Many auto-makers have tried and many have failed. Some cars never stood a chance; they were too small, too expensive or not built well enough. Others never got the attention they deserved for a plethora of reasons ranging from an utter lack of image to an underdeveloped dealer network. Join us as we look at some of America’s black sheep from the oldest, to the most recent failures.
19: Citroën DS/ID (1955)
We can’t blame Americans for not warming up to the Citroën 2CV; we wouldn’t want to drive across Texas in one, either. The DS deserved better, though. Indescribably futuristic, it looked and drove like nothing else on the road and its comfort rivaled that of the most expensive Cadillac.
It had a lot going for it with the notable exception of a V8 engine, an absolute must for a sedan in the 1950s and the 1960s. It also at least initially lacked other key features like air conditioning and power windows.
The “French cars are scary” dogma often repeated with superstitious awe by mechanics did little to encourage buyers to consider a DS, let alone buy one. It did stay on the market until 1972 – a 16 year run – during which it sold 38,000 units, or an average of just 2375 per year.
18: Austin Mini (1959)
Austin introduced the Mini in the United States in 1960. It quickly became the firm’s best-selling model, though that’s not saying much. Few buyers were interested in a small, underpowered car that made the Volkswagen Bus feel like a Greyhound. Sales stopped in 1967.
In the Midwest, surrounded by station wagons with names like Country Squire and Vista Cruiser, the Mini was a square peg in a round hole. It should have been a smash hit on the coasts, though, especially in New York City and Los Angeles. It wasn’t. For many buyers, the Cooper-badged models merely provided a cheap way to go racing.
17: AMC Pacer (1975)
Boldly presented as “the first wide small car,” the AMC Pacer looked ahead to a time when American motorists needed to seriously downsize without sacrificing comfort. No one had ever seen anything like it when it arrived and 75,158 buyers parked one in their driveway in 1975, its first year on the market. Sales soared to 117,244 the following year. The honeymoon period quickly ended, though, and not because AMC couldn’t deliver on its promise to launch the Pacer with a Wankel engine.
Like its Detroit-based rivals, AMC painfully realized it couldn’t compete against small cars imported from Europe and Japan. Although comfortable, the Pacer was heavy, clumsy to drive and not extraordinarily efficient in spite of its trimmed dimensions. AMC scaled back its production plans in 1977 even though it added a wagon to the line-up that same year. Sales totaled 20,265 sedans and 37,999 wagons. They dropped to 7411 and 13,820, respectively, the following year.
16: Peugeot 505 (1980)
The 505 should have been a smash hit in America. It ticked all of the right boxes. It came from Europe and Peugeot later made it available with a 142hp turbo four. It looked good, the build quality was acceptable and the line-up included a station wagon. It cost thousands less than a comparable Mercedes-Benz. What was there not to like?
Boosted by the 505, which was popular as a taxi, Peugeot’s annual American sales peaked at just over 20,000 units in 1984 before sliding. Some argued the 505 was too conservative compared to rivals like the Saab 900. Others blamed Peugeot’s lack of image and the unsystematic approach it took to building a dealer network. Regardless, the 505 remained in the Peugeot line-up until the company’s American division petered out in 1991.
15: Maserati Biturbo (1984)
Maserati performed an about-face with the Biturbo, which it began selling in America in 1984. It marked a dramatic departure from the exotic coupes and the Corleone-esque sedans it built up until the early 1980s. The V6-powered Biturbo took the form of a compact sports sedan priced at $26,874 (about $60,500 today). It slotted right between Mercedes-Benz’s W201 and W124 and in the same price bracket as the BMW 528e.
In the 1980s, Maserati’s global production peaked at 6180 units in 1984, including 5865 examples of the Biturbo. The model was popular, and it gave the brand a much-needed boost, but its success didn’t last. It quickly gained a reputation for Italian mercuriality and critics trumpeted that it was not entirely fire-proof. In Maserati’s defense, many examples were poorly maintained. Americans should have given the Biturbo a second chance; it deserved it.
14: Merkur XR4Ti (1985)
Ford noticed the growing success of European car-makers and thought “we can do that, too.” It established Merkur to sell cars designed by its European division. Select Lincoln-Mercury dealers began carrying the brand for the 1985 model year. Its first car, the XR4Ti, was an Americanized Sierra.
With its hatchback body, the XR4Ti offered a typically European take on motoring. It used a version of the turbocharged, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Mustang of the same era. Promotional material bragged it was “engineered to put a grin on your face.” Sales peaked at 14,314 units in 1986, remained about even the following year and fell in 1987.
In hindsight, Lincoln-Mercury dealers selling land yachts were wholly uninterested in peddling spritely, European-bred models. The Scorpio flopped, too, and Merkur got the bullet during the 1990 model year.
13: Subaru XT (1985)
The XT coupe was one of the most radically-styled cars to come out of Subaru’s design studio. Its wedge-shaped body surrounded a flat-four engine that made 111hp when turbocharged, a respectable figure at the time. The line-up gained a 145hp flat-six in 1988.
Today, indoctrinated by the WRX STI, we expect high-performance machines from Subaru. In the 1980s, buyers looked at Subaru as the champion of plain, unpretentious cars that drove well on snow. The firm entered a new segment with the XT, one it had virtually no experience in, and few took notice.
12: Alfa Romeo Milano (1987)
An Italian brand with decades of experience hatches a sports sedan to prey on the BMW 3 Series. Sound familiar? It’s the plot of the modern-day Alfa Romeo Giulia’s story. It’s a sequel, though. The Milanese firm shot the previous part in the 1980s.
The Milano (sold as the 75 elsewhere) disembarked in America in 1987 to hunt the BMW 3 Series E30. Alfa countered BMW’s straight-six with a fuel-injected V6, available with either 2.5 or 3.0 liters of displacement, and relied on a transaxle to earn the rights to claim the ultimate driving machine.
The Milano only lasted three years. Spectacular quality issues plagued early cars and some complained it looked like it had been rear-ended before leaving the factory.
11: Peugeot 405 (1989)
The 405 represented Peugeot’s final attempt at securing relevance in America. Like the 505, it was an accomplished car that had a brilliant career in its native Europe. It was solidly built, it looked good and the 150hp Mi16 variant benefited from Peugeot’s vast expertise in turning economy cars into memorable performance models. Also like the 505, the 405 suffered from Peugeot’s disorganized dealer network and a broad lack of image.
Peugeot sold 2223 cars during the first seven months of 1991. Decision-makers chose to leave America in August 1991 rather than posting another annual sales disaster.
10: Dodge Daytona IROC R/T (1992)
The Dodge Daytona reboot from the 1980s wasn’t anywhere near as mad as the Charger Daytona built in 1969 to crush the competition in NASCAR. In base trim, it was about as thrilling as a powerful sedative. Dodge realized that, too. It injected steroids into the coupe right before the end of production.
Named Daytona IROC R/T, the flagship model received a turbocharged, 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to send 224hp and 217lb ft of torque to the front wheels. Its $18,532 (about $32,500 today) price tag made comparisons with the Chevrolet Camaro inevitable.
The Dodge lost every time when pitted against a V8-powered, rear-wheel drive coupé, even though its four-cylinder made significantly more power than the Camaro’s 5.0-liter eight-cylinder. Taken on its own, the Daytona IROC R/T was a competent (albeit expensive) machine that packed a serious punch.
PICTURE: Dodge Daytona IROC
9: Subaru SVX (1992)
Exhibiting Fisker-like determination, Subaru again tried securing a slice of the then-lucrative coupé segment when it introduced the SVX in 1992. It looked just as striking as the XT, though designers smoothed out the edges, and it stood out with distinctive two-piece side windows. Unlike its predecessor, it took aim at higher-end models.
Many prospective buyers said they simply couldn’t stomach the look. In America, annual SVX sales hovered right above 3500 units in 1992 and 1993 but they dropped sharply the following year and never recovered. Subaru sold 640 examples in 1997, the model’s last year on the market.
8: Volkswagen Phaeton (2002)
In hindsight, the Volkswagen Phaeton’s main problem might have been a generational one. It was aimed at wealthy buyers who were, presumably, near the end of a successful career.
They were the same motorists who learned how to drive in a Beetle in the 1960s. In those days, they envisioned wafting into retirement behind the wheel of something a little more estimable than a Volkswagen. They missed out, as the Phaeton was a fine way to get around - and still is.
7: Saab 9-5 (second generation, 2009)
It looked like the second-generation 9-5 could save Saab. It was a handsome sedan that signaled the brand’s rejuvenated design language had a bright future ahead of it. Critics agreed it wasn’t as well-built inside as its German rivals but, in time, it would have at least lured Saab loyalists back to the fold. The problem was not enough people bought it to keep the brand afloat.
In 2010, the 9-5’s first and only full year in production, Saab’s troubles were widely publicized in the media and few people aspired to own a soon-to-be orphan. Buyers were also beginning to flock towards crossovers and SUVs, leaving larger sedans like the 9-5 behind to fend for themselves. It barely stood a chance. Saab’s long-promised crossover, the 9-4X, was too little, too late.
6: Suzuki Kizashi (2009)
Suzuki engineers baked all of the right ingredients into the Kizashi. It was on the lighter side of the scale, it handled well and it wore a harmonious design. How many economy sedans from the late 2000s can you say that about?
Its biggest fault, it seems, was the emblem on the grille. The Kizashi didn’t manage to rescue Suzuki’s American division, and the brand withdrew from the United States in 2012.
5: Cadillac ATS (2012)
Cadillac sold 29,980 examples of the ATS in 2014 and only 13,100 in 2017. To put those figures into perspective, nearly 13,000 Americans drove home in a Fiat 500 the year before last. That’s puzzling; it’s not like the ATS is a bad car by any means of measurement. It’s dapper, it’s engaging to drive (especially with a V attached to its name) and it’s fairly well built.
The issue, we speculate, comes down to the badge. Cadillac genuinely soiled its image during the 1990s and the 2000s and its crest (wreath-less since 2014) is no longer as prestigious as a three-pointed star or a blue and white roundel in the minds of image-conscious luxury car buyers. Brand officials indicate this competent model will bite the dust before the turn of the decade.
4: Scion FR-S/Toyota 86 (2012)
Toyota teased us for years with the prospect of an affordable, rear-wheel drive sports car. We saw a first concept with a V6-electric hybrid drivetrain, a second concept with a flat-four engine and, finally, the production model. The hype was real and the rumors were true: Toyota had jumped back in the coupe game. It hasn’t worked out as planned, however.
Detractors argue the 86’s 200hp engine lacks power. Toyota prudently notes behind-the-wheel fun isn’t all about horsepower while pointing out it didn’t develop the 86 for straight-line speed. Regardless of who you side with, sales figures speak for themselves. The Mazda MX-5 Miata outsold the 86 and its twin, the Subaru BRZ, last year. As did the Hyundai Veloster, for that matter.
3: Chevrolet SS (2013)
There’s no unwritten rule that claims a muscle car needs to have two doors. Built by Holden, the Chevrolet SS was a four-door Camaro with an Australian passport. It joined models like the Corvette and the Silverado in American showrooms in late 2013 with V8 power and rear-wheel drive. Chevrolet added, by popular demand, a six-speed manual transmission to the list of options a little later in the production run.
The basic idea of a V8-powered, rear-wheel drive sports sedan with an affordable price tag should have stirred every enthusiast’s soul; it didn’t. Sales never reached expectations in spite of a reasonable base price that hovered around $50,000. Holden’s decision to shut down its manufacturing facility drove the final nail in the SS’ coffin while low demand helped justify Chevrolet’s decision not to invest in designing a replacement.
2: Dodge Viper (2013)
On paper, the last generation of the Dodge Viper was every car fanatic’s dream. It was a brash, powerful muscle car with an immense V10 engine, an enthusiast-approved manual transmission and only enough electronics to make it street-legal.
In reality, and it pains us to say this, it was a dinosaur stumbling through a forest where scalpel-sharp rivals live. A dicey blend of low sales and looming safety regulations convinced Dodge to deep-six this American icon in 2017 with no successor in sight.
1: Porsche 718 Boxster/718 Cayman (2017)
The original Boxster saved Porsche by bringing more buyers into showrooms, especially in the United States. It’s not a coincidence that the 1993 Boxster Concept made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show, not in Geneva. Times change, markets evolve and today it’s high-riding cars like the Macan and the Cayenne that are driving Porsche’s growth in the United States.
Even combined, the 718 model line stands apart as Porsche’s worst-selling model. On their own, the Boxster and the Cayman are practically niche models; the availability of only 4-cylinder engines has hardly helped matters, we reckon.