The most underrated cars ever made

Not all great cars get the recognition they deserve.

Some genuinely brilliant cars seem to slip under the radar. We’ve pulled together a list of some of the most underrated cars of the past 60 years to give them the pat on the back they truly deserve. Which cars would you add to our list of 40?

Citroën GS

Many column inches and screen time have been devoted to the Traction Avant, 2CV and DS, but less is said about the brilliant Citroën GS. The 1971 European Car of the Year delivered the technology of the luxurious DS to the masses, launching a year before Britain rolled out the soggy Morris Marina. “Citroën may claim to have found the automobile a motorised cart and made of it a magic carpet,” said the legendary British motoring journalist LJK Setright.

Alfa Romeo 155 Q4

The Alfa Romeo 155 Q4 is the thinking man’s Lancia Delta Integrale. While the standard 155 TS was powered by a normally aspirated 2.0-litre Twin Spark 145bhp engine, the Q4 featured a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine with 188bhp and a 0-60mph time of 7.0sec. The power was sent to all four wheels, which meant you were less likely to find the gravel or grass like a certain Gabriele Tarquini.

Vauxhall Carlton

Lotus this, Lotus that. Too fast for the road. Should be banned. You’ve read the stories about the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton; the supercar slayer deserves its place in the big book of motoring history. It’s easy to forget that beneath the Lotus clothing there was a thoroughly good family saloon, especially in 140mph Carlton 3000 GSi guise. Big Vauxhalls rarely get the recognition they deserve. See also: Omega and Senator.

Citroën ZX

It must be tough being a Citroën. Surrounded by some of the most illustrious stars of the last century, it can be difficult to stand out, especially when you’re tasked with stealing sales from the likes of the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Astra. At its launch in 1991, the Citroën ZX was probably the best family hatchback you could buy, but today it’s all but forgotten. Let’s remember, the ZX Volcane was one of the first diesel hot hatchbacks.

Porsche 914 and 914/6

Maybe it was the boxy styling. Perhaps it was the link to VW. Could it have been the mid-engined configuration? One thing’s for sure, the VW-Porsche 914 was certainly too expensive. Whatever the reason, the Karmann-Ghia replacement has always lived in the shadows of the 911, which is where you’ll also find the likes of the 924, 944, 928 and 968. But as the world’s first mid-engined sports car, it warrants more respect. It’s like a fun size Porsche 917.

Volkswagen Passat

The VW Passat occupies the middle ground between mainstream mediocrity and premium pomp. To some, it’s the best of both worlds. To others, it’s a compromise. Once the Passat had broken free of its Audi shackles (the B3 of 1988 is a design classic), it found its feet on the outside lane of the autoroutes and autobahns of Europe. The B5.5 represents everything that is great about the Passat: understated styling, a smart interior, limo-like accommodation and a big boot.

Daihatsu Cuore

This always felt like Daihatsu’s stab at building a modern Mini. Never fashionable, the Cuore offered the kit and practicality to rival any European city car and it was surprisingly fun to drive. If the Cuore was the basic Mini, the Cuore Avanzato TR-XX R4 must have been the Mini Cooper. A 660cc turbocharged engine, four-wheel drive, a weight of around 750kg and an 8500rpm redline is as fun as it sounds.

Volvo 164

Launched in 1968, the Volvo 164 was a big deal for the Swedish company. A large luxury car to take on the Germans, with power sourced from a six-cylinder engine. Things moved up a gear in 1971 when Volvo launched the fuel-injected 164E – the company’s most powerful engine to date. Our Steve Cropley is a fan. He tweeted: “Better car than many people said: smooth, powerful, nicely built and luxurious. Old-school long-lasting Volvo, too.”

(Volvo Cars)
Fiat 124 Spider

We applauded Fiat for the reasoning behind the 124 Spider. Basing your first rear-drive sports car since the 1980s on the Mazda MX-5 was a clever piece of business. The company also deserves credit for using its 1.4-litre Multiair engine to great effect, even if it couldn’t hit the high notes of Mazda’s revvy motors. Whisper this: the Abarth 124 Spider is one of the best ‘MX-5s’ you can buy.

Ford Escort RS2000 Mk5 and Mk6

Where do the Escort RS2000 Mk5 and Mk6 sit on the list of great Ford RS models? Somewhere close to the bottom? Probably. But that’s a little like ranking “A Hard Day’s Night” at number 11 on the list greatest Beatles songs; there are some smash hits above it. The Escort was in danger of going out with a whimper; the RS2000 ensured that it went out with a bang.

Opel Manta GTE

Britain’s love affair with the Ford Capri meant that rival two-door coupés and hatchbacks were left sitting around the edge of the dancefloor with little chance of a tango. The fuel-injected Opel Manta GTE was a superb car, more than capable of upstaging its blue-collar competitor. It was very much the last dance for the 2+2; heads were being turned by a new breed of hatchback upstarts.

Jaguar 420

Overshadowed by the Jaguar Mk2, the 420 has even been dismissed as a poor man’s E-Type. It’s as though this is a bad thing. Power was sourced from a 4.2-litre engine, so it offers superior performance to the 3.8-litre Mk2. Independent rear suspension means it handles well, too, while the styling is quintessentially Jaguar. The 420 remains a bargain when you can find them, but prices won’t stay low for long.

(Jaguar Cars)
Austin Maxi

It should have been great. A five-door hatchback in an era when families in search of practicality were forced to choose between a four-door saloon or estate car. The Austin Maxi was Britain’s answer to the Renault 16 (also criminally underrated), but the usual problems associated with the British motoring industry in the 1970s meant that it emerged from the factory a little half-baked. This shouldn’t disguise what was a genuinely clever car.

Chevrolet Corvair

A link to a famous personality can position a car in a positive light. Jim Clark and the Lotus Cortina, Elvis Presley and the BMW 507, Lady Di and the Austin Metro, Princess Anne and.. Other links are less favourable, as demonstrated by the unfortunate Chevrolet Corvair. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed? highlighted the problems with the entire American car industry, but the technically brilliant Corvair took the flak. Later data showed it was no more dangerous than equivalent cars of the period.

MG ZS 180

In 2004, Richard Bremner, writing for Autocar, said: “We’ve said before, of course, that the MG ZS version of the Rover 45, which started life as the 400 in 1995, is a surprisingly effective piece of kit, with abilities far beyond those that any MG Rover-hater could bear to credit it with.” The transformation was remarkable, especially if you opted for the ZS 180 and its 178bhp V6 motor.

Jaguar XE

The Jaguar XE is our favourite compact saloon. It’s better than the BMW 3 Series and far better than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 in most respects. We’d choose it over the Alfa Romeo Giulia, even if our heart told us otherwise. It takes something truly special to upstage the Germans in this market, but Jaguar has achieved just that. It’s just a shame that so many people decide to ignore it.

Ferrari Mondial

The idea of a Ferrari with four seats remains an anathema to some purists. Even the likes of the 612 Scaglietti and FF have failed to change popular opinion. Launched as the Mondial 8 in 1980, it wasn’t without faults. A mere 212bhp meant that it could be a hot hatch, while the interior packaging was far from ideal. But put it this way: you can buy a four-seat Ferrari with a Maranello-engineered V8 for around £30,000.

Nissan Pulsar

Is that the look of a man who is enjoying the drive? No, it’s a look that suggests he’d rather be behind the wheel of a Ford Focus or a VW Golf. Sure enough, the Nissan Pulsar felt as stodgy as last night’s semolina and the styling made us realise why Nissan turned its back on the Almera to focus on building crossovers. However, if your children have exceedingly long legs and wide elbows, the Pulsar is worth a look; it’s like a limo in the back.

De Tomaso Mangusta

De Tomaso’s first supercar was the combination of a rejected Giorgetto Giugiaro design for Iso and the chassis of the Brock/Fantuzzi 5.0-litre V8 sports prototype of 1965. Every inch a race car for the road, Alejandro de Tomaso reportedly told Carroll Shelby that the Mangusta (Italian for mongoose) would take on the Cobra and win. The Mangusta deserves to be ranked alongside the greatest supercars of the era.

(De Tomaso)

Launched in 1972, the Jensen-Healey was, at the time, a thoroughly modern take on the classic British sports car formula. It was comfortable and it handled well, while power was sourced from a Lotus twin-cam 16-valve engine. The gearbox was lifted from the Sunbeam Rapier, while the suspension, steering and front subframe were all Vauxhall items. Today, any early niggles should have been fixed, which makes the Jensen-Healey a sensible and relatively affordable British classic.

Fiat Tipo

The original Fiat Tipo was good enough to win the European Car of the Year award in 1989, beating the Vauxhall Vectra and VW Passat into second and third place respectively. “Overall, the Tipo is a well-balanced and extremely competent package at an attractive price,” was our verdict of the Escort and Astra competitor in 1988. There was even a superb performance version, but not enough people care. Shame.

Ferrari 612 Scaglietti

For whatever reason, the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti has always been overshadowed by many of its Maranello stablemates. Styling is a subjective issue, but you’d struggle to label the 612 Scaglietti “beautiful”. Then there’s the four-seat issue again; it’s as though taking your family along for the ride is an affront to the badge. It also rides beautifully, which some people see as evidence of Ferrari going soft. We’re not having any of that; this is a rear-driven, V12 supercar that could be yours for as little as £60,000.

Cadillac Allanté

In common with the DeLorean DMC-12, the Cadillac Allanté backstory is arguably more interesting than the car. Bodies built by Pininfarina in Italy and flown to Michigan in Boeing 747s for General Motors to complete them is the kind of excess that would make Gordon Gekko reach for his Casio calculator. The Allanté was too expensive, riddled with quality issues and not particularly good to drive. Still, it’s more interesting than a Mercedes SL, the car it failed to compete with.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

The W168 Mercedes-Benz A-Class was one of the most innovative and interesting cars of the 20th century. It deserves to be held aloft alongside cars like the original Mini and Citroën DS for its clever construction, technical innovation and superb packaging. It’s odd, therefore, that the A-Class tends to be overlooked when people are compiling lists of the greatest cars. It’s not particularly pretty to look at, and the quality is below par for a Mercedes, but the A-Class remains one of the world’s most underrated cars.

Vauxhall Calibra

Name another coupé of the 1990s that has aged as well as the Vauxhall Calibra. While this might spark some frenzied debate at the next socially distanced barbecue, only the fiercest Vauxhall/Opel critic would deny the Calibra was a fantastic piece of design. Slippery, too, with the base models boasting a 0.29 Cd drag coefficient. Its chassis was its undoing, but the Calibra’s beauty remains.

Volvo C30

Straddling the line between coupé and family hatchback, the pre-facelift Volvo C30 looked like a concept car for the road. Not quite in the same vein as the Audi TT, but Volvo deserves credit for producing a faithful interpretation of the original SCC Concept of 2001. The T5, with its 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, is a thinking person’s Ford Focus ST, but we’ll never forgive Volvo for failing to put the C30 Polestar into production.

Jensen FF

The influence of the Jensen FF shouldn’t be ignored. Permanent four-wheel drive, a decade before Audi’s chassis engineer was enjoying a eureka moment in a Finnish forest. Anti-lock brakes, albeit far from perfect, years before Mercedes and Bosch were demonstrating ABS to an expectant press. Thanks to its 6276cc all-American V8 and four-wheel drive, the Jensen Ferguson Formula offered almost unrivalled cross-continental performance in any weather.

Volkswagen Golf Mk3

If you caught the print edition of the magazine (26 May 2021), you’ll know that John Evans has been extolling the virtues of the Mk3 VW Golf GTI. For good reason, because this is the most affordable route into Golf GTI ownership, unless you fancy a ropey Mk4 or rotten Mk2. We’d go further by saying that the entire Mk3 range deserves more respect. Bigger, roomier and safer than its forebears, yet retro enough to stand out in a crowd. The VR6 was the Mk3’s high point.

Toyota Land Cruiser

To those in the know, the Toyota Land Cruiser is the only 4x4 you’ll ever need. Tougher than Dwayne Johnson in a tungsten suit, the Land Cruiser is capable of conquering the world’s most hostile places without breaking sweat. What’s the phrase about driving a Land Rover into a jungle? Yeah, that.

Ford Falcon

The photo says it all. It’s like seeing a body double alongside a famous actor, or the people behind the scenes who do all the work while a politician hugs the limelight. The Ford Falcon provided the platform for the Mustang, so its role in shaping American car culture shouldn’t be underestimated. We’d take a Falcon Futura, ta. And yes, that’s Lee Iacocca on the right.

Peugeot 604

Remember when the French built large executive cars good enough to trouble the Germans? The Peugeot 604 not only competed with cars like the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class, but it also beat them in a number of key areas. Had Peugeot chosen to focus on the luxury market, things could have looked very different in 2021.

Ford Mondeo

Launched in 1993 as a replacement for the Ford Sierra, the Mondeo became a benchmark for family cars, offering a combination of ride and handling that was a world away from the lacklustre Escort. The Mondeo Mk2 (or Mk3, as it’s also known) arrived in 2000 and is arguably the most underrated of all the generations. Its ubiquity was its downfall; the Mondeo went on to be outsold by premium rivals like the BMW 3 Series.

Fiat 500L

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll recall the Fiat 500L with fondness. Hamstrung by Fiat’s decision to make it part of the 500 family, the styling of the 500L leaves a lot to be desired. Devoid of the 500’s unique charm, the 500L is also drab to drive. That said, it’s supremely practical and extremely spacious, so should we be looking beyond its gawky appearance?

Hillman Imp

To borrow a phrase from Scooby Doo, the Hillman Imp could have conquered the world, if it hadn’t been for that meddling Mini. In a stroke, the Mini rendered the rear-engined small car obsolete, but the Rootes Group had invested too much in the project to go back. In isolation, the Imp was a fabulous little car. “If Rootes cannot sell 150,000 Imps a year, as they have planned, we shall eat our editorial hat,” said Motor, without access to a crystal ball.

Vauxhall Insignia

We could tell you that few family cars offer the Vauxhall Insignia’s unique blend of comfort, economy, equipment and value for money. We could also tell you that the Insignia is one of Europe’s most underrated cars. We’d even like to mount a case for the Insignia Country Tourer being an acceptable alternative to an Audi Allroad. We just know that you wouldn’t listen.

Ford Capri Mk2

The Ford Capri Mk2 suffers from middle child syndrome. Launched in 1974, the Mk2 was more practical and more useable than ever, but the softer appearance meant that it lacked the glamour of the original. Dads were turned on by the promise of the Mk1, but the Mk2 was a sign of getting old. The Mk3, on the other hand, has the benefit of recency and the 2.8-litre versions on its side. We’ll take a Mk2 3.0 S, thank you.

Renault 21 Turbo

“Dynamically, the Renault 21 Turbo is hard to fault. Its outstanding performance in the mid-range, smooth and refined power delivery and 137mph top speed put it right up there with the best of the competition.” Our words in May 1988 should leave you in no doubt that the 21 Turbo was one of the finest performance cars of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Mercury Marauder

After years in the doldrums, the Mercury Marauder is about to enjoy its time in the sun. “Marauders have been on the rise for years, but it’s been very gradual,” said Hagerty valuation editor Andrew Newton in 2020. “The latest jump is the biggest they’ve seen.” You can see the appeal: a 4.6-litre V8 from the Mustang Mach 1, rear-wheel drive and underworld styling.

Suzuki Kizashi

It’s not perfect, but there’s something very appealing about the Suzuki Kizashi. Switchable four-wheel drive, a 2.4-litre petrol engine and classy styling are just three reasons why the Kizashi is never far away from our eBay watchlist. It’s just a shame that UK versions were hamstrung by a frustrating CVT gearbox; other markets were offered a six-speed manual. Still, with prices starting from around £6000, we wouldn’t say no.


The most underrated cars ever made It’s time these great cars received the recognition they deserve