It’s hard to get a car right. It’s even harder to get it perfect. That’s why cars like Volkswagen’s enduring GTI, the Mazda Miata, and the Subaru WRX are all so special. But the automotive world, like any other, isn’t black or white; cars are not either great or terrible. There’s a huge spectrum between the two, and every car ever made can be plotted somewhere along its axis.
The smallest details can sometimes make or break a car — brakes that are a hair too soft, a chassis with a touch too much flex, or if the engine’s just a sliver shy in the power department. Sometimes it’s a combination of these factors. Often automakers will go out of their way to help address these issues with succeeding generations, but other times, nothing happens at all. And that makes us sad.
So here’s a collection of cars that are very good — excellent, even. But as close as they are, they’re missing that small piece that makes them truly great. Read on and let us know how we did!
1. BMW Z4
It sounds like it should be perfect — shovel a creamy, silky BMW inline six into a taut, German-engineered chassis and allow for the top to drop when the sun comes out. Send those 300 horses from the powerplant up front to the wheels at the rear. Keep the weight down, and center of gravity low. That’s how you engineer the Ultimate Driving Machine. However, years of corporate neglect have left the Z4 roadster — a very capable car — behind both strategically and competitively. What you’re left with is a $48,000 roadster that’s chasing down $24,000 Miatas when it should be chasing down $70,000 Porsches.
2. Volvo C30
The C30 was a short-lived attempt at tapping into America’s lethargic hatchback market, although it enjoyed more success elsewhere. Meant to serve as a Swedish Golf or Mini, the C30 was an upscale three-door vehicle that by all means was a great car — if you overlooked its subpar fuel economy, rotund curb weight of over 3,000 pounds, and general feeling of malaise when compared to its more athletic competition. Had those situations been addressed, the C30 would have made a fantastic and unique vehicle in the segment. It was always a good little car, but sadly, it won’t be remembered as being great.
3. Lexus RC F
Japan has for a while now needed a player in the ring that showed the world that the Far East still had the means to put forth a genuine contender in the mass-market performance space. The RC F, for better or worse, answered that call: its high-revving, naturally-aspirated V8 and bold, aggressive styling certainly writes the right check, but its lumbering 4,000-pound bulk almost assures that the check won’t cash. It has every right and ability to be great, but won’t quite be there without a strict diet.
4. Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ Twins
We love the Scion FR-S. And BRZ. If hatchbacks aren’t really your thing, these two are arguably your best bets for drivers’ cars in their price bracket. They handle like little else in the $25,000 space, and offer rear-wheel-drive and a boxer engine. The only thing holding them back, as cliche as it sounds, is the anemia of the aforementioned unit. At 200 horsepower, it’s not desperate for power; but to take the cars over the threshold from very good to great, give it a bump — 50 more horsepower would ideal. Twenty-five, even. More than that would be too much. That’s how close these cars are — but I’ll let Jalopnik explain that.
5. Honda Civic Si
The Honda Civic Si is a fun coupe that nearly commits to going full out but then doesn’t. It has 201 horsepower, which until this year was enough to beat the Golf GTI, but it’s hard getting around the fact that Honda hasn’t seemed too serious about keeping the Si competitive with the hot hatches that bore the badge in the past. The Si is a good little car, but more attention from Honda could make it great.
6. Mercedes-Benz CLA
Mercedes’s play in the subcompact sedan market is a good, strong foot forward in growing sales. In the CLA45 AMG flavor, the baby Benz is outrageously good fun. For the pedestrian mass-market car, though, the right boxes are checked but there are a few factors holding it back — it’s relative anemia for a Mercedes (208 horsepower), and a backseat you either need to be 7 years old or a dog to fit in. The ingredients are there, but there’s a flaw somewhere along the chef’s line.
7. Ford C-Max Hybrid
By all accounts, the C-Max Hybrid is the American Prius — only it sells a fraction of the vehicles that Toyota does. It’s endlessly utilitarian, and given the height advantage and less coupe-y shape, it’s fuel economy is exceptional for a car of its capability. It could be the frumpy looks or the fact that Ford has downgraded its alleged fuel economy twice, but even so, the C-Max is still a very good vehicle that comes just short of being a great hybrid.
8. Volkswagen Beetle R-Line
The Volkswagen Beetle R-Line doesn’t just look more aggressive, it has the go to pair with that show. It uses the 210-horsepower turbo-four borrowed from the GTI, and that’s exactly the issue. At $25,000, you may as well just get the GTI. You have to really love the look of the Beetle to opt for this over the Golf, and its lack of hatchback capability, when compared to its brethren, is what makes the Beetle good, but short of exceptional.
9. Dodge Dart
Dodge needed the Dart. Desperately. After wallowing through the Avenger and Caliber years, Dodge was in a bad way for compact cars. The Dart was everything it needed to be: sleek-looking, competitive, and available in a variety of flavors. However, though it checked the right boxes, it’s been missing something since its birth — a certain je ne sais quoi that other compacts have mastered. With a little fine-tuning, Dodge has a winner in the Dart, but the company will have to look beyond the competition instead of trying to match it.
10. Buick Regal GS
Perhaps no brand is as associated with geriatric fuddy-duddies as Buick. GM’s soft-luxury line has had its name dragged through the mud with sedate vehicles like the LaCrosse and Regal, but GM is finally giving it some attention. The Regal GS is everything a sedan should be — European-based, turbocharged, and relatively understated. The GS turns the Regal into a very good, very fun Buick (yeah we just said that), but the Grand National was a great Buick.