It’s a tough job, but somebody has to . . . yeah, right.
Thanks to advancements over the past 20 years in things like metallurgy, robotics and computer-aided designs, cars and trucks are, generally speaking, more solidly built than ever these days. Yes, we know, you can find plenty of recalls in the news at any given time, but by and large, nobody's marketing Yugo-quality vehicles in North America anymore. A good thing!
However, that’s not to say there’s no such thing as a “bad” truck or SUV, though our definition of “badness” has to conform to the dictates of our times. A “bad” four-wheel drive nowadays could simply be one which, while mechanically sound, was designed to serve a nonexistent buyer demographic, or which was a redundant rebadging of an already-successful vehicle, or which was too expensive for its segment, or just plain crappy on the trail. So, whether they were poorly conceived, poorly executed, poorly marketed, poorly priced, or simply attempted to answer a question that no one had ever bothered to ask, these underachieving rigs all belong, in one way or another, on our decade-end list of Inglorious Accomplishments. Thankfully, this list is shorter than our “Best 4x4s” list we posted yesterday. Who says we’re not optimists?
Worst (Non) 4x4 of the Decade
2007-present Jeep Compass: While you might have been able to make a decent business case for one crossover vehicle in the Jeep line-up, Daimler actually greenlighted production of two identical Jeep XUVs based on little more than focus group findings that suggested that men liked one body style and women another. This accomplished little besides needlessly diluting the Jeep product line, draining company resources away from things like quality control (or a more attractive product like the Gladiator pickup truck), and proving how unseriously Daimler’s company brass regarded the Jeep brand. Okay, so maybe we’re being a little harsh here, putting the Compass on our list at all, since it isn’t a “true” four-wheel drive. It is a Jeep, however, and as such it has a certain legacy to live up to: but with a crude and inefficient powertrain, a cheap and plasticky interior, and first-ever-in-a-Jeep lack of a transfer-case low-range or even a basic “Trail Rated” badge, the Dodge Caliber-based Compass fell short in every respect. We’d normally be tempted to add its twin-brother Patriot to this list---but at least (a) the Patriot looks like a Jeep, (b) it wears a “Trail Rated” badge, (c) it has a crawler gear of sorts, (d) you can get it with skidplating, and the Compass’s world-class-ugly body cladding puts it in a class of its own. New owner Fiat plans to axe the Compass by 2012.
2002-2009 Chevy Trailblazer/GMC Envoy/Buick Rainier/Isuzu Ascender, etc. etc. etc: Someone at General Motors must really have hated the old S-10 Blazer when they decided to replace it with a bigger, heavier SUV that boasted underwhelming acceleration, zero road feel, a spongy on-road ride, bloated and bulbous exterior styling, and thoroughly mundane off-road manners. Even more awesomely, the General then decided to spread this mediocrity across its product line via a series of transparent and uninspired rebadgings. (At least the Saab version, the 9-7x, was treated to its own suspension and chassis tuning, and hence was somewhat sprightlier.) It was exactly the kind of crude and unsophisticated vehicle that GM had been cranking out for years (i.e., fleet and rental fodder), and it came at a time when other manufacturers were stepping up their games by grafting sophisticated passenger-car innovations into their truck designs (multi-displacement, VVT, traction control, adjustable suspensions , etc.). It was at least inexpensive. It was also stale and outdated almost as soon as it rolled off the assembly line. It only took GM seven years to kill it off.
2008-present Kia Borrego: The current staff of FW has been testing new trucks and SUVs in the backcountry for over 20 years, and during that time we’ve seen (and driven) all sorts of stock production rigs that have delivered all sorts of trail performance, from the simply spectacular to the unspeakably lame. Then there’s the Borrego, an off-road underachiever of mind-boggling proportion that managed to get itself hopelessly stuck in virtually every type of terrain when we tested it two years ago. We’ve driven crossovers with no low-range gear (yeah, even a Compass) that were more genuinely capable on the trail than this rig, and because of that, it earns a richly deserved spot on our list as the Decade’s Worst OE Wheeler. Too bad, because otherwise, the Borrego’s not a half-bad conveyance: its styling is inoffensive, its interior decently appointed, its V-8 reasonably powerful (if somewhat unrefined), its mileage fairly good, and its price is competitive for its class. It just can’t get out of its own way in the dirt.
2007-present Dodge Nitro: Yes, we know, this is another all-wheel drive, not a true 4x4, but it does share its chassis and underpinnings with the 4x4 Jeep Liberty---yes, yet another case of more Daimler-style brand dilution. And the way we see it, the Nitro richly deserves its own place on our list for simply being the Decade’s Ugliest SUV.
2005-2008 Isuzu i-Series: It’s hard to understand why GM would’ve bothered trying to sell a rebadged U.S.-spec version of its underperforming Colorado/Canyon midsize pickup through an automaker that was already on life support here. But they did it anyway, eventually offering the no-name Isuzu with four---count ‘em---versions of the craptastic Atlas inline engine, along with its own grille (everything else was Chevy/GMC issue). While displacements grew from 2.8 to 3.7 liters, sales failed to materialize despite fire-sale pricing, and the truck was discontinued for 2008 and replaced in GM’s product line by the far-more-capable Hummer H3T. To be fair, the overseas D-Max version of this truck, which runs a variety of common-rail diesel engines, has been a steady seller, but here in the States, the i-Series—like the S-10-based Hombre that preceded it---left no one forgetting about those fun-to-flog P’ups of yore.
2006-present Jeep Commander: If it ain’t broke . . . It’s not that the Commander was really ”bad.” It wasn’t. Like the Compass, though, the Commander serves as a warning of what’s likely to happen when your company’s executive management starts to over-rely on third-party groupthink to make its product-planning decisions. In this case, it was the raft of focus-group studies that suggested that Jeep absolutely had to have a third row of seats in its largest SUV---the Grand Cherokee---to plug a gap in its vehicle line because, you see, everybody else was offering third-row seating in their largest SUVs. So Chrysler’s designers went to work, jiggering the GC's interior and restyling the bodywork---which grew taller and boxier, a’la the old Grand Wagoneer, with a terraced roofline that someone must have thought looked less dorky if they added a roof rack on top of it---and shoehorning a barely usable, infant-sized row of seats into the back. Besides the new seats and exterior, everything else was grafted straight from the Grand Cherokee. Focus groups notwithstanding, consumer demand was underwhelming---Chrysler had to offer generous discounts to move the Commander off dealer lots, and Grand Cherokee sales suffered as well. Fiat recently announced that the Commander will be retired next year, after one less-than-stellar life cycle. Did we mention the perils of “brand dilution” yet?
2006-present Honda Ridgeline: Give Honda credit. The Ridgeline was a bold experiment for a company known for its conservative approach to car-building. And as an all-wheel-drive SUT, it was---and is---an outstanding piece of work: its on-road ride and handling are superlative, its off-pavement manners acceptable, and its build quality excellent overall. It’s no accident it won all of those” Truck of The Year” awards when it was first launched in late 2005. However, the lack of a V-8 option, its unitbody-impaired towing and cargo-hauling capability, and its prohibitively expensive purchase price when first introduced (dealers had to offer discounts on the truck, something that’s almost unheard of at Honda) acted in concert to limit the Ridgeline’s initial appeal to existing Honda owners. Four years of declining sales later, its fate appears sealed, though Honda has made no indication that it intends to cease production of the Ridgeline anytime soon.
2007-present Toyota FJ Cruiser: This was a tough call to make since the FJ has a dedicated fan base, and much to recommend it as a trail rig. One thing’s certain, though--- it seemed like a great idea in the beginning: A retro-styled SUV on a Tacoma pickup frame that would evoke the rough-and-tumble spirit of the venerable FJ-40. What finally rolled off the assembly line, though, was a vehicle that was more cartoonish than craggy, an automotive novelty act with few useful features that weren’t already available on other Toyota trucks. The few unique styling cues it did sport almost all worked against it. Its massively oversized roof pillars created a sea of blind spots. Its rear seating area was nonexistent. Its front shoulder harnesses were secured to the rear suicide doors, which hindered rear ingress if the front seats were occupied. Its interior sported an amalgam of incongruous components---rubber floor mats and a premium stereo?---and oddly mismatched materials. If you wanted to order the gas-saving stick tranny with the 4.0L Six, you were stuck with gas-gulping full-time four-wheel drive system. And to top things off, the FJ required premium fuel. At least you could get it with a TRD Off-Road package, and it performed more than admirably in the dirt---but the same could’ve been said already for the Tacoma and 4Runner. The FJ sold briskly during its first two years, but recent sales have lagged poorly, and rumor has it that Toyota will discontinue the FJ when its current life cycle is scheduled to expire at the end of the 2011 model year.
2005-present Dodge Dakota: For the '05 model year, Chrysler rolled out the latest-gen Dakota with five-lug axles. Considering that the previous model came with six lugs, the Dakota serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in corporate cost-saving strategies. While its companion truck, the Durango SUV, received Hemi power, multi-displacement induction, and even a two-mode hybrid system, the Dakota limped along with a powertrain that seemed cobbled from last year's parts bin. Even the H.O. version of its 4.7L V-8 only produced some 20+ horsepower more than the 4.0L V-6 in the Toyota Tacoma. The Dakota did receive a Ram-style TRX performance package in 2008, but by then, the writing was on the wall: Chrysler, which sold 177,000 Dakotas in the first year of the decade, sold only 26,000 in 2008, and Fiat has announced it will end its 24-year production run in 2011.