1985 Cadillac DeVille
In 1982, Cadillac replaced its 6.0-liter V-8 with a tiny 4.1-liter V-8, which was completely overwhelmed by the giant cars it was supposed to haul around—so rather than make the engine bigger, Caddy made the cars smaller. The new-for-1985 front-wheel-drive DeVilles were two feet shorter and 600 lbs lighter than the old rear-drivers, and they paired well with the little V-8. That’s the only nice thing we can say about them. The Caddy-runt looked like an April Fool’s joke compared to the big rear-drive Fleetwood, and the badge engineering involved in its production became blatantly obvious when it was parked next to an Oldsmobile 98 or Buick Electra—a point that Lincoln drove home with cruel accuracy in this TV commercial. With the economy picking up, buyers didn’t want an economized luxury car, and even Caddy traditionalists bailed on the DeVille in favor of the freshly-redesigned Lincoln Town Car. As usual, the massive GM bureaucracy took ages to react, and it wasn’t until 1989 that it stretched the wheelbase, tacked on a longer tail, and returned some semblance of dignity to the storied DeVille name.
1985 Hyundai Excel
Today’s Hyundais are so good that it’s hard to believe they were once so bad. The first Hyundai to hit our shores was this warmed-over Mitsubishi design, which Hyundai rebadged and priced at $4,995, $650 less than Chevrolet’s dreadful Chevette. Americans should have been wary given our experience with the Yugo GV (which we’ll cover next), but no—the Excel drew penny-pinching buyers like moths to a bug-zapper. A cramped, noisy, unreliable, sluggish, plasticky, ill-handling, anonymous-looking, poorly-built bug zapper. The Excel was mind-numbingly slow and as engaging to drive as a child’s tricycle, but at least the controls were easy to find—right in your hand, since they often came off when you tried to use them. Early Excels were disposable cars that made a beeline for the junkyard, but the ambitious Koreans got enough of a foothold to make a profit in the American market, and eventually—we’re talking maybe 25 years later—started to make really good cars.
1985 Yugo GV
Malcom Bricklin is a scoundrel. He tried to kill us with the Subaru 360, bored us with the Bricklin SV-1, and infuriated us with the Fiat X1/9, and when that didn’t work, he imported this little rat trap, a discarded Fiat design built by a Yugoslavian torture directorate called Zastava in a factory that appeared to be a converted gulag. When his company announced that the new Yugo GV (“Great Value!”) would sell for $3,990, buyers flocked to it like flies to a dog turd, and almost all of them soon realized they had overpaid. The Yugo, which famed automotive writer Dan Neil once referred to as “the Mona Lisa of bad cars,” was underpowered, poorly engineered, and so insubstantial that a gust of wind once reportedly blew a Yugo and its unfortunate driver clear off the Mackinac Bridge. In truth, the Yugo was actually very safe, because it is virtually impossible to have an accident when your car is too broken to leave the driveway, which Yugos almost always were. There was a convertible version, though it was frequently mistaken for a Yugo that merely managed to slip out of the factory without a roof.
1987 Sterling 825 / 827
In the mid-1980s, Rover Group—the burnt-out remains of legendarily-awful British Leyland—announced that it would triumphantly re-enter the USA with a new car called the Sterling. Americans were intrigued, because as far as they knew, the Sterling was an Acura Legend with a warm wood-and-leather interior. Japanese engineering and British charm—how bad could it be? What buyers didn’t realize was that Rover had replaced the Legend’s electrical system with one of its own. That’s right—Rover actually took the thing Japanese carmakers do best and replaced it with the thing British carmakers do worst, and the answer to “How bad could it be?” was “Way, way, way the hell worse than you can possibly imagine. ” The Legend and the Sterling literally sat at opposite ends of J.D. Power’s quality surveys. The paintwork sucked, the interior fell apart, the metal rusted, and the electricals failed with metronomic reliability. Sterling’s roadside assistance program offered free lodging in the event of a breakdown, and it’s a miracle the company didn’t go bankrupt from the hotel bills. After a strong first year, sales took a swan dive until Rover turned tail and ran in 1992.
1987 Dodge Omni / Plymouth Horizon America
By 1987, Chrysler was in full turnaround mode with showrooms full of new K-based cars, and even the ancient Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon—now vastly inferior to virtually every other subcompact on the market—had been replaced by the new Shadow and Sundance. Only no one bothered to tell the L-cars about their timely demise, because they kept right on showing up for work. Chrysler reanimated these cadavers by piling on the standard equipment, slashing the price, and adding the suffix America, presumably because America, like the Omni, felt about two hundred years old. (The suffix was supposed to be Liberty, until Lee Iacocca was fired as head of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island restoration advisory committee. ) The Omni-rizons had the last version of Chrysler’s 2.2-liter K-car motor to use a carburetor, which made them cantankerous, rough-idling, and impossible to keep in tune. And despite offering a broad color palette, Chrysler painted nearly all of them gray or light blue, so an owner could count on sticking their key in the door of someone else’s car at least once a week.
1987 Volkswagen Fox
When the Yugo GV and Hyundai Excel started selling like crazy, Volkswagen must have had the mother of all nostalgia breakdowns. The company reached into its Brazilian product lineup and plucked out the Gol, a car so cheap Volkswagen couldn’t bother giving an F, and rebadged it as the Fox. The Fox had quite a lot in common with the original air-cooled Beetle, like its noisy cabin, heavy non-assisted steering, and lack of a fifth gear for the manual transmission. The seats were unyielding, and the dashboard was made from the sort of plastic one normally associates with the toy aisle at the 99 Cents Only store. You could only get a tachometer if you bought a four-door—can someone please explain that to us? Handling was OK, though the Fox rolled like a yacht in the turns. The Fox used the Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection system, which was easier to screw up than it was to fix, and that plus the usual assortment of VW electrical maladies meant that few Fox owners came back for another Volkswagen—which is the whole reason to sell cheap cars in the first place. It took until 1993 for Volkswagen to figure out that the Fox was doing it no favors. Once it did, the U.S.-market Gol was gon.
1988 Merkur Scorpio
It seemed like a good idea at the time: Americans were hot for European cars, and Ford had a whole lineup of gen-yoo-wine German-designed cars sitting right across the Atlantic. And so was born the Merkur brand. The star of the lineup was the XR4Ti, a turbocharged terror based on the humble-but-futuristic European-market Ford Sierra. As an encore, Ford brought over the Scorpio, a king-sized sales-rep express that somehow managed to win European Car of the Year in ’86. But this wasn’t the droid American buyers of Euro luxury sedans were looking for: Acceleration was meh, handling was meh, and the interior was meh-minus, as was build quality. Braking was quite good, which was nice, as it shortened the amount of time before you could get out of the Scorpio and drive something else. Ford plopped the Scorpio down into Lincoln-Mercury dealerships frequented by oldsters who couldn’t pronounce Merkur and didn’t see why anyone would pay the price of a Lincoln Town car for something that looked like a Mercury Sable. Sales never met Ford‘s expectations, and rather than update the cars to meet 1990 safety standards, Ford simply killed the entire Merkur brand.
1988 Pontiac LeMans
We remember people dismissing the 1988 Pontiac LeMans (don’t be a snob, pronounce the “s”) as a Korean piece of crap, but they were wrong—the LeMans was a German piece of crap! This cheapster was originally designed as the European-market Opel Kadett, and once all the bugs were worked out, GM handed it off to its Korean partner, Daewoo, to work the bugs right back in again. The nicest thing one could say about the LeMans was that it was an improvement over the Chevette-based 1000 it replaced—but then again, so was dying of dysentery. Why was the car named after the storied French endurance race? Probably because both were unlikely to last more than 24 hours, or because the name sounds much like the citrus fruit the car most resembles. A low price and slick ads helped lure first-time buyers into Pontiac showrooms, and the LeMans taught them the joys of indifferent build quality and terrible resale values. After five years, Pontiac decided young Americans had had enough and got out of the tiny-cheap-car biz.
1987 Cadillac Allante
Cadillac’s Mercedes SL-fighter was not so much one of the worst cars of the 1980s as it was one of the worst ideas of the 1980s. Cadillac’s plan, if you can call it that, was to ship partially-built Eldorado bodies to Pininfarina in Turin, Italy, where they were modified and painted. The completed bodies were then sent back to Michigan for final assembly. Caddy decided shipping by sea would take too long, so it flew them back and forth across the Atlantic, 56 cars at a time, in chartered 747s. To the public, Cadillac called this “The Allante Air Bridge”. Internally, the company must have called it “The biggest waste of money since we made Roger Smith our CEO”. The Allante was priced at $56,000, or about $130,000 in 2020 dollars, but quality was abysmal and Allantes immediately began to pile up on dealership lots. Cadillac has kept mum on how much it lost on each Allante sold, but we know how much it lost on each one taken back in trade: Caddy offered to pay the difference if Allante depreciated more than the Mercedes 560 SL, and since the Allante held its value about as well as used Kleenex, this boneheaded move cost Cadillac an estimated $14,000 per car before it smartened up and switched its comparison car to the fast-depreciating Jaguar XJS. Never one to give up on a bad idea, Cadillac spent seven years trying to fix the unfixable before giving up on the Allante in 1993.
1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati
The TC wasn’t just one of the worst cars of the 1980s, it was also the first indication that Lee Iacocca, American hero and savior of Chrysler, might be losing his marbles. The idea of bringing a pretty Italian-built roadster to Chrysler dealerships seemed like a good one (even if its optional “Maserati” engine was largely made of Chrysler parts), and Iacocca figured he could flog 10,000 per year. The problem was that Chrysler’s designers had pretty much the same ideas about what made a pretty car, and put them into the 1987 LeBaron. How did Iacocca not see this coming? The TC and LeBaron differed in many ways, but consumers couldn’t tell them apart, and they certainly couldn’t understand why they’d pay $35,000 for a TC when the LeBaron cost half as much. It didn’t help that the Maserati’s 1989 introduction came two years behind schedule, though one can only imagine the chaos had Chrysler tried to launch these cars side-by-side in ’87. Sales went nowhere, but Chrysler had a contractual obligation to take 7,300 of these turkeys, and it took until 1991 to unload the last one.