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5 cars that make you say, 'What the heck were they thinking?'

—And the superior alternatives

Published: September 10, 2013 09:00 AM
Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet

Photo: MikeDitz

While doing my best Tour de France cyclist interpretation this summer, I was heckled by the driver of a Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. "Way to go Lance!" shouted the drop-top SUV’s driver. Once I finished climbing the hill and caught my breath, I wondered who was worse: me in my skin-tight bike gear out exercising or the loud mouth who spent money on a CrossCabriolet?

This got me thinking: Besides this bizarre Nissan, how many other oddball "what the heck were they thinking?!" cars are out there in the new and used market? And what vehicles would Consumer Reports recommend people buy instead of plunking down cash on these oddballs?

I promise, I won't even mention the most obvious culprit. (You know, the Pontiac Aztek— oops!)

Acura ZDX
Photo: Honda

Acura ZDX
The background:
When this quarter-baked coupe-cum-SUV was introduced, I remember thinking: "I hope this designer gets another chance down the road." It's obvious looking back that this would be just one of a number of Honda stumbles over the next few years. But at the time it was spun by many as a logical addition to the coupe-ification of the industry, like the BMW X6, Mercedes-Benz CLS, and Volkswagen CC. Sure, the general concept made sense (an all-wheel-drive luxury SUV alternative), but the pieces assembled to create this mechanical platypus didn’t. The formula: Take the MDX SUV platform, remove the third-row seat, delete much passenger and cargo space, put a new letter in front of the "DX," and sell the resulting creation for thousands more than that far more capable MDX. Not surprisingly, the ZDX isn’t a great seller. Acura moved 29 examples in August and has sold 306 in 2013 thus far. (For contrast, MDX has sold more than 30,000 units this year.) Mercifully, Acura is killing the ZDX after the 2013 model year.

Get this instead: Just buy a new or pre-owned Acura MDX. If you’re looking for ultimate SUV handling, you probably weren’t shopping at the Acura dealer anyway. (Look for a BMW or Porsche dealership.) So buy the roomy, comfortable MDX and get the same powertrain and the ability to carry adults in the backseat, along with luggage, groceries, or just about anything else.

Chevrolet SSR
Photo: GM

Chevrolet SSR
The background:
This retro-styled pickup is an excellent example of "when auto-show hype goes bad." Introduced at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit to a lot of Baby Boomer fanfare, the SSR (Super Sport Roadster) had a very short run, from just 2003 to 2006. General Motors gave it a folding hardtop, V8 engine, and eventually manual and automatic transmissions, catering to the whims of the affluent prospective market. But even if you build it, they may not come. At $42,000, the SSR didn’t sell well after the first-year hype, due in part to the anemic 300-hp V8 and four-speed automatic, stiff ride, meager 2,500-pound tow rating, and limited cargo space. This truck all show and no go. Even the addition of the Corvette’s V8 in 2005 and a bump in power to 400-hp in 2006 couldn’t help the SSR survive the axe. Today, used models range from $17,000 to $23,000. GM was brave and bold for creating this cruise-night special, but it came through as a half-baked product.

Get this instead: A toughie, as there aren’t many retro-themed-style-over-substance alternatives to the SS—besides shelling out a ton of dough buying a resto-mod classic truck or an older version of Ford’s hot-rod Lightning pickup. If you need a pickup truck, a pre-owned Ford F-150 or Toyota Tundra can easily be had in the same price range as a used SSR. Dodge Rams with the Hemi V8 (even some SRT10s!) can be found used if you want a high-performance pickup. And if you want a retro convertible, buy a Mazda Miata. It’s a modern-day version of a 1960s British roadster, with a key difference: It runs reliably.

Photo: GM

The background:
General Motors got very adventurous in the mid-2000s and put a lot of effort into cars with moving hard tops. In addition to the aforementioned SSR, there was the Cadillac XLR, Pontiac G6, and the GMC Envoy XUV. This five-passenger version of the Envoy (a twin of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer) received a sliding roof that gave the owner the supposed versatility of a pickup (when the retracted roof exposed the open cargo area) and the weather-tight cargo space of a traditional SUV (when the top was closed). An interior partition, similar to the one in the now-retired Chevrolet Avalanche pickup truck, allowed the passenger compartment to be sealed off when the roof was open. Unfortunately, nobody at GM picked up the phone when the Studebaker Wagonaire called to tell them the XUV was a bad idea. The public really didn’t see the need for an SUV that could carry a grandfather clock, as GM touted in the XUVs advertising. After arriving on the scene for 2004, the XUV was quietly retired in early 2005, having sold just over 12,000 examples (vs. projections of more than 30,000) during all of 2004.

Get this instead: With used XUVs ranging from $5,500 to $8,000, pickings for this notoriously unreliable model are somewhat slim. If you like the idea of a flexible pickup truck, look for a 2004-05 Chevrolet Avalanche. It seats five quite comfortably, has the ability to carry that oversized clock you keep meaning to move, and is infinitely more usable as a tow vehicle.

Lincoln Blackwood
Photo: Ford

Lincoln Blackwood
The background:
While some will say the Hummer line of trucks was the ultimate example of SUV and truck insanity, for me the Lincoln Blackwood is defendant #1. What isn’t to like about a $52,000, luxury-trimmed version of a Ford F-150 pickup with Lincoln Navigator fenders, a stainless-steel-lined “trunk” with carpeting, a power tonneau cover, and a fake wood exterior over the trunk/cargo bed that was only available in black with rear-wheel drive? Did I mention the Dutch doors for the rear tailgate? Granted, the 8,700-pound towing capacity from the 300-hp V8 and four-speed automatic was impressive, although the 1,200-pound cargo capacity is just so-so. Like the SSR, the favorable reaction at the 1999 Detroit auto show spurred Ford into building the Blackwood. But only 3,356 enthusiasts ponied up for the (likely discounted) truck in 2002, the only year it was available. Curiously, the company introduced another ultimately slow-selling luxury truck in 2006—the Mark LT. It’s as if Ford executives didn’t get the memo that the Blackwood was a bomb.

Get this instead: If a luxury truck is calling you, look for a 2003-06 Cadillac Escalade EXT. It offers all the flexibility and some of the hauling capabilities of the Chevrolet Avalanche that it’s based on, but with a luxurious enough interior to make you feel special on your way home from Home Depot or the daycare center.

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
Photo: Mike Ditz

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
The background:
You know a vehicle isn’t really a great idea when the PR people will change the conversation rather than defend it. So it goes with the CrossCabriolet. Nissan perceived that there was an unmet market need for a good-performing SUV that had the roof and two doors lopped off. What is left is an awkward-looking, all-wheel-drive SUV that gets slightly worse mileage than the Murano, uses premium fuel (unlike the conventional Murano), and lacks the useable cargo room that makes SUVs what they are: utility vehicles.

Get this instead: If you want winter driving security and open-topped living with one vehicle, then consider the stylish Audi A5 cabriolet. First off, it looks normal. It has seating for four, a top that can be opened or closed while you drive, a fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and available all-wheel drive. Plus, the A5 is reliable according to our Annual Auto Survey. You can find pre-owned versions for less than the Nissan’s $42,000 starting price, and no one will wonder "What the heck?!" when you drive by.

Jon Linkov

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