Cars / Lists

Top 10 Unappreciated Cars

This is a great job… I love having the opportunity to share my opinions with all of the InMyGarage.com readers. I also  enjoy being able to spark conversation (and maybe even a little controversy) here and there. Lists always seem to generate some of both, so let’s bring ’em back! Here are my Top 10 Unappreciated cars.

We all know of a few; cars we think never got the praise or recognition they deserved. Cars that were far ahead of their time, technological marvels that never quite caught on, or design studies that were a little too “out there”. I present to you, in no particular order, my Top 10 Unappreciated Cars (oh, and before anyone gets upset, I focused on post-war vehicles, as an all inclusive list just couldn’t be contained to ten slots).

10. Pontiac Aztek… JUST KIDDING!!

Ok, for real this time.

10. Aston Martin Lagonda – The Lagonda was one of those aforementioned tech marvels. It was the first car to use computer management and to feature a digital dash. It was a radical departure from anything Aston Martin had done, and remains to this day one of the marque’s more unique automobiles, stylistically speaking. The Lagonda has been named to many lists as one of the ugliest cars ever. But for every person who feels the aesthetic isn’t right, there is someone to sing its praises. I think this car pushed the envelope, and showed the automotive community innovations that we would soon consider standard.

9. Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 – It’s no secret, I am a fan of the prancing horse. That said, even I recognize not everything Ferrari-badged is held in high esteem. Once such case is the 330 GT 2+2. With quad headlights and a 2+2 seating configuration, these cars don’t seem to demand the same reverence from Ferrari lovers as other cars from the era. However, I think the lines are beautiful… the wide-mouth grill and quad headlights make you think the car is smiling in anticipation of the drive to come. For what it’s worth, I will say this is one of a very small handful of Ferrari’s that isn’t well suited in “rossa”. Yellow, black, or silver are the best looking colors for a 330 GT.

8. Porsche 944 – It’s well known around these offices that, while I appreciate them, Porsches are not my favorite cars. The 944 however, sticks out as a truly under appreciated vehicle. It was fast, had the engine in the correct location and had great looks. I said it was fast but forgot to mention it was fast with just four cylinders, a departure from Porsche logic at the time. Aficionados praise the 944 for having excellent handling, a near perfect weight distribution and a much lower cost of ownership than its bigger brother, the 911.

7. AMC Eagle – A full line of feature-packed four wheel drive cars at a competitive price point… Sounds like Subaru, right? But before the guys from Fuji Heavy Industries were big players in the US market, Eagle was making it happen. With a coupe, wagon, sedan, and convertible, the Eagle was the only four wheel drive car made in America during its time. They were packed with innovative features for a passenger car. First full-time then on-the-fly four wheel drive, and first production car to make use of the Ferguson Formula four wheel drive system (allowing it to soar over its competition). It should also be noted the Eagle was the pioneering vehicle in the XUV segment, one that was strange in its day but wildly popular now.

6. Merkur XR4Ti – Here’s an example of how good ideas can quickly go bad. In the late 80s, Ford’s then-VP Bob Lutz had the idea to sell entry-level upscale cars through the company’s newly created Merkur division. The XR4Ti was a Ford Sierra in new badges, with US safety specs with a few other changes (you might recall the Sierra Cosworth which is based on the exact same car). Sold at Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, the XR4Ti was bedecked in leather, power options, and had a very solid and reliable turbocharged, 2.3L 4-banger that could knock out 175 hp when mated to a 5 speed. The bi-plane spoiler was a trademark for the car, and even though it wasn’t the rip-roaring Cosworth Sierra, the XR4Ti was a capable and fantastic car. Poor marketing, increased safety regulations, and some big branding problems ended the experiment after just four years. Too bad, because the Sierra went on to be one of Europe’s best selling cars.

5. Mazda Miata – You might scratch your head on this one, but in a recent unscientific poll of some people I know, most didn’t give the mighty Miata its due. Legend says Mazda sought to create a modern interpretation of what British roadsters used to embody. The credo used throughout the project was “Jinba ittai” which, loosely translated, means “horse and rider as one”. The car was designed and built to be as close to a real-deal roadster experience as possible… Lightweight, compact but comfortable, easy to drive, and engineered to get the most out of its suspension, frame and tires. The Miata should have instantly become one of the most highly prized cars of all time. The unenlightened often use terms like “chick car” and “retire-mobile” when talking about the Miata, when in truth, it’s anything but.

4. Jaguar XJ220 – Take one part supercar, mix with the power and grace of a Jaguar, and add a pinch of fantastic styling. Pepper-in a production version that was miles away from the concept, several alleged lawsuits because of the changes made, an economic recession, and a staggering price tag… and you have the recipe for the XJ220. This big cat had it all: Immense power, graceful lines, limited production numbers, and a rocky history. All of that limited the pretty kitty to an unsuccessful life by supercar standards. There were many left unsold after its production run and it never had a long life in motorsport despite a class-winning entry in the 1993 LeMans (nevermind they disqualified the car two weeks later over a catalytic converter issue). I’ve only seen one in person and it really is a car to behold. It’s nearly 7 feet wide, and knowing you are standing next to the fastest car Jaguar ever built has a profound effect on a car guy.

3. Diesel Cars – Think about it. Most of us write-off diesel as best used in big honking pickups, heavy-duty trucks, and snooty European cars. I think diesel is completely underrated as a fuel of choice, and by default so are the cars that use it. Great strides have been made in cleaning up diesel. It’s more efficient than regular gasoline and, typically, vehicles with diesel engines live a lot longer than their gasoline counterparts. It’s true that diesel isn’t exactly the speed demon’s preferred method of fueling up. But consider that diesels have more torque and use less fuel to create the same amount of power versus a gas engine. Oh, and you might also consider the last few cars to win the overall at LeMans… yep, diesels.

2. Station Wagons – Here’s another genre that makes the list as a whole, rather than a single car. Station wagons are cool. They’re spacious, easy to drive, look great, and just plain make sense. Big cars and little cars alike made (and still make) great wagons. The Scion xB, the Honda Fit, the Subaru Impreza, and others are good economical wagons. The Subaru Legacy, the BMW 5-series Estate, and the line of iconic Volvo wagons made awesome large cars. Nowadays, it feels like Americans have forgotten about these magical cargo-and-people movers that don’t hog the road or all the good parking lot space. We’ve moved to our H2’s and Tahoes to haul around the 1.5 kids and the family Pomeranian… And I think the time is right for a wagon revolution. Not all wagons were perfect (see the Vista Cruiser or the Ford Country Squire from the late 70’s), but overall, the segment gave us some great cars that had reasonable fuel economy and lots of room.

1. Ford Probe – I saved one of the best for last. The Probe was a product of the collaboration between Mazda and Ford, and it was a sporty new entry into the compact segment. It was intended to replace the Mustang… But the pony car faithful objected to the FWD layout, the lack of a V8, and the fact that the Probe was essentially a re-skinned Mazda. So Ford decided to keep the Probe alive as its own line. The Probe sold well, and was a way for younger buyers to get something a little different looking and better performing for their dollar. The cars were well solidly-built performers, and actually have a rather lengthy grass roots racing history. You could get a turbo under the hood, and that’s when the Probe really came alive. All in all it was a well-built car that unfortunately never quite got the engines of many enthusiasts running.

So there you have it. 10 selections that are a little under-loved and unappreciated. Do you agree with my choices? Let your voice be heard in the comments below, and don’t forget to…

Have Fun In Your Garage!

PHOTO CREDITS: Most photos were sourced via the public domain library at wikimedia.org. Other photos may be clicked to locate their original sources.

17 Comments

  1. Good list.

    The Probe GT (5-speed, especially) was definitely hoon-worthy. My dad had a first-gen model and I never once complained when asked to run errands in it!

    I agree about wagons, too. But don’t write-off the cool factor of the big-bodied cars of the late 60s and into the 70s. They don’t take much work to turn into a cool street custom, and quite a few were shipped with big cubes under the hood!

    What about the Dodge Neon? The styling is goofy, but these cars (especially in R/T trim) were capable performers. Taurus SHO? Another ugly duckling with a big fun factor. I will also throw out there that the 4-door versions of what most people consider “classics” of the 50’s and 60’s are hugely unappreciated. They are not only more practical than their 2-door brethren, but also (in many cases) better-proportioned.

  2. Lotus Carlton…

  3. Chris Brochon says:

    I wouldn’t trade my Subaru Outback wagon for the world!

  4. Backlight says:

    I always check these to see if my car makes the list. It never does. 🙂

  5. Probe was a Pile, Neon was a HUGE pile of crap. Eagle was the product of desperation and jeep engineers. Your list has some winners but there were very good reasons some of these died fast and hard. I’d take the Aztek over some of the cars on your list my friend.

  6. I remember that Honda had a cool wagon, but I think the best looking wagon was the BMW wagon!

  7. As a former Mazda MX-6 partial owner, I both agree and disagree on the Probe. The V6 was pretty crappy, went through 4 on warranty issues. But it was quick and fun to drive.

  8. You forgot the K-cars… The little K is what saved Chrysler in the 80s. They became known for reliability and were one of the best bangs for the buck at the time. Everything from the original ’82 Aries and Reliant K was built on the K-frame. The list includes the original minivans, Omni, Daytona/Laser, Shadow/Duster, and finally the Dodge Spirit which was in production from 1989-1995. The all shared the same frame and engines through out their entire production with few changes. What is notable about the Ks is that they had Carroll Shelby and Lotus on their side. Together, Shelby, Chrysler, and Lotus designed the first sport compact tuners and pocket rockets. The pinnicle of this 3-way was the birth of the 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T, the fastest sedan in the world at the time, and the 1993 Dodge Daytona IROC. Both cars featured a DOHC turbocharged intercooled 2.2L pumping out 224HP. I own the rarer ’92 Spirit R/T, and she is still mostly stock, and she still eats new Bimmers for lunch. I really think you should look into it.

    • I considered the K-Cars but I think overall they are appreciated for what they did for Chrysler. It was an amazing concept and platform sharing strategy that obviously paid off. I think had it not worked, they would have made the list but the bet paid off in spades for the Chrysler Corp and many people (including myself, Plymouth Voyager!!!!) have fond emories and appreciate the K-frame cars.

  9. Another honorable mention would be the Pontiac Fiero. Good idea, but GM executed it wrong. Problem one was they didn’t give Pontiac enough money fearing it would build a Corvette eater. Problem two was it was plagued by poor reliability, recalls, and cheap parts pulled from the Vega. And problem three, it looked fast, but fast it was not. It wasn’t until the last year of production that Pontiac finally got it right. But all this doesn’t stop guys from using it to build countless kit cars. The space frame construction and plastic skin makes swapping panels a snap, and the car has a mid-engine design for optimal handling. Best of all, you can pick up a decent one for dirt cheap.

  10. As the proud owner of several XR4’s I have to agree with your assessment Ford totally TARFU’ed the whole Merkur Project, and both models (XR & Scorpio) ought to have a place on your list. As to the 944: BEST PORSCHE OF ALL TIME! Toss your race tires and all the rest of your junk in the back, drive to the track, race, win, then haul all your stuff home who could as anything more?

  11. I’ve owned the Probe a 96 GT and it was a great car decent power (especially after a intake upgrade) and great handling. Unlike others experiences I never had a problem with it. I currently own the latest gen of the MX-5 and it’s a absolute blast to drive. Perfect commuter vehicle, with top down I don’t mind driving to work. Especially the long route on windy roads.

    • How do you think the latest MX-5 compares with the first generation? I’ve heard many reviews similar to yours saying they are a blast to drive and are one of the few current generation models that actuall honor the first generation.

  12. I second the station wagon genre. In Europe they’re the equivalent of the SUV. We had a Volvo 745 Turbo with low profile rubber and Bilsteins for 14 years and before that an Audi A6 Avant. Both were fun to drive and really spacious. Now we’ve got a Saab 9-5 Aero Sport Kombi. It goes to 60 in 6 seconds and has a top speed of 150 mph! It’s as entertaining to drive as our BMW 328i. It also gets 32 mpg at 70 mph on the highway! Try that in an Escalade. Too bad Saab is in such tough shape – people don’t realize what good cars they are.

  13. What about some of the cars made by AMC. I used to have a Gremlin X with the 5 liter V8. Yeah it was a “funny” looking car. I referred to it as my sawed off boot but the car would get up an go. A true sleeper. Also, it didn’t handle too bad for an American made car of that era. I agree with your comments on station wagons. I always thought that the Dodge Magnum was a sharp looking car.

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