Since I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs here in the RFD virtual office while everyone else is having fun in Detroit, I figured I’d throw in a dose of reality. Great news is coming out of Detroit, like the Kia Stinger GT, the Audi SQ5, the return of the Ford Bronco and Ranger… To counteract this, here are the five worst cars I’ve driven in the past five years. Fortunately, the Pontiac Aztek pictured above is NOT one of them – mainly because I haven’t driven one.
5. 2017 Kia Rio
This was my rental car for a week in Puerto Rico. As I described in that article, it’s… a car. If someone designed a car to match Steve Martin’s specifications from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, this would be it – “just four fucking wheels and a fucking seat.” That’s pretty much all this car is, and all it does.
That doesn’t make it a bad car, by any means – just a cheap, boring one. Some people like cheap, boring cars. Some simply don’t care, and others can only afford something like this. The Kia Rio ranks #7 on 20 Something Finance‘s list of The Cheapest New Cars In 2017. And yet you still get power windows, locks, and mirrors, ice cold air conditioning, and though the stereo has a now outdated LED display rather than a color touchscreen, it still has Bluetooth, plus USB and AUX inputs. It’s a perfectly adequate car, and one I’d actually recommend to someone looking for a cheap basic new car. It’s just not the right car for an enthusiast like me.
4. 2003 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
I know all about this car – it was mine. Yet here I’m ranking it worse than a Kia Rio??? Well, yes. There are two main reasons.
Ford’s Panther platform is a dinosaur. In fact I think it’s been around since the age of the dinosaurs, yet is so tough it survived the global extinction catastrophe 65 million years ago. Mine was a 2003 model, but it remained almost unchanged (bigger wheels, small horsepower boost) all the way until production ended in 2011. It’s an old school, body-on-frame, V8, rear wheel drive, classic American sedan – literally, the last of the V8 Interceptors. And that’s partly why it doesn’t measure up to the performance and refinement of modern cars. My 4.6 liter V8 put out a mere 239hp (250 in later models). Even the Focus ST I drove last summer beats that with half as many cylinders, never mind the Focus RS or the Mustang EcoBoost. Speaking of the Mustang, it dropped the live rear axle, but the Crown Vic never did. Granted, the late police Crown Vics (P71, as we call them) were the ultimate evolution of the classic American sedan. They were the best they could be. But they still couldn’t hold a candle to even a modern economy car, let alone any modern police car.
I had to get rid of mine for the most stupid reason. My anti-lock brakes stopped working. Big whoop – I’ve been driving cars without ABS for years, and continued driving my P71 this way for nine months. Then came state inspection time. State law spells out that an ABS light on the dashboard is NOT a failure. Unfortunately, in Ford’s infinite wisdom, they decided that an ABS failure would simultaneously turn on the bright red BRAKE light on the dashboard as well. In Massachusetts, that light is an automatic failure. Now, if this happened to me today, I’d open up the dashboard, yank the bulb out of the BRAKE light, reassemble, pass, and keep on driving it for years. But at the time, it was February during the snowiest Boston area winter on record, I lived in an apartment, and I had no access to a garage. I paid to have the ABS diagnosed, and of course it was the master control system that had failed. It was going to cost four figures to replace it, and only then could we tell if there were even more problems with the brakes. I decided to put that money into a new Subaru BRZ instead of an old Ford Crown Vic. It sucks, though. On a technicality, my car was no longer street legal. I drove it to my pathetic trade-in (I had only one parking space and no choice to sell it privately) with no trouble at all.
3. 2013 Kia Optima
A second Kia in my worst cars list? Kias must be absolutely terrible! Actually, no. Keep in mind that this was an earlier model than my Rio, which was good at what it was designed for. The Optima was designed to be a midsize Camry fighter. I had one as a rental for a couple of days while my Crown Vic was in the shop (again, nowhere to work on it myself). Kia had not yet caught up to Japanese quality as they just about have today. The interior was… okay, but cheap. Power was fine. It shifted fine. But the electric steering had absolutely NO feedback whatsoever. My Logitech force feedback PC racing wheel and iRacing gave better feedback than the Optima’s did. This was downright scary, because the Optima’s steering wheel is in an actual CAR. This is the main reason the Optima ranks so low on my list. And I must point out that I had no such complaints about the new Rio.
2. 2015 Nissan Rogue
This was another rental – one that we picked up for a week after our Puerto Rico trip, and before my wife’s Flex was repaired. Much like the Kia Rio, it was… a car. Actually, a crossover. A very cheap looking crossover (previous generation to the one pictured here), with even more vast expanses of cheap hard plastic, seats that were barely adequate, and virtually no options. The screen for the backup screen was barely larger than a thumbprint, making it essentially useless. It wasn’t enjoyable to drive, yet had the audacity to put a SPORT button on the center console next to the shifter. I guess it made the shift points a little more aggressive, but it sure didn’t turn the Rogue into a GT-R. I rank the Rogue this low because it was trying to be something it’s not – a classy crossover. It has the interior space, and it looks all right, but it might as well be a larger lifted Versa for all the amenities it was missing.
But that’s not all. Most disappointing of all was that during the week we had it, not once were we joined by a convoy of X-Wing fighters like in the commercial. Not once! We were terribly disappointed that when my wife dropped off her kids at school, not once did the entire Rebel fleet make a low altitude flyby before jumping into hyperspace toward a galaxy far, far away. They would’ve been the coolest kids at school if Nissan had only followed through on their promise from a TV ad, and since it was on TV, it must be true.
1. 2014 Jeep Compass
I already wrote about this car on Oppositelock, and though it’s been a few years since then, it’s still the worst car I’ve driven in recent history. I had to suffer the Penalty Box (seriously, that’s what I named it) for an entire month after my BRZ got rear ended and it was getting fixed at the body shop. It tried way too hard to be more than it was, and failed miserably in all areas. It tried to be a 7/8 scale Grand Cherokee. It certainly looks the part, but the inside was cheap plastic, uncomfortable seats, and the underpinnings of a Dodge Caliber. It tried to be a real Jeep, but this one wasn’t even “Trail Rated.” It tried to have 4WD, but all it had was a flimsy plastic switch you awkwardly flipped up instead of the huge manly lever of the XJ Cherokee or my MJ Comanche, or even the rotary dial of a 4Runner. It tried to be powerful, but the slightest push of the gas made the horrible CVT whine the engine straight to redline, which made a lot of noise without actually going anywhere.
By the end of my month, I was so fed up with it as my daily driver that we decided to punish it as a course car at the 2014 Black River Stages rally in upstate New York. (We took a Mustang the following year.) That, of all places, was the only place the Compass shined. By turning off traction control and shifting manually it became easier to deal with the more we punished it. The technology was ancient enough that left foot braking actually worked correctly, without the power automatically dropping off under simultaneous gas/brake inputs. When we accidentally hit the Goose Pond jump a little too fast, the Jeep showed its AMC roots by flying like an Eagle and making a perfect four point landing – more than can be said for many competitors’ cars. But unless your daily commute is rally stages, the Compass was an awful terrible crossover car thing, and definitely not an SUV worthy of the Jeep badge.
I understand there is a new version of the Compass coming out, and at first glance, not only does it fail to suck, it’s actually pretty darn good. I invite Jeep to let me give the Compass a second chance. I promise to keep an open mind, and not let my poor experience of the previous version tarnish my impressions of the new version. In fact, if it’s as good as it seems to be, I’d love to compare and contrast the two versions to demonstrate just how far the Compass has come and help redeem itself. Based on Ryan West’s pictures from the LA Auto Show, I think the new Compass looks great. I’d love to see if its beauty goes more than skin deep.