Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cars That Fizzled In 2011 (US)

2011 has had some notable high-profile flops: American Airlines, Coke's white can, numerous Republican presidential candidates, the Boston Red Sox. More than a few automakers can add their names to the list. In a year when U.S. car sales staged a modest recovery, a number of nameplates with high expectations wilted in the showroom. One of them gets the most ignominious distinction of being a bust — we'll get to that, but first see the slideshow of ten other cars worthy of dishonorable mention.

The years have not been kind to the XF, the car that launched a new era of Jaguar design. Call it a warning to stylists who stray too far from the familiar. Despite the XF's timely departure from the cues of Jag's heritage designs, sales dropped sharply during its fourth year on the market. In an otherwise strong 2011 for luxury car sales, calculates the XF suffered a 28% falloff. Jaguar's mid-cycle refresh scheduled for July couldn't have come soon enough.

Developing a Lexus version of the popular Toyota Prius seemed like a good idea, but once-enthusiastic buyers have turned skittish. According to, the HS 250h suffered the biggest year-over-year sales decline of any car continuing in production -- a whopping 73%. Perhaps potential customers were just catching up with the faint praise dispensed by enthusiast publications. "The HS 250h is a `compromises hybrid' that strikes a compromise between good mileage and a fair amount of high-brow comfort features," said Car and Driver. "We can think of other vehicles that strike that balance just as well, and drive better in the process." Snap.

Twenty-two years old this fall, Nissan's luxury brand remains a misshapen lump. One line, the G-37 sedan, coupe, and convertible, accounts for a lop-sided 60% of sales. Infiniti's SUVs, meanwhile, seem determinedly aimed at the narrowest of niches, a lost opportunity considering that over at archrival Lexus they contribute half of the volume. So in a year when import luxury cars were moving smartly, Infiniti saw its sales fall. Infiniti plans to double its product line by 2016, and it can't come soon enough.

Honda upset the traditional pickup truck orthodoxy when it introduced the unibody Ridgeline in 2005. It may have been a good idea, but it failed to make many converts. The Ridgeline has staggered along since then, selling fewer than 1,000 units a month. There's probably a market out there for a truck that's lighter than traditional body-on-frame behemoths and gets better gas mileage, but this one hasn't found it.

Volt shot out of the blocks early in the year with a blast of publicity that would rival Lady Gaga's. After snagging a flock of car-of-the-year awards, GM's bold technological leap seemed poised to set the world on fire. Unfortunately, its batteries did just that in certain accident conditions. The negative fallout -- combined with a month-long production halt in the middle of the year to boost output -- kept a damper on sales. After moving only about 6,200 for the first 11 months of 2011, GM admitted it would fall far short of its goal of selling 10,000 Volts in its first year.

Fiat's reentry into the U.S. market never got out of first gear. Dealers were slow to sign up, an ad campaign featuring J. Lo flopped, and stable-to-lower gas prices failed to excite buyers. Reviewers were tough: complained about "Wait-and-see reliability; disappointing fuel economy with automatic; less cargo room than rivals." CEO Sergio Marchionne wasted little time replacing Fiat's top U.S. executive, but the damage was done. Instead of selling 50,000 cars this year, Fiat had moved only 17,444 through November. Fiat faces an even steeper uphill battle to win over U.S customers.

One year ago, Honda introduced a less-expensive Insight for 2011 to help boost sales, making it the least expensive hybrid on the market. But reviewers complained about a jouncy ride and excessive road noise, while customers barely noticed. Year-over-year comparisons are difficult because of Honda's production disruptions, but sales, after steadying around 20,000 in 2009 and 2010, dropped off sharply this year. Meanwhile the Insight was passed by the Johnny-come-lately of hybrids, the Hyundai Sonata.

Back in 2009 when the 550i was introduced, BMW executives freely predicted that it would be so popular that they stop shipping the traditional 5-series sport wagon to the U.S. Meanwhile the 550i has stalled out. Blame it on its excessive weight (two-and-a-half tons), high price ($65,000) or ungainly proportions, the 550i remains a rare misstep for the Bavarian marketing machine.

The Cube went on sale in May 2009 and since then has suffered an acute case of design decay, i.e, the novelty car blues. Its edgy styling -- pun intended -- hasn't worn well with buyers, and its sales have fallen to a trickle. The Cube's performance is especially glaring when compared with the similarly rhomboid Kia Soul, which is attracting far more buyers in its third year on the market as it outsells the Cube six to one. Still, Nissan is betting on a surge in gas prices for the Cube to turn the corner.

At this point heaping more scorn from an angry reviewer on the CrossCabriolet seems like piling on... Well, okay, just one more: The New York Times described Nissan's convertible as "a designer's doodle that should be politely received, then crumpled and flipped into the trash." The CrossCabriolet's legacy as one of the most unusual cars of the 21st century seems secure. Meanwhile, there is a new titleholder that failed even more spectacularly despite aiming far lower.

Seemingly designed for the recession generation, the bland, cheezy, ninth-generation Civic went on sale in April to almost universal derision. A blogger at The Truth About Cars declared, "The design is clunky, the materials are cut-rate, and the driving experience is ... dreadfully dull." Consumer Reports complained about a multitude of sins, including weak brakes, excessive body lean, and annoying road noise when it dropped the car off its Recommended list. The Wall Street Journal called it "a dud." So bad were the reviews that Honda CEO Takanobu Ito publicly accepted full responsibility for the Civic's poor performance. The automaker is taking the unprecedented step of moving up the mid-cycle refresh by one year to 2013 so it can correct the car's most egregious faults. "We take feedback seriously, regardless of who it's from, and we will act accordingly quickly," said John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president. Quick won't be fast enough.

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