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No one buys a Hummer to fade into the woodwork.
Instead, look-at-me vehicles like the Hummer do exactly the opposite: They attract the eye, polarize opinion and practically demand to be judged.
What’s the car the makes America cringe the most? The Smart ForTwo.
We showed a gallery of 12 nominees to 1,500 licensed drivers, who were asked to indicate which one would be embarrassing to be seen in. Then they were asked to rank the three most embarrassing. Finally, they were asked why each vehicle was embarrassing and given the option to write in a reason of their own.
We compared dislike across age ranges, and though tastes were largely similar, they differed most on two vehicles. Drivers 45 and older were far more likely to be embarrassed by the Hummer H2 than younger drivers were, and they were much less likely to be embarrassed by the Volkswagen New Beetle.
Some vehicles fared better among men than among women. Women were more likely to be embarrassed to be seen in a Lincoln Town Car, a Hummer H2 or a Subaru Baja. Men didn’t want to be seen in the New Beetle or the Smart ForTwo.
Better embarrassed than bored
The bolder the car, the bigger the gamble. Sometimes it works.
The wait to buy a PT Cruiser back in 1999 stretched for months. More than 30,000 people ponied up $99 to reserve a place in line before the Smart’s 2008 debut. And the in-your-face Hummer drew critical praise and sold well even as backlash against its size and gas mileage mounted.
Others stumbled right out of the gate and disappeared quickly. The Chevrolet SSR evoked classic pickup truck styling, had a folding hardtop and a lusty V8 engine, and it was gone in a heartbeat. Subaru sold only a fraction of the 24,000 Baja trucklets it expected to move each year and pulled the plug after four model years.
In failure, some cars attain a perverse sort of cool. Consider Walter White’s loser-mobile in “Breaking Bad,” a serially abused, plastic-shrouded Pontiac Aztek minivan/SUV that accrues in death all the street cred it lacked in life.
Success doesn’t necessarily spare future embarrassment. Nothing about the Lincoln Town Car was daring except that it sold steadily and largely unchanged for decades, earning derision as the ultimate retiree car -- and a bundle for Ford.
Yet the list of write-in candidates indicates that some drivers would prefer even an obsolete dinosaur to conformity and blandness. The top write-in suggestion for most embarrassing car was the very sensible, very successful Toyota Prius.
The “Cringe Score” in the gallery below represents the weight of all first-, second- and third-place votes expressed on a 1 to 10 scale. The Smart ForTwo -- about half the size of a Hummer H2 or Lincoln Town Car -- was the runaway winner. “It looks like I couldn’t afford a real car,” one participant said.