Sometimes we can be too harsh on a car.
Given the number of automotive journalists on the planet, it seems unlikely a car could get a negative reputation it didn't deserve. You would think that things would sort themselves out, but the world of public opinion is a far stronger place and it's the public market place where a car truly is born, lives, and dies. Sometimes in very short order.
What you’ll notice with this list is that some of these cars have had a very long production run over multiple generations, but are still stuck with a negative stereotype or are known for problems that have been overblown or fixed. Two were effectively killed by the media for problems that weren’t as bad as they were made out to be, and one has been stomped on by the media for comic effect after its demise. A couple of cars here were branded ugly early on, and despite beauty being in the eye of the beholder, nobody wants to drive cars other people loathe the sight of. Some just have an image problem, and one has even made this list based purely on the people that tend to drive them. In fact, let’s start there:
There’s an argument to be had that the Prius is the most important car since the Model T. Toyota's Prius introduced the concept of hybrid vehicles to the masses with enormous success through a painstaking approach to engineering and setting realistic goals in both sales and technology, and then achieving them. Without the pioneering success of the Prius, the cost of batteries for EVs would probably still be too high for start-up electric vehicle companies to use, and the public wouldn’t be so receptive to hybrid vehicles. That means we wouldn’t have the choice we have today.
The negative thing the Prius did develop early on though is an image problem, largely due to Toyota's self-satisfied early adopting customers. Then there are the odiously pious Prius owners in the form of the liberal elite - whether that’s Silicon Valley’s finest, movie stars, or politicians. When a car becomes a political statement then, rightly or wrongly, it’s going to have a divisive image.
Granted, Toyota hasn't exactly helped its case with the styling over the years and the TRD version isn't fooling enthusiasts into thinking its much more than an economical car for people that don't like driving. That doesn't stop it being very good at what it's designed to do though.
Hairdresser's car. That's possibly the most irritatingly lazy and bigoted insult someone could throw at a car. The intimation is that it’s a car favored by women or gay people. In other words, it’s not masculine. And, to men that aren’t comfortable with their own sexuality or feel they need to compensate for something, that’s bad.
The reality is that the TT is a small, sleek, and stylish roadster that delivers in looks and power, particularly at higher trim levels. Thankfully, that ridiculous insult is on the decline and we can concentrate on the real problem with the Audi TT: It’s a great car, but it is overpriced.
Older Brits and anyone that followed Top Gear in its heyday will remember the Reliant Robin for being a 3-wheel car with a habit of falling over when cornering. It’s made many worst car lists over the years, but there are some things people tend to forget about the Robin. First, Top Gear doctored the car to exaggerate the danger of the car rolling on its side. Second, it was a remarkably successful solution to a problem. It was made with a fiberglass body, along with lacking a 4th wheel, so it was very light and didn’t need a large engine to drive it. It was also, until 2001, legal to drive it on a particular motorcycle license and was taxed and registered at motorcycle rates in the UK. In the dark economic times of the 1970s and early 1980s, it was affordable transportation that was capable of getting 60-80 miles per gallon in the UK.
Nobody can really argue with a straight face that the Aztek wasn’t an ugly vehicle. However, it was universally condemned to the point that in its second to last year of sales Americans bought 347 units, and in its last year only 69 were sold. It was a humiliating end to what was, in reality, a practical and fairly rugged vehicle. The Aztec was a thoroughly competent family run around grocery getter. If it had been toned down in looks and marketed like a crossover is now rather than as the zenith of the adventure lifestyle enthusiast’s needs, it may have fared better.
Speaking of cars that got lambasted for their looks, the Nissan Juke is a goto car for a good bashing. However, it was reliable, had an eager 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, and was surprisingly fun to drive around town or toss down a tight country road. In other words, it had the performance the much better looking and more practical Nissan Kicks now lacks.
Toyota’s Celica got the reputation as the poor person’s Supra when the sixth generation arrived. It then went on to be derided as a wannabe sports car due to its flashy-at-the-time looks and front-wheel-drivetrain of the last four generations. To top it off, the Celica has also found itself on the receiving end of the derogatory term 'ricer'.
There was an all-wheel-drive turbo model, but that didn’t fix the issue of its image, particularly here in the US. Which was a shame, because it was a fun little coupe to drive in the same way the Civic often has been: The chassis was remarkably well balanced, it had plenty of room for its size, and its power-to-weight ratio was decent, and it wasn’t expensive for the amount of car you were actually getting. On top of that, it really was the tuner's dream.
This one has also had more than its fair share of the hairdresser’s car put down, as well as being described as the poor person’s 911. However, it’s only real problem was being underpowered from the start by Porsche so it wouldn’t actually compete with the 911.
Today, the Boxster is getting the power it deserves and has a version with a roof in the form of the Cayman. It might be too late though, and it's likely the Boxster won’t shake off its decades of belittlement and will instead remain the runt of Porsche’s litter. For good measure, you can pick up a decent used Boxster cheaper than you can a decent Honda S2000.
We've already mentioned cars and politics, and Chevrolet’s rear-engined answer to European sports cars was a true casualty of political agenda. In his book, Unsafe at any Speed, the young lawyer and aspiring politician Ralph Nader zealously accused automakers of failing to make cars as safe as possible. His act of political grandstanding did ultimately have a positive effect, with Congress creating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, in the book’s first chapter he targeted the Corvair, claiming that a design flaw in the rear suspension made the car likely to flip over when driven in abrupt maneuvers.
By the time Nader’s book came out, there was a common fix for the issue and Chevrolet had developed a second generation with a revised rear suspension system. However, in just one chapter of his book, Nader had managed to kill sales of the Corvair and seal its fate. The stupidity of GM getting caught using private investigators to dig dirt on Nader bringing extra publicity for the book didn't help either.
In 1971, the original Corvair was tested alongside similar cars from the time by the US Department of Transportation. The department came to the conclusion that the Corvair wasn’t actually especially dangerous. Unfortunately, the Corvair was already gone by then.
Audi’s second entry into this list got its reputation from an episode of American TV’s show Sixty Minutes regarding "sudden unintended acceleration” and that was pretty much the end of the 5000 here in sales. The problem was, essentially, the idle-stabilizer system and it was, on occasion, surging. However, it wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous of an issue as the show’s segment titled, "Out Of Control” suggested. Anyone who has performed a burnout in a car will understand what happens if you apply the brakes and the accelerator at the same time: Brakes win.
The major problem was that American’s weren’t used to the smaller brake pedal set closer to the accelerator, and as a result, people would panic, jam their foot down on and hit more accelerator than brake, only to suddenly find themselves embedded in the back of the car in front. Or, in one case according to the show, their 6-year-old son. As a result, whereas in 1984 Audi’s sales had risen almost 50% off the back of the new aero-dynamic 5000, after the show aired in 1986 sales plummeted and Audi almost dropped out of the American market in 1993. In 1989 the NHTSA exonerated Audi, and it came to light 60 Minutes had doctored a 5000's transmission to "demonstrate' the issue. Instead of retracting the piece though, 60 Minutes described the report as "an opinion.”