Not every vehicle is a home run. In fact, failure is more often the norm when it comes to car design. For every classic vehicle such as the Toyota Camry, Ford F-150, Honda Civic, or Porsche 911, there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of vehicles that came, flopped, and disappeared. However, a few of the failures have been so bad that they qualify as legendary. We’re talking about failure on a scale of “New Coke” levels. Here are 10 of the biggest flops and failures in automotive history.
10. Chevrolet SSR (2003–2006)
Have you ever wondered what a convertible pick-up truck would look like? Well, wonder no more because Chevrolet essentially built one with the SSR, a convertible/pick-up mashup that failed miserably in the mid-2000s. Actually, the SSR was marketed as a 21st Century hot rod and meant to appeal to hipsters. But sadly, even they weren’t buying the hype around this much maligned vehicle.
Of course, the Chevrolet SSR followed the Plymouth Prowler, an equally disastrous and awkward-looking hot rod that failed terribly just one year earlier. The SSR’s life was a short three years given its terrible sales and bad publicity. It wasn’t fast (0-to-60 mph in 7.7 seconds). It wasn’t practical (it had a super small truck bed). And it cost $42,000! Chevrolet decided to pull the plug in early 2006. R.I.P.
9. Coda (2012–2013)
If you don’t remember the infamous Coda, you’re not alone. This was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it vehicle that bombed so badly it disappeared before it had a chance to show-up on most people’s radar. A compact four-door all-electric sedan that was built mostly in China, the Coda was meant to be a family and environmentally friendly vehicle. But at a starting price of US$40,000, most people took a hard pass on this car and opted for cheaper equivalents.
It didn’t help that as the first Codas were rolling off the assembly line, rival Tesla was debuting its much sleeker Model S sedan. The Tesla cost a lot more than the Coda, but it also was more reliable and performed much better than the Coda. Other electric sedan competition came from the Fiat 500E and the original Nissan Leaf, both of which offered superior driving range per battery charge. In the end, only about 100 Coda sedans were ever produced before production was shut down for good and the company folded.
8. Ford Th!nk (2002–2011)
The only thing the Ford Th!nk makes you wonder is: what were they thinking at Ford when they developed this turkey? From the initial concept of a tiny subcompact electric car for city driving, right down to using an exclamation point in the vehicle’s name, the Th!nk was a poorly conceived venture. Looking more like an expensive golf cart, the Th!nk proved to be a design and marketing disaster for Ford in the early 2000s.
Stunningly, Ford stayed with the Th!nk brand until 2011, retooling the car several times and offering increasingly small electric cars that proved to be more pathetic than the previous versions. The final edition, known as the “Th!nk C!ty” had a driving range of only 50 miles per battery charge. Believe it or not there was even a Th!nk-branded electric bicycle, again for city dwellers, that proved equally unpopular. Ford eventually threw in the towel on this car, the last of which were produced in Norway of all places.
7. General Motors EV1 (1997–1999)
To be fair, the EV1 electric car by General Motors may have been ahead of its time. Announced with much fanfare on Earth Day in 1990, the EV1 finally rolled off the production line in 1997 as the first modern-day electric car from a major automotive manufacturer. The executives at GM were thrilled, as were environmentalists the world over. The EV1 had a plastic body, aluminum chassis and a 137-horsepower AC induction motor and a 16.5-kWh lead-acid battery pack.
The driving range was listed as 70 to 90 miles, followed by a 15-hour recharge via a household outlet. It was the right car for some people at that time, but sadly not enough people. After only a little over 1,000 of these vehicles were sold in three years, GM announced that it was forced to end the unprofitable program. However, fans of the EV1 speculate that there was some shady business happening behind the scenes, resulting in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, which accuses GM of purposely sabotaging their own product and lying about low consumer demand. GM responded with a blog post of its own, defending their decisions, and the debate rages on.
6. Pontiac Aztek (2001–2005)
For a really ugly designed vehicle, look no further than the Pontiac Aztek. Meant to be one of the first crossover SUVs, the Aztek was marketed as a street-friendly SUV that could perform on both city streets and dirt roads. It boasted a high seating position and available all-wheel drive, which are both standard in many of today’s crossover SUVs.
Yet the Aztek’s technology and capabilities were grossly overshadowed by its terrible design. Legend has it that when the Aztek was unveiled at the Detroit auto show, the assembled media sat in stunned silence. Ouch! Pontiac actually based the Aztek on its minivan architecture, but that resulted in a simply awkward looking vehicle that resembled a plastic toy more than a car you would want to buy. In the end, Pontiac was forced to kill off the Aztek after four short years.
5. Saturn (1990–2010)
Remember Saturn? General Motors launched the Saturn brand in 1990 as a small car project that could compete with the best of the Japanese sedans. Saturn vehicles were also sold under an entirely new business strategy that offered no-haggling pricing. Unlike some of the quicker flops on this list, Saturn did actually survive for 20 years, selling models like the S-Series sedan, the VUE crossover, the RELAY minivan, and the Sky roadster.
However, Saturn never reached the lofty expectations that GM set for the nameplate and could not overcome the fact that the cars were mediocre at best and could never really compete against Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. When slumping sales and the Great Recession pushed the Saturn division into bankruptcy in 2010, GM had to scrap the cars altogether.
4. Toyota iQ (2008–2015)
Toyota has made few missteps in its lofty history, but the Japanese automaker made a big one with the iQ, a minicar whose main bragging point was that it was slightly bigger than a Smart car. Unveiled in Japan and Europe in 2008, the iQ was brought to the U.S. under the Scion brand in 2012 but failed to catch on with American consumers who were clamoring for large crossovers and SUVs rather than tiny subcompact sedans.
Toyota had an ambitious goal of selling 100,000 iQs annually around the world, but in five years the iQ sold just under 16,000 units total. Dismal, to be sure. Toyota tried to revive the iQ by adding an inventive third seat. But sadly, that did little to peak interest in the iQ and the car was scuttled in 2015.
3. Volkswagen Phaeton (2003–2006)
The Phaeton was one of the darkest moments in Volkswagen’s history. That’s saying a lot considering the company was founded by Adolph Hitler during World War II. Conceived as a car to compete against the luxury Mercedes-Benz S-class and the BMW 7-series, the Phaeton only succeeded in competing against the Audi A8, which Volkswagen also happens to own. However, the Phaeton proved to be 500 pounds heavier than the A8 and was more or less an albatross.
It was assembled in a purpose-built glass-walled factory, which never operated at capacity due to terrible sales. While critics praised the Phaeton’s W12 engine and handling, the price point that neared $100,000 kept consumers away. The model was dropped after only three years in which just 3,354 Phaetons were sold. Many people now say it was foolish for Volkswagen, which translated literally to “people’s car,” to try and sell a high-end luxury sedan.
2. The Yugo (1985-1992)
Ahh, the Yugo — still revered as one of the worst cars ever made, more than 25 years after its death. It was so bad that it will never truly disappear. The Yugo was the brainchild of Malcolm Bricklin, the man who helped to found Subaru and launched several failed sports cars during the 1970s.
Launched in 1985 and marketed as a successor to the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle with a retail price of just $3,990, the Yugo was sold with a massive public relations campaign to promote what was essentially a jalopy built in a factory in then communist-Yugoslavia. Despite offering “Great Value,” the quality of the Yugo proved to be horrendous and the car was dangerously underpowered for U.S. roads and highways. By the time the company folded in 1992, the car had become the butt of jokes everywhere. Amazingly, the car remained in production in Europe until 2008.
1. DeLorean DMC-12 (1981-1983)
It’s fate and reputation may have been redeemed by the Back to the Future film series, but there’s no hiding the fact that the DeLorean DMC-12 was the biggest flop in automotive history. Today, the DMC-12 is a legendary car, but only for pop culture reasons. Company founder John DeLorean spent most of the 1970s promoting his car as the “sports car of the future,” and negotiated with the British government to build his manufacturing factory in war-torn Belfast, Ireland in exchange for more than US$100 million in government grants.
DeLorean hoped to sell around 12,000 units of his aluminum-made sports car that featured those unique gullwing doors. However, at the end of 1981, the company was out of money and only 6,000 cars had been sold. After a well publicized cocaine bust, the British government seized the company’s assets from DeLorean and closed the factory in December 1982. In all, only about 9,000 DMC-12 sports cars were built. The whole saga was a sad and short-lived affair. Oh, and when a DeLorean DMC-12 showed up as a time machine in Back to the Future, it was meant as the punchline to a joke. Only after the film franchise’s overwhelming success did people start to love with the DMC-12 again. It was too little, too late.