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The No-Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Meet the worst cars of 2019

What makes a bad car the worst car isn’t often about just one bad thing. It’s usually a mix of several near-misses wrapped into a poorly designed or over-priced package, one that doesn’t even live up to the automaker’s own promises about the car—whatever those may be.

What makes a bad car the worst car isn’t often about just one bad thing. It’s usually a mix of several near-misses wrapped into a poorly designed or over-priced package, one that doesn’t even live up to the automaker’s own promises about the car—whatever those may be. 

On Thursday I wrote about the best cars of 2019. That list included Italian supercars, futuristic electric sportscars, and one incredible station wagon.

Today, I’ll tell you about the worst.

Let’s start with the Nissan GT-R Nismo. Yes, it has a cult following. (At least, that’s what I’m told—the company declined to specify whom exactly the buyers are.) And it has a laudable pedigree as the descendent of Japan’s most iconic sports car, the Nissan Skyline GT-R. It is a favorite of video gamers worldwide. But the one I drove in November felt both thinly built and badly designed. Chief among them: An oversized rear wing best left on a F1 track, eye-jarring proportions in the rear, taillights that look like they’re from 10 years ago, and the general squareness of a Rubik’s cube. (Another winner for worst graphics/spoiler combination: The $187,500 Jaguar XE SV Project 8, which I would describe as an expensive way to look cheap.)

Photo of Nissan GT-R Nismo (Photo courtesy: nismo.com)
Photo of Nissan GT-R Nismo (Photo courtesy: nismo.com)

Some of that could be forgiven, but at $210,740, the GT-R Nismo is ridiculously expensive—it costs as much as the Bentley Continental GT, but is nowhere near as well-apportioned, or comfortable, or even as fun to drive. To all but the most exacting professional drivers, the GT-R Nismo is indistinguishable from the GT-R Track ($145,540) and the GT-R 50th Anniversary Edition ($123,00). Trust me, it’s likely that neither you nor I have the thousands of track-day hours and training to tell the difference. 

Bloat can come in many forms, though. Take the Fiat 500L. Fiat has a century-plus, beloved history that mushroomed when those endearing little go-getters populated Italy during the 1960s and ‘70s. La dolce vita indeed. But the modern version is nowhere near as lovable. For starters, Fiat has expanded the 500 range to include four-door offerings like the 500L it advertises as “equipped for anything, especially fun."

Photo of Fiat 500L (Photo courtesy: fiat.com)
Photo of Fiat 500L (Photo courtesy: fiat.com)

But to make it practical for daily life, the model costs much more than the $22,160 base model price. The one I tested last spring cost an extra $5,000 after the add-ons required to make it feel close to the spunky and “ready for fun" attitude the brand promises. Those extras included relatively simple additions, too, like dual-zone climate control, power-operated seats, sunroof, a decent sound system, an auto-dimming rear mirror, and a chrome “appearance" kit, which paints the wheels and exterior with silver accents. Fiat leverages the chic, luxury association of its brand and Ferrari-owning parent company, but with the 500L it falls short of delivering on that élan. 

All of this would be fine, I suppose, if the car drove well. It could be like a little rally car, or even like a cool and minimal Mini. Even an ugly rally car, like the MG Metro 6R4, would suffice. (That one along with its Group B brethren make this list in the Ugly category—yes, I know, the cars are incredible to drive, but you can’t deny that these fall into the so-ugly-they’re-cute category. Like Baby Yoda.)

Instead, the 500L offers an anemic 160-horsepower inline-four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The turbo has lags, the steering is indefinite, and the braking feels blasé. No manual version is available, more’s the pity. It all leaves me to question, when there are so many other similar vehicles for this price tag that are better—a Mini Countryman or a Subaru Outback come to mind—why anyone would buy a Fiat 500L at all.

One car I didn’t drive still makes this list: the 1939 Type 64. But I stood by as its engine started, after 10 minutes of coaxing in a Big Sur back lot, and was there when it rolled onto the sale block, and it makes for an amazing story. If you read one auction deep-dive this year, make it this one. 

Photo of Porsche's 1939 Type 64
Photo of Porsche's 1939 Type 64

Here’s the short version: RM Sotheby’s lists a car Ferdinand Porsche built for the Nazis, labels it the first Porsche, and ratchets up the hype with a pricing estimate of $20 million, a sum that would make it the most expensive Porsche ever sold. But a few vintage aficionados contest the claim, noting that while the silver, space-ship-looking machine is a precursor to the Porsche-badged cars built in Zuffenhausen, Germany, a decade later, it is not a true Porsche. (The fact it has a VW engine and Fiat components, among other suppliers, didn’t help matters.) 

Then, on the night of the sale—during the premier Saturday night time slot, during the most glamorous auction week in the world—the car rolls onstage and the auctioneer starts his wind-up. Bidding goes wild, hitting $70 million … then stops altogether. Then restarts at $17 million. That’s if bidding happened at all—yet another source of controversy. (The auctioneer said at the time he had made a mistake pronouncing bids.) The crowd boos. The car fails to sell, then disappears into the shadows. You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

Lastly, a word about Cadillac. This one is more of a holding spot than a demerit on an actual car. Since, you see, there was no exciting new car.

In 2017, I took a 1960 El Dorado through upstate New York as part of a digital detox. That lovely thing with crimson interiors glided down back roads like a pearlescent dream. I want back in. The time before that was in 2016, when I drove the Cadillac CT6 sedan. At the time, I wrote it was a “gentle, inoffensive" sedan; I mentioned some yawning at one point.

In 2018 GM said it planned to end production of six cars at North American plants, including the CT6 sedan, then later said that one would remain in Cadillac’s U.S. lineup, though some variants like the CT6 Sport would end. The back-and-forth is not encouraging; it reminds me of the way that Harley-Davidson—another American heritage brand—has struggled with an electric motorcycle.

After Cadillac announced plans in January to make a crossover electric vehicle, the brand debuted two new sedans, two new variants of existing sedans, and a new midsize crossover SUV. Nothing terribly exciting. It launched a website for online shopping and teased a new electronics screen for the next generation of the Escalade, which is expected in February. On Dec. 17, the company said it will skip the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in January where it had planned to show off the EV crossover.

Instead, what made bigger news for the company in 2019 was everything other than its cars, which is a bad sign for a company that makes cars. It recalled 900,000 vehicles because of battery and brake issues. It got sued for failing to warn people about headlight defects. It announced a replacement campaign for the “Dare Greatly" tagline, which has disappointed.

If it all feels very much like meet the new boss, same as the old boss, that’s because it is. For the eighth time in 20 years, Cadillac appointed a new CEO this year. Its own former top officer and brand bastion, Bob Lutz, railed publicly against it: “I don’t think there are enough decades left in the branded automobile business as we know it to achieve a comeback," Lutz said.

This isn’t to say that Cadillac isn’t entitled to a quiet year to regather itself, make some painful cuts, and renew its own reserves. GM boss Mary Barra has proven she’s comfortable taking the long view, slashing now where she must in favor of building toward sustainable growth later. Next year, Cadillac promises, we can expect that updated new Escalade and more information about the EV crossover. It has promised an array of new models (granted, they’re as distant into the future as Ursa Minor), and brand president Steve Carlisle has even said most Cadillac vehicles will be electric by 2030. Maybe Lutz will have to eat his words.

But we are talking about 2019 right now, where we are left waiting for America’s greatest heritage brand to give us something—anything—great to drive. In the meantime, I suggest you try one of these.

(This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.)

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

  • First Published Date : 28 Dec 2019, 09:00 AM IST