Americans commonly believe that Henry Ford invented the automobile as we know it, but that misconception stems from the fact that he ran the first manufacturing company to heavily use the assembly line method of production. German inventor Karl Benz actually invented the first car, the Benz Patent Motorcar in 1885.
The role of American consumers and manufacturers in automotive history cannot be denied, however. From wide open highway stretches to massive cities and sprawling suburbia, much of America lacks the public transportation to make living without owning a car possible. Add in the impressions that popular culture, from movies like The Fast and the Furious and Bullitt, to the muscle car mania that hit the country in the 1960s and 70s, and its no wonder that America's car brands have always cranked out as many new and impressive products as possible.
With the consumer market constantly shifting due to foreign competition, rising and falling fuel prices, and evolving technology, American manufacturers face a tough task when it comes to predicting just which cars will be successful and which will fail. And though sports cars like Ford's Mustang, sedans like Lincoln's Continental, or even pickup trucks like the Dodge Ram line have come to be eternally linked with the history of the automobile, each American carmaker has a long list of duds to their name, as well.
Keep scrolling for 20 of the absolute worst American cars, stinkers so bad no one should buy them at any price.
20 Chevrolet Avalanche
The mid-2000s were a rough time for American manufacturers, who were still struggling to compete with an import market that offered cheaper, more reliable entry-level cars as well as superior luxury and performance products. It seemed like American brands had a corner on the truck and SUV market, so most ended up trying to push the limits of what their trucks and SUVs could do.
In the end, though, trying to blend the purpose between two forms of automobile typically results in a disappointing product, and Chevrolet hopefully learned that lesson with the hilariously ugly Avalanche.
Where crossovers merged the minivan and SUV market, the Avalanche tried to merge the truck and SUV forms, with the result that it couldn't quite do either job well. Based on the same platform as the successful Suburban and Escalade models, the Avalanche instead offered a short truck bed out back, and allowed users to fold the second row of seats down when more space was required. Unfortunately, that meant any kind of weather would then enter the passenger cabin, while the Avalanche's thick (and overly clad) truck bed walls doubled as insulated coolers but kept width of the bed to a minimum, as well. Grey plastic faux roll bars didn't help the Avalanche, either.
19 Ford C-Max Hybrid
American consumers may not realize that Ford's C-Max line of modified Focus hatchbacks has been sold in Europe since 2003. But in end, Americans should probably be happy about that fact, since even when Ford introduced the C-Max in Hybrid and Energi (or plug-in hybrid) form in the United States for 2012, the car proved ridiculous terrible. Ford's goal was to offer the most affordable hybrid car available on the market, and while the price certainly was low, the C-Max Hybrid was truly just cheap. The car's fuel efficiency actually led to a class action suit, because Ford drastically overrated the car's MPGs and range on the car's window sticker and in advertisements. The C-Max Hybrid was so bad, even with the growing hybrid market, production ended in 2018.
Car and Driver ridiculed the C-Max Hybrid and Energi models efficiency and driving characteristics, saying, "A 2.0-liter four, an AC electric motor, and a CVT combine for 188 hp; in our testing, the C-Max hybrid and the plug-in C-Max Energi each got only 33 MPGe on the highway. If a hybrid can’t top a gas-powered opponent’s fuel economy, then why bother? The Energi’s EV-only range of 20 miles is inadequate, too. That the C-Max drives much like a conventional hatchback furthers that point."
18 Jeep Cherokee
Jeep's long history of building capable off-road vehicles came to an end with the 2014 Jeep Cherokee model. With rock crawlers like the Wrangler in the lineup, as well as more luxury inspired models like the Grand Cherokee that nonetheless did well on the trail and in the snow, Jeep tried to re-envision the Cherokee - which was once a premier entry-level SUV equally at home in town and on dirt - as a crossover SUV/minivan.
And though the crossover market seems to be growing at an amazing rate, Jeep's new Cherokee does dishonor to the brand's heritage.
Once upon a time, the Jeep Cherokee was a boxy, truck-based SUV with impressive ground clearance, simple mechanicals, and a utilitarian interior that bordered on spartan. Now, the new Cherokee has small wheels, ground clearance only slightly better than a minivan, and almost silly attempts at exterior styling. The Cherokee even comes in a front wheel drive layout, true heresy for anyone who has ever loved Jeeps. The front grill reveals the Cherokee's wide waistline, while four sets of headlights and fog lights break are clad in varying styles of opening and lenses. An interior designed for grocery store runs rounds out the entirely sad Cherokee's package.
17 Oldsmobile Aurora
In the late 1990s, Oldsmobile wanted to add a new high-end sports sedan to their lineup to continue on the heritage of their Toronado and 98 products. The first generation Aurora debuted for the 1998 model year, and even though advertising tried to pin the big sedan as a sports car, not many Americans were fooled - it's hard to sell a boatlike, 3,600 pound, front wheel drive car with a four speed automatic transmission, much less while calling it a sports car. The simple exterior of the first generation Aurora gave way to a second generation redesign in 2001, which only served to solidify the Aurora's bulbous nature in the mind of the public.
Oldsmobile otherwise barely changed the car for its facelift, retaining a mediocre V8 (as well as an outright underpowered V6) under the hood, again powering the front wheels through a four speed automatic. The announcement by GM in December 2000 that Oldsmobile as a brand would be phased probably didn't help, and clearly the Aurora wasn't going to be the savior Oldsmobile desperately needed to continue its existence. Overall sales of the second generation Aurora just barely reached half the sales of the first, in fact, and thankfully the model slid out of existence along with the brand by 2004.
16 Ford Pinto
Not all cars fail because their designers create a baffling exterior profile, or because the interior is cramped and small, or even because executive decide to dump in an underwhelming drivetrain; some fail because their engineering is straight up dangerous. But then there are the very special cars that fail at all of the above, and probably none failed more famously than the Ford Pinto.
Originally built to compete with smaller, more affordable, and more reliable offerings streaming into the United States from Japan, the Pinto debuted in 1971 as the smallest car produced by Ford since 1907. A hatchback layout was even offered, as were station wagons and coupes.
The Pinto's interior was cheap, the engine options limited, and the exterior was bland, but even all those factors combined didn't kill the Pinto's future outright. Instead, engineers at Ford had designed a fuel system that led to fires even in minor rear-end collisions. Famously, Ford appeared to realize the design flaw, but decided that a recall cost of only $11 per car was simply too much to pay to avoid potential deaths. Unsurprisingly, lawsuits followed the Pinto, and though some may still be on the road today, they're not just a bad deal, they're downright dangerous.
15 Chevrolet Chevette
Competition from foreign manufacturers led to a dark period of American automotive design and manufacturing during the decades beginning with 1970 all the way to the late 2000s. As consumers realized that cheaper, more reliable, and more efficient cars could be had that were built abroad, Detroit was forced to either double down on classic American motoring or to try to adapt their models to compete with the newcomers. The result was years and years of compromise, from overall design to mechanical engineering to marketing decisions.
Chevrolet's Chevette came during this period, debuting for the 1976 model year as a smaller American product. In either 3 or 5-door hatchback form, the Chevette offered a range of sluggish inline four engines which initially produced as little as 53 horsepower. Even taking into account that laughable figure, probably the most egregious aspect of the Chevette is that Chevy essentially combined the words 'Chevrolet' and 'Corvette' in a marketing ploy to somehow equate the lower-cost car with its legendary Corvette stablemate. Despite a few years of solid sales, though, no one truly should have gone with the Chevette at the time, and certainly, a used Chevette should never be considered as an option for driving on the modern highway.
14 Cadillac Cimarron
The Cadillac Cimarron is a notable piece of the puzzle when considering how American manufacturers lost their way in the 1980s. With a debut for the 1982 model year, Cadillac should have chosen to introduce a new car to match the new decade, but instead the marketing team must have overwhelmed the classic American luxury manufacturer's designers and engineers, because the Cimarron was actually just a Chevy Cavalier with a couple of different badges on it.
Rather than building on the Cavalier's platform, perhaps upgrading engine options or interior amenities, Cadillac left in a four cylinder engine (their first in a production car since 1914) that displaced less than 2 liters (a first since 1908) paired to a base four speed manual transmission (the first since 1953).
An automatic transmission was optional, though with only three forward speeds. The price tag for a Cimarron was nonetheless thousands of dollars higher than the nearly identical Cavalier, yet Cadillac still tried to market the car as a cheaper and more efficient luxury alternative to offerings from BMW, Volvo, and Saab. In reality, the Cimarron was a more expensive cheap car, rather than a less expensive luxury car - and Cadillac paid the price with significant declines in both sales and consumer confidence.
13 Mercury Mystique
Often times products come to the market that are so bland and boring that consumers are left wondering who might have ever dedicated money to building them, and why. Such is the case with the Mercury Mystique, the sister of Ford's Mondeo which had been intended to conquer the world's automotive market. And in fact, the platform sold under many names, with many different drivetrain options, in many countries around the world, and even under the Ford Counter name in the United States.
The Mystique doesn't offer any single piece of excitement, however, being a basic commuter car with little in the way of performance or comfort on offer. The Mystique and its brethren featured front wheel drive and either an inline four or V6 engine paired to a five speed manual or four speed automatic. A 0-60 time is irrelevant for the car, since no one ever tried to claim it would do anything important. Extensive use of cheap plastics and cloth rendered both the interior and exterior exceedingly prone to delamination and discoloration, as well. Perhaps the only thing remarkable about the model is that Ford sold it for eight years over two generations, but even a used car dealer today would have trouble giving one away.
12 Ford Thunderbird
The Ford Thunderbird is yet another example of a failed attempt at retro styling as the reinvigorating element in a model's resurrection. The original Ford Thunderbird models of the 1950s and 60s were some of Ford's most classic cars, beginning as Corvette-challenging sports cars then giving way to a blend of touring and muscle car profiles with long lines, powerful haunches, and plenty of chromed out fins. Even the first generation T-Bird was available with a supercharged 5.1-liter V8, which utilized dual four-barrel carburetors to crank out 300 horsepower.
When Ford reintroduced the Thunderbird for an eleventh generation in 2002, the result was a mix of underwhelming power, strange design, and overall a lapse in brand memory.
The laundry list of the new version's failures include a nose that resembled a grinning fish, a curb weight over 3,700 pounds, and a five speed automatic as the only transmission option. Soft springs focused more on comfort than performance rounded out the package, and Ford struggled to even keep dealers selling the car at MSRP. By 2005, sales were down to less than half of Ford's projections, and the T-Bird went into a hibernation from which it has yet to emerge.
11 Saturn SC2
One of the strangest brands within the entire range of American automobile manufacturing history was GM's attempt to create a low-end line of competition for imported products under the Saturn badge. The brand began operations in 1985, and for 25 years tried to sell lightweight, affordable, futuristically-styled cars as best it could. And yet, almost every Saturn ever made is a car to be avoided at any cost. Case in point is the Saturn SC2, a tiny front wheel drive car coupe that figured into the lineup of Saturn's other compact S-Series models.
The SC2 was actually a higher-trim version of the base level SC coupe, but calling it an upgrade is almost a misuse of the word.
Over a few generations, a couple of improvements that the SC2 offered over its base counterparts included a sliding armrest on a center storage console, a rear trunk lid deflector, a front passenger airbag, and an improved lower front bumper and taillight package. Important details like automatically locking doors and automatic transmission improvements, meanwhile, applied to the whole lineup. If an SC2 looks attractive, there aren't many other cars that can possibly meet the same criteria, but the best bet would be a reconsideration of taste, rather than actually buying a used example.
10 Pontiac GTO
A retro theme struck American manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with multiple brands resurrecting former model lines or even coming out with unnecessarily styled new cars, trucks, and SUVs. But when Pontiac announced that the GTO would be returning to their lineup in 2004, fans of the classic muscle car couldn't help but be excited. Unfortunately, the fourth generation GTO, brought back after a nearly three decade hiatus, was an incredible disappointment in almost every facet of its concept.
In fact, the fourth generation GTO was a Holden product out of Australia, which GM just rebadged with the GTO moniker for the American market. But apparently no one at GM took the time to wonder whether the car in any way shared its design or aesthetic with the original GTO, because the small coupe with its sleek lines looked more like a daily driver than a drag strip monster. True, a V8 did lurk under the hood, but the muscle car identity of the GTO line didn't even factor into the car's development. Even upping output to 400 horses couldn't save the new GTO, and after three years of disappointing sales the GTO was put to rest for good.
9 Buick Skylark
The Buick Skylark first went into production all the way back in 1953, in big touring convertible form and known as the Roadmaster Skylark. A series of generations followed as Buick modified the line to adapt with the times - from big fins to muscle car haunches and massive two-door sedans. By the fourth and fifth generation Skylark, though, Buick hit a new low in terms of design inspiration. The Skylarks of the 1980s transformed into boxy people movers, in a total departure from the entire history of the line.
Front wheel drive, four doors, a transverse-mounted engine, and feeble attempts at luxury defined the Skylark in the 1980s, which would have been bad enough. To add insult to the Skylark's injury, the engineers and designers at Buick failed to compensate for switching all the mass over the front axle of the car, and the result was a tendency for the rear wheels to lock during braking thanks to limited weight and traction. The Skylark developed a reputation for losing control and crashing, and even adding vinyl roofs, V6 engine options, and a standard automatic transmission couldn't revitalize the Skylark. The disappointment of the Skylark, including in its followup sixth generation, helped to result in the range of crossovers that Buick focuses on to this day.
8 Ford Flex
On paper, the Ford Flex probably seemed like a good idea. With the growing market for crossovers starting to take over the American manufacturing landscape, Ford decided to release a larger model that blurred the line between panel van and SUV. Retro styling found its way into the mix somehow, and the Ford Flex was born for the 2009 model year. In reality, however, the Flex is not much more than a larger body on a sedan's chassis, and despite an all wheel drive option, the Flex failed to live up to its (already questionable) looks. The flat panels of the Flex's side feature a subtle reference to woodies of the past, while a starkly futuristic grille points to the car's future.
With a range of engine options topped by a twin-turbocharged EcoBoost that creates 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, the Flex might even sound attractive to motorheads, until they realize that all that power is routed through a commuter car's platform. Rumor has it that Ford plans to discontinue the Flex in 2020, but nonetheless the brand is attempting to advertise a 2019 iteration. Wise consumers would do well to steer wide around the Flex, however, and instead commit to either a full-on sedan or true SUV.
7 Chrysler Pacifica
The Chrysler Pacifica crossover debuted for the 2004 model year as a result of the Daimler-Chrysler merger and an attempt by the new conglomerate to produce an impressive product with minimal development time commitment. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, after only 30 months dedicated to design, engineering, and building, the Pacifica hit the market as a crossover that couldn't quite decide whether to lean more towards the minivan side or the SUV side. In fact, rather than create a sporty crossover, it seemed Chrysler had chosen the worst of both worlds to combine in the Pacifica.
Bland styling, low clearance, and an underpowered drivetrain plagued the Pacifica from its inception until the first generation was discontinued in 2007 despite repeated attempts to improve its power and driving characteristics.
Compared to other crossovers of its day, exemplified by BMW's X5 and Lexus' RX series, the Pacifica was higher priced with none of the corresponding quality. Today, the Pacifica has been relaunched as a committed minivan, with a hybrid power plant allowing for economical travel. Under such a time crunch, Chrysler no doubt would have done better for themselves by releasing the first generation as a minivan from the very beginning of design and development.
6 Geo Metro
Car and Driver's famous picture of four men holding up the rear end of a Geo Metro perfectly sums up the hilarious little car. Almost more of a clown car than an actual clown car, the Metro came about as part of a team up between General Motors and Suzuki, with the intention of creating a sub-compact, ultra-affordable car for both domestic and foreign markets. Though the Geo Metro name wasn't used the whole time, the resultant product was sold in the United States for 13 years, however the most common model was the Geo Metro sold from model years 1995 to 2001.
Cheap was the name of the Metro's game, and it showed the car's every facet. Under the hood a three cylinder engine was the last car sold in America with throttle body injection, creating only 70 horsepower. A three speed automatic was optional, while a five speed manual came standard. Cloth seats and plastic trim defined the interior, and the overall package was marketed heavily towards first time car owners. Compared to the massive sedans, crossovers, and SUVs on the market today, a Geo Metro seems dangerous - even if a well-kept surviving example is definitely highly affordable.
5 Chevrolet SSR
One of the most classically misguided attempts by an American manufacturer to create a hip, retro styled vehicle is the Chevrolet SSR. Nearly every aspect of the SSR's design and conception is mind-boggling, but more mind-boggling is the fact that no one at Chevy realized they might be making a huge mistake. The first ridiculous feature is a hard top convertible on a pickup truck - which does the SSR the disservice of drastically reducing storage in the truck bed. Next, a matching hard top bed cover means the SSR can't haul anything more than about a foot tall.
The SSR's retro-inspired fender flares at the front and rear further cramped the overall utility of the truck, forcing the truck bed to remain narrow.
Even though the SSR shared an engine with the Corvette, which should have drawn in the young and sporty crowd (as its design was intended to do), the big engines under the hood and complicated design meant that Chevy was forced to sell the car for more than $40,000 - effectively pricing the target consumer base out of the market. In the end, the cartoonish convertible truck only lasted for three years, which is actually a long time considering GM announced layoffs at the factory in the first year of production.
4 Plymouth Prowler
The niche automotive culture of hot rodding is all about pairing retro style with powerful and loud engines, a combination that looks good and performs well - when the builds are done right. Designers and builders like Boyd Coddington, Chip Foose, and Jesse James represented the best of hot rod culture over the past few decades, and their designs inspired Plymouth to try to bring a modern take on the hot rod to the market in the late 1990s.
At first glance, the Prowler looks pretty awesome thanks to the sleek shape and open front wheels. The Prowler's mechanical design even includes a rear-mounted transmission for better weight distribution, and a chassis made mostly out of aluminum. But somewhere along the development process, things started to go awry. The Prowler received only a V6, in an attempt to keep weight down that nonetheless deserted the long history of American motoring. Even worse, that rear-mounted trans was a slushy four speed automatic, rather than a stick shift, which didn't help to put the scant 250 horsepower to the ground, and even with a weight of 2,800 pounds, the first Prowlers could only get to 60 miles per hour in 7.2 seconds.
3 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Chrysler's attempt at a retro-styled car for the early 2000s resulted in the sad and slow PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser tried to compensate with style to make up for a car that situated into a weird niche slightly smaller than a minivan, but larger than a hatchback. Instead of being a useful combination of the two, however, the PT Cruiser suffered from a lack of power that would have helped it nestle in closer to the hot hatches, while a lack of interior space kept it from being convenient for larger families.
The fender flares front and rear didn't help with the PT Cruiser's roominess, leading to a cramped trunk and engine bay. In that engine bay, the largest power plant that would fit was initially a 2.4-liter gasoline four cylinder, which only produced 140 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque. Yet despite the PT Cruiser's diminutive size, it still weighed in at over 3,000 pounds, and those kinds of power figures paired to a four speed automatic transmission struggled to power the front wheels. Chrysler eventually tried to remedy the situation with a turbocharged engine, but in reality should have given up on the project, maybe even before releasing the PT Cruiser at all.
2 Chevrolet HHR
Chevrolet's HHR represented an attempt to try for a retro-styled minivan and station wagon blend, the result being a slightly larger, less efficient, and slower car that still couldn't keep up with a true van in terms of overall utility. At least the HHR's higher roof, with a squarer rear end, allowed for enough headroom in the back seats, though, because otherwise the rest of the concept was highly disappointing.
Part of the problem was that the HHR shared its drivetrain and layout with much smaller cars like the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 with a weight that came in at almost 500 pounds, or around 20%, heavier.
Chevy introduced the HRR for the 2006 model year, though they should have learned from their competitor Chrysler's PT Cruiser that the retro mini-minivan concept was dead on arrival. Instead, they almost mimicked the PT Cruiser with a few tweaks to the outer shell. But under the hood a 2.2-liter inline four produced 143 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, and a four speed automatic came standard. In similar fashion to the PT Cruiser, even, Chrysler later added a turbocharged engine. Today, a used HHR can be had on the cheap, but even for free it would seem like a bad deal.
1 Pontiac Aztek
Pontiac unveiled their Aztek for model year 2001, to the great confusion of the automotive world and even the world in general. With excessive plastic cladding, angular front and rear ends, and minimal ground clearance over small wheels, the Aztek was immediately reviled as one of the ugliest cars of its time, and possibly the ugliest car ever made. The fact that Pontiac's engineers, designers, and executives never took a step back during the Aztek's development was a miracle.
The Aztek represented Pontiac's attempt to enter the burgeoning crossover market, where a mix of the roominess of the minivan and the utility of the SUV come together. There was even a tent that fit onto the Aztek's rear to allow for easier camping. But even without the hideous design, the rest of the concept failed to impress, as well. Under the hood, a 3.4-liter V6 powered either the front or all four wheels of the almost 4,000 pound Aztek through a slushy four speed automatic transmission. The Aztek was so terrible in every way that it contributed to the death of the Pontiac brand as a whole. Even though Walter White may have driven one in Breaking Bad, even fans of the show should avoid the Aztek at all costs.
Sources: caranddriver.com, bringatrailer.com, and buffalocars.com.