5 Worst Small Cars To Go Anywhere In

There are many bad cars, there are many ugly cars, there are many cars that turned out to be failures (ahem Ford Edsel), so the competition is strong. However, if you were to poll anyone who knows anything at all about cars and ask them for their top 20 worst small cars aimed at the cost-conscious driver, these five (including variants) would be on everybody’s list. Shitty designs, woeful engineering, crappy materials, zero performance / handling, prone to bursting into flames: these clunkers had them all — proof, as if anyone needed it, that for some people, (low) price is everything.

Ford Pinto

AMC  Gremlin / Pacer

Yugo

Robin Reliant

Trabant

In the case of the Trabi, it remains a monument to how Communism can screw things up: when essentially the same people can produce two totally different cars — i.e. Mercedes/BMW/Porsche/Volkswagen on one side of a Wall, and the Trabant on the other.

34 comments

  1. Let’s see, going from personal experience:
    -Chrysler K car. These are just bad in every possible way, shape, or form.
    -Early 80’s Ford Escorts.
    -Late 70’s Japanese sedans. This from the perspective of a cross US roadtrip in the back seat, and we couldn’t go over 50 due to overheating.
    -Ford Aspires
    -AMC Pacers. Really bad car to have in Florida.

    And I like small cars. I would be torn if I had to pick either an original Brit Mini or a first gen Honda Civic.

  2. I recall the Pinto, Gremlin and Pacer when I was a kid, and the Yugo came along around the time I graduated college and got my first car. Which incidentally was a 1985 Ford Escort hatchback which had some good and bad points. Good, I could fit an amazing amount of stuff in the back, and it didn’t know how to get stuck in snow (mostly because it couldn’t generate enough torque to spin the tires even in show). Bad, I’ve owned blenders with more horsepower, if you were going 55 on the highway and saw a hill ahead you better turn off the A/C.

    My own list, sticking with cars available in the US (the only ones I have personal experience with):

    1) Chrysler K-cars
    2) Chevy Chevette
    3) Yugo
    4) Don’t recall the model but Mercedes had a car with a 5 cylinder diesel engine that was a clunker
    5) Gremlin/Pacer

    Funny thing is that no matter how bad a car is, there are people that love it. I knew people who loved the Chevette and the Gremlin.

    1. That Mercedes 300 was a great car…I still have one I bought in 1982, has 498,000 miles on it on the original engine and automatic trans.

      The only thing that never worked right is the cruise control. AC, pneumatic door locks, and all the rest of the car is just fine. And it’s easy to work on yourself: I’ve cleaned the injectors, changed the oil, etc myself since it went out of warranty.

      But whenever anyone bleats idiotically about ‘German Engineering’ I tell them about the (very non-standard threaded) nut with a coil spring brazed to it that holds the top of the power steering fluid reservoir (itself a design reminiscent of a can of motor oil) on. Just a hex nut, no wings or anything….and if you let it get away from you when you’re trying to take the top off to check the fluid level it will launch itself onto orbit. Since that leaves the power steering reservoir unsecured, the car is now undriveable. Brilliant! design there, Klaus….

      First time it happened, I expected to get pronged but good by the dealer. Went in at 3:45 on a Wednesday, ordered it, paid for it (under a buck), didn’t believe them when they said it would be in the next day.

      It was, they called at 8:45 the next morning to let me know it was in.

      I have a couple of spares now, just in case.

      The car gets 25mpg (diesel) on the highway at 75mph…with the AC blowing.

  3. My late Dad bought a ’73 Pinto Runabout, new at the time. 1,600cc inline four, with four speed manual, no A/C.

    The car died of terminal Florida rust in, oh, ’bout ’87, with right around 320k on the clock. And the synchros in the grinder were beginning to…well…grind.

    That car did nothing absolutely well, except for do it’s job for nearly two decades and a good 200k miles over it’s nominal life expectancy.

    What it did not offer though, was comfort, coolness, power or handling.

    All in all, it was a modern-day Model T, which simply never broke down all through it’s considerable service-life.

    Sexy? No. Value for money spent? Yes.

    Conversely. When I was a wee lad in the USAF, I got “entangled” with a sweet lass in her Chevy Chevette. It’s a miracle I survived, and that car’s impossible interior is only one aspect of the story.

    Jim
    Sunk New Dawn
    Galveston, TX

    1. LOL. We had the Pinto too. Ours was a young family at the time, Pop was a master mechanic that worked on everything from jet engines on down – and that little car got Mom and us kids wherever we needed to go.
      Pop’s car, though, was an over-muscled dreadnought – a Chevelle SS – or as Pop called it, ‘The Gas Gobbling Whore’. I will never forgive him, he sold it before I was old enough to drive it.

    2. As a child of the 60’s I remember when worried fathers bought their daughters VW Beetles because street wisdom said that there was no way you could do the nasty in a VW. At least one girl in my graduating class of 1969 proved that to be wrong and celebrated her graduation and wedding the same week.

    3. The Pinto v6 station wagon wasn’t bad. The wagon didn’t have the seat-belt bolts of doom sticking into the gas tank.

      Park a Taurus station wagon of the same color next to it, and it becomes clear that the Taurus was the 80-90s Pinto.

  4. It could be argued that any car with Small in its name would not be a stellar example of anything car related.

    The only two things you can get from them is good gas mileage and reliability. But given the reliability of all cars and the ability to sip gas of most them, size is not one of my parameters beyond big enough to be comfortable.

    Any Buick Park Avenue newer than 88-89 should be able to get 30 miles per gallon at 70+ mph. plus the size and comfort of them.

    as to worst I would have to list Rabbit, Fiesta, Pinto, 70’s Corolla’s, Gremlins, Chevette’s, anything Italian or other euro trash.

    1. The platonic example of a stellar small car is the original Brit Mini Cooper.
      When done well, a good small car offers zippy maneuverability, quickness, and a good sense of fun on tight, twisty roads, or congested urban areas. I have actually done a u-turn with a Mini inside a double parking space.

      And if you ever want to experience a real life TARDIS, the Mini is a good example. I could fit all 6’2″/240 lbs inside one easily, with room to spare.

      1. Had an original non-Cooper Mini (’59 850), and we used to put 4 six-footers in there, and could get it up to freeway speed too…..with patience.

  5. Don’t forget the Renault Dauphin. That is the one where the door handles fell off, making to climb out the window.

  6. Another curse on the Renault Dauphine. My dad owned two of them – being a stubborn Welshman he didn’t learn his lesson after the first – and they were about the vilest cars you could imagine. 0-60 times were measured on a calendar and he almost rolled one due to the swing axles. They were light enough to push pretty easily.

    The Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni wasn’t much to brag on. A friend had the 1600 cc VW engine version which ran reasonably well. I opted for the 2200 cc engine in my 81 Horizon and it was actually slower than the 1600. I installed a toggle switch on the dash to disconnect the A/C clutch so I could pull out into traffic. All four pot metal door handles broke several times and after the warranty ran out I got to be pretty good at changing them.

    To prove that I’m just as stubborn as my dad I went back to a small Mopar product again in 2002 when the wife thought that the PT cruiser was “cute”. I’ll admit that I liked the retro look of the car but I hated doing brake jobs on it about every 30K miles. I replaced the air conditioning compressor at 70K and gave up on the car at 100K miles when I learned that the timing belt was almost impossible to replace. The job involved removing the front wheel, fender, and unbolting the engine mounts and jacking up the block. Then you had to take the engine apart. I decided that this old man wasn’t going to put that kind of work into a 12 year old car. Oh – I didn’t mention that the rear wheel wells were rusting out in an Oklahoma car and that’s almost unheard of today. I took a surprisingly generous trade in on a 2014 Subaru Outback and got out of Dodge (or should I say Chrysler?) as fast as I could. My other gripe about the PT is that it never got any better than about 28mpg even on the highway.

  7. Had a neighbor at FSU in 1959 who’d made the mistake of buying an Edsel. He finally showed his contempt for it by gluing Spanish moss around the center opening of the grill and lettering “Ethel” in the normal labeling places.

  8. I had a ’79 Pinto that was wonderful.
    I had a couple of friends that had Chevy Vegas and they were nothing but trouble.

  9. My first car was a ’81 AMC Spirit–essentially an upgraded Gremlin. That thing was a tough mother. I finally got rid of it six months after a flood; it took a winter freeze to finally kill the transmission that had filled with water. Without any shifting problems! It wasn’t pretty, but it was a good first car.

  10. About the time I was ready to learn to drive, my folks Chevy Malibu SS was stolen, and parted out (remains were found but….)

    So, Mom got a 71 Pinto (green)….2000 cc engine, 2 door, trunk (not hatchback) and it became the car I learned to drive in.

    Great little car: the first car made in the US to have rack and pinion steering, enough room for me (6’3 250 linebacker), even came with a manual to fix things yourself (not quite a shop manual…). I love that car

    Unfortunately, about the time I joined the US Air Force she traded it in on another Chevy Malibu.

  11. The Pinto did have one redeeming feature. Its carburetor was a 28/38 dual throat progressive made by Holly under license from Weber. I put one on my 1972 BMW 2002 when the POS Solex developed leaks around the butterfly shaft. It cost $66 from NAPA.

  12. Its funny how much experiences vary for good or ill with cars. Chryslers have always been our family’s first choice, and we’ve had long years of reliability and pretty good maintainability with them. Granted we were not in the rust belt, but nearly all cars of those eras had problems there. Still have my first car (1971 Challenger), which is not running but thats my fault for a stalled restoration.

    Friend had one of the aluminum block Chevy Vegas. That was a real POC.

    The worst car we had in our family was a Honda Accord (1982) that rusted to shreds in about 5 years in Las Vegas. Nevada. Not rust belt. But it rusted and died. And I worked for a foreign auto parts store and Hondas were by far the hardest to maintain and a royal PITA to get parts for as they varied multiple times per model year, by serial number, by whim, or the scent of cherry blossoms in the air when they were built… yet most people rave about their reliability. I think its an echo chamber thing myself.

    1. Yep, brand experiences differ.

      A roommate had a ’78 Civic hatchback that just kept on going. It had sat for a number of years, and worked with just a few hoses replaced. I would have a hard time picking between that car and an original Mini-Cooper, as both were zippy, maneuverable little cars (the Honda gets the nod because it has A/C). I tried to buy that car, but sadly, the owner wasn’t selling.

      I did get a ’86 Accord, and despite the lack of A/C, it just ran and ran and ran. I put a few hundred miles on it every week, and drove the crap out of it. Then, passed it on to my sister, and she drove the wheels off of it.

      Contrariwise, I had a ’86 Dodge 600 convertible that was just awful. Rare was the week I didn’t have to send it back to the shop for something else going worng.

    2. Amen – Experiences differ. In my neck of the woods early 90’s Hondas seem to be the ride of choice for meth heads who do no maintenance on a car at all (too busy getting high) and just drive them until the air shows through on the tires and the engines run out of oil. No paint, no glass, no brakes, no fenders, no license tags and old naked Leroy’s blowing through stop lights at 100 mph because he’s wound up tighter than a two dollar alarm clock – but that Honda is still running.

      As I’ve noted elsewhere in this thread I’ve had my share of Mopars and I’ve got an 03 Ram 1500 pickup sitting in the driveway. Its a base model and nothing fancy but it runs and it was paid off many years ago. Those are the best kind of rides. Anyway Dodge seemed to be pretty bad about changing parts suppliers in the middle of a production run. When I look for parts and see that there was an 80/20 or 90/10 split on suppliers (ie 90% of the trucks had this wiper motor which never seems to fail and 10% had the other which is almost impossible to find) I’m sure that my truck is always on the side of the minority hard to find stuff. When I walk into the parts house and the counter guy says “Oh you’ve got one of those….” I know that I’m in trouble.

      1. What you describe about newer Chrysler is what used to make stocking parts for Hondas (’60s through ’80s) such a PITA. I think with Chrysler it started (or became far more common) with the Daimler buyout. We were shareholders and kept up on news and info, and it was pretty clear that the Chrysler division was the poor stepchild and got ruthlessly cost-cut by Daimler HQ. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that suppliers and parts got jerked around a lot.

        1. Back in my mechanicing days, it was Ford that I had the worst run around with, parts wise.
          Mopar annoyed me by 1) putting everything in hard to reach place 2) making seals out of ashphalt
          Work wise, my favorites were GM trucks and Toyotas of all sorts. I didn’t invent new swear words for those makes.

  13. When I was in high school, a friend of mine had a Gremlin. He put a 390 in it, in the engine compartment, how I don’t know. It looked like it would roll over just from the torque when he took off.

  14. I’ve had a lotta cars.
    I once traded a 386 computer for a Renault LeCar. I got took.
    Worst. Car. EVER.
    Had to work on something in the engine compartment. EVERY component was bolted to something with a bolt and a washer and and another washer and a loose nut.
    No room to reach anything. VERY frustrating. Glad I dumped it.

  15. Dear learned readers
    Did that car give rise to the word “gremlin”?
    If ‘gremlin’ preceded that car, was the marketing man asleep at the wheel, or did he have a prescient sense about the quality of the car, and try a subtle hint to warn prospective purchasers?

    As to the Pinto, it gives the appearance of a prototype Ford Capri – a car I wanted as a youth. They even came with a V6 engine. But longevity was not in its quality, and I think they exist only in museums

  16. Always appreciated the lines of the Pacer station-wagon – looked like a right proud Shooting Brake…..the regular Pacer looked like it was designed to stop bigger cars from rolling down the hill.

  17. I give you the Ford Merkur. Only mfg’d from ’85-’89. Take body parts from the US, engine parts from Great Britain and Germany, and then build an European version of the Ford Escort. Only problem was the trannie choices were a 4-speed manual or a THREE speed automatic – in the middle ’80’s for G–‘s sake. And of course they forgot the inter-cooler for the turbo. Some really cool ideas but somewhat lacking in proper execution as originally built.
    OTOH when properly prepped, one can easily pull better then 250HP out what is basically a Ford 2 liter- 4 cylinder. Fun car then that was a whole lot faster then most folks took it for. Heck most people couldn’t even pronounce the name.
    And don’t get me started on Cosworth-Vegas…

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