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Just because these cars are new-ish doesn’t mean they’re anything less than terrible

A few weeks ago my editor Nick Jaynes and I were debating whether or not any automakers still made terrible cars. While it’s true that you can’t get anything as terrible as a Cadillac Cimarron or AMC Pacer anymore, I believe there were still some contenders for title of ‘terrible car’ out there.

That’s why I have spent the last few days paging through reviews and pouring over my memories to bring you a list of the most terrible cars made in the last 15 years. Before I get down to the meat of this piece, I have a few rules:

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1. I am looking for cars that aren’t just terrible, but terrible for the price. After all, a $12,000 dollar car was going to be pretty awful right from the start.

2. For the title of ‘terrible car’ to be bestowed upon a vehicle, the offending car company must clearly have not lived up to its own standard.

3. Lastly, there is a certain indefinable quality of the truly bad car: stupidity. Another reason a car will find its way onto this list is when the designers just should have known better from the outset.

Oh, and if you’re unfortunate enough to have one of these cars in your driveway, please don’t send angry emails. We’re having a bit of a laugh, OK? Let’s not take anything in this article too seriously, yes?

So without further ado I give you, for your reading pleasure, the most terrible cars of the last fifteen years.

Chevrolet HHR

If you are looking for a reason that GM had to be rescued by the government, look no further than the HHR. Heck, this monstrosity might have been responsible for the ‘Great recession’.

No, it wasn’t expensive enough to tank the mighty General Motors all on its own, but the thinking that created a tiny, retro-van based on the Chevy Cobalt was clearly destined for trouble.

The styling may have been all onlookers ever noticed. After all, it did look like a delivery van styled by a drunk 1920s futurist. But this car had other problems, too. Its design was so un-aerodynamic that it got just 23 mpg out of a four cylinder. This travesty was on sale for five years before GM mercifully killed it in 2011.

Mercedes R-Class

Who wants a $70,000 Mercedes minivan? As it turns out not many people did.

The R-Class was a vehicle desperately trying to pretend to be new and different. It’s a “sports cruiser”. No, it’s a family tourer! In fact this ugly shoebox was just a minivan without the only reason you would buy a minivan: sliding doors.

What it did have was an outrageous price tag, half-assed styling, bad safety ratings, and an optional V8. Oh, and don’t forget the terrible fuel economy.

Mercedes expected to sell 50,000 of these dogs a year. As it turns out, though, Americans went for a slightly better investment: Florida real estate financed with subprime mortgages.

Mitsubishi Eclipse 2006-2012

For those of you who don’t remember, there was a time when Mitsubishi actually sold a lot of cars in the United States. Cars like the Eclipse are part of the reason that new Mitsubishis are now rarer than two-headed unicorns.

The Eclipse seemed to be designed for people who didn’t want to go fast, look good or get good fuel economy, but still wanted something that could be called a ‘sports car’. The base engine put out an impressively anemic 162 hp – just barely more than you got in a standard Honda Civic.

If you wanted more power you paid for it … dearly. The 263-hp V6 dropped fuel economy to just 18 mpg. You know, what a Ford-150 gets.

Oh, and beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but if you liked the 2006 Eclipse, you probably need your eyes checked.

Cadillac Seville 1998-2004

Imagine, you spent your whole life dreaming of the day when you can retire and buy a big, shiny, new Cadillac. And then when you’ve finally saved up enough, you make the mistake of buying a Seville.

Calling this car lazily styled is an insult to lazy automotive stylists currently asleep at their desks. Yes, I am looking at you Porsche people. The Seville just looked like 16 feet of ‘car’. The stylist of the gloriously be-finned 1960 Caddy Eldorado must be spinning in his grave.

The misery didn’t end at the looks either. The car’s suspension was so mushy and uncommunicative it might have been made out of Velveeta ‘cheese’. The front-wheel drive handling was so numb that its elderly drivers couldn’t tell if they were having a stroke or if the power steering was just working.

It’s no wonder that Cadillac has spent so much time on its new, aggressive styling and performance. The Caddy engineers want to speed away from the memory of this garbage car as fast as possible.

Lexus SC430

This is a car that seemingly had everything going for it. It was a sports convertible with sweeping lines, plenty of tech goodies, and a high-revving V8 designed by one of the world’s largest automakers. Yet it might be one of the worst cars in the last 15 years.

Let’s start with the price. At close to $69,000, you could have bought a Subaru WRX STI and a classic British convertible and still had $20,000 to spend on the rest of your midlife crisis.

What you got instead was one of the ugliest cars to ever grace the highways. It looks like a prescription shoe for someone with gout. In fact, the SC430 must have had gout because there is no other way that such a small car could weigh nearly two tons. To say that the fat Lexus handled like a Corolla would be an insult to Toyota Corollas. Sure, the 430 could manage 0-60 in 6.1 seconds. Frankly, though, so could a Nissan 350Z. And it cost half as much.

 And don’t think you got anything in the way of practicality either. The rear seats would have been bigger if they had been painted on.

The interior … oh the interior. It is full of garishly polished, cheap-looking wood and more buttons than Apollo 13. It looks like the designer took a Sharper Image store and held it upside down over the car and shook. Let’s just say that if this car were a person, it would have a spray tan.

Subaru Baja

It is clear that when Subaru was designing the Baja, it wanted to destroy something beautiful. What’s most impressive, the designers managed to destroy two things: hard-earned rallying pedigree and practicality. 

The Baja was meant to hark back to the classic Subaru Brat. Instead, it just looked like a ruined Subaru Outback, which is what it was. In fact when I first saw a Baja, I was pretty sure that it was the product of a hillbilly with a Sawzall. I was shocked when I realized that Subaru had done it … on purpose.

The tiny bed wouldn’t have been big enough to carry most dogs, let alone anything resembling cargo. And what did you get for this? Styling from the lab of Dr. Frankenstein, a smaller interior, worse fuel economy, and a bigger price tag.

The only small mercy is that Subaru gave in to the twisted Baja’s cries for mercy and killed it after four years.

Jaguar X-Type

Jaguar is currently reinventing itself as a cool automaker in an all-out struggle for survival. What sunk the maker of the gorgeous and now-infamous E-Type so low? It was cars like the X-Type.

Underneath its appallingly bodywork, the X-Type was just a Ford Mondeo, the European Ford Escort. That’s right, your fancy British sports sedan was actually just a humdrum Ford.

Actually, the styling might have been a giveaway. Jag crammed its signature headlights and grill into the front, as an ode to better days when people wanted to buy Jags. The result was hideous but at least Jag was trying. The rest of the bodylines didn’t seem to be as intentional, as the X-Type looked more 2002 Hyundai Sonata than sinewy Jaguar.

Technically this car wasn’t just outclassed by its German rivals, it was blown out of the water on a level that the British hadn’t experienced since the Bismarck sank the Hood.

The lesson is; if you are going up BMW, don’t half ass it. The Germans are experts in whole-ass efficiency.

Land Rover Freelander

I understand where Land Rover was going with the Freelander. Other car companies were making dump trucks of cash selling small SUVs and the Brits wanted to get in on the party.

Unfortunately, Land Rover’s budget consisted of a few pounds sterling one of the engineers had found in the couch … and half a ham sandwich. To make matters worse, Land Rover decided to develop its own engine for the Freelander for the North American market. While the rest of the globe got a tried-and-true diesel, Americans got a V6 designed in-house by men who’d been using the same aluminum V8 since the early 1960s.

Now the Brits have made some good engines, just not recently. The Freelander didn’t break that trend. A single Freelander had more mechanical problems than an entire year’s production of Honda Civics.

When coupled with anemic performance and the looks of the dreary Ford Escape, the Freelander was not destined for the pages of automotive history. Though, this may have something to do with the fact that there won’t be any left to take pictures of in a few years.

Jeep Patriot

Jeep seems to make either terrible cars or great cars, with very little in between. Guess where the Patriot falls.

The Patriot is supposed to be an affordable, entry-level Jeep that still has off-road credibility. Unfortunately, what it was supposed to be and what it turned out to be are very different. It’s an ugly, slow, unreliable box-on-wheels that has the aerodynamic properties of brick … tied to another brick.

The first time I heard one running, I was convinced it was a diesel because it sounded like a coffee can full of rusty bolts rolling down some stairs. It wasn’t a diesel, though. To this day I have no idea how Jeep got that sound out of a gas engine. But I am impressed nonetheless.

Really, the Patriot’s only claim to fame is its “class leading” off-road ability. Never mind that not one in 100 patriots will get driven off road. Being better off-road than a Kia Sorento, I suppose, just doesn’t impress me.

Acura ZDX

Acura bragged that the designer of the ZDX was a 26-year-old who had never designed a car before. Guess what, Acura, we could already tell.

The ZDX was supposed to break barriers as a new type of vehicle, with a sleek coupe-like body on top of the full-size MDX SUV platform. And it did because no other automaker had the gall to take its largest platform and build a compact car on top of it.

When I first got into a ZDX, my overwhelming thought was, “What the hell is this?” It’s not a coupe. It’s not a crossover. It’s not an SUV. But it does seem to have the worst features of all of those vehicles.

It is cramped in the front seat; sitting in the backseat qualifies as an enhanced interrogation technique and a violation of the Geneva Convention. The performance is remarkably sluggish, despite packing 300 horses. And the thing gets terrible gas mileage, at 16 city and 22 highway mpg. I have owned full-sized pickups that do better.

At least it was affordable … oh wait. A new ZDX would run you a whopping $56,000. The ZDX is going away at the end of this year, and Acura has already moved all traces of it from its press site. Apparently not even Acura wants to remember the ZDX.

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