The 2008 Worst Car of the Year


Deciding the best car of 2008 was WAY easier than culling through the garbage and choosing which is the worst of this year’s automotive offerings.

Sometimes in my travels I’ll overhear a conversation where someone says, “You know, you really can’t buy a bad new car these days.”

Oh, for god sakes yes you can! I can’t help but voice my opinion when I hear those words, and if you’re ever on the receiving end of one of those tirades, I’m sorry. But hopefully I’ll stop you from plunking down a pile of cash for a car that would give you nothing in return but a great story about the terrible car you once owned.

Do I start domestic and chastise the Dodge Nitro, Jeep Liberty or Chevy Trailblazer? All three have sub-par fit and finish, poor rides and fuel economies that rival the space shuttle’s.

Or maybe I’ll jump over to Japan and degrade the Toyota FJ Cruiser or Mazda Tribute. Seriously Toyota, you expect us to buy a small SUV that struggles to get 15 mpg and then fill it up with premium? Umm… no. And Mazda, while we do like the CX-7 and CX-9, the Tribute is the obnoxious drunk of the trio: too loud, too thirsty and entirely unattractive. Even to other drunks.

Next I have these to consider: The Suzuki Forenza (even though its cousin, the SX4, just won my Car of the Year Award), the Jeep Patriot and the Mercury Grand Marquis. Any of these are deserving of the lowest automotive honor of the year, with either poor visibility, poor handling, rough-sounding engines or questionable reliability. Some (Jeep Patriot) suffer from all of the above.

My two finalists for the lowest honor of the year, though, are two polar opposites: the Toyota Yaris and the Hummer H3. The Yaris proves that popularity doesn’t equate to quality, with poor acceleration and vague steering. The Hummer though is the epitome of all that can be wrong with a vehicle.

Because of its horrendous reliability, absurdly bad fuel economy, terrible handling and the acceleration of a grapefruit, I award the 2008 Worst Car of the Year Award to the Hummer H3.   

Do you think it’s possible to buy a bad new car these days? And which do you think is the worst car of 2008?


Best and Worst Car Ads of 2008


There is so much incredibly bad car advertising out there that it’s difficult to choose the year’s worst. Good car ads, on the other hand, are rare. I think that’s because car ads depend on formulas, no matter what the medium. Local TV spots have some clown, often the owner, shilling product at top volume. Display ads in the Sunday papers all look pretty much alike.

The ad agency I once owned got hired by a local Mercedes dealer to produce “something new, something creative” for his print advertising. We did and got fired in a month.

The Worst So car ads have become kind of a joke in some quarters. But it’s always fun to see what new lows dealers and manufacturers have reached. You probably have already made your own choices, but here are mine.

Honoring Volkswagen for by far the worst, most tasteless ad ever:

Honoring purveyors of car insurance everywhere:

And for your basic jingoistic, defend-America-against-the-Japs approach, the award goes to O.C. Welch:

Truck and car wraps have become a new medium for exploiting tasteless in-your-space advertising. Some of the worst offenders can be seen here.

Now, for the Best Undoubtedly, the best manufacturer’s ads came from Cadillac for the CTS. Their ads for the Escalade, on the other hand, were almost as macho-silly as the concept of a hybrid 6,000-lb. vehicle is foolish. Anyway, you’ve all seen the CTS ads. Here’s some footage that shows their agency knows how to shoot car ads:

For the best classified ad I’ve seen, you’ve got to check out this Audi .

Have you seen car ads better or worse than these? Happy New Year as we continue naively to look forward to better car ads. —jgoods

My 2008 Car of the Year Award goes to…


The results are in for my first annual Car of the Year Award! The inaugural honor goes to…

The 2008 Suzuki SX4 Crossover!

Oh sure, I could’ve bestowed this award upon the Cadillac CTS or Chevy Corvette or Nissan GT-R, but I consider factors way beyond simple horsepower. Things like sure-footedness in all weather conditions, comfortable seats, handling a Costco run, and being able to climb the dirt road that leads away from my friend’s lake cabin are all factors that weighed heavily on my decision.

Oh yeah, and it has to do all that while delivering 30 miles per gallon on the way to the lake and have the ability to bring along a wakeboard, a packed cooler, and 4 other people. 

A standard navigation system is a must, as is the ability to plug in my iPod and control it through the steering wheel-mounted controls. Add in 4-wheel disc brakes, alloy wheels and 16-inch tires and you’ve got the icing on the post-award party cake, baby. 

OK. Now it’s time to admit that I own an SX4, but don’t let that make you think I’m biased. I wouldn’t have bought one if it didn’t kick the pants off the competition. I owned a Jaguar before making the switch to Suzuki and I get more comments, questions and compliments on the SX4 than I did the Jag. I get stopped in grocery store parking lots by bewildered gawkers who act like I’m pulling up in a Bugatti and can only muster a captivated “What… is that!?”

Only after I’m finished telling them about its 100,000-mile warranty, 54 cubic feet of cargo space and how I can drive in front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive or lock it into permanent four-wheel drive do I drop the price bomb on them: It can all be had for around $16K.  

The 143 ponies delivered by the SX4’s 2.0-liter 4 banger won’t leave those gawkers coughing inside a cloud of burnt rubber, but they’re perfectly adequate for launching the car onto a freeway from any on-ramp you can throw at it.

Since my Car of the Year Award weighs overall value, dependability and functionality over pure horsepower, the 2008 Suzuki SX4 Crossover is the easy winner.

What other cars from 2008 do you think can compete with the SX4?


Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Car of the Year?


The Brit with a job any car nut would happily hotwire and take for a joy ride, Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, has named the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 his Performance Car of the Year. This will likely surprise anyone who hasn’t seen his review of the 638-hp brute, since he’s never been shy about his dislike for American muscle-oriented cars.

But the ZR1 totally changed Clarkson’s mind and turned him into a strong believer. He gushes quite a bit about the car’s amazing power, handling, and ride comfort, not to mention its relatively reasonable price, at least compared to the Lamborghinis and Ferraris it competes with on the track. I’ll bet those Italian companies aren’t very happy about having to compete for customers with an American car these days (though even raving fan Clarkson admits the Corvette’s interior can’t compete with that of any of the usual exotics).

Clarkson’s certainly got lots of experience driving great cars, and he’s apparently figured out how to overcome his bias against American muscle, but he’s still a U.K. car journalist who gets to drive – and fuel up and repair – on a company tab and does a large share of his driving on a track at illegal speeds. What’s *your* favorite car of the 2009 model year, and why? Would you call it a “performance” car, or just a car?

-Steve Halloran

Video Preview of the 2010 Prius

Members of the Blue Man Group serve as guides for a video preview of the 2010 Toyota Prius now available on YouTube. Looks like the new Prius will have a less-distinctive profile than the current version, not to mention headlight washers, an iPod jack, a new display for the hybrid system, and a somewhat swankier interior. Strangely enough, the retro-cool music featured in the preview has garnered almost as many comments on YouTube as the car itself.

Are you open to purchasing a hybrid vehicle within the next year? If not, what needs to change before you’ll consider buying one? And what do you think of the music in the Prius preview?

-Steve Halloran

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for U.S. Car Buyers/Drivers to Save Money, Lose Weight and Survive the Big Blowout


“Look around you. We have behaved in ways that were incredibly, astonishingly and embarrassingly stupid for much too long. We’ve wrecked the economy and mortgaged the future of generations yet unborn. We don’t even know if we’ll have an automobile industry in the coming years. It’s time to stop the self-destruction.”—Bob Herbert, NY Times.

He’s talking about rampant consumerism and the great American ideal of getting something for nothing. Instead of buying more NutriSystem prepackaged junk food, it’s time to go on a proper car diet and help the auto industry get back on its feet.

Buy no 2009 Japanese cars. Buy no 2009 U.S. cars. Buy no 2009 Green cars. Buy a used car in 2009. Refinance your car with GMAC, which now has bank status, thereby encouraging lending and unfreezing credit for us all. Eat no fast food in your car. Adopt one safe hypermiling technique to save gas. Turn off all GPS systems to redevelop proper navigational sense. Start an office pool on the price of regular gas on July 1, 2009. If your journey is 3 miles or less, walk.

Of course we love cars, but they are money hogs, all of them. By using them less, you will stop polluting, save cash, avoid spending fruitless time in traffic, and stay healthier. We are going to get some heavy infrastructure spending in 2009; good, take the bus. Save your car for pleasure trips when you can enjoy it; car commuting is dumb.

The automobile is popular because it has brought us all kinds of freedom. As we are learning, however, we pay for our freedoms in unanticipated ways. The year 2009 would be a good year to go on a car diet.

Car diets are not for everybody. Will you embark on one this coming year?


What’s the worst car you’ve ever owned?

Definitely not a chick magnet!

Definitely not a chick magnet!

Car buyers are a hard-to-please bunch.

At the same time, though, a car is one of biggest items that people become emotionally attached to. For example, when my 1984 Toyota 4X4 pickup was stolen and destroyed, I was heartbroken. That truck wasn’t just a mode of transportation for me; it was a part of my life. So going to the impound yard to “identify the body” tore me up.

It’s funny how a car can infiltrate our emotions and create human-like attraction and ultimate satisfaction in the driving experience.

Of course, there are cars on the other side of that emotion too. This blog announces Consumer Reports’ findings on some of 2008’s most satisfying cars. Consumer Reports also announced the least satisfying vehicles of the year, which were overwhelmingly led by American models.

The Jeep Commander was the least satisfying of all, with only 32 percent of owners saying they’d definitely buy or lease one again. Joining the Jeep at the bottom were the pickup cousins of Colorado and Canyon from Chevy and GMC. Chevy’s Equinox was right down there, as was the trio of GM minivans the Chevy Uplander, Buick Terraza and Saturn Relay.

I have hope that American-made vehicles will start climbing up that list, but that’s not my point here. What I’m thinking about are the cars from our past that we’ve owned but would never own again. The cars we’ve hated but for some reason ended up driving, even if just for a short amount of time.

I sure remember mine… a 1985 Chevy Caprice. I’ll tell you what, my grandpa didn’t do me any favors with the ladies by giving that heap to me in high school!

What’s the least satisfying car you’ve ever owned?


No Sympathy for the Devil, No Gimmicks


Why has Detroit gotten so little sympathy from the public? Maybe because of all the ridiculous sales gimmicks it has tried over the years—discounts, sales pitches, red-tag events, blown-up monsters on the lot, dealer/factory incentives and so on. Maybe beca use the buying public has gotten fed up with feeling taken to the cleaners in every car purchase. Maybe because the dealer experience is mostly composed of intimidation and jive—and I can say that from having sold cars for a brief period about 10 years ago.

The worst gimmick is the fiction of MSRP, the sticker price. All subsequent gimmicks flow from this. People are sick of being bombarded by phony sales and traditional dealer pitches about invoice pricing and other lies. Because of the abrupt decline in the new-car market, two-for-one sales are popular now, but they aren’t attracting all that many buyers. A dealership in Miami offered zero-percent financing for 72 months and rebates of up to $7,500, but the showrooms still lack customers.

A variation of the 2-for-1 theme is “buy a car for $1.” That is, after you buy your $40K Chrysler Pacifica, for example, at full price in Chicago, you can get a nice used $12K PT Cruiser for a buck. Two dealerships in Hampton Roads, VA, have opened cafés in their showrooms. Reportedly, the food is good even if the car trade is not.

Business also stinks across the pond, where VW dealers have been offering vinyl graphics to put cutesie art on the sides of their New Beetles. But maybe the most imaginative and ludicrous attempt to lure buyers is BMW’s new touchscreen interface in its showrooms. The presumptive buyer can now slide some tiles around a screen and pick out upholstery and wheel trim colors. Check out the video.

So far, most of these attempts to sell cars haven’t sold many cars. One thing that will have to change is the number of dealers, and indeed the whole dealer system is or should be nonfunctional. NADA, the National Automobile Dealers Association, predicts that about 1 in 10 dealers or some 2,000 will be closing in 2008-2009. The dealer’s position as a middleman is pretty hard to defend in what will be a restructured auto industry. This blog had something to say earlier on that score.

Yet the consequences of dumping dealers could be severe. Wages and salaries of the  workforce constitute 13% of the US retail payroll. As independent businesses, they and their communities would be hit hard.

So maybe it’s time for dealers to do some creative thinking about their plight. Instead of concocting more sales gimmicks, how about giving cars and trucks, new and used, away to good causes and taking the charitable deduction in the spirit of Christmas? Do a service for a worthy nonprofit in your community by holding a raffle for a new car. (They are probably hurting more than you are.) Get volunteers to drive people (oldsters, shut-ins, sickies) to their errands and doctor appointments. Offer employee discounts on used cars . . . to everybody.

Build a presence in your community and people will remember when the recession is over.

Tell us about the most effective (or laughable) dealer gimmick you’ve encountered. —jgoods

2010 Mustang vs. 2010 BMW Z4

2010 Mustang

Two redesigned sports cars are generating a ton of hype lately; one has been an American icon for over 40 years, the other is a relatively new innovation from our friends in Germany.

The 2010 Ford Mustang and 2010 BMW Z4 are very different, yet they’re generating equal amounts of passion from their loyal followers. Both deliver horsepower and speed. Both make a statement about their drivers. Let’s take a quick look at both, and then it’s your turn to tell us which you’d rather have!

The Mustang

The biggest news from the Mustang camp is the possibility of Ford’s new EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 being offered. This is an engine capable of a devastating 415 hp that would be offered alongside the V8 options. (No guarantee that this turbo will make it into production, though.) 

Remember when GT Mustangs came with a 5.0-liter V8 rather than the 4.6? Oh yes, the 5.0 is coming back, baby! Expect around 325-350 horses out of that power plant. There will also be a Bullit edition and the same entry-level V6 as before. Looks like we’ll again be treated to a Ford-built Shelby GT 500 version of the new pony, with at least 500 hp, though I’d bet on more. Can you say BOOYAH!?

The Mustang’s interior also gets revamped to accommodate a bigger navigation screen and audio gear. 

The Z4

The new Z4 will be offered in sDrive30i and sDrive35i trims. Completely redesigned inside and out, the exterior redesign is what I’m most excited about, as the current Z4 is a bit too chiseled for my taste. The new design is sleeker, more elegant, and more sophisticated, in stark contrast to the arrogant, muscled look of the Mustang. 

The other big news is the addition of a retractable two-piece aluminum hard top for this Bimmer in place of the current soft top.

Oh, but you want to know about performance? The sDrive30i is powered by a 3.0-liter V6 capable of 255 hp. The sDrive 35i has a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 rated at 300 hp and a 0-60 sprint time of 5 seconds.

Opting for the Z4 will also give buyers the option of adding a Sport Package with Adaptive M Suspension and Electronic Damping Control. This gets complicated, but the system allows for more driving control and the ability to change damper forces on the Adaptive M Suspension and adjust the response thresholds of Dynamic Stability Control.

This new Z4 will be built in Germany, as opposed to the current Z4, which is built in America.

So there you have it. Which would you rather have – the pure muscle and style of the Mustang or the sophisticated driving experience of the BMW Z4?


The Fifty-Year-Old Urge to Compete


You may remember my friend LG—the guy I chided here for driving his Audi S4, now an S5, like a fixated hypermiler. Well, he and I go back a long way, some 50 years: We were both in grad school, and I helped crew in some of his SCCA meets. Anyway, he wanted to set the record straight about his driving techniques.

First, I employ few of the techniques practiced by the hybrid-driving lunatic described in yr blog. Essentially I always try to minimize the effects of inertia while not interfering w/ following traffic. This doesn’t amount to much more than (a) braking as little as possible, (b) getting into 5th or 6th gear as soon as feasible and staying there as long as possible (with the sophisticated refinements of current fuel injection, lugging isn’t a problem), (c) only speeding downhill, and (d) coasting through isolated or empty stop signs in 2nd or 3rd gear (the only tickets I’ve gotten in several years were for this maneuver).

My first race car was a used Austin-Healy Sprite. (I could almost run faster than it.) I took the SCCA competition license course at Wilmot, the little track cum ski resort across the state line in Wisconsin. The first year I raced there & at Meadowdale Raceway, I think, west of Chicago. I was a cautious if not cowardly driver that first season, & I remember being nerfed from behind in one race, by the class leader, Bob Somebody, as he lapped me coming around a corner. But I had one of the classier rigs at the track: a VW van to tow the Sprite on a custom-made trailer, and my friend’s Morgan as a chase car—all of them painted white w/ orange stripes & trim.

The second season I graduated to a Triumph TR3 that I bought from my friend Brooks Johnson, the sprinter, jazz promoter & U. of Chicago law school dropout (Si Hersh was his dropout classmate), and which I spent a long winter tearing down to its frame and then rebuilding for racing. All the clever trick work was done in our garage on 54th St. by Jim Hartman, who, a year later, took an identical TR3 to Road America and, eschewing belts or a harness because he had read that Stirling Moss disdained them, killed himself in a rollover on turn 11.

I don’t practice “hypermiling” out of any devotion to the environment (though I’m as Green as yr average sustainable citizen), or to save gas money (though I’m as close to insolvency as most American debtors), but only because I became transfixed by the mileage readout on my 2001 S4, and raising the numbers became a new expression of my congenital competitive instincts.

Yes, my driving style in the Audi S4 could hardly have been more extreme. My obsessive-compulsive capacities just overcame me, and squeezing another 1/10th of an mpg out of the display became the dominant purpose of my mobile life. But, the S5 has loosened me up. One example: In my regular 10-mile drive every day in Marin County, CA, I get on 101 at the bottom of a steep grade and I can’t resist standing on 360 hp and running through 6 gears as I drift over to the fast lane on my quick way to 90/100 mph (for an instant). So far none of the other Hot Wheels at that time & place have challenged me.

As for the 50 years, I’m aware of some diminution of my reflexes & I’m more cautious making certain moves, such as quickly changing lanes in traffic. Some of the ergonomics of the S5 are awkward, such as the large mirrors on the A pillars which obstruct my vision on certain turns, and I wonder if I would have been as distracted & irritated when I was younger. But the car seems very forgiving, the Quattro is super, and I can’t resist an occasional blast.

Is driving (for some of us) really all about competition? —jgoods