John McElroy, the loquacious host of the Autoline Detroit TV and radio shows, is optimistic about the auto industry.
More than one million new cars sell each month in the United States, he points out. Ford and GM have become more profitable than many analysts had expected; record sales numbers at luxury brands like Audi and BMW don’t hurt, either. And there are some exciting new models in the pipeline for 2012 and beyond.
Just don’t ask McElroy about some of the cars on the market this year. You’re likely to get a different story.
“The Lincoln MKT is an unmitigated disaster,” McElroy says. “It’s actually a vehicle I like, but nobody agrees with me. No matter how you slice it, the MKT is just a dud.”
The MKT joins eight other vehicles that have performed significantly less than expected this year in the United States. Along with the Acura ZDX, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Chevrolet Aveo, these are the worst automotive flops of 2011.
Behind The Story
To develop this list of cars, we consulted three expert analysts: Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports; Tim Healey, the senior writer at Web2Carz, an automotive website; and McElroy. Each discussed what they think are the worst vehicles on the market, all things considered. Nominations were allowed for any 2011 model-year vehicles and any 2012 model-year vehicles available for sale this year.
Admittedly, it’s a subjective tally. Dwindling sales are one way to determine an automotive flop. Excessive hype before a launch, with media silence afterward (see: Acura ZDX) is another. So is a round of scathing reviews from auto critics, or a Consumer Reports rating that places it among the 10 worst values of the year (see: Dodge Nitro).
Sales Matter, Sometimes
Still, flops do indeed have much to do with sales rates. The Chevrolet Aveo, for instance, sold just 65 cars nationwide last month, down 98 percent for the same period in 2010. It’s largely because Chevy’s Aveo replacement, the 2012 Sonic, is much better than its predecessor and already scooping up sales.
The same can’t be said for the Smart Fortwo, which sold just 327 units in October, down 11 percent for the month and nearly 21 percent for the year to date. (The car will have a successor, in a forthcoming partnership with Renault, but it won’t be ready for next year.)
Things Are Looking Up
The bottom line, despite the stragglers on this list, is that the general level of quality, performance and value of both domestic and foreign vehicles on the American market has never been better. Each expert consulted for this list agreed that the future is bright for drivers in America.
“Automakers have gotten a lot better at producing what the public want,” Healey says. “They’ve realized that it really is all about the product—it’s not just about marking. And that’s a good thing.”
McElroy says the jerky transmission in this tiny two-door has hurt it the worst — he called it “the worst transmission maybe of all time.” The car has reportedly lost more money than it has made for the Daimler family since its launch in the late 1990s; rumors have circulated for years that the company will shutter the brand. An agreement to share a new platform with Renault could mean a big improvement for the coupe in a few years.
Fisher says the 2011 redesign cost the Jetta much of what had made it a standout in the small car segment. Its responsive handling and sharp steering are long gone, Fisher says, and the high-quality interior has been replaced with hard plastics that don’t fit together well. The engines in the new Jetta are unimpressive with regard to both acceleration and fuel economy.
Like the new Jetta, the latest Civic was designed only for the U.S. market. The 2012 redesign plummeted in Consumer Reports scores from one of the best small cars to one of the worst, Fisher says. Its nimble handling was replaced with a “soggy” suspension, and braking distances are too long. The interior quality also declined, with lots of hard plastics throughout the cabin.
Fisher says “there’s nothing sporty about the Outlander Sport SUV, and there’s not much utility either.” Compared to the larger Mitsubishi Outlander, it is barely cheaper and barely more fuel efficient. More apparent are the cramped interior and numb steering, he adds. The Outlander is a better value and much sportier to drive.
McElroy says that while the ZDX isn’t horribly bad in any one category, it suffered from the compilation of several minor inconveniences with no real outstanding qualities: cramped quarters, polarizing looks, lackluster handling. And it didn’t sell a whit: Acura sold 131 of them last month. Total.
McElroy says the MKT suffers from “ungainly” body styling and an “unmitigated disaster” in sales. The fact that the Lincoln brand is no longer en vogue, coupled with the fact that Ford shuttered its sister brand, Mercury, has only served to enlarge the problem. So far, only 4,000 have been sold stateside this year.
The Nitro shares many design attributes with the much-panned Jeep Liberty. It earns only 16mpg on average and is rated in Consumer Reports as a noisy SUV that is clumsy and stiff while lacking agility. Web2Cars calls it “behind the times.”
Chevy’s tiny coupe gets sub-average reliability ratings and unimpressive acceleration. Driving can feel clunky and noisy, and the interior quality is subpar compared to other affordable compacts. Look for the Aveo replacement for 2012: the Chevrolet Sonic.
Web2Cars warns potential buyers that the Titan’s “noisy V-8 and exhaust may interrupt the driving experience.” It also notes that the truck’s reliability has dropped well below average for the past five model years. The Titan lacks a full-time AWD to match the power output, and a lack of passenger room for crew cab models makes it subpar compared to competitors.