It goes without saying that a new car needs to be better than its predecessor.
Regardless of whether a model sells on style, performance, comfort or tech, the development team’s goal is always to take its best attributes to the next level. Engineers and designers normally get it right but there are times when they strike out due to time, monetary, regulatory or creativity constraints.
We’re looking at the cars that were unceremoniously worse than their predecessor.
Ford Mustang II (1973)
The second-generation Ford Mustang released in 1973 for the 1974 model year wasn’t a bad car but those who argued it wasn’t worthy of wearing the hallowed nameplate had a valid point. Built on an evolution of the value-oriented Pinto’s platform, and marketed as “the right car at the right time,” it originally wasn’t available with a V8 and its optional V6 delivered only 107bhp. Ford gradually made the model more Mustang-like by adding a V8 to the list of available engines during the 1975 model year.
In 2020, the second-generation model remains the black sheep of the Mustang family.
Triumph TR7 (1975)
The wedge-shaped TR7 lacked the charisma of the TR6, its predecessor. It wasn’t originally offered as a convertible because Triumph legitimately feared the American government would make drop-tops illegal. And, its 2.0-litre four-cylinder delivered 85bhp, about 15 less than the TR6’s 2.5-litre four.
These faults were forgivable; it’s Triumph’s build quality issues – some tied to labour disputes at the Liverpool factory – that sank the TR7’s reputation. Production moved to Coventry in 1978, a convertible model arrived in 1979 and Triumph launched the V8-powered TR8 in 1980 but these improvements couldn’t save the car or the brand. Production ended when Triumph shut down in 1981.
Dodge Challenger (second generation, 1978)
The original Dodge Challenger made between 1969 and 1974 was a brawny, powerful muscle car more often purchased with a V8 than a straight-six. The second-generation model released in 1977 for the 1978 model year arrived as a much smaller coupe with a four-cylinder engine and a “made in Japan” tag. It wasn’t a Dodge at all; it was an Americanised version of the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda.
Ford Thunderbird (eighth generation, 1979)
The heritage-laced Thunderbird nameplate turned 25 during the 1980 model year and Ford celebrated by releasing a new model that was smaller and 700lb lighter than the seventh-generation car. It handled better and its predecessor but Thunderbird buyers didn’t care; they wanted space and panache.
Sales collapsed from 284,141 units in 1979 to 156,803 in 1980 and 86,693 the following year. The 1983 model year brought a new model with a more aerodynamic design.
Ferrari 348 (1989)
Released in 1989 to replace the 328, the 348 wasn’t an awful car but it’s remembered as one of Ferrari’s more mediocre efforts. It arguably didn’t look as good as its predecessor and many asserted the company hadn’t unlocked its full performance potential. Chief among the 348’s critics was former Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, who owned one and called it one of the company’s worst cars.
Lotus Elan (1989)
Lotus dusted off the Elan nameplate after a 14-year hiatus on a front-wheel drive roadster whose development was funded by General Motors, which owned the firm at the time. It received an Isuzu-sourced 1.6-litre engine optionally available with a turbocharger so it didn’t lack power but road testers denounced its handling. It drove exceptionally well for a front-wheel drive car, and Autocar praised its straight-line performance, yet it didn’t manage to feel like a proper Lotus.
In hindsight, the Elan was the first, last and only front-wheel drive car Lotus has ever made. While the company wisely returned to rear-wheel drive, the Elan’s basic packaging worked well for Kia which bought the rights to the car and briefly sold it with its own engine under the bonnet.
Ford Escort (fifth generation, 1990)
Ford’s fourth-generation Escort was an updated version of the third-generation car released in 1980 so the public and the press rightly expected great things from the new model introduced in 1990. Everyone was sorely disappointed when it made its debut. Critics – including Autocar – complained it was boring to drive and not much more exciting to look at while pointing out rivals offered better engines.
The cover of Autocar’s 29 August 1990 issue read “Ford’s new Escort meets its rivals … and loses.” Ford responded by updating the Escort range with a new look and better engines in 1992.
Mercury Capri (1991)
The second-generation Mercury Capri retired in 1986 as a rear-wheel drive coupe based on the Ford Mustang and capable of offering comparable performance. The nameplate returned in 1991 on a front-wheel drive roadster designed and built in Australia with a greater emphasis on cuteness than on handling. Mercury spent four years hopelessly marketing it as an alternative to the Mazda MX-5 Miata before calling it quits. That was the Capri name’s last stand on the American market.
Alfa Romeo 155 (1992)
While the Alfa Romeo 155’s design wasn’t to everyone’s taste, it’s the switch from rear- to front-wheel drive that received the harshest and loudest criticism. Its direct predecessor, the 75/Milano, stood out as one of the best-handling saloons in the 1980s thanks in part to a transaxle that gave it a nearly perfect weight distribution. In contrast, the base variants of the 155 drove a lot like the Fiat Tempra they shared their Type Three platform with.
Ford Taurus (third generation, 1995)
The third-generation Ford Taurus unveiled at the 1995 Detroit motor show completely missed the mark. While its predecessors were mainstream models that credibly competed against the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, it alienated its target audience with a submarine-like design inside and out and a correspondingly small boot. It was innovative but it didn’t deliver what buyers wanted in a Taurus.
51% of the cars made during the 1996 model year consequently ended up in fleets. Ford panicked and launched a more conventional-looking fourth-generation model in 1999.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W210, 1996)
The Mercedes-Benz W124 (which became the first E-Class in 1993) felt like it was sculpted from a solid block of granite. Its replacement, the W210, arrived in 1996 as a noticeably more mediocre car plagued with reliability problems not normally associated with the brand. It rusted well and it suffered from a wide panoply of electrical issues that Mercedes gradually addressed during the model’s production run.
Volkswagen Golf GTI (fourth generation, 1997)
Volkswagen’s fourth-generation GTI was a swing and a miss. While subtlety has always characterised the nameplate, this version looked almost exactly like the standard Golf it was based on with the exception of BBS alloy wheels and Recaro front seats. It was too heavy and not fun enough to wear the GTI nameplate, enthusiasts argued. And, interestingly, Volkswagen offered it with a confusingly wide range of engines including a 106bhp, 1.9-litre TDI, turbocharged and naturally-aspirated fours and a 2.3-litre VR5 with 165bhp on tap. The fifth-generation GTI mercifully returned to the nameplate’s roots.
Renault Vel Satis (2001)
Positioned at the top of the Renault range, the Vel Satis picked up where the Safrane left off. Its unusual design cleaved the public’s opinion and certainly turned heads but the company’s assumption that buyers were ready to move away from the conventional saloon wasn’t entirely accurate.
Looks alone didn’t undermine the Vel Satis. It was confusingly sold alongside the Avantime and buyers had a difficult time identifying Renault’s true flagship. Mechanical and electronic problems weren’t rare, either. All told, Renault built 62,000 units of the Vel Satis compared to 310,000 examples of the Safrane.
Mazda MX-5 (third generation, 2005)
The third-generation MX-5 certainly matured, but also became heavier and softer. As our road test editor Chris Harris said at its launch, "...the car’s inability to work over a road with the Lotus-like agility and deftness that I’d expected were a disappointment."
It was the first variant fitted with a power-retractable hard top, which explained some of the weight gain, and early stock examples had an unusually high ride height for a two-seater roadster. The trade-off was that the third-generation model (called NC internally) was easier to live with than its predecessors.
Chrysler Sebring (third generation, 2006)
Making the third-generation Sebring worse than the second-generation model was genuinely difficult yet Chrysler pulled it off with flying colours. It was uninspiring to look at, to sit in and to drive in an era when competitors like Toyota and Honda were packing more style, substance and value into their cars. Generous discounts made the saloon and convertible Sebring variants popular among fleet buyers.
Volkswagen Jetta (sixth generation, 2010)
Volkswagen developed the sixth-generation Jetta released in 2010 with the North American market in mind. It went to great lengths to position the model as a direct alternative to the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic, the class leaders, and that meant removing equipment to make it less premium and more affordable.
The changes included a cheaper interior and a torsion-beam rear suspension - backward steps in our book. Volkswagen seems to have noticed - The seventh generation model that went on sale in 2018 is a much more sophisticated animal.
Honda Civic (ninth generation, 2011)
The ninth-generation Honda Civic was shaped by the 2008 financial crisis. The Japanese firm originally planned to take its bread-and-butter model slightly upmarket but it ultimately decided to keep it basic and affordable in order to avoid alienating its target audience. While that’s admirable, the end result was one of the worst cars to ever wear the Civic name. Its interior had gotten cheaper, its driving dynamics had gotten noticeably worse and it looked too much like its predecessor.
Honda couldn’t afford a flop so it addressed the Civic’s shortcomings during the 2013 model year.
Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman GTS (2017)
As Porsche surfed the downsizing wave sweeping across the automotive industry, the GTS variants of the 718 Boxster and the 718 Cayman ditched the naturally-aspirated flat-six for a turbocharged, 2.5-litre flat-four rated at 360bhp. Both were quick and brilliant to drive but neither sounded right; Autocar called the boxer drone “more prominent, more audible and more annoying.”
Porsche listened – literally. It brought the flat-six back by popular demand in 2020.
Holden Commodore (fifth generation, 2018)
For decades, Holden’s Commodore took the form of a big, rear-wheel drive saloon with a V8 under the bonnet. General Motors stopped manufacturing cars in Australia in 2017 so Holden was forced to source the fifth-generation Commodore released the following year from Vauxhall. This dramatic shift didn’t sit well with buyers and the Insignia couldn’t fill the Commodore-sized gap in the range.
Called ZB internally, this version of the Commodore sold so poorly that Holden announced its demise only a year after its introduction. We later learned it’s not just the nameplate that’s going away; the brand will shut down by 2021 as General Motors exits right-hand drive markets to cut costs.
Chevrolet Camaro SS (2019)
Chevrolet gave the entire Camaro range a mid-cycle update for the 2019 model year that included a contentious-looking redesigned front end. The V8-powered SS model (pictured) wore an oversized grille split by a giant black bar decorated with the firm’s emblem. Buyers loudly voiced their disapproval; they hated it so much that Chevrolet gave the Camaro an emergency redesign for the 2020 model year.
Time will tell if the 2019 Camaro’s ugliness-induced rarity turns it into a rare, desirable classic in 2050.