Today, there are good cars and cars that aren’t quite as good. Fortunately, it’s also true that today, there’s no such thing as a really bad car.
That wasn’t always the case, though, as anyone who owned a car in decades past can attest. New cars today start when you tell them to, stop when you need them to and – by and large – don’t conk out when you least expect it.
Let’s take you back to a time where 20,000-mile service intervals and 10-year anti-corrosion warranties weren’t the norm for the worst cars – as voted for by more than 2,500 Carbuyer readers.
10. Pontiac Aztek
The idea behind the Pontiac Aztek was sound: provide a practical and versatile SUV with styling acceptable to Generation X.
There was certainly plenty to shout about. It featured four-wheel drive, an optional head-up display and was able to carry a 4ft by 8ft sheet of plywood. Other options included a removable wheeled cargo tray in the boot, a centre console that was also a cooler and a backpack mounted in the seat backs.
So what was wrong then? Well, just look at it. The styling was awkward in the extreme. Pontiac’s design boss said he: “wanted to do a bold, in-your-face vehicle that wasn’t for everybody.” The problem was, it was so ugly, it wasn’t for anybody. The Aztek was a sales flop and lasted just five years.
9. Lancia Beta
Pretty styling, good performance and good value. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it happened.
The Lancia Beta gained a justifiable reputation for rusting at a remarkable rate. There are plenty of rumours as to why the Beta dissolved in the rain, but the most likely was poor rust-proofing in steel components. Many of these parts were structural leading to potentially dangerous component failure.
In the UK, Lancia’s largest market outside Italy, owners could participate in a buy-back scheme. If their car failed an inspection, they’d be offered a part-exchange deal to buy another Lancia or a Fiat. Cars that failed were crushed. In 1980, there were reports of cars less than five years old that had corroded excessively.
The problem led Lancia to introduce the UK’s first six-year anti-corrosion warranty, but the damage was done to the brand’s reputation and it ceased UK sales in the 1990s.
8. Suzuki X-90
In the 1990s, Suzuki had cornered the market in small 4x4s with models like the Vitara and Samurai. That’s because they were fun, cheap and rugged. The X-90 was none of those things.
It was a two-door, two-seat SUV that featured a pair of removable roof panels. It was powered by a wheezy 1.6-litre petrol engine and available in two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and automatic configurations. It was the answer to a question nobody had asked.
It did at least boast some decent safety credentials, which was a good thing given well-documented cases of Samurais rolling over. But on the road, the steering was vague, the ride bouncy and handling merely average. Ultimately, the car wasn’t that bad – the same couldn’t be said of the concept, though. Buyers didn’t understand it then or now. Just a handful were sold – and a high list price didn’t help, either.
The G-Wiz looks like a car (just), but it’s in fact a quadricycle – something that’s immediately obvious when it comes to its safety credentials. Quadricycles are a class of vehicle that don’t need to meet the same safety standards as passenger cars. It’s worth noting that a golf cart is just such a vehicle.
The G-Wiz, made in Bangalore by the REVA Electric Car Company, featured styling not unlike a child’s toy and was claimed to be capable of carrying two adults up front and two kids in the rear. However, with a fully-grown driver, there was zero rear legroom and the boot could barely carry shopping for a day, let alone a week. And it cost £9,995 new.
The Department for Transport said it had “serious safety concerns” after witnessing a 35mph crash test. Another test said passengers would likely suffer “serious or life-threatening” injuries in a 40mph crash. Despite this, the G-Wiz is still a reasonably common sight in central London, as it’s exempt from the Congestion Charge.
6. Rover CitiRover
At the turn of the millennium, MG Rover’s bosses knew they needed a small, affordable car to boost sales. A replacement for the Rover 100 was long overdue, but Rover had neither the cash nor the facilities to develop one from the ground up. It looked to India for a partnership, and found the Tata Indica – a car we now know as the CitiRover.
A deal was struck, with Tata and MG Rover agreeing to subtly tweak the styling and chassis settings and slap a Union Flag badge on the boot. The car would continue to be built in India and shipped to the UK. The problem was the deal didn’t stretch to improving the bits that were really below par, such as the interior quality and ergonomics.
That would have been acceptable if the price was low. But it wasn’t. It started at £6,500, rising to almost £9,000 for top-spec models. For that kind of cash, you could buy a considerably more talented Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa. And that’s exactly what buyers did. In 2005, MG Rover went under, taking the CitiRover with it. An ignominious footnote in the dying days of Rover.
5. Chrysler PT Cruiser Cabrio
Compared to the cars higher up the list, the PT Cruiser Cabrio is relatively recent. Trouble is, it’s little more appealing. The standard PT Cruiser certainly stood out from the crowd with its retro styling and fairly low price. The Cabrio didn’t.
Reducing the door count from five to three and replacing the fixed roof with a folding fabric one was a strange idea – and it was poorly executed. The styling missed the mark considerably, and meant that passers-by could see the poor interior plastics. Visibility was bad, it was hard to climb into the back seats and access to the boot was tricky.
Worse was the way the car would rattle and wobble its way down the road and crash over every bump. There was a remarkable lack of power from the large 2.4-litre engine, which was also noisy, rough and drank fuel at a huge rate. Less an American dream, more a nightmare.
4. Yugo 45
The Yugo 45 is another Eastern European car that isn’t fondly remembered. And another that began life as a Fiat. The first 45 was built under license in 1978 and was sold under a variety of names in several countries – including, unusually, the US.
The Yugoslavian-built Yugo was very cheap, but it was also proof that you get what you pay for. It was flimsy, prone to rust and quickly earned a reputation for poor reliability. It needed a new timing belt every 40,000 miles; something that was often neglected, as so many owners considered the car cheap enough to be disposable.
That wasn’t all. That the brochure’s list of standard features included an “exterior door mirror” in the singular tells you all you need to know about what was fitted – or wasn’t. In 1983, you’d pay £2,749 for a 45, or £3,299 in GL trim. Chances are, though, if you bought one, you’d be unlikely to replace it with another.
3. Lada Riva
Did you hear about the new 16-valve Lada? Eight valves in the engine and eight valves in the radio. What do you call a convertible Lada? A skip. These were just some of the jokes commonly heard in playgrounds in the 1980s, such was Lada’s reputation.
Launched gradually in Russia and Europe in the 1980s, the Lada Riva was another model that owed its existence to a pensionable Fiat. This time it was the 124, a car that launched in Turin in 1966. Basing a new car on a 14-year-old design would be unthinkable now, but Lada was clearly onto something, as these underpinnings formed the core of the Lada range until only a few years ago.
For all the jokes though, total sales of the 124 and Riva are thought to have exceeded 14 million. The Lada was a common sight on UK roads in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was lacklustre to drive and crude inside. On the plus side, there was plenty of space inside and it was easy to fix – something owners regularly needed to do.
2. FSO Polonez
Although the FSO Polonez first went on sale in 1978, it actually owes its existence to the Polski Fiat 125p, which launched way back in 1967. Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (FSO) built the Polonez under license from Fiat, but it had an entirely new body designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. Power came from the 126p’s 1.3 and 1.5-litre engines, as FSO was unable to purchase a license for a 2.0-litre engine from Fiat.
For all its faults – more on those in a moment – the Polonez was the only Eastern European car to pass US crash tests. Remarkably, it was sold in the UK until 1997, when emissions regulations defeated it.
The Polonez was cheaply built – understandable given Poland’s position behind the Iron Curtain at the time –powered by inefficient engines, ugly, poorly equipped and utterly undesirable. Perhaps its only saving grace was that it didn’t attract the same slew of jokes as…
1. Austin Allegro
Topping the list with almost a quarter of all votes was the Austin Allegro. Heralded as the saviour of the British car industry, it replaced the Austin 1100 (and its siblings) and was a precursor to the equally-unloved Austin Maestro.
Over 10 years, more than 640,000 Allegros found homes, mainly in the UK. The fundamental problem was the Allegro’s designers failed to spot the growing market for small practical hatchbacks, and internal politics dictated that Austin’s only hatchback would be the Maxi.
The car was designed by British Leyland’s Harris Mann. But according to Mann, the sleek lines of his handsome design sketches were compromised by management’s insistence on installing a bulky ventilation system and an engine that was better suited to larger models.
Early cars were underdeveloped, leading to a reputation for below-par build quality the Allegro would never shift, even though the Allegro 2 of 1975 was far better.
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