Car of the year awards have become a global phenomenon, and their abundance can be confusing. There is a world car of the year award, an international car of the year award, a European car of the year, and a green car of the year award.
In the U.S., two of the most prominent awards are Motor Trend's, chosen by the magazine's editors, and the North American Car of the Year (NACOTY), selected by a panel of 50 journalists.
As prize season approaches, it is good to remember that even the judgments of such august bodies of experts (and I am a member of the latter) are not impeccable.
They have voted for cars that were not only not the best cars of their year but among the worst -- and not just of their award year but any year. Some of the poorer choices could have been foreseen. A Mustang II that was sired by the Pinto? A Chevy Caprice that dazzled voters in two separate incarnations? Other misfires are for cars that seemed initially appealing but turned out to be deeply flawed. And some others were chosen because of their novelty appeal while their inconsequential engineering was ignored.
In six of the last 11 years, Motor Trend picks have been identical to NACOTY's, the journalist group organized in 1993. Half a century of car of the year selections by both teams has created lots of opportunities for clunkers, and here are some of the biggest.
2007 Saturn Aura
GM's publicity machine, the Aura received a lot of
backhanded praise for being "the best Saturn yet." That wasn't enough to
save the brand or the car, both of which vanished in GM's 2009
2002 Ford Thunderbird
After an interval of five years, Ford decided to revive the T-bird on the cheap, but the country club set had moved on, and enthusiasts were turned off by the rubbery body structure and cheesy interior. The revived car sold so badly after initial interest wore off that Ford decided to stop production after three years.
2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Another crowd-pleaser, the car that was "too cool to categorize" wowed voters with its clever retro styling, causing them to overlook two other cars that pioneered the gas-electric hybrid, the most significant technological development in a century. One of those cars, the Toyota Prius, has gone on to be a best seller and spawn its own line of associated models while the Cruiser has been discontinued.
1999 Volkswagen New Beetle
The crowd-pleasing revival of an all-time Baby Boomer favorite, the New Beetle won honors from both sets of judges. Only later did problems surface with the automatic transmission and hard-to-service maintenance items. Reviewers complained about its pokey performance and called it a car that was better to be seen in than to drive. It is getting a major redesign for 2012.
1995 Chrysler Cirrus / Dodge Stratus
Chrysler's "cloud cars," the first of four Motor Trend/NACOTY joint selections, were heralded at launch, only to disappear into mediocrity when put against foreign competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Cirrus vanished in 2001, and the Stratus was gone by 2006.
1983 Renault Alliance
ill-fated attempt to sell French engineering to American customers, the
shoddy assembly quality of the Alliance caused it to be derided as the
"Kleenex car" -- instantly disposable. The base 64-hp engine and
Euro-style air conditioning were too feeble for American drivers. The
Alliance's failure helped convince Renault to exit the U.S. market in
1980 Chevrolet Citation
First of the so-called "X-cars," GM's initial try at a front-wheel-drive small car, the Citation became the target of an NHTSA investigation because of braking and steering problems and was the subject of numerous recalls. "(The Citations) slaughtered GM's reputation for a whole generation," observed Car & Driver.
1977 Chevrolet Caprice/1991 Caprice Classic
A bizarre two-time winner, the Caprice is best remembered by those under 40 for the bloated Classic, whose looks were frequently compared to a beached whale. While the downsized 1977 model was lionized as "the best Chevy ever," the 1991 model, with its body-on-frame construction and rear-drive V-8 powertrain, was obsolete upon introduction. It later found law enforcement fans as a police cruiser.
1976 Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare
Rushed into production too quickly, the Aspen and Volare suffered premature rusting of the front fenders, forcing Chrysler to recall every single one made. The cars also had carburetor problems, causing them to stall, a defect Chrysler couldn't fix. Production mercifully ceased in 1980.
1974 Ford Mustang II
Based on an old Pinto chassis, the gas-sipping Mustang II combined poor performance with mediocre handling. It was designed to compete with imports like the Datsun 240Z, but Consumer Reports equated it more closely with the AMC Gremlin. Sales fell off sharply with the conclusion of the first energy crisis.
1960 Chevrolet Corvair/1971 Chevrolet Vega
These are but two of General Motors' most spectacular failures to develop a competitive small car. Ralph Nader dubbed the Corvair "the one-car accident" because its swing axle suspension had a tendency to tuck under, causing the driver to lose control. Developed under the sharp eye of GM's accountants, the Vega suffered from excessive rust, warped cylinders, and a propensity for engine fires.