Image: The 2008 Dodge Magnum
Jeff Haynes  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Americans gave up station wagons like the Dodge Magnum a while ago.
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updated 11/2/2008 12:28:04 PM ET 2008-11-02T17:28:04

Times are so difficult for the auto industry that even Toyota and Honda have now experienced the kinds of double-digit sales dips that have been plaguing American auto giants General Motors and Ford all year. Sales for the entire industry were down 26.6 percent collectively in September as consumers grew skittish about making big-ticket purchases.

In good economic times and bad alike, however, there are some vehicles that American consumers seem to abhor outright. And they're not just the big, gas-guzzling SUVs that are currently out of favor. It turns out, the cars American consumers hate the most come in many different shapes and sizes, and they're disliked for a wide array of reasons.

"Buyers make the same choices and buy the safe brand," says Jessica Caldwell, manager of pricing and industry analysis at Edmunds.com, an automotive consumer information Web site. "They are not thinking outside the box and buying something that may stand out as an odd purchase."

In other words, the cars Americans seem to hate aren't necessarily bad cars. In fact, the industry underdogs are, for the most part, solid quality cars, according to J.D. Power and Associates ratings on quality, design and performance.

There are usually just one or two elements or features that throw consumers off, as is the case with the Dodge Magnum, which is a wagon (American buyers gave up wagons for minivans a long time ago, then gave up minivans for SUVs); the Audi A3, which is a hatchback (consumers never cared much for them in the first place); and the Acura RL, which is just plain, vanilla-looking, says Stephanie Brinley, auto analyst at AutoPacific, Inc., an automotive marketing and product consulting firm.

Car buyers are rightfully picky. From models that have quality issues (real or perceived) to simple design elements that lack aesthetic appeal, in each major vehicle class there's at least one car U.S. consumers tend to steer clear of.

To generate our list of the cars Americans hate, we looked at sales data for the 10 major vehicle segments defined by market research firm J.D. Power and Associates. The sales data, provided by Automotive News, a trade publication, spans 2006, 2007 and the first nine months of 2008. The vehicles with the lowest sales in their class made the list.

We then looked at J.D. Power's consumer ratings in two studies. The 2008 Initial Quality study reports buyer satisfaction with a vehicle in the first 90 days of ownership in terms of mechanical defects and malfunctions, as well as ease of using a particular feature. The 2008 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) study measures owner delight with vehicle design, content, layout and performance following the first 90 days of ownership. In both studies, a ring rating is used with five rings as the highest and two rings for the lowest.

Some vehicles that earned five rings made the list, meaning not all high-quality cars are instant hits with consumers. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the subcompact car segment, the Kia Rio earned five rings in both J.D. Power studies, but only 92,087 were sold in the measured period. The Rio even earns better quality ratings than the segment sales-leading Toyota Yaris, which saw sales of 243,602 in the same time frame.

Why the snub? The major reason could be that Hyundai models suffered from quality issues with the engine and transmission in the late 1990s (Kia, a relatively new brand to the U.S., is owned by Hyundai), yet those problems were overcome slowly but surely. Today the company even offers a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty to back up its improved-quality claim. Nevertheless, some consumers still view a car like the Kia Rio as a risk. The Kia brand as a whole only earned two rings in the J.D. Power 2008 overall dependability study.

In some segments, like the midsize car, the competition is so fierce that very good cars wind up getting almost completely ignored.

The Honda Accord (1.37 million sales in the aforementioned time period) and Toyota Camry (1.27 million sales) dominate the segment. Sales of the slightly cheaper Mitsubishi Galant were a mere blip (75,089 sales) in that segment. The Galant gets slightly worse gas mileage than the Accord, 21 mpg versus 25 mpg, but according to J.D. Power, Galant owners (five rings in each study) liked their cars more than Accord owners (three rings in each study).

"The problem with the Galant and cars like it is that no one knows the brand," says Caldwell. "You pull up and people ask, 'What's this?' and then they want to know, 'Why did you buy it?' There just isn't a lot of brand recognition."

But then there's well-earned hatred, particularly due to quality issues, which is the case with the Jaguar XJ, of which only 10,852 were sold (the leader in the segment, the Cadillac DTS, saw sales above 135,000). The Jaguar brand was sold last year to Indian company Tata Motors, and when Jaguar lost its British edge it also lost favor with American buyers, says Caldwell. Even though the quality problems of Jaguars, to that point, had been well-known among consumers, the idea of having a British car parked in the driveway was, for a long time, enough to attract loyal American buyers.

And that's what's missing in vehicle purchases today in general, says Brinley. The sheer emotion that persuades some buyers to choose a car they love over one that's generally acceptable to the masses.

In other words, the overall driving experience probably isn't all that different from car to car within a segment. But all it takes is one design quirk or one long-since-overcome quality issue for consumers to develop a negative perception of a car. Taking a risk on an overlooked model within a segment may be a better choice, but consumers make logical, safe purchases rather than ones that might be more fun and stand out a little.

"Many car buyers are still buying cars like they buy appliances," says Brinley. "They buy a car that fits their life needs but they are not purchasing it for the design or style. There's no emotional attachment to it."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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