Ah, the Nineties, a time when Madonna fought for supremacy on the FM airwaves with MC Hammer and Phil Collins. A decade when there was no such thing as streaming services and Friends and Seinfeld battled it out for network TV dominance. Oh yeah, the Nineties were a good time- the hated and dreaded New York Yankees were still the “Evil Empire” of sports, not some upstart gang from New England.
You know what else we saw come down the pike (quite literally) in the Nineties? Well, since this is a website devoted to cars you should know. That’s right, I’m talking about the rise of the machines (I know, that was a movie reference from the ought’s- so shoot me). I’m talking about the glorious appearance of the SUV. Well, maybe it wasn’t all glorious for the vaunted SUV’s introduction into the world but at least the appearance of that new hybrid between a pickup truck and a station wagon was definitely something new and exciting.
You see, SUVs weren’t even a thing in the Eighties. Actually, pretty much nothing was a thing in the Eighties unless you count New Wave music and Reaganomics. But then the Nineties came around the bend and people wanted something new from their cars. People wanted to get away from all of the sub-compact Japanese imports of the Eighties and they wanted to get away from the gas-guzzling behemoths Detroit was still churning out of its assembly lines. The SUV seemed like the perfect new way to usher in the end of the century. And mostly it was- who didn’t love a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner?
Except, a funny thing happened on the way to the showroom floor. Because SUVs were such the rage, everybody and their brother decided to get in on the market. Car makers that hadn’t existed five years before and wouldn’t be around five years later (Daewoo, anyone?) started pumping out crappy SUVs. Then makers who should have never gotten into the SUV in the market (Mercury anyone?) started pumping out crappy SUVs. And finally- yup, you guessed it- good manufacturers who should have known better (Land Rover, anyone?) started pumping out crappy SUVs. It was a veritable tsunami of awful SUVS and guess what; I’m here to tell you about the 20 worst of them.
20 Fiat Multipla
If you’ve been following my work here at Hot Cars you’ve probably noticed that I seem to spend a lot of time making fun of Fiat. While that may be true up to a certain point I honestly am not trying to take down this long-time Italian automaker. Fiat has made some great, fun cars over the years, including the original “Popemobile.” Who could top that, I ask you? But, sadly, the Multipla was not one of them. Billed as an MPV, the Multipla wasn’t really, actually an SUV. In fact, it was more like a compact car. But I had to start of our list with this ugly duckling because it sure does look like an SUV gone horribly wrong, doesn’t it? That’s because Fiat wanted to create a car with the “feel” of an SUV but allow it to go where SUVs couldn’t. Unfortunately what they got instead is a car that has been consistently ranked as the ugliest car the world has ever seen. Hmmm, I wonder why?
19 Isuzu VehiCROSS
Here’s what Car & Driver had to say about the Isuzu VehiCROSS: “The freakish VehiCROSS has been laid to rest.” That was way back in 2001. I don’t really think I need to say anymore- I mean, just look at that thing- but my editor would kill me if I didn’t. So, look at that thing again. What the hell was Isuzu thinking? What were they trying to cross? The Mars lander and a Buick station wagon?
This SUV was not even remotely successful (gosh, I don’t know why) selling only about 5,000 vehicles in the US.
That’s a good thing, my friends, especially when you consider most of the body on this two-door monster was done with cheap ceramic dies. It did have the distinction of being the “official car of the Ironman Triathlon’s 20th anniversary” back then but I’m really not sure if it should have, given that it wasn’t tough and didn’t last very long…
18 Honda Passport
The Passport is certainly not the worst SUV on our list but it sure ain’t a winner either. Honda didn’t even have anything in the SUV market in the early ‘90s so they went out and profit-shared with Isuzu. I bet you know where this is going.
Yup, Isuzu gave Honda the Rodeo frame, Honda made some minor cosmetic changes, slapped some Honda decals on that puppy and waited for it to roll of showroom floors (at a higher MSRP than the original Rodeo, of course).
Except that particular plan didn’t pan out for Honda. The car was underpowered for most of its iterations and the Rodeo sold about as well. Honda didn’t even get its own SUV until 2003- that’s pretty lazy if you ask me. Or perhaps just shortsighted. Anyway the best part of this story is that if we fast forward to 2010, both the Passport and the Rodeo got a recall notice because the frames were rusting right off the cars. Now that’s quality! And a reminder of the Passport’s existence I’m sure Honda didn’t want.
17 Pontiac Sunrunner
Unless you were living up north in the ‘90s you have probably never even heard of this offering. The Sunrunner was the Canadian version of the Geo Tracker. Actually, is it OK with you if I just stop right there? Because I think that’s about all I need to say to get my point across… Who in their right mind would want to model anything after a Geo Tracker??? I mean, did GMC Canada have a gun held to their head or something? But I digress. The Sunrunner was nicely underpowered, if also bit small. You see what I did there? That’s called sarcasm folks.
It actually had a stunningly laughable 1.6 liter, four-cylinder, three-speed automatic tranny.
Yeah, three-speeds. Again, can I please just stop now? It’s hurting my brain to write this. Anyway, it also was lacking in one particular thing most cars from the Northwest Territories to Toronto have- an engine warmer. Not quite the way to sell a car to Canadians there, GMC, don’t ya know?
16 Land Rover Discovery 2
The Land Rover Discovery was an absolute monster of a machine. It was one of the top SUVs of all time and adored by its legions of fans. The Land Rover Discovery 2 on the other hand… well, let’s just say not so much. Land Rover followed up on its stunning success with the Discovery by creating a second-generation SUV that was distinctly inferior to its predecessor in every way imaginable.
One of the worst things about this car was that, in an era when onboard computers and advanced electronics were really starting to get sharp, Land Rover cut corners in that department.
Actually, they created too many corners perhaps, as the electronics were so overly complicated you had to work at NASA to understand them. The Discovery 2 also had a little problem with rust. As in you were lucky if the whole body hadn’t rusted out by about year two of ownership.
15 Isuzu Trooper
If you like your car to roll over at the drop of a hat (or even when you’re going less 25mph on an interstate cloverleaf merge lane) then this is the ‘90s SUV for you! Now don’t get me wrong- the Trooper was actually mostly a very good SUV that lasted for a long time. In fact, the basic idea of the Trooper was good enough that Isuzu farmed the blueprints out to companies all over the world, including Chevy and Honda, both of which used it for production in other countries. But, what about that little thing about rolling over, which haunted this vehicle? My Dad actually had a ’99 Trooper and I remember the first time I took a curve in it back in 2003 or '04. I could feel the car going airborne, I could hear the wheels clicking and I knew with dead certainty that if I didn’t turn the wheel hard right and lean hard right I was going to tip. I made it but it was a freaky experience and I never really wanted to drive that car after that. So, sorry Isuzu but not sorry.
14 Isuzu Amigo
First off let me say this- why do automakers saddle their cars with such criminally stupid names? The “Amigo,” Isuzu? What the hell is wrong with you??? Especially since practically no one found this car to be their friend. OK, now that my little rant is over let’s take a look at the vaunted and legendary Amigo.
It had a 2.3 liter engine roaring out a whopping 100 horses or so.
The base model did not come with power steering. I repeat: It. Did. Not. Have. Power Steering! It only had two doors and the back half of the cabin was a cheap soft-top. Air conditioning was not included in the standard package. Did I mention it took Isuzu two years to offer an automatic transmission version? So, yeah, gracias but no gracias Amigo.
13 GMC Typhoon
GMC is best known in the “classic” SUV world for ushering in two of the most important models to ever hit the market. I’m talking of course about the GMC Jimmy and the Chevy Blazer. Now we all know that the two cars are actually one and the same but let’s forget that minor quibble for a moment. Those two models, along with the Bravada, absolutely dominated the early SUV market. So why then, did GMC feel the need to make the Typhoon? Well, it mostly seemed to be arrogance combined with fear. Arrogance as in “We’re GMC; we’ll build anything we want” and fear as in “Why don’t we have a high performance SUV yet?”
Enter the Typhoon, which came revved up with a 4.3 liter V6 that generated 280 horses and a zero to 60 time of 5.3 seconds.
Now why anyone would want or need their giant SUV to do such a thing remains a mystery. In fact, maybe there is no mystery. Maybe no one wanted or needed their giant SUV to do such a thing. That would certainly explain the total Typhoon sales of less than 5,000 vehicles.
12 Acura SLX
Remember a few entries back when we were talking about the Isuzu Trooper? Well the Acura SLX was actually one of those models that used the Trooper platform. Back in the Nineties Acura wanted to get into the SUV market in the worst possible way (back in the Nineties Acura wanted to get into every market in the worst possible way). So Honda got the Trooper from Isuzu and off Acura went into the big SUV market. Now, I think you know how this origin story went. All Acura did was slap its emblem all over the vehicle and make a few “luxury” upgrades. Remember after all, Acura is the luxury car arm of Honda. The problem for Acura was that the Trooper’s basic frame didn’t exactly scream “I am luxury” but more like “I am boxy.” Putting some V6 engine upgrades in the SLX and adding tinted windows didn’t exactly cover up the problem that everyone knew the Trooper was parading around as an SLX like a streetwalker hitting the lounge at the Four Seasons. It was not a good look.
11 Land Rover Freelander
You would think for the company that basically “invented” the whole idea of the sport utility vehicle and is known the world over for that accomplishment that Land Rover would do a better job with some of their designs. But, no, sadly not every Land Rover is cut from the same piece of die-cast metal. Some of them actually appear to be cut from aluminum and baling wire. I exaggerate, of course but the Freelander is one of those egregious sins Land Rover visits upon the auto world every so often. It was actually the biggest selling SUV in Europe during its heyday because the idea was right. Land Rover said, “Hey, let’s make an affordable version of our vehicles!” But the execution was so piss-poor and the quality control so bad (that’s what happens sometimes when you cut quality for quantity) that the car was deemed one of the most unreliable vehicles ever. Everything broke down in it constantly. Not a good look.
10 Tata Estate
Alright, so if you thought only the American and European markets of the 1990s were capable of creating absolutely horrendous SUVs I present to you “Tata.” Not “Ta-Da” as in a magic trick that knocked your socks off but “Tata” as in the terrible Indian SUVs of the ‘90s. Yes, India surely imported millions of Chevy Blazers and GMC Jimmy’s during that decade but hey, everybody deserves their own home-sourced SUV fail as well, don’t you think? The Tata Estate was a big, ungainly looking thing that was trying to be an “estate” station wagon in the SUV market. Apparently long cars have a certain status in India and the Estate was trying to get the corner on that market. The real problem for the Tata Estate was that it looked fairly “blah” for a car that was supposed to be a status symbol in such a caste conscious society. Well, that and the underpowered 2.0 liter diesel engine.
9 Tata Sierra
If you thought I was done with Tata or that Tata themselves were done with the Indian SUV market after the major failure of their Estate model, well, you thought wrong. Tata went back to the drawing board and somehow managed to come up with an SUV far worse than its predecessor. They knocked down the massive length of the Estate until they ended up with a tiny little “play” car. Yup, the Sierra was pretty darn bad. Tata kept the underpowered 2.0 liter diesel of the much bigger Estate and guess what? It was still underpowered, even in a car half the size. Even better for an SUV was the fact that the automaker decided to forego rear doors even though the car could seat four. Do you remember the last time you had to fold down the front seats of an SUV to let your passengers clamber into the back? Yeah, neither do I. Also, why is an Indian vehicle named after an American mountain range?
8 Daihatsu Rocky
Here’s a question for you to answer; who or what is a “Daihatsu?” Take your time thinking I’ll be here when you’re ready… OK, give up? If you answered a strange, little known Toyota offshoot manufacturer that did business in America for about 10 seconds you win the prize! If you answered that it’s a yummy Japanese dumpling then I really wish you were right.
Daihatsu made cheap, low-rent cars that were supposed to appeal to both the youth and family market. Unfortunately the Rocky appealed to just about no one.
One of its biggest issues was that it’s very short wheelbase, height, and questionable suspension made for a rather bone rattling ride. Another issue was, of course, how damn awful the thing looked. But honestly, Daihatsu, don’t sell a car named “Rocky” when you know passengers are going to be treated to a rough, jangling ride.
7 Mercury Mountaineer
I know the Ford Explorer is one of the most successful car makes of all time but I don’t actually know what possesses other makers to think that, if they just somehow match their model up to an Explorer, people will buy it. I mean, no, people will still buy Explorers. Mercury made that precise mistake when they rolled out the Mountaineer in 1997. Apart from the usual logo redo and a very slightly different grill, the Mountaineer was just an absolute attempt to copy the Explorer while pretending they were offering something different. It did have a 5.0 liter V-8 so it could certainly serve as either a gear or people pusher but it sure wasn’t novel or original. And then there was the problem with the headrests. Headrests are where people rest their heads, Mercury! Maybe make them a little taller next time- they’re not called neck rests.
The 1998 LaForza SUV (aka the Rayton Fissore Magnum as it was called in Europe and which is a much cooler sounding name) was an Italian SUV, and not only that but the only one in the US at that time with a Ford v8 engine. That’s because the Laforza wanted to be a Ferrari… except it wasn’t one at all, not even remotely.
Granted, it did have that 185-horse 5.0-liter V8 routing the power to all four wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission teaming with a 2WD-High, 4WD-High and 4WD-Low Newpross 229 transfer case but you already knew all of that.
The Rayton Fissore Magnums were a big hit in Europe in the Nineties as a “luxury” SUV but the LaForza never really got off the ground in the US. Maybe because nobody wanted to be reminded that they weren’t driving a Ferrari every time they stepped into their SUV…
5 Mazda Navajo
You know you’re already in trouble when the whole reason for your existence is that Mazda needs a mid-size SUV and Ford has offered to let them have Explorer knockoffs. That’s basically what the Navajo was. It was a three-door Ford Explorer that somebody threw a “Mazda-style” grill on the front of and put Mazda logos all over the car. But here’s the best part. Why would anyone ever buy a Mazda Navajo when there was already a three-door Explorer? You weren’t actually saving any money; you were just buying a worse version of a car that already existed. It makes no sense! Have I mentioned before that sometimes the idiocy of car makers makes my brain hurt? Fortunately, the buying public had a modicum of sense and the Navajo quickly fell victim to slow sales. You won’t find any around anymore, that’s for sure. Now the Explorer, on the other hand…
4 Ford Explorer
“Wait, What? you say. “The mighty Explorer made your list of the worst SUVs of the ‘90s? How is that even possible???” Well… don’t get me wrong- millions of Explorers were sold, are sold, and will continue to be sold- probably forever. But just because it’s one of the most successful vehicles of all time doesn’t mean that the Explorer didn’t have a few growing pains back in the early Nineties. You see, the Explorer had a little problem with its tires. Just a minor little bump in the road, if you will. That of course was the great Firestone tire fiasco, in which over 13 million tires had to be recalled from Explorers due to “tread separation.” This really was no joke at the time. Over 200 people died from these tires failing and it was all on Explorers. So even though the model has rebounded and is still going strong we should never forget even the best cars sometimes cause very dangerous and scary problems for us all.
3 Toyota Rav4 (Convertible)
OK, Ok, before all of you Rav4 lovers out there get all upset with me (I know you’re out there and I know there are a lot of you) look at the header again, closely this time. See? I’m not talking about your beloved Rav4, which was and is one of the great compact SUVs of all time. That four-door crossover was 0ne of the very first SUVs to try to merge SUV attributes with a car and it was wildly successful. But sometimes too much of anything can be too much of a good thing (or something like that).
The Rav4 crossover convertible went the proverbial bridge too far, marrying an SUV with a regular car with a soft-top convertible and throwing it all into a two-seater.
It wasn’t so much a car as a high school shop project run amok. At least it only lasted for a few years.
2 Suzuki X-90
1995 was a great year for some. OJ Simpson, for one, who walked away scot-free from his criminal case. Bill gates for another, who made more billions on Windows 95. The Dallas Cowboys and Bill Clinton had pretty darn good years as well. Suzuki did not fare quite as well. In fact, Suzuki totally embarrassed themselves with the roll out of the X-90, a weird open air (but not really convertible), two-seater of an SUV that looked like a cross between a dune buggy and something Barbie would drive. It was sorta, kinda supposed to be an off-roader (but really wasn’t at all) and sorta, kinda supposed to be an SUV (but was more like a Hot Wheel car). In any case, Suzuki tried to push this little foray into insanity for about 18 months before finally giving up on the X-90 and junking the model.
1 Ford Bronco
“Hey what do you mean, going after the Ford Bronco, one of the great early SUVs of legendary status???” I know, I know, I get it. The Bronco was great- basic, competent, it had a great name, and it had great backing from a major automaker. But that’s not why I’m here today. I’m here today to track down the worst of the ‘90s SUVs and anyone who remembers or who has even seen the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco car chase (that excruciatingly slow media circus event that would precede one of the biggest media circuses of all time) knows how badly the Ford Bronco came off. I do have one caveat for including this one on the list- the Bronco has to be white. Because if you had a white Bronco it meant you were going full-on OJ Simpson and that my friends was a very bad look after 1995…