The conventional wisdom these days is that there are no bad new cars. You can't buy anything that doesn't start reliably, drive competently, brake safely, and look respectable. For just a few dollars more, you get an array of electronic helpers ranging from navigation devices to stability controls that used to be the exclusive province of premium brands. And even the flimsiest models have reliability records that as recently as a decade ago would be viewed as exemplary.
Still, some automakers have a clearer vision than others, and some models are better engineered to fulfill their stated purpose. Those that aren't languish unloved on dealers' lots, badly designed, badly timed, or badly priced.
In compiling this list of 2013's most disliked cars, I have been guided by critiques from professional evaluators, reviews by automotive journalists, and sales data compiled by Automotive News, as well as my own driving impressions and industry reporting. I have avoided piling on distressed brands like Mitsubishi and discontinued ones like Suzuki and obsolete models that are already out of production. I have also tried to avoid traditional whipping boys like the Smart fortwo. But, of necessity, my list is highly subjective.
2013 Acura RLX
As an Autoweek editor observed, "Abusing the Acura RLX is a national pastime among the automotive press." And with good reason; reviewers found it bland, boring, and over-priced. The Wall Street Journal's reviewer skewered the Acura flagship for its "creamy inoffensiveness" and its "hand-sanitized sterility" and judged that it "looks and feels like an exalted, compulsively over-equipped Honda Accord." And over at The Truth About Cars, the reviewer took note of its $60,000-plus loaded price tag and concluded, "Until Acura realigns their flagship's capabilities (or shrinks the price tag) the RLX is destined to be the car everyone likes but nobody buys."
2014 Nissan Versa Note
Nobody said it was easy to develop a car that sells for $14,000 -- especially one that is engineered in high-cost Japan -- but the Note hatchback, which went on sale in September, falls short on several fronts: an undistinguished design, a hard-plastic interior, and a widely detested continuously variable transmission that is both sluggish and noisy. The Note found no fans at Car and Driver, where "rarely have we wanted out of a car so badly before we made it out of our office parking lot." Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal was no more charitable. "It is a shambles, a car so out of step with the best in its segment, it almost has an early 1970s, East German vibe to it."
2013 Mini Cooper Paceman
Mini has built its brand by contriving numerous variations of the same thing, but the latest iteration -- the seventh in its lineup -- seemed to slice the sausage too thinly. Reviewers had a hard time figuring out for whom the tiny, high-style two-door was designed. Complaints focused on function, performance, and a price point that was $1,500 higher than a mechanically similar Countryman with four doors. "The Paceman is no sports car, and the engine doesn't provide many thrills either," said Car and Driver, which called it "a niche variation on a niche model within a niche brand." Edmunds.com advised that "it's safe to say you'll find cheaper and more practical transportation" with more traditional crossovers.
2013 Dodge Dart
Launched in mid-2012 with great fanfare as the first Fiat-based product from the new Chrysler, the Dart flunked its close-up. The biggest complaints centered on its two engines, both of which were judged noisy and left the car feeling underpowered. Car and Driver judged the car "lackluster." Consumer Reports was so turned off it failed to award the Dart a "recommended" rating. The 2014 Dart gets a bigger engine, but the additional seasoning isn't likely to be spicy enough to satisfy critics' appetites.
2013 Scion iQ
The pint-sized iQ arrived on the U.S. market in October 2011 with three strikes already against it. It was a tiny car in a big country, promised high mileage at a time when gasoline prices were stable, and lacked any charm or charisma. Succeeding at-bats haven't improved its average. Consumer Reports called the iQ slow, uncomfortable, and noisy in awarding it a historically low road test score, while Edmunds.com observed, "there are larger, more practical cars that cost about the same." If you need a car that can squeeze into tiny parking spaces, the iQ is considered acceptable. Otherwise, you are advised to shop elsewhere.
2013 Toyota FJ Cruiser
Are customers trying to send a message? Annual sales of the FJ Cruiser have sunk to about one-quarter of the 56,255 that were sold in 2006 when the off-roader made its U.S. debut. The FJ had novelty appeal when it was introduced but now seems as anachronistic as its retro styling. Analysts complain about its ride, handling, fit and finish, fuel economy, and noise, and describe its rear visibility as "horrendous." Consumer Reports thundered: "The FJ's off-road prowess is superb, but otherwise this SUV is very flawed." The 2014 model year will be the last for the FJ, and Toyota (tm) has no plans to replace it.
2013 Volkswagen VW Tiguan
While the Tiguan is smaller than other compact crossovers and offers less cargo space, it also charges a premium for its German technology, so buyers get less for more. A well-equipped model went for $34,000 in 2013, putting Tiguan at a cost disadvantage to others in its segment. Small space and high price haven't turned out to be a winning combination. U.S. News ranked Tiguan 17th against its competitors, well behind the No. 1 Subaru Forester. Wrote MotorTrend in 2012: "While the Tiguan is marketed as a premium alternative to its rivals, the driving experience and included content simply don't live up to those expectations."
2013 Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger
The chorus of criticism for these two garage mates has been consistent since they were introduced in the 2011 model year: They are aging designs built around substandard powertrains. Edmunds.com: "It is hard to make a case for the Chrysler 200 sedan." Consumer Reports: "The Avenger, like the related Chrysler 200, is an outdated and outclassed design that is uncompetitive among family sedans." Edmunds.com again: "We still think most consumers will be better off looking elsewhere for their next family sedan, as the majority of the Avenger's rivals, both imported and domestic, offer superior interior designs and a higher level of overall refinement." An all-new Chrysler 200 goes into production early next year, but the latest reports have the Avenger hanging around in its current configuration into 2015.
2013 Ford Fusion Energi
Plug-in hybrids have been slow to catch on, and economics is the No. 1 reason. The Energi can run about 20 miles on all-electric power before switching over to conventional hybrid operation, but that plug-in capability boosts its price to around $38,700 -- some $8,000 more than the Fusion hybrid. As the reviewer from Edmunds.com observed, "This latest perk in powertrain technology doesn't come cheap." That helps explain why Ford (f) sold just 750 Energis in September vs. 2,265 conventional hybrids. Concludes Edmunds: "It is a remarkable car, but we find it hard to recommend over the hybrid given the price difference. It takes extra green to be extra green."
2013 Lincoln MKZ
The first new model in Lincoln's planned Renaissance hasn't made anybody forget the Mark II -- or the Versailles for that matter. Critiquing the design, The Truth About Cars blogged: "The MKZ's oddly thick C-pillar, kangaroo hips and pseudo-Aston rear deck treatment look like a mismatched, misshapen pastiche." Critics were also unanimous in seeing too much of an everyday Ford in the allegedly premium sedan. "The end result is a little disappointing," wrote Edmunds.com, which rated the Lincoln below a BMW, a Lexus, and even a Volvo in terms of value for money. "You can still get most of its high-end features on the Fusion, for instance, and for a price that's thousands of dollars cheaper."