During Thanksgiving, reflections on the things for which you should be thankful traditionally take place over turkey — but the turkeys you're about to see here are not savory, and the reflections on this year's auto industry you're about to read are not of the fond variety.
In this, our annual carving of automotive turkeys, we look back on the worst of this year's cars — but the group of last-place vehicles gets less unsightly every year as automotive design, engineering, manufacturing and quality continue to improve.
To keep our assessments objective, we devised four standards with which we could hunt down the car business' biggest turkeys. If you click on the link to the slideshow, you can read about (1) the car that has been recalled the most this year, (2) the new car with the lowest projected reliability, (3) those cars which had the worst crash-test results and (4) those which are projected to retain the lowest percentages of their values.
Two of those issues need a bit of clarification. First, we got our crash-test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (or NHTSA, pronounced "NIT-suh"), the section of the U.S. Department of Transportation that administers highway safety laws. NHTSA's tests, which include frontal- and side-impact crash tests as well as tests to determine a vehicle's rollover resistance, use scales of one to five stars, with a five-star rating being highest.
Among all of NHTSA's 2004 model crash tests, only one resulted in a one-star rating: the performance of the rear seat of Ford Motor's Focus ZX3 two-door in side-impact collisions. Because NHTSA performs so many tests beside this one, we decided our turkey shoot should include the next lowest rung on the ladder as well and feature all 2004 models with two-star ratings.
The other issue that needs a closer look is projected reliability, which is the most subjective of our standards. It is even more so than estimates about residual values, which also involve predicting the future; both figures come from current data, but a car with poor reliability ratings often has them because it has a picky clientele.
The cars that tend to rank lowest in reliability ratings are often built by upscale manufacturers, such as Ford's Land Rover and DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz subsidiaries--brands whose names can be tarnished by high expectations. Calling a car unreliable involves complaining about it in the first place. Whereas 40 years ago you might have expected your new car's dashboard clock to work for the first afternoon and then never again, the owner of a modern, $90,000 Mercedes is much more likely to scrutinize his vehicle for things to have the dealer fix--to say nothing of the fact that as technology gets more complex, automakers are increasingly discouraging of home repairs, placing plastic covers over engine bays in order to hide your car's inner-workings and force more visits to the dealer.
That said, reliability is a crucial issue for new car buyers, and we got our information on the subject from the gold standard: Consumer Reports. While that publication and the Kelley Blue Book Residual Value Guide involve the future for new cars, we wanted this piece to be a look back on the year. Therefore, the discussion in the slide show is about 2004 model cars, even though many 2005 models are now on the market.
We also wanted to avoid dying or dead model lines, so when we make statements such as "the Focus ZX3 was the only car with a one-star rating," we are excluding lame ducks such as General Motor's Chevrolet Cavalier, which is being replaced by the Cobalt, as well as '04 models that have been or are being replaced with overhauled 2005 models, such as the new Ford Mustang. The slide show also excludes cars that are headed for discontinuation without replacement, such as the unlamented Chevrolet Astro van.
The presence of a car on our turkey list is not a condemnation of the vehicle, because thanks to improved manufacturing and higher standards few cars these days can be called complete stinkers. However, it can be illuminating to see which supposedly well-engineered models still manage to score poorly. For example, the model that has the distinction of being the most recalled car this year (we won't give it away here) is also the one that is projected to retain the highest percentage of its original value. The cars on our list are not bad across the board; they just own certain dubious statistics.
But when it comes to making a buying decision, consumers should remember that Thanksgiving comes only once a year but you'll be stuck with these turkeys every day.