The start of the new millennium didn't always bring us better cars.
There’s a school of thought that there’s no such thing as a bad car anymore. To a degree, this is true but in reality just because engines will now last longer and cheap cars tend to actually hold together, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some colossal failures, and it certainly wasn’t true in the first decade of the new millennium.
You would have thought that coming into the 21st century the age of bad engines, chintzy plastic interiors, clunky transmission, and build quality that leads to bits falling off would be over but that wasn't necessarily the case. Here's the worst of the worse and we’re even going to ignore the forever retold story of the Pontiac Aztek. The only real problem was its looks and there’s still plenty of cars to choose from beyond that. In fact, this list was only meant to be ten but so many deserve to be here.
We don’t often get the chance to use the word "ghastly” but it sums up the first generation Aveo, Kalos, Lova, Nexia, G3, Wave, Swift, Vida, or whatever it’s called wherever in the world you live and which manufacturer’s badge it has on it. Here in America, it was also a Pontiac but we now know it in its second generation as the Sonic.
Its full name is the Daewoo Kalos and it was built exactly how you would expect a 1990’s South Korean designed and built car before being rebadged. Things fell off, the electrics failed, and fleet mechanics built up a healthy resentment for the Aveo over the near decade it was sold.
We could not realistically expect to create this list without at least a couple of the now defunct Pontiac's cars being involved. When someone suggested the Chevy Cavalier and its horrendous interior, we remembered that the Pontiac Sunfire was basically a Cavalier with an even worse interior to go with a crash rating that indicated a low-speed side impact could mean a date with the grim reaper. It also featured a four-cylinder engine that always made you wonder if you should check the oil level.
Now, we should point out that the current top crop of South Korean cars are leagues ahead of the old stereotypes. The Amanti was a step in the right direction for Kia and aimed to bridge a gap with Mercedes-like styling and Toyota-like interior quality. What it made though was a soggy suspension that left the chassis in danger of tipping over when cornering and a V6 that took the car from 0-60 mph eventually. All of that lack of joy came at a base price that would have got a fully loaded Honda or Camry at the time.
Once Chrysler realized it had a hit on its hands, the carmaker set about milking the hell out of it. A few years in though, people started to realize the PT Cruiser was actually a bit crap. On its own, not quite enough to make this list against things that didn't sell, but then someone decided that it would be a good idea to make it a ragtop. The result was something for those that wanted to drive around with an underpowered and even unsafer nod to the past with the wind in their hair and with a big, thick, heavy hoop looping over their heads.
The Sebring was supposed to herald Chrysler’s return to the forefront after the 300. Unfortunately, Chrysler dropped a stodgy lump of a car just about ugly enough on the outside not be called bland. Inside though, there’s enough hard plastic to embarrass a Chinese knock off, a V6 that’s rough enough it would embarrass a 30-year-old tractor’s diesel engine, and steering that reminds you of accidentally falling asleep on your arm. The bottom line is that this is a fleet car that should only have been dished out to politicians and cold-calling sales people as punishment for their career choices.
On the good side, the Hummer H3 had excellent off-roading ability. On the bad side were fuel economy, acceleration, visibility, ride comfort, on-road handling, and reliability. Also, the fact that anyone seeing one knew the driver was overcompensating for something by driving something that was in reality no bigger than a Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota 4runner of the time. At least the H2 had a good dose of excess about it and marked it out as vaguely interesting. Ultimately, the H3 was a car nobody asked for and very few cared about.
When Chevrolet realized just how well the Chrysler PT Cruiser was selling, it promptly waited five years before coming up with its own dumpster fire of a car to rival it. Not only did Chevy miss the mid-20th-century retro window Chrysler briefly opened, it also managed to launch one of the most recalled vehicles in automotive history. The PT Cruiser is remembered more because so many made it onto the road, but the reality is HHR was like a PT Cruiser albeit bigger and worse. And yes, there was an SS version.
Don’t worry Chevy fans, Dodge got a second car on the list as well. It achieved that honor by taking the Chrysler Sebring platform and somehow making it even worse. Somehow, Dodge made it even less interesting than a Neon by clearly not caring in the slightest about the end product and gave it all the refinement of a tin can on wheels. Comically, there was an SRT4 version that came with the inherent ability to torque steer you into the nearest tree.
In Europe, the Austin Mini proved to the world that an inexpensive tiny car with an economical small engine could be built and have enough room inside to be practical while also being fun to drive. Smart took a good long hard look at the Mini and then completely ignored it. Somehow, the tiny ForTwo only gets 33 to the gallon around the city and a highway fuel economy only a fool would actually test. And speaking of foolish, that’s the only thing anyone looks when driving one and it has horrible safety rating. That all adds up to a big price to pay for being able to squeeze into the tiniest of parking spots.
For the most part, the idea that a Lexus car is just an expensive Toyota is born of ignorance. Until someone points at the HS 250h, anyway. At launch, it was claimed to be the most fuel-efficient luxury vehicle available in the US. Which it would have been if it had, in fact, been a luxury vehicle. From the side, it’s got the silhouette of a Toyota Corolla, but it was built on the third generation Toyota Avensis platform and the engine was an Atkinson cycle version of the engine you could find in Camry and Corolla models. Inside, it had a Lexus feature set, but it wasn't enough.
The HS 250h made 187 horsepower in total and took 8.4 seconds to get to 60 mph, but with a fuel rating of 34 to the gallon, it wasn’t convincing. Most people opted for the CT 200h and ignored the HS 250h to the point only 2,864 units were sold in the US.
Somehow one of the worst cars made is still in production for other countries and made it to the American market in 2011. It left here again in 2017 to little fanfare and sales figures so sad that in most months toward the end of its tenure they only just made it into double figures. At last known count, 2,108 had been sold in total.
It landed in America with a 62-mile range after a 22-hour charge but Consumer Reports only managed 56 miles. It’s saving grace wasn’t even taking advantage of its low weight and instant torque. 0-60 mph was a glacial 14.7 seconds. For a brief moment it was the most efficient car in the country, then other automakers actually started trying and people didn’t want a slow, stiff, spartan tin can of a car to ride around in no matter how cheap it was.