Currently reading: Squandered opportunities: the cars that fell short
We look at the cars that could have sold like hot cakes, were it not for that one vital missing ingredient
Richard Bremner Autocar
News
8 mins read
3 February 2019

Some cars instantly ooze success from every paint molecule. From the moment the proud designer slides off the cloth cover, the car looks to be a nailed-on smash hit. Very often it is. But sometimes, a car that looks like a sure-fire winner fails to make the cut. 

Sometimes the car doesn’t drive in the ways its looks say it will. Sometimes the price is wrong. Sometimes there isn’t enough promotion behind it. Very often, it’s a mix of all these things and more. Read on, then, to discover our selection of cars that should have been stars, and five unlikely machines that broke records

Lotus Evora (2009 - now)

The costliest model Lotus had ever developed, the Evora aimed to combine Elise dynamism with refinement, 2+2 practicality and the electronic tech to make this a liveable Lotus. So liveable, Hethel reckoned, that it would sell 2000 a year. Sales barely reached half that in its best year, and while the car improved and power climbed, so did the price, turning the Evora into a niche seller. It’s far from a bad car, and the chassis is sensational, but annoyingly for Lotus, Porsche – mostly – does it better.

DS 5 (2011 - 2018)

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Alfa Romeo 4C
Alfa 4C is built to encapsulate all of the Alfa Romeo brand values

The 4C is Alfa's first true driver's car for decades, and it shows how brilliantly a small turbo four can go and sound in a lightweight package

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This beautiful, troubled car sells slowly enough to constitute a limited edition. True, it’s now eight years old, but when it emerged as a Citroën, the DS 5 looked like it really could tempt buyers out of their BMWs. A shooting brake, coupé and hatchback cross, it was hot, had a luscious interior and – oof – a ride that had you wondering whether its springs were made from boron. Citroën bosses had demanded super-sports suspension from their engineers and – oof – they got it.

Alfa Romeo 4C (2013 - now)

Sometimes the ingredients for perfection are all there. A carbonfibre tub designed especially for this car. A mid-mounted, revvy, sweet, slightly oversized turbocharged motor. Great styling, the Alfa Romeo name and a mission to deliver pure driving enjoyment – and, indeed, little else. So where did it all go wrong? Geometry, mainly. Alfa’s suspension was at times alarmingly twitchy, its directional stability similar to a chicken’s attempting flight. It was tiresomely noisy too. Alfas that don’t handle usually don’t sell, and so it is with the flawed 4C. Right ingredients, wrong recipe. 

Toyota Urban Cruiser (2009 - 2012)

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The name was quite interesting. The shape was too, when this Toyota was new. Wouldn’t you rather have this than just another supermini? You might, until you discovered that the Urban Cruiser was as dull as a queue. Its interior was all shades and grades of black, with no features to make you think you were driving something interesting, urban or cool, and it drove with the verve of an escalator. The market soon found out, and did its non-buying bit.

Renault Wind (2010 - 2012)

It looked like a concept car, was developed by Renault Sport, had a roof that folded away in 12 seconds and was affordable. It was also fun and looked like no other sportster on the road. True, the name was unfortunate, the Twingo mechanicals didn’t quite deliver a magical chassis and the tiny rear screen was a threat to bumpers. These weren’t what stalled the Wind, however – a struggling Renault UK deleted it after less than two years during an exchange rate-driven model cull. 

Honda CR-Z (2010 - 2015)

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It referenced one of Honda’s greatest sporting hits, its chassis was co-developed with a Japanese drift ace, plus it was quick and packed with on-trend technology. But the CR-Z’s life petered out before planned, its mix of features failing to press that ‘want one’ button. Unlike Honda’s inspirational CR-X coupé, the CR-Z was a hybrid, both in function and character. It wasn’t fast and fun enough for red-mist redliners, nor economical or practical enough for eco-commuters. So it died early

Jaguar XJR 575 (2017 - 2018)

This is a car that seems to have lived for 10 minutes, hidden from view. As its name implies, it has a pleasingly excessive horsepower count, can reach its 186mph top speed in 44 seconds and 62mph in precisely a 10th of that time. It has a chassis to handle the power, and with XJ aplomb too. It’s also likely to have been the last petrol-powered XJ variant developed, although lesser V8s remain on sale. WLTP and default diesel XJ demand did for the car in the UK, but it deserved better. 

Vauxhall Ampera

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This was a car that should have triggered a plugin revolution. One of the first electrified range-extenders, its pioneering technology produced a truly practical car, and one that wouldn’t leave you stranded for want of a socket. It was interesting to look at and sit in, it drove pretty well – and very quietly – and its emissions were zero to low. Job done? No, sadly. The price was too high. It only seated four. And it was a Vauxhall, Astra-sized and double the money. For most, that didn’t compute. 

Peugeot RCZ (2010 - 2015)

Yes, you could see the Audi TT influence and, yes, it suffered some of the same dulled dynamic feedback as the TT, but this was a pretty, intriguing, wellfinished and desirable sports coupé. Its appeal was powerful enough to win it loads of page impressions, column inches and airtime. And then it all went dead. Peugeot’s promotion was minimal, until the RCZ-R version landed. Peugeot sold almost 68,000 RCZs, but Britain, surprisingly, bought only 1500 every year after the initial surge. 

Mini Coupé (2012 - 2015)

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Germany had already produced one car with a cap-like roof redolent of a military helmet, the original Audi TT being an outstanding success. Now here was another. Only this time, it just looked odd. Very odd. Odd enough that it lived for less than three years, killed by the fact that it was even less practical than a Mini hatchback and looked like the kind of creature found lurking around deep ocean vent holes. Dying with it was the barely-any-prettier Roadster.

Saab 9-5 (2010 - 2011)

This was a missed opportunity not only for a car, but the brand that built it. By the time the 9-5 entered series production after the 2008 crash, government-controlled GM had reluctantly sold the marque to Spyker Cars. The build of 11,280 examples wasn’t enough to avoid Saab’s bankruptcy, and the premature death of a stylish, spacious and safe car that needed a bit more polish. And a solvent company behind it. The 9-5 still looks good today, making Saab’s death all the sadder

Cadillac CTS-V (2009 - now)

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Cadillac’s attempts to claw itself a presence in Europe have produced frothy ambitions, repeated failures and even a Europe-only Cadillac in the Saab 9-3 shape of the BLS. There were other right-hookers too, but sadly not the CTS-V – a ferociously muscular super-saloon, coupé and estate aimed at the BMW M3 and M5. And to great ’Ring record-breaking effect. Despite its mighty credentials and distinctive style, the CTS-V has scored just four UK sales.

Mini Paceman (2013 - 2016)

Another faltering attempt to expand the Mini portfolio. Based on the Countryman, the Paceman was a four-seat Mini coupé and, being bigger than its two-seat Coupé sibling, was at least more useful. It also introduced a rising wedge beltline to the Mini design catalogue, and not unsuccessfully. Less-than-polished Countryman innards yielded a car that looked better than it drove, and offered little that the standard Mini hatch didn’t. Less than 10,000 were sold in the UK in three years. 

Volkswagen Beetle (1997 - now)

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Reviving the most popular car in the world, ever, should have been a cinch. For many years, it was, even if the 1997 production version of that 1994 Concept One show car had rather less character than its looks suggested. Underneath, it was a Mk4 Golf – a dynamically middling example of the breed. A Cabrio followed, and in 2011 an all-new version, cast in a visually sportier mould. But character was still absent, Volkswagen also failing to build the aura of desire successfully propagated around the Mini and Fiat 500.

Jaguar F-Type (2013 - now)

Jaguar, more than most, knows how to make cars that grip, handle and ride. For its follow-up to the legendary E-Type, you’d expect it to over-deliver on the first two, and satisfy on the third. But, whisper it, the F-Type has a challenging chassis, at least in lesser V6 form. Get it on a track and you’ll feel it get out of sorts. Take it down the road and you’ll discover composure less complete than offered by either Porsche’s 718 or 911, both of which outsell the F-Type in the UK.

Surprising smash hits

BMW Mini (2001 - now)

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This was a dangerous challenge – replace the best-selling British car of all time, a car that was part of the national culture and a car whose makers had repeatedly failed to replace. German money, motivation and pragmatism produced what many considered an over-sized pastiche, but it was a high-quality pastiche that didn’t deserve this pejorative. The new Mini was exactly what the market wanted. 

Nissan Qashqai (2006 - now)

Is it an SUV? Is it a hatchback? Is it an oddball, fiscally mutated machine from Japan? The Qashqai was, and is, the first two things, and in 2006 there were plenty who didn’t know what to make of this high-riding hatch with a four-wheel-drive option. They do now, this crossover selling fast enough to rescue Nissan’s fast-shrinking European presence and establish a whole new genre of competitors.

Nissan Juke (2011 - now)

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Is it an SUV? Is it a hatchback? Is it an oddball, fiscally mutated machine from Japan? The Juke was, and is, the first two things but, coming after the Qashqai, buyers had less trouble understanding what this little tyke of an SUV was all about. Its styling was divisive, but there were enough who liked it to frequently propel into the UK top 10 sellers. Curiously, Nissan has been slow to replace the Juke, although it still does decent numbers.

Range Rover Evoque (2011 - now)

The 2008 LRX concept was a hit, but not one as big as the production car itself. Land Rover famously deviated only by millimetres when it turned the three-door LRX into the three-door Evoque, although it was the more practical five-door that ignited the firm’s spectacular expansion. After 772,096 sales, the original has just been replaced – by an Evoque almost dimensionally identical.

Toyota Prius (1997 - now)

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The first Prius, a slightly ungainly four-door saloon with an odd little air vent beneath the nearside rear pillar, was initially offered only in Japan. Global sales began in 2000, and by 2002 US celebrities were driving them as a political statement. Sales accelerated, still harder with the second-generation’s arrival in 2003. Millions have been sold, and hybrids have become ordinary. That’s real confirmation of success.

Read more

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The surprise cars of 2018 and the cars we can't wait for in 2019​

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Monkfishpoo 4 February 2019

Fake News...

Are you bored at Autocar HQ?!

WRT the Lotus Evora, squandered is a very poor choice of word. When Dany Bahar joined Lotus, he could not believe they managed to devlop the Evora on such a small budget. Infact, he said Ferrari have a similar budget designing seats! 

Like the Evora, I think you miss the point on all of these cars. Whilst they may not have been a commercial success, they're still good cars AND they're different to your favourites the sheep buy!

 

Ravon 4 February 2019

scotty5 - my admiration

Cropely’s powder puff Alfa Romeo 4C article was very mich in my mind too, after reading this article . What these journos don’t seem to understand is when they write a powder puff piece it discredits their reputation, the magazine’s reputation and makes the reader question anything they have previously written .

MrJ 4 February 2019

I tried a DS5 for a weekend.

I tried a DS5 for a weekend. Yikes, it was like driving inside a World War II pillbox. Such poor visibility, especially at the rear.

I did find the HUD windscreen speed repeater useful.