Cars that came out of the left field.
It's easy to pigeonhole automakers, and often brands are more than happy to embrace it as part of their identity. For example, Mercedes is happy to be known as a luxury car maker. Toyota has worked for decades to be the brand thought of for its dependability, and Volvo has long been associated with safety. Going a bit deeper, Subaru is known for dependable all-wheel-drive cars and crossovers, Lamborghini for its outlandish supercars, and if you want an upmarket truck, GMC is an obvious choice. However, it can be limiting, and sometimes a brand will break out of its usual comfort zone and do something interesting or, occasionally, something amazing. These are some of those vehicles.
The modern poster car for this list is Lexus taking, seemingly, zero run-up to designing and building one of the all-time great supercars. It went into production in 2010 when Lexus was at the peak of its new powers and building luxury cars to compete with Mercedes, BMW, and Audi but with Toyota's commitment to dependability. The only problem was that Lexus could be seen as a boring automaker with its main customer base being wealthy retirees. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, Lexus dropped a high-revving V10 powered rear-wheel-drive coupe featuring the kind of technology in its chassis and engine more commonly associated with Ferrari. It was a true halo car - renowned for its performance, beloved by the automotive press, and crazy expensive. For extra style points, Lexus made 500 to sell, before dropping the mic, declaring there wouldn't be a follow-up. Rumors suggest there may in fact be a sequel, but it was the original that surprised us all.
When Enzo Ferrari's arrogance upset people, it had a habit of backfiring. Telling Ferruccio Lamborghini to "Let me make cars. You stick to making tractors" created a new supercar brand to compete with Ferrari. Then he gave Ford the runaround and, finally, the finger when the American automaker tried to buy his brand, which led to the GT40 racer and, eventually, the Ford GT road car. Henry Ford II was so incensed by Ferrari playing games before snubbing Ford that he instructed his underlings to beat Ferrari in Europe, particularly at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite the project of building a Ferrari-killer being assigned to Ford's Advanced Vehicles Group in the United Kingdom, the idea was comical at the time. Ford didn't even have a sports car in its lineup in the early 1960s, and now the automaker was going to go and take on one of the most successful race car manufacturers in the world on its own turf. The story of how it happened is incredible, and the movie doesn't do it justice, but the end result was the GT40 race car that went to Le Mans and not only beat Ferrari but dominated the field.
If you see a Kia Stinger on the road, you know that person has made a considered choice. One of the last brands you would expect to bring out a luxury-minded sports sedan to go toe-to-toe with BMW's 3 Series is Kia, and the Stinger is a peach. It's powered by either a 252-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder or a 365-hp twin-turbo V6 engine. The Kia Stinger is built on a shortened version of the Genesis rear-wheel-drive platform, and its handling prowess is largely due to the engineering being overseen by former BMW M Vice President of Engineering, Albert Biermann. It looked premium, drove sporty, and has become a halo model for the brand that just 10 years ago was renowned for building boring city commuters.
If you've got money to burn and want an exotic, stylish, two-seater, mid-engined supercar to hammer around in, that's Ferrari's wheelhouse. What you wouldn't naturally think of is a four-seater shooting brake with a crazy all-wheel-drive system designed to get you through all kinds of heavy weather. However, that's exactly what the V12-powered Ferrari FF is. Think of it as Ferrari's coupe-take on a Subaru Impreza, and you have the idea. We've no doubt that the words "professional snowboarder" came up in the pitch meeting for the FF. Either way, we're grateful. What we're not so thankful for is the fact that the FF, and the GTC4Lusso that has replaced it, are no more, and will be replaced by the first-ever Ferrari SUV.
Speaking of Subaru, the all-wheel-drive rally specialist introduced a pure rear-wheel-drive sports coupe to its range in 2012. It was developed in collaboration with Toyota and is still built by Subaru at its Gunma plant in Japan. No matter what brand is putting its badge on the car, the BRZ was powered by a Subaru 2.0-liter boxer engine and is a delight to drive. It's also a far cry from the rally-derived all-wheel-drive WRX and STi models that typically symbolize Subaru's dedication to performance cars. The BRZ proved such a hit as a rival to the Mazda Miata that Subaru recently continued the nameplate with more power for its second generation.
Here in the 2020s, we're used to Dodge building powerful rear-wheel-drive cars and the insanity of things like the Challenger Hellcat. At the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, however, Dodge was mostly known for its front-wheel-drive compacts and minivans. Then, in 1991 Dodge started producing one of the most insane cars on the planet. It was a two-seater sports car powered by a fire-spitting V10 engine making 400 hp when it launched and 640 hp in its fifth and final generation. In any generation, the Viper was a handful - even for skilled and seasoned drivers. Part of the reasoning for the Dodge Viper's existence came from Chrysler president Bob Lutz hoping it would raise the spirits of the company's downtrodden designers and engineers who were mostly forced to design sedate and often unpopular cars.
In the 1980s, Honda made some sporty versions of some of its models, but you were looking at a hopped-up front-wheel-drive car unless you were in Japan and had access to the little S cars. What you wouldn't expect from a brand that had built its reputation on affordability and reliability is for it to turn around and make a supercar that would cause Ferrari to take a long hard look at itself. However, Honda made it where it is today by watching what's going on around it, watching the markets, continuously developing, and, crucially, having a management structure that allowed it to pivot when it needed to. Hence, when Honda decided it wanted to build a supercar, it built one that could blow your socks off around a track then be confident and comfortable enough in to drive it every day. Having Ayrton Senna involved in development surely didn't hurt.
Sports car manufacturers making crossovers and SUVs doesn't raise an eyebrow anymore, but before 2007 not many would have bet it would become a thing. However, Porsche made the greatest decision in its history since it decided the 356 would be better if it was a bit bigger, more comfortable, and had a flat-six engine. While the Porsche Boxster saved the automaker from extinction, the Cayenne kept its head above water, then started to profit and brought in the money needed to keep developing the 911 and make crazy versions of it. Not only was Porsche one of the first sports car makers to sell an SUV, but it now has 2 and is laughing all the way to the bank.
Just because it's surprising, that doesn't mean it's good. Sometimes, it's pure folly, and that's exactly what the Murano CrossCabriolet is. Admittedly, it turned out not to be then-CEO Carlos Ghosn's biggest folly. According to a Nissan suit, Ghosn came up with the idea of "an upmarket product" to target "affluent, aged customers." Rumor has it that it was because his wife wanted a convertible Murano crossover, which sounds more likely as time goes on. If that was the case, it was a costly way of going about getting the spouse what they wanted. The Murano had to be redesigned from the firewall back to become a convertible, including all-new bodywork.
The Murano CrossCabriolet was universally panned. It might have been "the world's first all-wheel-drive crossover convertible," but it was completely devoid of the taste it aspired to have. It also drove terribly, despite the hours the engineering team put in while, no doubt, rolling their eyes.