“What are the worst cars ever made” is arguably one of the toughest question to answer. All of us have got a favorite or two for that unpopular title, but the right answer probably doesn’t even exist. Instead, we can probably agree on a shortlist of extremely poor cars, each of which has a strong case of its own to take home the “award.” Whether they suffer from poor build quality, short engine life, issues with corrosion, or just plain miserable styling , those are the attributes of a car that deserves a bad reputation.
When people think of the worst car ever, they often imagine something like a Pontiac Aztek, which while a little odd looking, was actually a solid vehicle. Overinflated pricing had more to do with its demise than its looks, performance, or functionality. And it wasn’t the only one with such a cruel fate. Here we also have a list of models that have been wrongly accused of being bad cars, but in these cases it’s likely that the issues are fictitious, overinflated, rumored, or the problems easily remedied.
So, without further ado, here are some of the worst vehicles ever produced and some cars that actually weren’t as bad as their reputation would suggest.
Worst Cars Ever Made
10. 1971-1977 Chevrolet Vega
We all know that Vegas began to rust the moment they were loaded on the carriers for delivery to Chevrolet dealers. And we also know that the Vega featured one of the most backwards engine designs that you have to wonder if the engineers working on the block ever spoke to the engineers working on the head. Problems included piston scuffing due to the use of a linerless aluminum block (which has since been perfected), rushed paint jobs, and selective rustproofing that left significant areas prone to corrosion, among others.
A linerless aluminum block, in particular, which was capped by a tall, heavy iron cylinder head that expanded at different rates and because of other development mistakes or cost cutting, would cause permanent damage to the engine. GM did sort out many of the problems after a few years of production, but it was too little too late as consumers weren’t interested in conducting R&D on their dime.
09. 1971-1980 Ford Pinto
Speaking of Ford, the Pinto didn’t only compete with Vega for the affection of American consumers, but also for the title of the worst American car ever produced. Although it went on to become the best-selling subcompact car in the U.S. at the time (over 3 million units sold during its production run), the Pinto sported an awful design which resulted in numerous tragic outcomes. As many as 180 burn deaths were reported due to Pinto’s fuel tank bursting into flames when involved in a rear end collision.
Being positioned between the rear bumper and rear axle was one thing, but Pinto’s fuel tanks were further exposed by reduced rear crush space. The fact that the FoMoCo brass knowingly decided against fixing the faulty design because it would cost more than potential lawsuits only added insult to injury.
08. 1981 Cadillac L62 V8-6-4 Engine (All 1981 Cadillac Models)
Cylinder deactivation systems are a rather common practice nowadays but they certainly aren’t a 21st century invention. In fact, they date back to 1905 and the Sturtevant 38/45 hp engine. A few more efforts have been made over the years but the system wouldn’t be perfected for decades to come as evidenced by Cadillac’s spectacular failure in early eighties.
In an effort to meet new fuel economy standards, Cadillac, together with Eaton Corporation, developed the L62 V8-6-4 engine on their reliable 368 cu in big block for the 1981 model year. The idea was for the 6.0L V8 to convert into a 4.5L V6 or even a 3.0L V-4 at cruise speeds with 15 percent increase in fuel efficiency. Unfortunately, the concept was ahead of the technology.
The main issue was that the Engine Control Module simply lacked the sophistication to reliably manage the cylinder activation/deactivation under all load conditions, or in other words, it wasn’t nearly fast or powerful enough to do its job. The outcome was that many of these engines simply had the function disabled by dealers, restoring the engines to standard V8 operation.
07. 1978-1985 Oldsmobile Diesel
There aren’t too many products with such a strong impact on the general population’s impression of the whole family of corresponding alternatives as the Oldsmobile diesel engines. Especially when that impression is extremely negative and ends up lasting for years – barring many, otherwise good products from the same family, from having a success on the market.
The initial idea was good though. GM was struggling to meet new fuel economy standards, and diesel could have been the answer. Hadn’t they treated it just like a regular gasoline engine during development, that is, and decided to simply retool the Oldsmobile’s Rocket 350 into an oil burner.
The thing with diesels is – they rely on high compression ignition which results in greater vibrations. Needless to say, GM engineers failed to mitigate this by using stronger head bolts which, in turn, led to failed gaskets. Furthermore, this also led to coolant getting into the combustion chamber which resulted in rust and, since coolant doesn’t compress, in bent or broken pieces of the engine too. Finally, GM’s own advice was to disperse the fuel system water with alcohol which then damaged the fuel injection governor.
To add insult to injury, GM would simply repair the engines using the same spare parts and another grueling cycle could then begin anew. They would end up producing three different versions of the engine (5.7L and 4.3L V8, and 4.3L V6) vastly improving it near the end of the production run, but the damage had already been done by then.
06. 1981-1988 Cadillac Cimarron
Faced with mounting losses at the hands of foreign luxury compacts which flooded the market, Cadillac had to find a way to reinvent itself as a brand. The decision was to beat the foreign invaders at their own game and Cadillac, sadly, chose the wrong tool – a badge-engineered Chevrolet Cavalier. As if its role model wasn’t dodgy enough, the Cadillac brass actually had the gull to ask $12,181 for what was essentially a dressed up $8,137 Chevy Cavalier.
Sure, the Cimarron had all the niceties of a Cadillac from back in the day like leather seats, power everything, alloy wheels, and other J-car features, but it was still a wimpy 88-horsepower compact with a 4-speed manual transmission as standard. Yeah, it sported the first 4-cylinder engine in a Cadillac since the onset of the World War I. The Cimarron is now regarded as the lowest point in company’s storied history which cost them a large portion of market share and nearly buried them in the process.
05. 1957-1991 Trabant
The fact that close to 4 million of these atrocities were produced makes a high velocity impact between my head and a wall a pleasant thought in comparison. Luckily, precious few have survived to this day, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering their horrendous build quality. They were actually made of recycled cotton and wood fibers fused into plastic called Duroplast. To this day we don’t know the exact number of Trabants that have fallen prey to pigs who had a taste for Duroplast. I kid you not!
Nowadays, some people make a living by renting these deathboxes to unsuspecting tourists and sadly nostalgic former Eastern Bloc comrades. If you burn with desire to take one of the worst cars of all time for a spin, Berlin, Germany or Budapest, Hungary are your best bet to do so. A 24-hour rental in Berlin, for instance, will set you back $225 or thereabouts. That’s around $200 more than their market value.
04. 1975-1981 Triumph TR7
The Triumph TR7’s inclusion here is practically a homage to all its predecessors as well. The TR7 was only a culmination of everything that was wrong with Triumphs and the British car industry as a whole during seventies. The 2-door coupe’s ridiculed wedge shape was the least of its problems as its predecessors’s reputation for unreliability found its way to the next-gen sports car as well. Its 105-horsepower 4-cylinder engine wasn’t up to the task performance or reliability-wise, and its coil spring suspension both up front and around the back didn’t help the TR7’s case either.
But the biggest issue with the TR7 (and all British cars of the era) was persistent use of Lucas electronics parts which, to this day, are a definition for unreliability and poor build quality. The fact Brits called the company Lucas, Prince of Darkness speaks in its own right. It is still believed the company’s motto was: “Get home before dark.”
03. 1973-1982 Austin Allegro
Speaking of British car disasters, the compact Austin Allegro epitomizes everything that was rotten in the British car industry during the malaise era. This British Leyland product was rushed to the market in order to replace the archaic Austin 1100 (after the Leyland Motors and British Motor Holding merger). It was low on interior space and its engines were anemic. What’s more, the compact also came with a high sticker – probably to compensate for its shortcomings.
British Leyland’s logic obviously escapes me. And don’t even get me started on its ridiculous body flex! The Allegro’s back window would fall out and the doors would jam shut if jacked up in the wrong place. People also didn’t like its quartic steering wheel but that was the least of “All Aggro’s” worries. The car would receive two facelifts in 1975 and 1979 respectively which would address a number of the above mentioned issues, but the damage was already done, confining the Austin Allegro to ever roam numerous worst car ever lists, including ours.
02. 1998-present Smart ForTwo
Mercedes-Benz’s expectations of the Smart ForTwo did not live up to the standards in America as expected. Its 38 mpg excellence would have been a bragging factor way back in 1998 when it entered the European market but has been surpassed since. Featuring a more dated interior, polarized styling, barely existent storage space, low reliability scores, and one of the worst transmissions around, there’s nothing fancy about the Smart ForTwo. More than two decades after its introduction, it’s now one of the unsafest cars around.
The only positive remarks it gets are its gas-friendly features and parking suitability. Good thing is – after MY 2019, the Smart ForTwo will leave the U.S. market altogether making this one of the smartest decisions the German automaker’s made in recent years. The fact it’s failed to utilize any of the technological advancements at its disposal (compared to other, much older models on the list), gives it a special place in hell as far as I’m concerned.
01. 1973-1981 Reliant Robin
For so many reasons I appreciate the fact that our tax structure here in the U.S. is very different than in Great Britain. For one, you have to pay a Value Added Tax of about twice the highest sales tax in the US on just about everything. Second, they tax your TV every year and drive around in vans with receivers that can tell if you have a TV in the house or not. Third, and for reasons unknown, cars with three wheels are taxed less than cars with four.
It’s not so much of an issue today as it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago, but it spawned an industry of small manufacturers building three-wheel cars, the most famous Reliant. Now, the issue with a three-wheeled car (with one center-mounted front wheel that controls the steering) is that any sharp turn automatically leads to rollover. What were they thinking?! The fact it was made of fiberglass and nicknamed “Plastic Pig” tells us about the other side of Robin’s problems.
Unfairly Judged Cars
10. 1975-1980 Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare
As successors to the highly popular and beloved A-body Dart, Duster, and Valiant, the Chrysler bunch probably expected more out of the Aspen and Volare. Instead, the F-body compacts were rushed to the market and suffered from a severe case of premature rust thanks to a design flaw. Aside from the fact that some of them started exhibiting rust before they even made it to the dealerships, Chrysler had to recall every single one of 1976 and 1977 models in order to replace rusted out front fenders.
Galvanized sheet metal and polethylene full inner front fender liners did the trick but the issue of ancient engines carried over from the A-body platform’s days lingered for a while later. When this too was finally addressed by fixing the ignition and fuel delivery issues, the Aspen/Volare finally became a car it was intended to be from day one. Although their reputation was permanently tarnished by then, the F-bodies weren’t as bad as some people might remember them by.
09. 1980-1992 Renault Fuego
If nothing, the Fuego was one of the most appropriately named cars ever produced. Meaning “fire” in Spanish, the Fuego soon developed a reputation for unreliable electronics and overheating issues, which led to head gasket failures if ignored for any length of time. This also led to numerous fire hazards making the Fuego Tesla’s spiritual predecessor in a way. The problem was likely compounded by a poor spare parts availability, a situation that only worsened after Renault’s departure from the U.S. in 1986. What’s more, a recall for a potential steering wheel failure certainly didn’t boost consumer confidence.
The fact it was marketed as a sports car (a sort of Porsche 924 for the poor), yet it delivered barely over 100 horsepower in its most potent form is another one of its low points. However, the sports coupe was rather good-looking and ahead of its time – being the only front-wheel drive car in its class and all. Of course, all of its competitors would later switch to front-axle drive. Despite its production run being cut short in 1986, the Fuego survived until 1992 thanks to the South American markets.
08. 1980-2008 Yugo
If you wondered where the heck Yugo was when I listed the worst cars ever produced, here’s your answer. The compact import was actually a Fiat 127 that was lightly modified and built in what was then socialist Yugoslavia. Quality control was an enormous issue, not just inside the plant but from suppliers as well. Moreover, its super low price of $3,990 attracted car buyers who couldn’t afford to follow the maintenance schedule, causing unnecessary mechanical breakdowns and pretty much killing off the Yugo.
That brings us to the main issue of this story. Yes, the Yugo was a crappy compact with precious few strong points (if any, apart from low price tag), but it was far from the worst car ever made. In fact, many Yugo’s are still alive and well in their home country (which is today Serbia) in spite of being exposed to the elements and poor maintenance for decades. Also, although anemic, Yugo’s Aurelio Lampredi-designed Fiat engines proved to be as sturdy and tough as the car itself. If properly maintained, that is, and maintenance was, as mentioned above, dirt-cheap. If only the Yugo wasn’t treated like dirt.
07. 2000-2005 Pontiac Aztek
With its terrible built interior, hideous styling, and bizarre high tag price, the Aztek practically signed Pontiac’s death warrant. There’s no denying the Aztek was one of the most horrible cars ever created but was its negative reputation entirely deserved? It’s interesting to note that the very first owners of the Pontiac Aztek gave the vehicle extremely high marks across the board – with the exception of exterior styling, of course.
Yes, we all know now that the styling was a disaster, and that coupled with Pontiac’s management’s greed to sticker the Aztek for much higher than planned killed off what may be one of the first true American crossovers. But if you can somehow look past that, you’ll see the Aztek for what it really was – a versatile crossover with plenty of cargo space, a decent 185-horsepower engine, and fully-independent rear suspension in optional all-wheel drive layout.
06. 1958-1960 Ford Edsel
The Ford Edsel had so much going against it that it’s a small wonder that it ever existed at all. Most people believe that the oddball “horse collar” grille is what turned people off, but that wasn’t the case. What really killed the Edsel was poor planning. Ford felt they needed to have a wider range of brands like GM and introduced Edsel to fit between Ford and Mercury, except the gap was so small, that Edsel overlapped higher priced Fords and lower priced Mercury’s.
A new president came into Ford and killed Edsel because it complicated manufacturing and cost the company incremental development dollars with little return. But Edsel did bring a few firsts to the market such as warning lights for oil, water, and parking brake. All around, not a bad car. Pretty much like any Ford of the era, and certainly not the lemon it’s perceived to be.
05. 1961-1969 Chevrolet Corvair
The Corvair started life as a stripped-down import fighter but turned out to be expensive to build and didn’t immediately catch fire. When performance and styling improvements were made, sales jumped. Then consumer advocate Ralph Nader published a book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed” where he took to task the Big Three automakers for their lackadaisical attitude toward safety. One chapter targeted the Corvair and its potentially dangerous handling tendencies due to its rear swing axle design (though the same as in competitors like VW, Renault and even Porsche).
GM made a hasty change to the existing chassis, but it was too late. For 1965, GM overhauled the Corvair, giving it more aggressive styling and an all-new rear suspension. It was finally the car that it should have been from the beginning. Unfortunately, Ford had launched the Mustang, which hurt the sales of the performance version of the Corvair, while the very traditional and dead-simple Chevy II took away the lower end business. This pushed Corvair sales down and in 1969 the plug was pulled on the Corvair. A sad end for what was definitely one of the most unfairly judged cars of its era.
04. 1970-1978 AMC Gremlin
While to the minds of many, the AMC Gremlin was a bad car, it actually did okay, seeing that it was a chopped down Hornet (an intentional design element to draw attention to the car). It was really no better or worse than any other AMC car of the era. And while most associate the Gremlin with AMC’s inline six-cylinder engine, from 1972 on, the oddball subcompact was available with a 304 cu in AMC V8. Choked by emissions controls and a two-barrel carburetor, the engine produced only 150 hp SAE Net (which is close to 210 hp SAE Gross). AMC cylinder heads after 1970 were pretty decent designs, so perhaps little more than a decent carburetor and intake manifold and some headers would raise the power substantially without cracking open the motor.
If that’s your thing, there are plenty of cam designs available, though the rest of the catalog of available parts is pretty thin compared to a small-block Chevy. The Mesa, Arizona dealership special dubbed the Randall 401-XR was the proof of how badass a Gremlin could be. It sported a larger 401 cu in V8 mill and ran high 13-second quarter miles straight from the dealership.
03. 2000-2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser
To most, the PT Cruiser just screams grandma and grandpa coming over for Thanksgiving. It was the only real small cargo hauler before the Kia Soul, Honda Element, and Nissan Cube (all sold more frequently to those 55+ than 25 and under). But the compact car wasn’t that bad all things considered. Plus, don’t forget that one PT Cruiser model most people tend to overlook. I’m talking about the 2006-2010 PT Cruiser GT which was powered by the same 2.4 L turbocharged inline-four engine as the Dodge Neon SRT-4, achieving 230 hp in the PT. The engine is upgraded with a rash of changes over the standard mill with the improved cooling and oiling, an aluminum cylinder block with steel sleeves, and forged internals coming to mind straightaway.
This shows that there was a PT Cruiser for just about anyone if you were willing to disregard its questionably retro styling. Heck, Chrysler even marketed a 2-door soft-top convertible version which kinda looked cool all things considered.
02. 1974-1978 Ford Mustang II
From the Mustang purists’ perspective, the second-generation of the illustrious pony car was most certainly an aberration. However, not everything is as it seems at first glance. The Mustang II might have been a pale shadow of the original in terms of performance, but you’ll remember that neither of its competitors had fared any better in that respect. In fact, performance was the most undesirable of terms during the malaise era.
What the Mustang II did do right, however, was to keep the company afloat during one of the harshest periods for the American car industry, paving the way for future Mustangs and giving them an opportunity to showcase all of their might. It took a while, but its offspring eventually got there. In a way, the Mustang II sacrificed its own reputation so that we could enjoy the fabled pony’s V8 roar at a more opportune time and that’s exactly what we’re doing today. Despite its flaws, it was the right car at the right time as far as Ford is concerned.
01. 1978-1990 Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon
The K-car is rightfully considered Chrysler’s savior (well, one of few over the years) and one of the most highly-regarded American vehicles at the time. It may have been the VW Golf ripoff, but it was also the first mass-produced American front-wheel drive car. More importantly, it was a huge success, selling around 3 million copies over the years.
Yet, the subcompact hatchback was far from perfect. It was rust-prone, had issues with engine/transmission reliability, and was criticized for its dangerously unstable steering. Thankfully for Chrysler, this didn’t deter Americans from buying it. The special edition Dodge Omni GLH (“Goes Like Hell”) and even rarer Shelby-tuned GLHS (“Goes Like Hell Some more”) are an especially worthy mention.