America-- the land of baseball, apple pie, jazz, and the automobile. Yes, really. Although the history of the automobile is somewhat complicated (lots of ideas were tried by lots of inventors around the world), in 1893, two American brothers by the name of "Charles" and "Frank Duryea" created the first successful gas-powered car. They later set up the first American car manufacturing company, but in 1908, it was Henry Ford who combined their idea with assembly-line production to make the Model T affordable for the masses.
For several decades, the US was at the top of the car industry, but then, everything seemed to go downhill. Now, American cars have a reputation for being sub-par, and unfortunately, that reputation seems to spread around the world. So, what went wrong? Depending on whom you ask, it was either everything... or nothing.
I drive an American vehicle--a '99 Dodge Durango. And I love it. Okay, the MPG is a little harsh, but despite being 18 years old, it does everything I need it to regardless of weather or road (or off-road). I have a hard time imagining what Germany or Japan could offer me that would make it worthwhile to trade in my Durango.
Why do some people say American cars suck? Is there any truth to the insult? Here are 15 possible reasons to consider.
15 Bigger Doesn't Mean Better
Good or bad, Americans have traditionally been known for liking big things. We love our wide open spaces, our 10-gallon cowboy hats, and our supersized fast-food meals, so why should our cars be any different?
Unless you work as a farmer or a rancher or have 12 kids, there's really no reason you would need to purchase an SUV or a big pickup truck. Yet, in the SUV craze of the 90s, people did just that, buying huge SUVs to use as their daily drivers to and from their office jobs in the city. Gas was cheap and plentiful, so why not?
My, how times have changed! Though still a minority, people interested in small cars are a growing population. According to J.D. Power, among the ten most popular small cars in America in 2016, the Chevrolet Cruze sits at #6 while the Ford Focus is #4.
14 One Size Fits All
While the Ford Motor Company's assembly-line production reduced the price of cars enough that the middle class could afford to own them, there were a few downsides. By their very nature, assembly lines mass produce products that are exactly the same (Henry Ford even infamously said, "A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black."), which leaves little room for niche markets. And if the design happens to be a bad idea, to begin with, it's replicated thousands and thousands of times nevertheless. For example, consider the Pontiac Aztek (pictured here), which was widely criticized as "design by committee" and is notorious as one of the biggest car-model failures of all time, even though Breaking Bad tried really hard to make it cool.
13 Gas Guzzlers
When gas prices finally stabilized in the wake of the 1979 oil crisis (and even declined a full 60% by the 1990s), Americans more or less treated it like a party, and car manufacturers were happy to join in. Who cares about fuel efficiency when gas is a dollar a gallon? SUVs, pickup trucks, and muscle cars flew out of dealerships, and even now that filling up your tank is an exercise in sticker shock, America has not been totally willing to part with its gas guzzlers (for example, the Dodge Viper pictured here gets only 14 MPG).
But interest in hybrid and electric cars is growing. According to US News, seven of the top 18 hybrid cars for 2018 are American, with the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid sitting at #3.
12 You Get What You Pay For
Begin a discussion about American cars, and one of the first things the haters will bring up is that they're cheap--as in, cheaply made parts getting slapped together on an assembly line and thrown out the door. There's none of that legendary German engineering nor any of the Japanese's quest for perfection. For America, it's all about making a quick buck.
Unfortunately, there's a bit of truth to this. For specific examples, think of how Ford neglected to put an $11 steel plate in the back of their Pinto that would've protected the fuel tank and prevented fires, or how Chevrolet cut costs when manufacturing the Vega (pictured here) by reducing the size of the radiator. But it's the 21st century, and things are different now. Out of 23 categories on the "Highest Quality Cars of 2017" ranking by J.D. Power, American cars hold seven titles.
11 Poor Handling
Along with being cheaply made, American cars have a reputation for poor handling. Some of this is blamed on the American fascination with street racing (muscle cars are built for one purpose: to go fast in a straight line for a quarter mile). Some of this is blamed on our highways, which tend to be long and straight (especially when compared with those in Europe). And unfortunately again, there's some truth to this rumor. For example, take the 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT (see here), which Motor Trend distinguished as the worst-handling car they tested that whole year.
But there's light at the end of the tunnel. If you made a list of the 16 best-handling sports cars in the world, you'd expect it to be full of Porsches and Nissans. But Carophile did just that, and guess what they say is #6? The Dodge Viper SRT Coupe!
Car longevity is usually measured in miles rather than years, and a lot of factors go into determining how long a car will last: how it's maintained, how it's driven, and the quality of the car itself. Once again, the American reputation falls short in this aspect. Whereas Volvo and Mercedes-Benz both have a "High Mileage Award" program to recognize their long-lived models, Americans are encouraged to turn over their cars every few years via leasing programs. And when you consider vehicles like the Chevrolet Uplander (pictured here), which was notorious for needing so many repairs that owners just gave up, why wouldn't you?
But things are improving. By looking at the percentages of vehicles still on the road after 200,000 miles, Popular Mechanics ranked "The Top 10 Longest-Lasting Vehicles of 2016," and American cars occupy five of the ten spots, including #1 and #2!
9 No Style
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so we're told. And it's probably true because even if you talk about something that's almost universally thought of as beautiful (for example, the Sistine Chapel), there will always be a few haters on hand to disagree. On the flip side, some things are thought of as almost universally ugly, so they must also have had their share of dissenters who cheered on their creation, or else, how do you explain the existence of the PT Cruiser Convertible?
If anything, the majority of American cars are probably more boring than truly ugly, but US automakers have their beauties as well. Take, for example, the Corvette Stingray or the new Ford GT (which sits at #2 on Business Insiders' "The 10 most beautiful cars on sale today").
8 Terrible Interiors
If you want to know what a car is about, look at the interior. Is it a stripped down racer lacking basically everything but a seat and a steering wheel, or is it a plush luxury vehicle with 29 speakers and wood paneling sourced exclusively from Black Wattle trees (such as in the 2016 SVAutobiography Land Rover)? Unfortunately, a car's interior can also tell you if the manufacturer wanted to cut costs, corners, or both. Cheap materials like plastics and faux carbon fiber are a dead giveaway, and sometimes depending on the styling, the look really doesn't age well (like in this pictured AMC Matador).
But once again, America is working hard to change its image. In fact, the Buick LaCrosse and the Lincoln Continental both are listed in WardsAuto's "Top 10 Best Interiors of 2017."
No one has time to deal with a car that suddenly dies, leaving you stranded on the side of the highway when you were supposed to be at work ten minutes ago. Reliability is an important quality, and the inconvenience factor (let alone the cost of repairs) goes a long way in affecting owners' satisfaction with their vehicles. Truth be told, US automakers don't score well in this respect. On Consumer Reports' annual survey of Least Reliable Cars, American cars hold six (6!) of the ten 2017 spots, with the Tesla Model X (pictured here) taking top billing.
Is there any good news to counteract the bad? Not really. Using data from that same survey, Consumer Reports ranked 2017's 10 Most Reliable Cars, and no American vehicles make the cut.
6 Masters of Disaster
If you look close enough into the history of any auto manufacturer, you'll find at least one vehicle that was so unsafe, it really should never have been put on the market. But when it comes to high-profile death traps, US automakers have a few too many strikes against them. Remember the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega, the Pontiac Fiero, the Chevy Corvair, and the DMC Delorean? These are some of the most unsafe cars of all time. "Yeah," I hear you saying, "but what about newer cars?" Consider the Chevy Cobalt (pictured here), which caused 90 deaths and 163 reported injuries in 2015 alone (due to defective switches, which cut power to airbags and brakes).
Is there any hope? A little. The IIHS has awarded 2018 Top Safety Picks to four American cars; the bad news is US automakers only managed to land four on a list of 62.
5 Bad PR
America's "Big Three" automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) once represented the shining potential of US manufacturing, but then things took a turn for the worst. A reputation for making crappy cars dogs all three, driving consumers away. The reduced demand means their plants run below capacity, and they're reliant on subsidized leases to sell vehicles (which moves cars off the lot but hurts the bottom line in the long run). Internally, they suffer from plant closures and layoffs. In 1980, the book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors by J. Patrick Wright was published; it contained allegations of corruption against GM--claims that weren't so surprising considering their Vice President, John Z. DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean), was charged with trafficking cocaine. The struggles of the Big Three have always made headlines, so who could blame someone for thinking twice about buying an American car?
4 The Bailout
The struggles of the American automotive "Big Three" were only exasperated by the global financial downturn in 2007. When GM and Chrysler (but not Ford) threatened bankruptcy, the US government, under President Obama, bailed them out (to the tune of $79.68 billion in taxpayer money) to prevent worsening the Great Recession. The move was deeply unpopular; according to CNN, only 36% of Americans supported the bailout. It was seen as unfair, as rewarding of poor business management and ethics, and as a way of letting highly paid auto execs keep their private jets.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or how successful you believe the auto bailout was, it's impossible to deny that the bailout left a bad taste in the mouths of millions of customers and further tarnished the already cloudy reputation of American automakers.
3 Rotten Resale Value
Unless you plan on keeping your car 'til death do you part (and let's face it, that's a big commitment to be making on a showroom floor), you'd be wise to inquire about the resale value. Every new car begins depreciating as soon you drive it off the lot, but some cars depreciate more quickly than others. Take the Chevrolet Captiva Sport (pictured here), which retains a paltry 38% of its original value after only 3 years, earning it the top spot on the Cars.com list of Top 10 Worst Car Resale Values for 2014. In fact, five out of the ten cars on the list are American.
So what's the good news? On the Cars.com counterpart list, Top 10 Best Car Resale Values for 2014, no American cars made the grade. Wait, that's bad news.
2 Bad Marketing Overseas
Remember in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (admit it, you totally watched it) where Sean's going to race against Takashi, so he takes his father's 1967 Ford Mustang? That scene was significant because, one, it acknowledged the heritage of American muscle cars, and two, no one in Japan drives American cars. Okay, I can't say absolutely NO ONE does, but in general, the Japanese market isn't interested in the offerings of US automakers. This is largely due to the perception that American cars are inferior (for the reasons I've already covered), but also due to GM's botched introduction of the Chevy Cavalier into the country in 1995. GM sold it as the Toyota Cavalier (pictured here) via a deal with the company--or should I say "TRIED to sell" since GM completely ignored Japanese tastes when marketing the Cavalier and only managed to sell 36,216 from 1995-2000.
1 Bad Reputation
So, what are we left with? Obviously. American cars have a less-than-stellar reputation both home and abroad, or there wouldn't be a cause to write this article. Sad to say, much of it has been earned. On top of that, there's always the possibility that the rest of the world will never understand America's automotive tastes. They may never appreciate the spirit of a pickup truck, the pomp of an SUV, or the defiance of a muscle car. So, should we follow Joan Jett's advice and not give a d**n about our bad reputation?
Maybe or maybe not. Who knows? But we do know that many of the issues with US automakers are slowly getting better, and thanks to consumer demand, the sins of the past are gradually being amended. American cars are moving in the right direction. Let's hope they stay that way.