If sales volumes accurately predicted quality, we might think Justin Bieber were a better musician than Mozart. But in many areas of life, the most popular things are not always the greatest. That certainly holds true for cars: the Ford F-150 and Toyota Camry may be the two top-selling vehicles in America, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are absolutely the best new cars on the market.
Many of the nation's most popular vehicles are purchased because their nameplates are well-known or because the manufacturer has a huge number of dealerships. Subjective qualities like driving enjoyment and styling frequently take a figurative back seat, meaning that consumers often overlook great cars from lesser-known manufacturers. We at Automobile Magazine, by contrast, often look beyond the obvious and popular choices to find cars that are truly fun to drive, exciting to look at, or outstanding in some other way. We see cars not simply as a tool for traveling from home to a destination, but as a way to have fun along the way. Cars can be beautiful, thrilling, and expressions of identity. Our magazine was even founded on the simple motto, No Boring Cars.
Unfortunately, not every car that we love becomes a hit with consumers. We sometimes fall for more obscure, more expensive, or more unusual vehicles than the typical driver. That's in part because we have the luxury of driving nearly every new car on the market, whereas most shoppers are only able to test-drive a handful of models. Although we of course love luxury and sports cars, many of our favorite rides are very practical choices that just don't meet the needs or budgets of typical consumers.
Here is our list of excellent cars that most buyers bypass, despite the cars' virtues. Each of the models here sells fewer than 3000 units per month, based on rounded average monthly sales figures for the first six months of 2012. To put that into perspective, sales of the Toyota Camry average more than 35,000 each month.
Average monthly sales: 2471
The Buick brand is going through a reinvention, and one of the first signs that the luxury marque has changed its ways is the Regal sedan. Sourced from Europe and offered in varieties from the eAssist hybrid to the high-performance GS, the Regal is the most impressive sedan that Buick has built in years. The car has elegant, upscale styling that is far more modern than the drooping lines of previous Buicks. It has buttoned-down suspension that is gentle enough to satisfy Lexus converts, yet firm enough to please aggressive drivers. Moreover, the 220-hp Regal Turbo and 270-hp Regal GS are genuine sports sedans that provide more driving pleasure than we have found in a Buick for years.
Unfortunately, the car will struggle to find buyers until the Buick brand manages to reinvent its reputation. The average Buick buyer is approaching 60 years old, and so the nameplate unfortunately is saddled with the stigma that it's only for retirees. The brand has tried to rejuvenate itself with new products and refreshed marketing, and even launched the Verano compact sedan. Based on the Chevrolet Cruze, the Verano is the cheapest Buick on the market and is meant to help pull in younger buyers. But identities can't be changed overnight. Reinventing impressions of the Buick brand will be a lengthy process, and while the Regal is an important part of that transformation, there's still a long way to go before perceptions of modern Buicks will match up with reality.
Average monthly sales: 2748
We've been fans of the Ford Flex since the handsome three-row crossover was launched in 2008. The Flex has an upscale design, is surprisingly good to drive, and is very commodious inside. We especially like the EcoBoost model, which has a 365-hp, twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 good for 365 hp that makes for strong acceleration. But we're pretty much the only fans of the Flex: it sells in very low numbers, despite receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews.
One of the leading factors in slow Flex sales is within the Ford showroom: the Explorer. It offers similar three-row capability and the same choice between front- and all-wheel drive optional all-wheel drive to the Flex, but has the benefit of nameplate recognition that stretches back more than two decades. A much bigger problem concerns the bottom line. The Ford Flex struggles in its segment because it is comparatively quite expensive; the top-spec Limited trim starts at $40,055. In fact, even the base Ford Flex is $2260 more than the three-row Honda Pilot, and $1375 more than the Chevrolet Traverse. Finally, there's the issue of styling. While we love the bold rectilinear design, the straight-edged look is too unusual for some buyers in this segment. Based on the continuing success of bland, bloated-looking crossovers, it seems many customers pay little attention to design when picking a family hauler, and prefer choosing a vehicle that fits in with the mainstream. As a result, sales of the Ford Flex have remained slow.
Hyundai Genesis Sedan
Average monthly sales: 1500-2000 (approx.)
Hyundai launched the Genesis sedan in America for the 2009 model year with a big goal: to take on the established luxury sedans from Europe and Japan. "Hyundai aims to shatter premium automobile paradigms," the automaker said at the launch of the Genesis, boasting that it had "capabilities and features comparable to the world's leading premium sports sedans."
We were impressed by the Genesis, calling it not long after launch, "a very credible Lexus competitor." After spending 12 months with a Four Seasons example, we were even more enamored of the Korean luxury sedan. But the buying public hasn't been quite so thrilled, relegating the Genesis to an also-ran in the sales reports. Hyundai reports combined sales figures for both the Genesis luxury sedan and the sportier Genesis Coupe, but says about half of the 3164 average monthly sales are for the sedan. That means the Hyundai Genesis sedan sells only around 1500 to 2000 cars monthly, the BMW 5-Series easily averages more than 4000 sales per month, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class approaches 5000 units per month.
If its appearance and luxury appointments live up to competitors, why hasn't the Hyundai Genesis become a bigger success? The problem is that German rivals BMW and Mercedes don't sell any cheap cars, while Hyundai offers cars for as little as $13,320. Customers know that every BMW or Mercedes is an expensive car, but some well-heeled buyers will be turned off by the fact that Hyundai also peddles economy sedans. That's why Hyundai has mulled launching a luxury brand called Genesis, which would exclusively sell the Genesis and the Equus luxury sedans at more upscale showrooms.
Despite the slow market penetration of the Genesis, corporate sibling Kia is planning to forge ahead with its own Korean luxury sedan, likely called the K9. It remains to be seen whether that car will be able to take on the German and Japanese luxury sedans, or whether it will suffer the same fate of sluggish sales as the Genesis.
Average monthly sales: 1158
The Mazda 5 strikes us as a very smart package. The European-sized minivan is a bit smaller than some of its competitors, and provides plenty of room for people with smaller families. The virtues of a smaller minivan include not having to park, gas up, and drive a giant vehicle at all times. Oh, and there's one other simple reason we love the Mazda 5: it is the only minivan available in the U.S. with a manual transmission.
Even recognizing that almost every Mazda 5 will be sold with an automatic transmission, the minivan remains surprisingly fun to drive. Like many other Mazda products, the 5 has communicative steering and firm suspension damping, making it feel much sportier than we would expect from a three-row box. So why does it sell so poorly?
When shopping for minivans, few buyers put fuel efficiency, driving enjoyment, or efficient packaging at the forefront of the decision process. Space and storage compartments tend to take precedence, and that's where the Mazda 5 loses. Although it offers a surprising amount of space for its size, the Mazda 5 just isn't as spacious as other minivans. At 180.5 inches long, the 5 is nearly two feet shorter than every other minivan on the market. That means the 5 doesn't offer quite as much interior space or cargo room, both of which are prime reasons for buying a minivan. Moreover, the 5 can't be outfitted with as many family-friendly features as competitors from Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. The Mazda 5 doesn't offer power-sliding doors, a backup camera, parking sensors, or an audio-visual input for its optional DVD player.
It also doesn't help that "Mazda 5" has far less recognition and prominence than the Grand Caravan, Odyssey, Sienna, and Quest names.
If buyers could realistically assess their vehicular needs, many smaller families might find that they don't need the biggest minivan available. If they instead test-drove a Mazda 5, they would experience a minivan that is comfortable, stylish, and surprisingly fun to drive. Best of all, a smaller van is easier to park and uses less gas. But most buyers bypass the Mazda showroom and head directly for larger, better equipped vans that provide little fun for drivers.