The year was 1983. I was six years old. My father was hot and bothered about buying a Renault Alliance, which Car and Driver had named one of its 10 best cars of the year. What’s more, other magazines (including Motor Trend) had actually named the French import THE car of the year. The entire family was buzzing with anticipation when the Renault finally arrived.
Then, disaster struck. The car needed its first transmission replaced a mere six months later. Two years later, we found ourselves looking for transmission #3. That’s when we knew we were done. The Renault Alliance wasn’t the only car that went from golden to garbage. Here are the most embarrassing cars ever to win auto industry awards.
1. 1987 Renault Alliance
The Renault Alliance had a crappy 60 horsepower. It was created during the period when Renault owned General Motors. The company decided to make the car from an old Nash plant in Wisconsin. “Almost as good as an American-made classic car, no?” Um, no. The cars were shoddily assembled and more or less fell apart soon after leaving the assembly line. A car has to be pretty bad for its owner to simply abandon it in a field somewhere, but by 1987 the country was littered with the rusted out old Alliances with zero resale value. Chrysler bought the company, killed the Alliance and French cars have yet to return to the USA.
2. 2002 Ford Thunderbird
Everyone loves a classic Ford Thunderbird. That’s why Ford got the bright idea to relaunch the car back in 2002 as a two-seater reminiscent of the classic T-birds of 1955-1957. At first glance, the styling was beautiful (although a nagging feeling does make you associate it with animated movies). So what went wrong? Basically Ford decided to do its new Thunderbird on the cheap, actually borrowing the chassis and interior from the Lincoln LS sedan. The very heavy car was awful to drive, belying its outwardly fun appearance. The $40,000 price tag was high, especially for the time, and the performance was just too lackluster to attract many buyers. The car ended its run in 2005.
3. 1971 Chevy Vega
The Chevy Vega came about at a time where all the Detroit automakers were in a rush to put out small cars. The Ford Pinto looked like something a dweeb would drive. In contrast, the Vega at least looked somewhat cool, especially if you decided to squint. It was the 1971 Car of the Year for Car and Driver, but it soon became obvious that the Vega was a giant bomb. The body corroded quickly, the aluminum block’s cylinders easily scored, fluid was prone to leaking everywhere and the entire car was a flimsy hot mess.
4. 1997 Chevy Malibu
The 1997 Chevy Malibu was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, but it should’ve won the award for blandest car of the decade. Chevy didn’t push the envelope in any way, from performance to styling. Its sheer boringness made it a favorite of government fleet cars. It was also a very common rental car, where it performed with perfect averageness.
5. 1997 Cadillac Catera
1997 was an awful car year. Cadillac had been getting kicked in the teeth by European luxury vehicles like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, so it went back to the drawing board and the Catera was the best it could muster. Cadillac was so uninspired it simply looked through its catalogue of European cars, picked out the Opel Omega MV6 and slapped the name Cadillac on the car. The generic design and so-so performance did not make American consumers want to drop their German cars and return to the grand Cadillac of old. The Catera’s weird ad campaign called it “the Caddy that zigs,” but with its nearly 4,000 pound weight, the car couldn’t zag if it wanted to. Cadillac briefly tried to inject life into the Catera with a sport version in 1999, but the model was killed in 2001.