The Automotive Industry’s Top 20 Biggest Winners and Losers

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average US household owns approximately 2 cars for personal use. A vast majority (92%) of American families own at least one vehicle, and it all adds up to around 204,000,000 personally owned cars on our streets. That’s a lot of customers driving a huge automotive industry.

Those statistics don’t tell the whole story, though. Cars are an important part of our culture, and not all autos are created equal. We dug a little deeper into sales figures, quality standards, industry innovations, performance factors, and most importantly, customer satisfaction, to bring you a comprehensive list of the 10 best cars ever made…and the 10 most cringeworthy automotive fails.

While not every move has been a home run, it has led to some amazing, and occasionally mind-boggling, strides in engineering. Take a look at our top 20 list of the biggest winners and losers in the automotive world.

The Winners

These vehicles set the standard for automobile manufacture in their classes, and are as loved by the marketplace as they are touted by industry experts. Here are our picks for the 10 best automobiles ever manufactured:

Ford F150

Ford F150 600x350
Ford’s F150 is, year after year, the highest rated and most commercially popular vehicle in the famed car-maker’s fleet. Even with the lighter weight aluminum body in newer models, the F150 retains its rugged durability.

With the advent of Ford’s new 2.7 L and 3.5 L V6 EcoBoost engines, the popular pickup keeps up with the times by providing improved fuel economy and a snappy driving experience normally reserved for smaller, sportier vehicle classes. Drivers and reviewers are impressed by the F150s superior towing ability, spacious interior that is equally well suited to handle passengers or cargo, and the intuitive SYNC technology that bring this long-time favorite into the modern hands-free age.

New models also offer a towing assistance feature that enhances maneuvering capabilities when a trailer is attached, which is a useful and well received innovation from the iconic manufacturer. The F150s competitors struggle to compete, but this long running model has been the industry standard for decades, and still continues to dominate year after year.

 

Ford Mustang SVT Cobra 2003/2004

ford mustang svt cobra 2003The Mustang is an American original, and is as much a part of the culture as hot dogs and baseball almost since its introduction in 1964. Car enthusiasts today still lust after classic models, and Ford’s 2016 model is already highly rated. The 2003/2004 Cobra, though, is widely regarded as the car to which all modern Mustangs owe their greatness.

Shortly after its introduction, the 2003 SVT Mustang Cobra became the definitive standard for its class. The Cobra featured a sturdier build than its predecessors, more horsepower than had ever before been seen in a similar car, and a heavier clutch that let drivers really sink into the ride.

Because of the significant increase in torque, the engine block for the 2003 Cobra had to be built in cast iron. In fact, despite the existing popularity of the Mustang line, Ford managed to redesign and innovate to make the SVT Cobra by far the best in its class. That attention to detail and quality paid off, too. Even today, the 2003 and 2004 SVT Cobras are some of the most sought after muscle cars on the market.

 

Mini Cooper

Mini CooperThe Mini Cooper is definitely an attention grabber. The boxy design that makes cars like the Scion XB and the Chevy HHR look awkward somehow seems aerodynamic, stylish, and even sporty on the Mini Cooper’s frame.

With its twinpower turbo engines, adjustable driving modes, and Mini’s famous electronic power assisted steering, the Mini Cooper really does handle more like a go-kart than a car. In fact, the overall design is inspired by go-karts – low profile construction, wide wheel stance, and a dynamic suspension system give this car great cornering power to give you a chance to use that snappy steering system.

2016 models also include a Dynamic Damper Control (DDC) option so that drivers have a choice between fuel economy with a smooth ride, or a stiff suspension for sporty handling and aggressive cornering.

It’s the seemingly minor details, though, that make the Mini Cooper so special. All the gadgetry in the Cooper is well-designed and functional, with small additions that make the driving experience memorable. From the climate controlled glove compartment to the automated parallel parking assist, nothing has been overlooked, and critics are enamored with the quality of the interior.

Also worth noting is that Mini offers over 10 million custom configurations for the end user. Mood lighting, roof and body colors, wheels, trim, and a slew of accessories can be combined in whatever combination the driver prefers. Kudos to Mini for paying such close attention to style.

Overall, even though some might find the sharp handling and powerful braking capabilities of the Mini Cooper a little harsh, this sporty little treasure is all the fun of a high-end sports car with a much more reasonable price tag.

 
 

Mazda MX-5 Miata

miata 2 600x350The Miata in its various incarnations is the best selling roadster of all time, and there’s a good reason for it.

Not only is Mazda’s sporty convertible surprisingly affordable, it also offers a thrilling ride with exceptional handling and fierce acceleration. The Mazda MX-5 looks, sounds, rides, and handles like an expensive toy without the high end price tag.

Fans of the Miata swear that you can actually feel the road surface through the steering wheel as the sporty two-seater hugs every curve. Responsive steering and agile handling give the impression that the car has more horsepower than advertised, giving the MX-5 an edge against competing models.

What really sets the MX-5 Miata apart, though, is the attention paid to making the user experience as comfortable as possible. Steering is smooth and effortless, shifting with the manual transmission is smooth, the fuel economy is incredible for a roadster, and the ride is soft and comfortable even at low speeds over bad roads without sacrificing the sharp cornering ability drivers want from a sports car.

With each new incarnation, Mazda makes the Miata lighter and faster, so there’s no doubt that the MX-5 will continue to be a powerhouse in the market.

Nissan Altima

Nissan AltimaA popular choice for parents, the Altima is a practical and efficient option for a mid-sized sedan that balances affordability with modern conveniences.

Nissan is known for the reliability and safety of its models, and the Altima is a perfect example. Additionally, the Altima has a comfortably roomy interior, intuitive tech, and standard features that are considered ‘upgrades’ on competitors. Not only that, but the fuel economy overshadows that of other vehicles in the same class, reaching almost 40 miles per gallon.

The Altima’s interior is ideal for both booster seats and adults that need legroom, making it comfortable for carpooling and commuting. To complement the roomy cabin, there’s ample trunk space for additional cargo, which expands by folding down the back seats to make more room for storage.

As a low maintenance, all around useful choice, the Nissan Altima is one of the best sedans on the market.

 

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1969

Chevy CameroWe can’t mention the Mustang without also giving some credit to its arch rival, the Chevy Camaro. The 1969 ZL1 was so iconic that the latest generation of Camaros was named after it, and car guys can nearly be defined by which side of the Camaro vs. Mustang debate they stand on.

Sales figures aren’t a factor in our decision, since only 69 of this classic muscle car were ever made. Chevrolet only manufactured the ZL1 in response to custom orders, mostly for use in drag racing. Still, the finished product was completely street legal.

The 1969 Camaro ZL1 boasted an official horsepower of 430, but drivers and collectors have often reported getting as much as 500 horsepower out of Chevrolet’s 427 V8 engine. Despite the upgraded suspension, cowl-induction hood, tough front springs, and myriad other improvements that revolutionized the American muscle car, Chevrolet had a difficult time selling the ZL1 and the model was discontinued.

Today, though, the 1969 Camaro ZL1 is a real prize for collectors and car lovers. Its rarity only lends to the allure and makes the ZL1 even more popular among devoted muscle car enthusiasts.

 

Toyota Prius

Toyota PriusWhen first introduced, the Prius was one of the only vehicles on the market for consumers that wanted to minimize environmental impact and get more mileage from a single tank of gas. While recent generations of the Prius no longer rely on top notch fuel efficiency as the main selling point, it remains a popular choice in the American marketplace.

Modern incarnations of the Prius have responded to the customer interests to offer more than just fuel efficiency. Now, they’re widely considered to be well-rounded, good cars.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that the Prius revolutionized the automobile market by introducing the public to the concept of a hybrid car. Even just the Prius name is still associated with a certain lifestyle and environmental consciousness, a reputation which fans embrace fully.

Toyota has introduced improvements in the 2016 Priusthat give users a 10% increase in fuel economy over earlier models, updated the sleek appearance, and paid attention to detail to provide better performance for drivers that care about more than just fuel economy. Still, just based on the innovations that changed the face of the automobile industry, the Prius deserves a place on this list.

 

Ford Crown Victoria

Ford Crown VictoriaWhile it boasted a V8 engine that only produced 235 hp, a durable frame and powerful rear wheel drive made the Crown Victoria a rugged vehicle that could run for years and take a beating. This reliability even in extreme conditions meant that the Crown Vic was quickly adopted by two industries that needed that kind of absolute dependability: police and taxi companies.

Over its 31 years in production, Ford built 9.6 million of these American beauties. They found favor with hot-rodders and families alike, and despite being no longer in production, thousands are still seen cruising to this day. In fact, even Crown Victoria police cruisers that saw more hard use than the average sedan regularly survived well past 200,000 miles, proving the models superior durability.

For its long life, outstanding reliability, impressive durability and power, and broad appeal, the Ford Crown Victoria earns its place on the best list.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model STesla is one of the few manufacturers out there utterly devoted to creating an eco-friendly package that’s pleasing to the eye, fun to drive, and performs like a powerhouse.

Not only is Tesla keeping that promise, the Model S has the added perk of an impossibly smooth acceleration and high-tech finery that can only be achieved in an electric car. Features like autopilot (which is exactly what it sounds like) and “Ludicrous Mode” for super fast acceleration and sharp handling, the Tesla Model S is changing the green game.

It’s not just number 1 among other electric cars. The Model S has been called the best luxury car overall, even against traditional gasoline models. Standard features like a 17 inch touchscreen display, bluetooth and WiFi capability, heated second row seats, a panoramic glass roof, and adaptive cruise control help give the Tesla Model S the distinction of one of the best cars ever.

Honda CRV

Honda CRVHigh-efficiency, high-utility, and low long-term ownership costs make the Honda CR-V a winner with both reviewers and consumers. Drivers love that the CR-V is safe and reliable, and reviewers rave that Honda has successfully combined the rugged appeal of sports utility vehicles with the smaller size and practicality of sedans.

With a smooth and responsive transmission, snappy steering, and fuel economy that has been known to reach 34 miles per gallon, the CR-V solves many of the problems normally present in SUVs without sacrificing cargo room – owners get more than 70 cubic feet of space.

Modern tech, a comfortable interior, and the successful combination of utility and convenience secure the Honda CR-V’s position on the top 10 list.

The Losers

Not every car can be a winner. In fact, many of the most beloved manufacturers out there have experienced a few missteps when it comes to maintaining high standards (or any standards at all) of quality control. Check out our top 10 picks for the biggest losers below.

Ford Pinto

Ford PintoThe Pinto has stood the test of time as one of the most infamous cars Ford has ever produced. Why? Probably because a car that bursts into flames tends to draw attention.

In 1977 Mother Jones revealed a massive design flaw in the Pinto’s construction: the gas tank’s lack of reinforcement and close proximity to the rear bumper and the axle meant that in rear-end collisions, the car’s the flimsy sheet metal gas tank would rupture, spilling gas everywhere and the making the perfect recipe for the gruesome “Burning Pinto.”

The problem was compounded by the Pinto’s initial popularity. It was one of the best selling small cars in the 1970s, which made it much more difficult when Ford recalled the 1.5 million subcompacts that had already been sold.

Ford’s fiery problem led to then CEO Lee Iacocca’s termination and 117 lawsuits. It also made Ford the first automaker to be indicted and prosecuted for criminal homicide.

Ford Explorer and Firestone Tires 1991-2000

Ford ExplorerThis list would be incomplete without mentioning the tragic construction of the Ford Explorer in combination with Firestone tires– which had a tendency to blowout. The exploding tires led to high rollover rates among Explorers, whose large bodies and poor suspension caused the SUVs to flip easily.

In this case, both the tires and the SUVs had their own faults, but the combination that made a bad situation into a deadly a disaster. Adding to the scandal, the two companies tried to cover up the fatal flaws before making things right, even though Ford engineers identified the tendency for the SUVs to roll in initial tests.

After Firestone’s recall and a slew of lawsuits and tests, the issue was resolved, but the reputation of SUVs as being too top-heavy has lingered.

Reliant Robin

Reliant RobinThe Robin was as flimsy and wobbly as one might expect a three-wheeled car to be. Reliant intended the Robin as a way to subvert higher taxes and fees: in the United Kingdom, the car could be operated with only a motorcycle license, and was categorized, technically, as a trike.

Unfortunately, the fiberglass body and supposedly ‘streamlined’ designed sacrificed stability and handling in favor of creating a cheap, light-weight vehicle. The result was a ridiculous vehicle that was difficult to drive, unpopular, and is now referred to mainly as a joke.

Hummer H2

Hummer 2Hummer is known for being obnoxious, but the aggressive frame and overpowered 6.2 L 393 horsepower engine in the H2 were especially ridiculous.

Like its brethren, the H2 is a military vehicle designed for civilian use, which appeals to a very specific clientele. Even considering that Hummers are the street legal equivalent of the military Humvee, a truck that gets a measly 10 miles per gallon on city streets seems more than a little impractical.

On top of that, H2s fall short of basic safety features, guzzles gas more out of ostentation than function, and sparked violent protests from the green lobby shortly after its introduction. The combination of uselessness, high maintenance costs, and lack of any real redeeming feature other than looking really masculine earned the H2 a spot on this list.

2004-2010 Toyota Models – Foot Pedals

A brand generally known for making reliable cars, Toyota took a massive hit when it was forced to recall more than 7.5 million vehicles. The issue was two-fold: faulty foot pedals jammed in the depressed position, which was caused by manufacturing mistakes in some vehicles and floor mats in others.

The recall impacted a large portion of Toyota’s fleet, including many Lexus vehicles. We do feel compelled to point out that, unlike the Ford/Firestone recall, Toyota quickly admitted that there was a problem and made an effort to fix the affected models.

Still, the dangerous glitch killed nearly 100 people worldwide before it was fixed, earning the normally outstanding company a spot on our 10 worst cars list.

GM’s X-Cars

Chevy Citation 1980Temperamental fuel lines, bad brakes that caused spinouts, and poorly designed suspension mechanisms are some of the most noticeable safety issues that plagued GM’s X-Cars.

The entire line of X-Cars – the Pontiac Phoenix, Buick Skylark, Chevy Citation, and Oldsmobile Omega – was subject to numerous recalls, government investigations, and lawsuits. General Motors attempted to cover up their shortcomings, but when they were exposed, it meant the end of the X-Car.

GM’s X-Car line is one of the most highly recalled in history. Notably, the recall for rear braking issues garnered international attention and led to high profile investigations of General Motors’ business practices. Though the company intended to resolve the brake issues and continue manufacturing the affected models, the widely publicised recall signaled the end of the X-Car era and secured the infamous reputation of these cars as death traps.

Chrysler’s Fiat 500L

Chrysler FiatConsidered one of the least reliable cars ever made, the Chrysler Fiat 500L owes many of its problems to Chrysler’s use of their manu-matic transmission. Theoretically, the technology should offer the best of both an automatic and a manual, but instead, it causes sluggish, choppy, and inconsistent performance.

On top of that, problems with the built in entertainment system have frustrated consumers, and Consumer Reports gives the 500L the distinction of being the least reliable car on the market, scoring an average of 291% less reliable than average in their road tests.

Frequent engine problems and mechanical issues, terrible customer service, and strange problems with onboard systems plague drivers, making the Chrysler Fiat 500L one of the most frustrating cars to own.

PT Cruiser

PT CruiserThe PT Cruiser was designed to be functional, yet sleek-looking, and it achieved neither of those goals. Not only did it provide subpar acceleration and poor fuel economy, it also did miserably in crash tests for both front and rear impacts.

Similarly to the issues with Chrysler Fiat’s 500L, the PT Cruiser is known for constant mechanical issues that are difficult to resolve because of Chrysler’s subpar customer service. The engine and transmission are both prone to malfunction, and sensors frequently go bad causing major mechanical failures.

In fact, the PT Cruiser has garnered so many complaints from consumers that there are hundreds of websites dedicated only to gripes from owners. Still, there are a few die-hard fans of the retro inspired auto, even though the PT Cruiser in its various incarnations is widely regarded as one of the ugliest and lowest quality vehicles on the road.

Smart Fortwo

Smart Fortwo
Featuring an 89 horsepower three-cylinder engine, a choice between the six-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission, and the cargo space of a bicycle (that’s a slight exaggeration – the trunk can hold the equivalent of 58 gallons of space), this car’s only good feature is the ability to lazily maneuver tight spaces.

Smart Cars are attention grabbers thanks primarily to their bizarre appearance – unlike compact cars, which benefit in handling thanks to their low stature and proportions, the Smart ForTwo is essentially a shortened version of a full-size car, and therefore enjoys none of the performance benefits of compact cars.

Reviewers report hard acceleration, a choppy transmission, and an irritating lack of power, even in new models. In short, the ForTwo sounds good in theory, but in practice, it’s a subpar driving experience with few redeeming qualities.

Plymouth Prowler 1997

Plymouth Prowler 1997Despite the ambition to succeed marketing a hot rod with an automatic transmission, the Prowler didn’t come anywhere close to achieving the hot rod experience. Chrysler further removed any hope of an enjoyable ride when it decided against offering a manual transmission, even optionally.

Plymouth missed the mark by trying to create a car that looked and felt like a hot rod without any of the power or performance that consumers expect from a roadster. Chrysler opted to produce the Prowler only in V6, even though they used more powerful V8 engines in other vehicle models.

Presumably, the sacrifices to power and the decision to produce the Prowler only with an automatic transmission was intended to make the car available at a lower price point, but competitors and imports were available for the same price…and they didn’t expect consumers to swallow the idea of a V6, automatic, lower horsepower “hot rod.” Perhaps that’s why only 11,702 Prowlers ever came off the production line: Chrysler failed to identify their audience and give them what they wanted.

Of course, this is only a small glimpse into the automotive industry and some of it’s greatest triumphs and slip-ups.

It’s the consumers that have the ultimate say as to whether a product wins or flops, and response from the marketplace will continue to change the face of the industry.

Was your car on the list? Think of a car we missed? Tell us about it in the comments below.