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The Smart Fortwo and other car flops of 2011

The Lincoln MKT and the Smart Fourtwo join a list of other vehicles that have performed significantly less than expected this year in the United States.
The jerky transmission in the 2011 Smart Fortwo has hurt it the most — “the worst transmission maybe of all time,” says John McElroy, host of the Autoline Detroit TV and radio shows.
The jerky transmission in the 2011 Smart Fortwo has hurt it the most — “the worst transmission maybe of all time,” says John McElroy, host of the Autoline Detroit TV and radio shows.Business Wire
/ Source: Forbes

John McElroy, the loquacious host of the Autoline Detroit TV and radio shows, is optimistic about the auto industry.

More than 1 million new cars sell each month in the United States, he points out. Ford and GM have become more profitable than many analysts had expected; record sales numbers at luxury brands like Audi and BMW don’t hurt, either. And there are some exciting new models in the pipeline for 2012 and beyond.

Just don’t ask McElroy about some of the cars on the market this year. You’re likely to get a different story. slideshow: Worst car flops of 2011

“The Lincoln MKT is an unmitigated disaster,” McElroy says. “It’s actually a vehicle I like, but nobody agrees with me. No matter how you slice it, the MKT is just a dud.”

Lincoln’s $44,000 crossover suffers from stiff handling and cumbersome cornering ability, with compromised visibility for the driver and passengers. Its reliability is well below average, and costs over five years of ownership are projected to be considerably higher than average, according to Consumer Reports data.

The MKT joins eight other vehicles that have performed significantly less than expected this year in the United States. Along with the Acura ZDX, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Chevrolet Aveo, these are the worst automotive flops of 2011.

Behind the story
To develop this list of cars, we consulted three expert analysts: Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports; Tim Healey, the senior writer at Web2Carz, an automotive website; and McElroy. Each discussed what they think are the worst vehicles on the market, all things considered. Nominations were allowed for any 2011 model-year vehicles and any 2012 model-year vehicles available for sale this year.

Admittedly, it’s a subjective tally. Dwindling sales are one way to determine an automotive flop. Excessive hype before a launch, with media silence afterward (see: Acura ZDX) is another. So is a round of scathing reviews from auto critics, or a Consumer Reports rating that places it among the 10 worst values of the year (see: Dodge Nitro).

Sure, some people who own these vehicles may like the car — the Volkswagen Jetta, for instance, has many loyal fans. But overall the cars and trucks on this list failed to meet critics’ expectations or, even worse, hurt their parent company financially or symbolically on the whole. Did we mention the ZDX and Fortwo were on last year’s list, too?

Regressive redesigns
One newcomer is that Jetta. The 2011 model is a newly refreshed version of VW’s $16,500 sedan, but it removed from the once-popular car much of what separated it from the pack in the crowded compact segment, according to Consumer Reports’ Fisher.

“The responsive handling and sharp steering are long gone, and the top-notch interior fit and finish has been replaced with hard plastics that don’t all fit together well,” he says.

Not to mention: The engines on the base Jetta versions remain old and uncompetitive, with sluggish acceleration and surprisingly ho-hum fuel economy. Is it telling that this version of the Jetta will be sold in the U.S. and Chinese markets alone, rather than worldwide? Probably.

The new Honda Civic faces a similar situation. The 2012 redesign for the $15,600 car turned it from having among the best scores of any small car rated by Consumer Reports to having some of the worst scores.

Fisher says it has to do with performance.

“The previous nimble handling has been replaced with a soggy suspension, and braking distances are fairly long,” he says.

Scoring for the interior quality of the Honda Civic also took a hit, thanks to the proliferation of hard plastic throughout the cabin.

Sales matter, sometimes
Still, flops do indeed have much to do with sales rates. The Chevrolet Aveo, for instance, sold just 65 cars nationwide last month, down 98 percent for the same period in 2010. It’s largely because Chevy’s Aveo replacement, the 2012 Sonic, is much better than its predecessor and already scooping up sales.

The same can’t be said for the Smart Fortwo, which sold just 327 units in October, down 11 percent for the month and nearly 21 percent for the year to date. (The car will have a successor, in a forthcoming partnership with Renault, but it won’t be ready for next year.)

Fortwo has a notoriously crummy transmission and competitors that beat it on interior quality and reliability. The tiny coupe also doesn’t post the stunning efficiency numbers you might expect from something of its size. Americans remain wary of ultra small cars, Healey says, and without stellar fuel numbers to justify the size, the Smart loses on both ends.

“It just doesn’t quite deliver on what it is promising,” Healey says.

Things are looking up
The bottom line, despite the stragglers on this list, is that the general level of quality, performance and value of both domestic and foreign vehicles on the American market has never been better. Each expert consulted for this list agreed that the future is bright for drivers in America.

“Automakers have gotten a lot better at producing what the public want,” Healey says. “They’ve realized that it really is all about the product — it’s not just about marketing. And that’s a good thing.”

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