Automotive history is dominated by legendary cars. On top of the undisputed icons, every country has their automotive icons, and the “best ever/most powerful/fastest ever” lists seem to grow by the day too. With all these superlatives being thrown around, there’s bound to be more than a few cars that possessed a touch of that elusive greatness but failed to deliver. Some of these cars eventually find esteem in the collector’s market, but most are unceremoniously consigned to the footnotes of history.
There’s no clear formula to what makes a car great. Styling and performance are important, but not always necessary (see: Volkswagen Beetle, Citroën 2CV). Price and accessibility are factors too, but not essential (see: every Ferrari ever made). Like most cultural phenomena, for a car to be successful, it needs to come along at just the right place and time. Since this timing is impossible to predict, many cars bring something new to the market, but the audience just isn’t there yet, proving that it rarely pays to be too far ahead of the curve in the automotive industry.
In hindsight, there are plenty of great cars that could’ve transformed the auto industry, but failed for any number of reasons. Some companies ran out of money, others just couldn’t market their cars against strong competition. From the footnotes of automotive history, here are 10 of the most underrated cars ever that just never caught on the way they should have.
1. 2008-2010 Pontiac G8 GXP
Drawing on their performance past, the once-legendary Pontiac made sure it went out in a blaze of glory before General Motors discontinued the brand in 2009. The G8 was introduced as a 2008 model, and was essentially a rear-wheel drive Holden Commodore from Australia rebadged for the American market. The top-of-the-line GXP borrowed its 415 horsepower, V8 engine, and six-speed manual transmission from the Chevrolet Corvette, making it the most powerful production Pontiac ever built. Despite its instant-legend status in the performance car world, a $40,000 base price and rumors of Pontiac’s imminent demise kept buyers away, and fewer than 2,000 GXPs found buyers. Realizing that it got rid of a good thing, GM has since begun building an updated version of the G8 — only now it’s known as the Chevrolet SS.
2. 2002-2006 Volkswagen Phaeton
The Volkswagen Phaeton is one of the most noble automotive failures of the 21st century. Riding high on the successes of their Bentley, Audi, and Lamborghini brands, the Volkswagen Auto Group decided that the time was right to build an all-wheel drive ultra-luxury sedan for the Volkswagen brand. The Phaeton could be had with either a V8, or a 420 horsepower W12. It was hand-assembled in the same factory as the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and shared many of its mechanicals, making the up-market Volkswagen a relative bargain. Unfortunately, most buyers weren’t ready to spend over $80,000 on a W12-powered Volkswagen, and the car quickly became known as one of the biggest automotive flops in recent memory. Today, a well-sorted Phaeton can be had with its Bentley-like luxury for under $20,000.
3. 1994-2007 Jaguar XJ6
Even after being acquired by Ford in 1990, Jaguar still had a reputation for quality issues and unreliability that would embarrass any other major automaker. Because of this, the XJ6 is usually considered a luxury also-ran: a gorgeous-looking, powerful car with a classic interior that should be traded in before the warranty expires. Despite its tarnished reputation, the XJ6 offered performance and luxury that rivaled anything coming out of Germany. The fire-breathing XJR performance model (pictured here) produced 370 horsepower from its supercharged V8, and was the fastest sedan in the world. Today, a well-sorted XJ6 can be had for next-to-nothing on the used car market, and if routine maintenance is kept up, the old Jag can still deliver one of the best driving experiences in the world.
4. 1982-1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E
Before Mercedes-Benz introduced the 190E, the BMW 3-Series had the small sport sedan market all to itself. Replacing the old 240-series cars (and the direct predecessor to today’s C-Class), Mercedes considered the 190E to be the first small car it had built in decades, and spent billions on its development. Unwilling to sacrifice quality for size, Mercedes engineers would not declare the car ready for production until it had the same ride comfort and quality as the top-of-the-line S-Class. The 190 was a strong seller for Mercedes, and nearly 30 years on, it’s not uncommon to see them on the roads today. While the 1980s BMW 3-Series is widely considered to be an icon of the era, the 190E is a criminally under-appreciated modern classic.
5. 1980-1988 AMC Eagle
American Motors was the last surviving independent automaker in the U.S. until it was absorbed by Chrysler in 1988. Although it was plagued by constant money woes, AMC managed to eke out a number of unique and iconic products in its final decades like the AMX, Gremlin, and Pacer. Taking an advanced selectable four-wheel drive system from Jeep (which they owned), and putting it into their mild-mannered Concord, they created the Eagle, a rugged, go-anywhere car with real off-road credibility that has come to be known as the world’s first crossover. The Eagle was the sole bright spot for AMC in its final decade, and today the Eagle is finally starting to get its due as a truly ground-breaking car.
6. 1978-1992 Toyota Cressida
Today, the Cressida may be largely forgotten, but it’s one of the most important cars in Toyota’s history. Introduced in 1978, the Cressida was Toyota’s attempt to compete with full-size American sedans. Within a few years, Toyota realized that the future of premium cars would be coming from Europe, and restyled the Cressida to better compete with BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. By the mid-1980s, the Cressida shared its twin-cam inline-six engine with the Toyota Supra, and was considered to be one of the best sport sedans on the road. While the Cressida’s modern styling and competitive performance helped legitimize Toyota’s reputation in the American marketplace, the company quietly began working its next move upmarket: the Lexus LS400. The Lexus may have overshadowed the Cressida, but the up-market car laid the important groundwork to establish Toyota as a luxury contender in the American market.
7. 1970-1975 Porsche 914
Despite winning Motor Trend’s inaugural Import Car of the Year award in 1970, the 914 was Porsche’s black sheep right from the beginning. The 914 was the product of a partnership with Volkswagen, and was originally slated to replace the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia before getting a Porsche badge instead. In an era when Porsche was building the insane 190 mile per hour 911 2.3 Carrera RSR, the lowly Volkswagen-powered 914 was a considered to be a badge-engineered failure. Five decades on, clean styling, a fuel injected engine, crisp five-speed gearbox, fully independent suspension, and a targa top make the 914 a desirable and fun vintage cruiser, and it’s become a classic in its own right.
8. 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado
Nearly 50 years on, the Cadillac Eldorado doesn’t look particularly revolutionary, but in the late ’60s it was one of the most advanced cars in the world. Sharing a platform with the avant-garde looking Oldsmobile Toronado, the Eldorado was front-wheel drive — the second front-wheel drive car ever built by General Motors (behind the Toronado). On top of its radical drivetrain, the Eldorado’s razor sharp styling and de rigueur hideaway headlights made it the first “personal luxury coupe,” kicking off one of the most successful automotive segments of the 1960s and 1970s. Within a few years, two-door rear-wheel drive competitors like the Lincoln Mark III, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Chrysler Cordoba were roaming American highways, but the front-wheel drive Eldorado did it first — and arguably best.
9. 1959-1970 Datsun 1500/1600/2000 Fairlady
Before Mazda became known as the Japanese company that revived the affordable roadster, Datsun did it first. Like the Miata, the Fairlady took the elements of the classic British roadster and added Japanese reliability to it. Priced as a cheaper alternative to MGs, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys, the small Datsun was never quite as popular as its British rivals, but was instrumental in establishing the Datsun brand in America. Today, the car has an avid following for offering 1960s open-top fun with none of the British reliability issues — even if it’s still overshadowed by its replacement, the Datsun 240Z.
10. 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow
Introduced in the depths of the Great Depression, the Chrysler Airflow was one of the most advanced cars in the world — and a complete flop. At a time when Ford and General Motors were still using wood construction in their cars, the all-steel Airflow looked like it came from another planet. It was the first mass-market American production car to be streamlined for aerodynamics, its suspension was lower and far more advanced than anything offered by Ford and GM, and its near 50-50 weight distribution gave it incredible handling for its era. Unfortunately, a high price and polarizing looks made the Airflow a disastrous flop for the brand, and the car was discontinued in 1937. Despite never being as popular (or gaining widespread collector status) as Fords and Chevrolets from the 1930s, the Airflow is now respected as a landmark of automotive engineering, and because of its rarity, well-restored cars command top-dollar at auction.
On top of being fascinating cars, each of these models poses a unique “what if?” question. What if the Airflow instantly revolutionized automotive design? What if the G8 EXP saved Pontiac? We’ll never know the answers to these questions, but they make great debate fodder for gearheads. These 10 models prove that not every great car gets the respect its due, and for every legend, there is a capable and willing contender still trying to overtake it.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.