16 November 2012

The “Coulda Been” Contenders: The best automotive flops

In the past we’ve dredged up some truly awful cars that did a well-deserved belly flop in the marketplace. Occasionally, though — whether it’s timing, market conditions or other external factors — bad things happen to good cars. Here’s a list of some of our favorite cars that were commercial failures, through no fault of their own:

  1. 2002-05 Ford Thunderbird: The last iteration of the famous T-Bird was a slow seller in all but its introduction year. The J. Mays design was faithful to the classic 1955-57 T-Bird while managing to look contemporary. Unfortunately, the market for luxury two-seaters was simply not what Ford had hoped it would be, and the T-Bird went away in 2005 (possibly for good). It’s a good bet to be a future collectible.
  2. 2004-06 Pontiac GTO: The 2000s-era GTO was another revival of a storied name. In true “car guy” fashion, then-GM product czar Bob Lutz cajoled recalcitrant GM brass into importing what was arguably the best car GM ever made, the Australian Holden Monaro as the new Pontiac GTO. The 5.7-liter Corvette V-8 gave the car performance on par with the best of 1960s muscle in an infinitely more refined package. Its only sin (besides mediocre gas mileage and high insurance rates) was that it looked a tad bland and came on the scene at a time when Pontiac was sinking fast. It remains one of the best performance bargains on the used car market and a possible future collectible.
  3. 2009 Pontiac G8 GXP: The second of Bob Lutz’s one-two Australian punch, the G8 was another product of Holden, GM’s Australian arm. The GXP sported a 6.2-liter V-8 with over 400 hp and was available with a Tremec six-speed manual transmission. It was essentially a half-price BMW M5 and quite possibly the greatest sport sedan produced by GM up to the time. Fewer than 2,000 were built before GM’s bankruptcy, which saw the Pontiac division eliminated. The mourning process for Pontiac and the G8 still goes on and is reflected in the strong resale prices for GXPs, especially those with a manual transmission.
  4. 1993-97 Mazda RX-7: The introduction of the Miata in late 1989 forced Mazda to take the third-generation RX7 up-market in both price and performance envelope. The sequential twin-turbo rotary delivered shattering performance with virtually no turbo lag. Rather than a comfortable GT, the RX-7 was a true lightweight sports car with limited trunk space and a harsh ride. Its inherent impracticality and punitive insurance rates limited the market for the RX-7 in the U.S., where it was a rare sight. In spite of winning nearly every automotive accolade, its availability in the U.S. market was brief, and good ones (which are few and far between) are already becoming collectible.
  5. 1993-98 Toyota Supra: A contemporary of the third-generation Mazda RX-7, the Supra was a bit less uncompromising in the ride and interior room departments. Performance was equally impressive and although not small, the car’s weight benefitted from the clever use of aluminum and plastics. Brakes were among the best ever fitted to a production car. But government regulations were tough on the big, brawny Supra: The advent of OBD II requirements were problematic, and the car was unavailable in California during its last year in the U.S. due to its inability to meet tougher emission standards. It became Japan-only forbidden fruit until it was discontinued in 2002. To date, there has been no successor.

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1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Mike Wisconsin November 18, 2012 at 22:40
    We owned two of these cars on the list (just sold the GXP) and the GTO is currently for sale. Real fine car with tons of speed and handling. We've upgraded the brakes and put in a cold air box. That is all this vehicle needs to essentialy kick most cars buts on the street. Ours is Black/Black with just 45K miles and it is runing better today than when new! In current times it is a fact that the GTO is the most performance you can get for the cash. Mike
  • 2
    Mike Wisconsin November 18, 2012 at 13:29
    We owned two of these cars on the list (just sold the GXP) and the GTO is currently for sale. Real fine car with tons of speed and handling. We've upgraded the brakes and put in a cold air box. That is all this vehicle needs to essentialy kick most cars buts on the street. Ours is Black/Black with just 45K miles and it is runing better today than when new! In current times it is a fact that the GTO is the most performance you can get for the cash. Mike
  • 3
    Mike Wisconsin November 18, 2012 at 13:30
    We owned two of these cars on the list (just sold the GXP) and the GTO is currently for sale. Real fine car with tons of speed and handling. We've upgraded the brakes and put in a cold air box. That is all this vehicle needs to essentialy kick most cars buts on the street. Ours is Black/Black with just 45K miles and it is runing better today than when new! In current times it is a fact that the GTO is the most performance you can get for the cash. Mike
  • 4
    Eric CT November 21, 2012 at 11:46
    Rob, I've got to disagree with your call on the 2002 Thunderbird. In my opinion, the remade T-Bird was a slow seller for a simple reason; it wasn't a great car. One of the car’s biggest disappointments was its interior. Clearly the result of a cost cutting exercise, Ford’s pilfering of the Lincoln LS' parts bin left the T-Bird with an interior that was out of place in a retro car. The LS was a fine sedan but its dowdy modern interior was neither memorable nor particularly luxurious. To me, the car's best attribute, its exterior, was also its biggest let down. Its rear and profile are sufficiently authentic to the point that they look dated. Many might disagree but its proportions are off or, perhaps, too faithful to the original. Its front end is more of a modern version of the original than a reinterpretation of that car’s facade. Overall the car lacked any real imagination. I can imagine someone on the Board saying, "Retro is the new thing, quick get one to the market." The T-Bird just came off to me as a poorly conceived, inadequately funded, quick-to-market response by Ford to get a retro-car into its dealerships. Compare this to the Camaro which is evocative of its roots (if not slightly retro) without slavishly aping the original and the original New Beetle which was so over the top as to be caricature-ish of its forebearer. I also think Ford misunderstood the market appeal of its car which I find interesting when they found such success with the much better conceived Mustang. To make matters worse, it looked like an old person's car. How may Gen-X T-Bird owners have you come across in your travels? Sure, Boomers flocked to the New Beetles based on nostalgia (and hemp filled memories) but young people liked it, too because it was outlandish and different. The Camaro and Mustang have also found similar age-agnostic followings. Another dent in the T-Bird's armor was that it drove like an old person's car. While the T-Bird could boast a V8 under its hood, it wasn't particularly fast and the car handled like a Barcalounger®. Even the 4cyl equipped Audi TTs were quicker than the T-Bird and they didn't corner like they had cotton candy for a suspension. As I recall, ‘02 also marked the introduction of the Z4 which came equipped with a couple of phenomenal straight 6es that were no slouch in the handling department. The T-Bird was either so unique that it had no true competitors or it was, as a two seater convertible (with an ill conceived roof) compted drectly with cars like the Audi TT, Z3/Z4 roadster and, to a lesser degree, the Mercedes SLK. Unfortunately for Ford, all of the European competition boasted more luxury in their list of accomplishments and they were also sporty (something nobody ever considered the T-Bird). That's not an envious position to be in especially when the competition is also equipped with badges from Audi, BMW and Mercedes. I remember reading reviews by the major automotive magazines back in ‘02 and not understanding why they thought the T-Bird was such a standout. I still don't get it and, it seems to me, neither did the market.

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