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The worst American cars of 2006

American carmakers such as Corvettes and Cadillacs are popularly known as the best vehicles ever built, but a lot of  vehicles made and sold in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired in terms of safety, efficiency and reliability.
Judge Orders Unprecedented Recall of Ford Vehicles
Ford's rear-wheel-drive Ranger pickup has been ranked as the American car with the lowest percentage of satisfied owners.David McNew / Getty Images
/ Source: Forbes

Corvettes and Cadillacs demonstrate that American carmakers are building the best vehicles they have ever built. But some of their output, such as Buick's Terraza minivan, still leave a bit to be desired.

Consumer Reports, which generally avoids opinionated reviews, complains on its Web site of the Terraza's "stiff ride and noisy interior."

"Handling is reluctant," writes the organization. "The interior trim is insubstantial. The new snout can't disguise the fact that these are outdated minivans that are not competitive in their class. First-year reliability has been much worse than average."

So much worse, in fact, that the Terraza is included in the slide show (see box below)— a list of the worst American cars. By "American cars," we mean vehicles built by American brands and sold here, not cars that are built by foreign companies in the U.S. (Japanese companies such as Toyota Motor, for example, manufacture cars in the U.S.)

We tracked down the domestic vehicles that have the lowest gas mileage, do the poorest job of holding their value, have the lowest safety ratings, have the worst predicted reliability, have the lowest percentage of satisfied owners, and get the worst U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-pollution and greenhouse-gas scores. We excluded from our calculations any models headed for discontinuation or replacement in the coming months.

The cars that made our list are not necessarily unpopular ones. Among the ranks are the Pontiac Grand Prix sedan from General Motors , which sold 122,000 units in the U.S. last year even though it scores low on value retention, and the Chevrolet Uplander minivan, which sold 73,000 units despite its poor reliability ratings. (GM declined to comment on the inclusion of these cars in this story.)

Ford's E-Series van, a $26,000 vehicle, made the list with the lowest EPA air-pollution and greenhouse-gas scores possible (see: "Least Green Machines"). The company's Crown Victoria sedan was included because Consumer Reports assigns the car its lowest-possible rating for predicted depreciation, a measure of how models tend to hold their value through the first three years of ownership.

The Crown Victoria's twin model, Mercury's Grand Marquis, is on the list also, as another one of four American cars with the worst predicted depreciation. A Ford Motor spokesman explained that Grand Marquis "has limited market appeal. It's primarily older customers who buy the car. ... It's not what I would call contemporary.

"In addition," he said, "the sticker price of the vehicle is relatively higher than the transaction price because incentives have grown. That helps drive resale value down, because that's all based on sticker prices."

We included Ford's rear-wheel-drive Ranger pickup — the American car with the lowest percentage of satisfied owners, according to Consumer Reports. Ford's spokesman disagrees with the data and pointed out that the Ranger is the highest-ranked vehicle in its class in the 2006 Initial Quality Study from J.D. Power and Associates.

The IQS is a ranking of vehicle quality, not owner satisfaction, but satisfaction is "one piece" of the study, he pointed out.

The Chrysler Group at DaimlerChrysler also took issue with some of the data in the slide show, namely our inclusion of the company's Dodge Sprinter van, one of four new-model American vehicles to which Consumer Reports assigns its lowest-possible rating for predicted depreciation.

"Arbitrarily selecting one source of information to evaluate a vehicle is likely to result in a limited or distorted assessment," a Chrysler Group spokesman said in an e-mail. He added that, according to Automotive Lease Guide, the Sprinter has the highest residual value in its segment.

A General Motors spokesman told us we needed to look at more than just crash-test scores and injury claims in determining the least-safe American car, which we found was the Saturn Ion.

"In addition to meeting or exceeding all of the federal requirements for safety, we have a regimen of testing that's internal to GM that goes far beyond what's required," he said. "We stand behind the safety of the vehicles we put on the road."

Cadillacs and Corvettes may be world-class cars. And our list certainly comprises vehicles with the lowest ratings. But aside from being judged as poor, many exemplify how far U.S. automakers have to go to compete in the global market. Because American manufacturers continue to build such  and unreliable vehicles as the Terraza, U.S. sales reports for June were unsurprisingly low. Sales and market share continued to fall for American manufacturers and continued to rise for import brands, spearheaded by Toyota's 14% increase in sales.

Fortunately, there's always next year.

For information about depreciation, reliability and owner satisfaction, we looked to Consumer Reports. Air pollution data comes from the EPA. Our information about fuel efficiency is from the EPA's Web site, where the American cars with the worst mileage listed are Dodge Durango and Ram 1500 models filled with E85 — a blend of ethanol and gasoline. An EPA spokeswoman says the agency does not consider alternative-fuel vehicles in selecting the most and least fuel-efficient vehicles. We, however, do not see why ethanol-powered cars would not be fair game for the list.

For the cars labeled as "least safe," crash-test scores came from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which issues frontal, side and rear crash-test scores. The IIHS says it gives more weight to frontal and side ratings in the overall rankings of vehicles, because front and side crashes are more likely to result in serious injury or death. In determining overall ratings, the rear score is a tiebreaker between models with the same front and side scores.

For our piece, we looked only at vehicles with both frontal and rear scores.

In determining the least-safe American car, we looked at both crash tests, which are conducted in controlled environments, and real-world data: the rates of injury claims filed per vehicle. We found that Saturn's Ion was the only American car with both the lowest IIHS crash-test ratings in its weight class and a "substantially worse [i.e., higher] than average" frequency of injury claims filed, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.