Fans of Breaking Bad may have shed a tear when Walter White unloaded his Pontiac Aztek with the oft-broken windshield onto his mechanic for $50. Walt wasn’t fond of the proto-crossover’s misbegotten combination of SUV, minivan, and camping trailer. It didn’t help that his was blemished by a faded paint job and missing alloy wheel. Was Walt a typical owner of the Aztek, often voted one of the ugliest vehicles of all time, leading to its premature and unlamented death? Or are there fans out there who harbor contrary opinions and root for the underdog?
As often happens with idiosyncratic vehicles with short production runs, the Aztek has developed a cult following. A quick Google search turns up plenty of aficionados. GM didn’t sell many of the homely vans, but the people who bought them, love them. Throughout automotive history, there have been many autos that launched poorly only to get better late in their lives. Or they simply failed to match the national mood at the time but otherwise offered reliable transportation with a touch of style. Underappreciated during their day, they are deserving of notice now. Here are my nominees:
1. Dodge Dart 1960-1978
Chrysler was building disposable cars in the ’60s and ’70s (see Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare) and the Dart stood out like a rose bush in the desert. The best cars came from the second generation, built from 1963-1966. Its Slant6 motor, which came in 101-hp and 145-hp versions, may have lacked grunt but was considered indestructible, and Chrysler got rid of the annoying pushbutton transmission shifter in 1964. Disc brakes became available in 1965, and seat belts were standard. It is hard to believe today, but the Dart came in no fewer than five body styles: two- and four-door sedans, four-door wagon, two-door hardtop coupe, and two-door convertible.
2. Chevrolet Corvair 1960-1969
For most of its life, the Corvair was a troubled car, prone to busted fan belts, an exhaust-spewing heater, and a collapsing suspension. But its rear engine, floor-mounted manual suspension, and sporty Monza version made it more fun to drive than any other American car of the era. A dramatic redesign for 1965 replaced the controversial swing axle with a fully independent suspension and refined the styling but couldn’t blunt the attack from Ralph Nader in Unsafe at Any Speed. Sales fell by half in 1966, and three years later, General Motors (GM) made Corvair was history.
3. Pontiac Fiero 1984-1988
Like the Corvair, the Fiero was troubled at birth, matured quickly, and then suffered an untimely death. Early versions of the mid-engine two-seater were handicapped by off-the-shelf suspension parts, wimpy performance, and — regrettably — a tendency toward engine fires. But a year after its introduction, a GT version came along with upgraded suspension, sleeker styling, and a V-6 engine less prone to occasional infernos. But it wasn’t enough. The poor reliability of the early cars, declining interest in two-seaters, and bad press so weighed on sales that GM stopped production in 1988. Cars built during Fiero’s last year have become collector’s items.
4. Merkur XR4ti 1985-1989
The American version of the European Sierra came to the U.S. courtesy of Bob Lutz, then vice president of Ford (F) of Europe. The Merkur XR4ti was notable for its hatchback body, five-speed manual transmission, turbocharged engine, and bi-wing rear spoiler. Sporty for its time, the car sped to 60 miles per hour in 7.8 seconds and had a top speed of 130 mph. But Lincoln-Mercury dealers didn’t know how to sell the German import, the marketing was invisible, and the deutschmark/dollar exchange rate moved in the wrong direction. The introduction of new safety requirements like air bags that the XR4ti couldn’t meet without costly modifications brought the Merkur era to a premature end.
5. Acura Legend 1986-1995
The flagship of the fledgling Acura line and the first Honda-built car with a six-cylinder engine, the Legend redefined full-size luxury sedans with its classic lines, array of technical features, and Japanese ease of ownership. Enthusiasts quickly adopted the Legend, and it appeared on Car & Driver’s 10 Best list for three years running. Fearing that the Legend name was overshadowing the Acura brand, Honda (HMC) changed it to RL in 1996 — thereby assuring its anonymity — and detuned its precision handling in favor of a more luxurious ride — thereby alienating its devoted fans like Rapper Ludacris, who tweeted last year that his favorite car is a ’93 Legend with 230,000 miles on it.
6. Any Infiniti 1989-
Blighted at birth by the infamous “rocks and trees” advertising campaign, Nissan’s Infiniti division has suffered from shifting priorities, management indecision, and bad product choices. Crossovers and SUVs represent half the sales for some luxury brands, but not at Infiniti, which barely competes in the segments. That it survives at all is due to the surprisingly athletic handling, sporty performance, and exceptional quality of its nearly-invisible G-series cars, but even those are going away. In its latest reincarnation, Infiniti is renaming all its cars with an alpha-numeric name beginning with the letter “Q.”
7. Mazda B-series pickup 1994-2006
“Unappreciated” and “Mazda” go together like gin and tonic, and none is more neglected than this compact pickup, the Mazda-ized version of the Ford Ranger. After spending $100 million to develop its own truck, Mazda was forced by import taxes to sell the rebadged Ranger, built in Minnesota, instead. But it managed to infuse it with some zoom-zoom of its own, and owners praised its ride and maneuverability. The B-Series was discontinued after the 2009 model year, and the Ranger itself died at the end of 2011 with the closure of the Ford Twin Cities Plant.
8. Volkswagen Phaeton 2004-2006, 2015-
Industry insiders laughed when a struggling VW brought the full-sized, upscale Phaeton to the U.S. with its available 12-cylinder engine and super-premium prices. That’s too much to pay for anything with a VW badge on the hood, they said — and they were right. Despite being laden with luxury features and endowed with classic styling, the Phaeton was a noisy flop in the U.S. VW kept selling them in Europe, however, and now Phaeton supporters are having the last laugh: A newly revived VW is bringing a new Phaeton with edgier styling to the U.S. in 2015 with much greater prospects of success.
9. Ford Five Hundred 2005-2007
It’s likely the tallest, roomiest, and most rugged passenger car from Ford since the Model A, but it’s had a troubled life. On a platform borrowed from Volvo’s cars and station wagons, the Five Hundred stood more than five feet from road to roof, performed like a champ in NHTSA crash tests, and had room in its trunk for six golf bags. Those features appealed mostly to older drivers who weren’t turned off by the pedestrian styling, anemic 203-hp engine and CVT transmission. CEO Alan Mulally changed the Five Hundred name to Taurus for the start of the 2008 model year, but it made little difference. A year after its name disappeared, the Volvo legacy engineering was also retired.
10. Ford Flex 2009-
The Flex’s flat-room design has never caught on with a wide audience, but the crossover SUV has won devoted fans for its versatility. Its long wheelbase has made it a favorite of California surfers while New York limo passengers appreciate the adjustable and removable second-row footrests. Those niche markets may not be enough to keep it alive, however. With the similarly-sized Ford Explorer outselling it nine-to-one this year, the Flex may be yanked from the Ford lineup in 2015 and sent into retirement.