Over the past three years, more brands of cars — and specific car models — have been sent to the glue factory than at any time since the early ’30s, in the wake of Great Depression 1.0
But did they deserve to die?
* Saturn Sky
Based on GM of Europe — AKA Opel’s — GT, the Sky (and its late lamented Pontiac stablemate, the Solstice) was a stunning car to look at; much more dynamic and stylish than, say, a Mazda Miata.
But unlike the Miata — which was a great car to drive — the Sky and Solstice weren’t great cars to drive.
For one, the engine sounded terrible — like a high-miles economy car four-cylinder equipped with a cheap aftermarket “fart can” muffler. While other sports car engines sang when revved, the Sky’s cleared its throat like a phlegm-laden old trucker.
Handling was clunky, too.
But the worst offense was the ’69 MGB body integrity. The Sky’s convertible soft top fit poorly and leaked both air and water, which dribbled down onto the door side panels. It was impossible to hold a conversation without shouting at speeds much above 60 mph. The power window switches were located so far back on these panels it was almost impossible to use them while driving. Ditto the cupholder, which was mounted on the very rear of the center console, making it all-but-unusable while the vehicle was moving. The gas gauge was dime-sized and buried a foot deep in the gauge cluster, making it a guessing game how close you might be to empty.
Verdict: A pretty car whose comely exterior hid numerous unattractive flaws. Looks alone won’t cut it — and didn’t.
an>* Hummer H2
You could make a case for the H1.
It was a civilianized version of the military Humvee — and if you needed an unstoppable off-roader, it fit the bill.
But the H2 was nothing more than a Chevy Suburban with a Tonka Toy Hummer truck shell draped over it. And thus, a fraud. A big, stupid, ugly, pointless, gas-guzzling, crappy-handling — and not even good for off-roading — fraud.
Circa 2003 I got one to test drive. I called up three buddies and we headed out to try the thing off road. At the entrance to the area where we intended to do some mud-bogging, there was a puddle maybe three or four inches deep and about three or four feet in diameter. I drove over it at a moderate speed. Immediately, multiple lights on the dash went off and the engine dropped down into “limp home” mode. It ran, but barely. Unable to get the H2 going faster than about 25 mph, we creeped it home on a very busy Northern Virginia highway, a half-mile of angry motorists stacked up behind us.
I wrote “I love global warming” with my finger in the dust on the liftgate glass.
The H2 was good at just one thing: Demonstrating (once again) that PT Barnum was right.
Verdict: As preposterous as an “estate home” McMansion on a quarter-acre lot.
* Pontiac Vibe
Technically, the Vibe still lives, because Toyota is still making them.
The Vibe was never really a Pontiac but rather a “badge-engineered” Toyota Matrix re-sold under the Pontiac label. (And the Vibe/Matrix was of course itself merely a Corolla draped with ugly, mini-dumpster bodywork. )
That alone made it worthy of retirement. Why bother? Buying a “Pontiac” Vibe was a lot like buying the same blue bottle of store-brand NyQuil sold right next to the real stuff, except you didn’t get the one advantage of buying the store-brand stuff — namely, a lower price. The “Pontiac” Vibe was actually priced above the Toyota Matrix — on the rickety theory that people would be willing to pay more for a Toyota if it was sold through a Pontiac dealership, with all the prospects for great customer service that came with it.
Verdict: The Most Pathetic “Pontiac” since the Daewoo-sourced LeMans of the 1980s.
This one’s a mixed bag.
Not all that long ago, Saab was an up-and-comers car, a peer of BMW. Circa mid-late 1980s, a Saab 9-3 convertible was among the coolest things on four wheels. It was a car you bought yourself after graduating law school — or getting that first real job. Saab, the company, was much better placed than its crosstown rival, Volvo — which at the time was still known mainly for its stodgy, boring, god-awful slow PETA staff cars that no one with any life force still pumping within them wanted any part of.
Then GM bought the company. And systematically strangled it.
By 2008 — when everything began to go sour — Saab was already ghosted. An afterthought. Not even spoken of in the same sentence as BMW.
Or even Volvo.
Its cars were staid — or weird. And overpriced, too. Most of the flair that had characterized previous Saab models had been systematically sucked out of them, leaving a lineup of slightly oddball-looking things with often-iffy reliability and BMW-level MSRPs with Lumina-level plasticky interiors.
Verdict: Saab’s downfall parallels the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the movie, The Wrestler. It’s a train wreck, but you can’t stop watching it.
AKA Ford’s Pontiac.
There was a time when, like Pontiac, Mercury had something worthwhile to offer. In fact, it operated as a quasi-independent automaker only loosely associated with parent company Ford. It sold unique or at least different enough models — not rouged-up Fords with higher price tags. Its cars also had great names like Marauder and Turnpike Cruiser (as opposed to Mariner and Mystique).
What you got was higher-class performance; nicely trimmed out cars that moved when you stomped on the gas pedal but which also had an adult demeanor lacking in most Fords.
Fast forward to the recent past and what greeted the prospect upon entering a Mercury showroom?
Ford Explorers (and Escapes and Crown Vics) with… wait for it, now… higher price tags.
Verdict: Mercury’s been dead for years but just didn’t know it. Now it does.