Yahoo News ran this article a few days ago and I’ve been meaning to post it here, but other matters knocked it right out of the noggin.
[A PASTE JOB - ORIGINALLY RAN ON YAHOO NEWS DOT COM]
Here and now, in vivid HTML, Car and Driver formally apologizes for naming the Renault Alliance to the 1983 10Best Cars list. For the last 26 years, it’s been gnawing at our collective gut like a shame-induced ulcer. The car was trash. We should have known that back then, and it’s taken us too long to confess our grievous mistake. Let this frank admission be the start of our penance.
It’s not the only blemish on our record, and we’re not the only publication to recognize a few stinkers with its highest honor. The history of automotive journalism has seen flaming piles of poo named “Car of the Year” even as they attract product liability lawsuits by the acre-foot and hunks of crud honored as “All-Stars” at the very moment buyers are seeking reimbursement under lemon laws.
It’s always a risk making judgments based on the initial exposure to a car, and sometimes a vehicle’s ultimate crappiness only reveals itself with the fullness of time. We’re all subject to hype for something that seems new, different, and maybe even better, and in this business, we all feel the crushing pressure to be timely, amusing, and authoritative. Being wrong is always a risk. Still, here are ten award winners for which somebody needs to apologize.
1983 Renault Alliance: Car and Driver 10 Best Cars
“If we were some other magazine,” our ancestors wrote, honoring the Renault Alliance as one of 1983’s 10 Best Cars, “this would be our car of the year.”
The Alliance was misconceived during that period (1982 to 1987) when France’s Renault owned American Motors. The idea was to take the front-drive Renault 9 sedan, redecorate it with American-friendly elements like whitewall tires and a monochrome interior, and assemble the whole shebang in an old Nash factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While the Alliance rode and handled okay for the time, the standard 1.4-liter engine croaked along with only 60 hp.
The Alliance proved that Wisconsin workers could assemble a Renault with the same indifference to quality that was a hallmark of French automobile industry. By the late ’80s, the sight of rusted Alliances abandoned alongside America’s roads was so common that their resale value had dropped to nearly zero. When Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, its first order of business was the mercy killing of the Alliance.
For the record, that “other magazine,” Motor Trend, did in fact name the Alliance its Car of the Year for 1983. We share the shame.
2002 Ford Thunderbird: Motor Trend Car of the Year
Ford’s re-launch of the Thunderbird as a two-seater in 2002 seemed like such a good idea. The styling was gorgeous, the concept car had earned raves at every car show, and nostalgia for the 1955–1957 two-seat ‘Birds was at a fever pitch.
Unfortunately, Ford went cheap engineering the new T-Bird, grabbing most of the chassis pieces and many interior elements straight out of the lackluster Lincoln LS sedan’s parts bin. The result was an overweight, softly sprung roadster that looked great outside, was agonizingly boring inside, and dreary to drive. And at about $40,000, it was stupidly expensive. If anyone was going to drive this T-Bird, it was platinum-haired women prone to carrying small dogs wherever they go. It turns out there aren’t that many of those women out there.
Only 19,085 Thunderbirds were sold during the 2002 model year and sales dwindled from there. Mercifully, 2005 was the two-seater’s last year of production.
1971 Chevrolet Vega: Motor Trend Car of the Year
The Chevy Vega is on everyone’s short list for Worst Car of All Time. It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oily smoke was when it was being towed.
That’s not to say the choice of the Vega as 1971 Car of the Year doesn’t make sense in context. This was the year Ford and Chevy introduced new small cars and compared to Ford’s Pinto, the Vega at least seemed better. The Vega handled more precisely, was available in more body styles, and, with styling cribbed straight off the Camaro, looked more attractive. The Vega’s aluminum engine block even seemed like a technological leap forward.
However, the aluminum block’s unlined cylinder bores scored easily and the (usually misaligned) iron cylinder head let oil pour into them. Every element of the Vega’s chassis was built about as flimsily as possible and the unibody structure’s metal was usually attacked by rust mere moments after being exposed to, well, air. It’s been 38 years since the Vega appeared, and the stink still won’t wash off.
1997 Cadillac Catera: Automobile All-Stars
By the mid ’90s, Cadillac was sick of being kicked around by European competitors like the BMW 3- and 5-series and Mercedes C- and E-classes. No matter how hard Caddy tried, it always seemed that the Germans were cooler. So Cadillac looked at GM’s international portfolio of products, came across the rear-drive Opel Omega MV6 that was then being built in Germany (perfect!), and decided that, with a little bit of redecoration and a name change to Catera, it would make a great Cadillac.
Despite an ad campaign that featured both Cindy Crawford and animated versions of the ducks found on the Cadillac crest, there was just no way to hide that the Catera was a snoozer. The styling was generic and gelatinous, the interior bland, the chassis response lackadaisical, and the 3.0-liter V-6’s 200 hp had to strain against a nearly 3900-pound curb weight. Ads for the Catera said it was the “Caddy that zigs,” but what’s the point of zigging without zagging? About the only thing truly interesting about the Catera was its calamitous reliability record.
1985 Merkur XR4Ti: Car and Driver 10 Best Cars
In 1985, Merkur was such a peculiar name that anyone writing about Ford’s new brand of vehicles imported from Europe had to resort to phonetic spellings. “The Merkur (‘Mare-coor’) XR4Ti is about the slickest thing to ever come out of a Lincoln-Mercury dealer’s showroom,” C/D wrote while enshrining the car as one of that year’s 10Best, “maybe the slickest thing ever to come out of the Ford Motor Company.”
To create the XR4Ti, Ford took Europe’s bulbous three-door, rear-drive Sierra, excised its V-6 engine, and replaced it with the turbocharged 2.3-liter four out of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and SVO Mustang (albeit without the SVO’s intercooler). The result wasn’t a terrible car, but it sure was odd-looking.
With its biplane rear spoiler and slick contours, the XR4Ti was aerodynamically slippery and looked European. The turbo four’s raucous 170 hp managed somewhat sprightly performance, but no matter how giddy C/D’s editors were back then, buyers found the XR4Ti highly resistible. It was, in sum, peculiar.
1997 Chevrolet Malibu: Motor Trend Car of the Year
There hasn’t been a more generic or uninteresting car made in America than the 1997 Chevrolet Malibu. “Chevrolet decided that unlike its crosstown rivals at Ford and Chrysler,” wrote Motor Trend as it assigned the Malibu its highest accolade, “it wasn’t interested in pushing the styling envelope with its new sedan.” And push it, General Motors didn’t.
At least the 1997 Malibu drove blandly, too. The front-drive chassis was tuned for banality. The two engines offered were a 2.4-liter DOHC four making 150 hp or a 3.1-liter V-6 rated at just 155 horsepower. And both were lashed to a somnambulant four-speed automatic transaxle.
Moments after the Malibu went on sale, it became a fixture in fleets; it was the perfect car to buy when you’re buying 600. It became such a staple with rental companies that when the next Malibu was ready for launch during the 2004 model year, Chevrolet simply changed the name of the one introduced in 1997 to “Classic” and restricted sales to fleets. The Classic remained in production through the 2005 model year. It was America’s plain brown wrapper.
1990 Lincoln Town Car: Motor Trend Car of the Year
The 1990 Lincoln Town Car was barely more than a re-skinned version of its immediate predecessor, a lame tub designed to wring a couple more years of profits out of decades-old technology. Sure, the 1990 Town Car’s wheelbase grew an entire tenth of an inch—from 117.3 to 117.4 inches—and overall length was up 1.2 inches, but virtually every mechanical element was carryover. That included the float-tuned suspension, the Nimitz-class steering circle, the arthritic 150-hp 4.9-liter V-8, and the slough-shifting four-speed automatic transmission. At least the looks were marginally improved and, if you’re going to pass out drunk on the floor of a car, it’s hard to think of a better machine than a stretched Town Car limo.
The Town Car got better in 1991 when Ford’s then-new 190-hp V-8 replaced the old pushrod engine, but after that it remained technologically stagnant until it was once again superficially redesigned for 1998. It didn’t even try to be new.
1980 Chevrolet Citation: Motor Trend Car of the Year
When GM’s front-drive compact X-cars–the Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix—went into production in April 1979, everything seemed foolproof. The X-car was front-drive, the two available engines were old-school pushrod designs, and the interior was Detroit chic with flat seats and plastic door panels. At the time, it seemed like a breakthrough—finally, an American-made Honda Accord.
Things started going terribly wrong as soon as the X-car got into the hands of consumers. While staring down 60 -month payment books, Citation owners were having trim bits fall off in their hands, hearing their transmissions groan and seize, and finding that if they listened closely enough they could hear their cars rust. At times it seemed the suspension in some X-cars wasn’t even bolted in correctly, as the ride motions grew funkier and funkier while the steering developed an oceanic on-center dead spot.
As GM’s first front-drive compacts, the X-cars were significant vehicles: They slaughtered GM’s reputation for a whole generation.
1974 Ford Mustang II: Motor Trend Car of the Year
The Mustang II was a direct response to the energy crises brought on by the OPEC oil embargoes of the early ’ 70s. Looking at the bloated 1973 Mustang, Ford was sure the way to go for ’74 was smaller. So they slapped a new body atop the Pinto to create the Mustang II, and skipped V-8 engines altogether.
Even as the Mustang II went on sale, purists were crying that it represented a betrayal. Instead of the powerful car the Mustang had been, here was a poseur with wheezing four- and six-cylinder engines under the hood. And, except for slightly better fuel economy, there were no compensating virtues.
Styling cues from earlier ponies—the “C” indent along the flanks, three-section taillights, and the corral shaped front grille—were cartoonish on the misshapen Mustang II. And no other Mustang is quite as despicable as the 1975 Mustang II Ghia notchback coupe with the half-vinyl roof. Ford shoehorned a V-8 into the Mustang II during 1975—a strangled, two-barrel 302-cubic-inch rated at a pathetic 129 hp—and that only further proved how ludicrously fragile the car’s structure was.
Today the Mustang II is the Mustang only the most socially inept enthusiast loves.
1995 Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique: Car and Driver 10 Best Cars
For three years from 1995 to 1997, this magazine tried to convince the rest of the world that the front-drive Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique were worthy of 10 Best status. It didn’t work.
“[T]hese replacements for the Tempo and Topaz are very different than Chrysler’s Cirrus,” we wrote in the 1995 10 Best issue. “The Contour is a smaller, tauter car. It has a tighter back seat but more aggressive road manners. In fact, if you didn’t see Ford’s oval logo, you might easily mistake it for a much more expensive European sports sedan.”
Hey, compared to the Tempo and Topaz, a wheelbarrow seemed refined. The problem was, as we should have understood back in ’95, that the Contour and Mystique really were too small for their class. Priced alongside the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, the Americanized versions of Europe’s cramped Mondeo never stood a chance.
“For the serious driver who wants a compact, affordable sedan,” we wrote to justify selection of the Contour and Mystique to the 1996 10 Best list, “these Ford products deserve a long look.” So buyers gave them a long look and then muttered to themselves, “That thing is just too dinky.”
Expect several of these posts over the next few days. Zac Ives is a friend and has always shown concern for my personal well-being, not to mention his (and Eric’s, and the store/label’s) help with my creative/creative-professional endeavors over the years. Most importantly, Anna is a wonderful, adorable child and that’s coming from someone Don’t like it? Want me to get back to expressing my dubious opinions on things? Check back next week, you…I’ll keep my words in check while posting about this cause. On with things…
SPREAD THE WORD!!!
…and everyone else. Pardon the absence from posting…or don’t. It doesn’t matter. I tried to remedy a work issue by pulling an all-nighter (last night) and came down with a dose of something…probably a little piece of whatever was badgering my mom at the end of last week and up through the weekend. Well, like I said before, it doesn’t matter. Why don’t you go and find me all of these back issues, or why don’t you skip that and contribute to a cause that’s actually worthy.