It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The world is full of cars, and just about as many of them are bad as are good. It’s pretty easy to pick which fall into each category after giving them a thorough walkaround and, more important, driving them. But every once in a while, an automobile straddles the line somehow between good and bad — it may be hideously overpriced and therefore a marketplace failure, it may be stupid quick in a straight line but handles like a drunken noodle, or it may have an interior that looks like it was made of a mess of injection-molded Legos. Heck, maybe all three.
Yet there’s something special about some bad cars that actually makes them likable. The idea for this list came to me while I was browsing classified ads for cars within a few hundred miles of my house. I ran across a few oddballs and shared them with the rest of the team in our online chat room. It turns out several of us have a few automotive guilty pleasures that we’re willing to admit to. We’ll call a few of ’em out here. Feel free to share some of your own in the comments below.
Dodge Neon SRT4 and Caliber SRT4: The Neon was a passably good and plucky little city car when it debuted for the 1995 model year. The Caliber, which replaced the aging Neon and sought to replace its friendly marketing campaign with something more sinister, was panned from the very outset for its cheap interior furnishings, but at least offered some decent utility with its hatchback shape. What the two little front-wheel-drive Dodge models have in common are their rip-roarin’ SRT variants, each powered by turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines. Known for their propensity to light up their front tires under hard acceleration, the duo were legitimately quick and fun to drive with a fantastic turbo whoosh that called to mind the early days of turbo technology. — Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
Chevrolet HHR SS: Chevy’s HHR SS came out early in my automotive journalism career, and I have fond memories of the press launch (and having dinner with Bob Lutz) that included plenty of tire-smoking hard launches and demonstrations of the manual transmission’s no-lift shift feature. The 260-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder was and still is a spunky little engine that makes the retro-inspired HHR a fun little hot rod that works quite well as a fun little daily driver. — Korzeniewski
Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS: I actually briefly cross-shopped the Malibu Maxx SS before I ultimately bought my 2006 Mazda6. I ended up buying the right car, but I wonder if maybe the Malibu would have made for a better story. — Associate Editor Byron Hurd
I’ve only driven a Malibu Maxx SS once or twice, but what stands out in my memory about the experience is just how easy it was to smoke the front tires in the thing. Granted, that doesn’t make the ‘Bu a good car. But for a guilty pleasure list? Sure, why not. — Korzeniewski
Cadillac ELR: The Cadillac ELR was General Motors’ attempt to take the high-tech hybrid electric powertrain of the Chevy Volt and slip it into something a whole heck of a lot slinkier. I happen to think that the ELR is one of the best-looking vehicles to wear Caddy’s Art and Science design philosophy. Our own Green Editor John Snyder agrees, with the caveat that he doesn’t feel “guilty” for liking the ELR one bit. Pro tip: If you’re shopping for an ELR, try to score a 2006 model, which gained some power over the 2004 edition (2005 was skipped since there were so many unsold ’04s on dealership lots). — Korzeniewski
Pontiac GTO: I come back to this one pretty often as a “might be nice” type purchase, but never come around to actually buying a GTO. One day, my ADD will probably compel me to take it more seriously, but for now it’s squarely in “maybe” territory. — Hurd
The most recent generation of GTO is a true guilty pleasure. It’s the car I would have driven in 2005, as I’ve said previously. A key reason: the V8. First 5.7 liters then the LS2 6.0 for the ‘05 model — this thing could move. It was a performance coupe with the name and the specs to match in an era when there weren’t many that had either. Four-hundred horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque? That holds up pretty well today, and in 2005-06 that was spectacular. The guilty pleasure element? Well, all of that power going to the rear wheels wasn’t great for the environment, and this small two-door burned 18 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, which isn’t actually terrible. So feel guilty, but not that guilty, if you can get your hands on the GTO. -— Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore
Mitsubishi Evolution VIII and Lancer Ralliart: I actually think the last-gen Ralliart was a pretty underrated car. It had its flaws, don’t get me wrong, but the dual-clutch automatic was actually quite good for its time — easily as good as the DSG offered in contemporary VW GTIs — and the underlying chassis was excellent. The dumbed-down engine tune, though? Ugh. — Hurd
The Lancer Ralliart you see above (on the left) was a fun little car, but Mitsubishi had a really tough time convincing buyers it was better than a Subaru WRX. The Evolution VIII matched up really well with Subaru’s WRX STI, however. My wife and I actually took test drives in a WRX STI and Evolution back-to-back in 2004 before I bought a Mazda RX-8. As amazing as the Evo was, neither of us could come to grips with how chintzy everything but the powertrain felt. The car was certainly flawed, but boy oh boy is that Evo fun to drive. — Korzeniewski
Volkswagen Cabriolet: When I still lived in Michigan, I used to love driving along the lakes in the summer, and desperately wished I had a convertible. Not as a daily driver, but something just for those sunny days up north. That’s where the Volkswagen Cabriolet comes in. They’re cheap, look funky, and seat four people, if you can convince your friends to NASCAR-hop into the back seat while the roof is down.
Not a bad way to spend two to three grand. My preferred color scheme was white on white on white, as 80s as possible, though this Wolfsburg Limited Edition would be my second choice. I love everything about it from the wheels to the gauges to the five-speed.
I looked at a few of these during my time in Michigan, and even though we had a place to store it up north, I never pulled the trigger, and it doesn’t really fit my lifestyle out here in Colorado now. I wish I had though, and still look for them on a regular basis. If I ever move back to the mitten state, I’ll definitely leave room in the barn for one. — Senior Producer Christopher McGraw
Suzuki Kizashi: Way back in 2009 when the Kizashi was launched, it seemed unbelievable that tiny little Suzuki could go and make a sedan to go up against the best from Japan and America and come away as the most memorable of them all. But that’s exactly what happened, and I still stalk online classified ads for clean examples of the sporty little sedan from time to time. Of course, depending on a Kizashi as a daily driver these days may be problematic, considering that the automaker pulled out of the U.S. years ago, making parts and service a massive question mark. — Korzeniewski
Toyota RAV4 Convertible: C’mon, look at it. How can you not want one of these? Japanese automakers were just starting to get their footing in the 1990s when it came to small crossovers, and the Toyota RAV4 Convertible is my favorite of the bunch. There have been attempts at making a crossover convertible since, but none have ever lived up to the cuteness and coolness of this little one. I’ve scoured the internet many, many nights looking for the perfect one to buy up, but I haven’t found one yet. The right one will have all-wheel drive and be pa
inted something other than white or black. Part of my desire comes from the all-wheel drive system being yanked out of a Celica All-Trac. But it’s mostly the looks, and the thought of cruising around town in this tiny, attractive, little car with the top down and moonroof open. Yeah, it’s a convertible, but it also has a moonroof. Excuse me while I take another country-wide cruise through the classifieds. — Road Test Editor Zac Palmer
ABBA: “Dancing Queen”
Without question, the greatest guilty pleasure of all time is ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” That thing comes on, you stop everything, attention’s gone, singing is likely. I mean, VH1 was on the money years ago when it …
I’ve just been informed mid-sentence that this list is about cars as a guilty pleasure, though looking at the list above, good grief, you guys actually found pleasure in those? OK, so the Kizashi was pretty good. Nothing guilty about that. — West Coast Editor James Riswick
I mean, I’m not kicking Abba off my satellite radio dial either, James. But I’m not sure you got the point of this exercise. — Korzeniewski.
OK, give me a minute. … — Riswick
Lincoln Continental Mark IV: Now that I understand the concept, let’s stick with something that was huge in the ’70s. The Continental Mark IV, which was widely known for its popularity amongst turtleneck-clad bow-wielding assassins, is at once elegant and ridiculous. Much like much myself. Really, any sort of early land yacht strikes my fancy for that reason, even though they were fundamentally inefficient in space and fuel, handled like something descriptively called a land yacht for a reason and had interior furnishes that were extra-heavy on cushioning. There’s something so honest about these things: They were about luxury and comfort, period. Handling, performance … who cares? Thrills were achieved through bow-wielding. — Riswick