and so soon? Was it something in Detroit’s water?
To GM’s credit, the company at least attempted to right a few of the Prowler’s wrongs. The SSR may have been built on the same platform as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, but a 300-hp, 5.3-liter V-8 lived between the truck’s deep-draw fenders, not a puny V-6. After customers and journalists complained of sluggish performance, the 4700-pound, $40,000-plus SSR was gifted with a 390-hp, 6.0-liter V-8and an optional six-speed manual. It wasn’t enough, however, to overpower the uncustom convertible truck rod’s inherent dorkiness. Few cried when the SSR was axed.
Chrysler Crossfire (2004–08)
What do you get when you combine a bunch of rehashed, last-generation Mercedes-Benz chassis components with overwrought styling and a bit of D-town pride? This bright-eyed hunk of weirdness, that’s what.
The Crossfire fell victim to that most heinous of sporty-car sins: It did nothing uniquely. Its chassis was borrowed from the 1997-to-2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK, and like the SLK, the Crossfire was a decent, if not brilliant, sporting GT. Potential buyers were put off by the art-deco looks and the $35,000-plus buy-in, and many simply bought an SLK instead. Or an Infiniti G35 or a BMW 3-series, both of which were more fun to drive than the Crossfire, and neither of which looked like a dog in the middle of a life-altering dump. (Incidentally, whose bright idea was it to name a car after multidirectional gunfire, anyway? In what world do you want a car whose name implies that it might go off in any direction at any moment, killing innocent bystanders?)
How’s this for flop: In the second year of Crossfire production, Chrysler actually resorted to dumping excess inventory on Overstock.com. Flop, flop, flopperoo.
Dodge Durango Hybrid/Chrysler Aspen Hybrid (2009)
What we have here is the very definition of the phrase “dead on arrival.” First, Chrysler blessed us with the second-generation Dodge Durango, a truckish, forgettable SUV with all the road manners of a rudderless Queen Mary . When Durango sales took a powder, Auburn Hills introduced the world to the Chrysler Aspen, a Durango slathered in plastic chrome and fake wood and arguably the least necessary vehicle in history. And last, this past summer, amid much fanfare, Chrysler birthed a hybrid version of each. Two months later, all four models were extinct. (Dodge does plan on building another Durango in the near future.)
The Duraspen (Aspango?) hybrids were the first showroom dividends of Chrysler’s involvement in the Global Hybrid Cooperation, the manufacturing consortium responsible for the powertrain technology in GM’s hybrid SUVs and the upcoming BMW X6 hybrid. Like GM’s sport-ute hybrids, the Chryslers reportedly were being built at a loss. When the economy began to nose-dive, Chrysler announced the upcoming closure of the Duraspen’s sole production plant, citing slumping SUV sales as the main cause.
Fuel-friendly Aspango, we hardly knew ye. Vaya con Dios, sweet flop.