Even smart automakers sometimes release terrible cars that leave you wondering, "What in the name of Henry Ford were they thinking?" Some of these cars looked good on paper, and others are the result of groupthink — but none of them should have seen the light of day.
Like the woebegone Pontiac Aztek, these cars came out of a committee process that left nobody happy. So here are four top candidates for the dustbin of history, all of which remain on the market today. The Dodge Nitro and other cars like it want your love.
Chevrolet HHR. The lesson of the HHR is that if you're going to steal, do it in a timely way. The HHR ("Heritage High Roof") is a virtual clone of an unexpected hit, the funny-looking-in-an-appealing-way Chrysler PT Cruiser.
The "heritage" part of HHR was supposed to refer to 1940s Suburbans, but the real model was the PT Cruiser, which hit the market in 2000 and — like the Mustang in 1964 — took off immediately with sales that exceeded the company's expectations.
The HHR, however, didn't go on sale until 2006, at which time the public had more than gotten its fill of the PT Cruiser (which eventually mutated into weird convertible and "woodie" versions). The HHR had a couple of OK years in 2007 and 2007, but it's been declining steadily ever since.
Mercedes ML450 hybrid. People buy hybrids for the image and for great mileage. The ML450, one of several misguided large SUV-based hybrids, has the image but it completely fails to deliver the fuel economy, offering a dismal 24 mpg on the highway that could easily be matched by any number of non-hybrid alternatives.
Any hybrid vehicle that can't achieve at least 30 highway mpg isn't worth the bother. Plus, this is a very expensive choice at $55,790. In March, for the second month in a row, Mercedes failed to sell any ML450s. It's managed to sell only one so far this year.
Similarly, the Mercedes S400 hybrid, an expensive iteration of the S-Class sedans, has some technological breakthroughs (including a lithium-ion battery pack). But its negatives are fairly close to the ML450 — it's pricey and not very fuel efficient. And Mercedes sold just 25 of them last month.
The Honda CR-Z Hybrid. For some reason, Honda never learned a lesson from the failure of its original two-seat Insight, which debuted in 1999 as the first hybrid car on the American market. There was nothing wrong with that 70-mpg car that a back seat couldn't have cured. Faced with the choice of the Insight or the five-passenger Prius, consumers chose the latter in droves.
The CR-Z is another two-seat hybrid, albeit much sportier, that not many people want to buy. The CR-Z is amusing to drive, but it's no Tesla Roadster. (Check out video of my Roadster test drive here.) In March, it found just 1,685 buyers, which at least was up from 1,091 in February. Sales of the company's newer five-seat Insight, intended to take the Prius head-on, are double that. (On the other hand, Prius sales in March: 18,605.)
Dodge Nitro. A sort of cut rate and downsized Hummer, the Nitro (based on the Jeep Liberty, and pictured above) hit showrooms in 2007. There probably was a business case for an SUV based on an existing platform that could steal sales from GM's compact H3. But it needed to be well executed. Instead, the Nitro immediately set new standards for doing things on the cheap — at a time when the automaker desperately needed to show off higher-quality vehicles.
The interior was a sea of hard plastic, and hapless owners struggled to get in and out through the poorly designed door openings. Also downsized: the cargo area, which suffered even compared to that of its Jeep Liberty parent. The steering is vague, and it handles like a truck.
"It's really small, but it guzzles fuel," adds Consumer Reports. Indeed it does, with just 17 mpg combined. Dodge sold 2,136 Nitros in March, fewer than any other model in its lineup. But that's actually a rebound from the same month last year, when the automaker moved only 1,640 vehicles.