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.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Average monthly sales: 571
The Mazda MX-5 Miata may hold the Guinness World Record as the best-selling roadster of all time, but it still hasn’t sold that many copies. Drivers around the world have purchased 900,000 MX-5s since the car launched in 1989; by contrast, Smart has managed to sell 1.3 million copies of its Fortwo city car since 1998. In other words, a compromised city car has found far more buyers in 14 years than a lively roadster has in 23 years.
Those relatively low sales volumes are in stark contrast to the rave reviews the MX-5 draws from enthusiasts around the world. The Mazda Miata has long been a favorite car at Automobile Magazine, owing to its simplicity and pure, connected driving experience. The MX-5 is the cheapest roadster you can buy in America, which makes it an ideal choice for sun-loving drivers who want an affordable drop-top. At the same time, the car’s light weight, nimble suspension, and prominence in racing series has made it an easily attainable choice for racers and driving fanatics on a budget.
Frankly, however, even true enthusiasts are ready for an update to the MX-5. Although we love the car, it has changed very little over the past 23 years. The current generation, known by devotees as the NC Miata, has been on sale with only a few tweaks since 2005. Fortunately a new version will arrive by 2015 at the latest. Mazda recently inked a deal with Alfa Romeo to share development of two new rear-wheel-drive roadsters; the next MX-5 and Alfa Romeo Spider will share a platform, but each will have unique styling and an engine from its parent company’s lineup.
The Miata’s dedication to driving enjoyment also means it isn’t the most well-rounded vehicle on the road. The passenger compartment is cramped, especially for tall drivers, and the 5.3 cubic-foot trunk won’t accommodate that much luggage or groceries. Fuel economy is only average. Couple that with an abundance of wind noise and a buzzy highway demeanor, and it’s easy to see why the Mazda MX-5 isn’t an ideal everyday car for many people. Although it offers a lot of fun for the money, the MX-5 is more often a second car or weekend toy than a primary vehicle.
Average monthly sales: 67
Cheaper, smaller, and less powerful than the vaunted 911 range, the Porsche Cayman is nonetheless a rewarding car thanks to the nimble handling afforded by its mid-engine layout. The Cayman is so much fun to drive that it has long been a favorite at Automobile Magazine, but the coupe apparently hasn’t become a favorite with customers. Sales of the Cayman have been slow for several years, and so far in 2012 it’s the worst-selling Porsche.
One explanation could be that the Cayman’s convertible cousin, the Porsche Boxster, was just redesigned for 2013. As true Porsche fans probably know a new Cayman is in the works, they could be waiting to buy the new model. However, that doesn’t explain why sales have been so sluggish since the Cayman was launched in 2006.
It’s also tempting to assume that the Cayman struggles because its performance doesn’t match up to that of the 911. While its engines are smaller and less powerful engines than those of the 911, the Cayman is still a serious sports car. Even the slowest Cayman has a top speed of 165 mph and can run from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds.
Instead, the real reason is that the Cayman is overshadowed by the iconic Porsche 911. Not only does the three-digit nameplate have five decades of heritage behind it, the 911 name and design are synonymous with the Porsche badge for many people. Customers who are ready to buy a Porsche want the quintessential, traditional Porsche 911, and are unlikely to settle for a Cayman just because it’s cheaper.
Porsche will soon unveil the next generation of the Cayman, but if it seems that would help draw more attention away from the 911, think again: a new, more powerful version of the 911 debuted last year, and Porsche already is hard at work developing many more variations of that car.
Average monthly sales: 503
What’s not to love about the Suzuki Kizashi? It’s a smart family sedan that actually offers steering feel, attractive design, and a buttoned-down suspension. It’s a supremely practical car that also makes driving enthusiasts smile, and the Kizashi is even available with all-wheel drive for wintry climes. Sadly, the Kizashi sells at a slower rate than the Chevrolet Corvette sports car. The problem is not the car itself, but that buyers just aren’t aware of the Kizashi.
A big part is a lack of a dealer network: Suzuki only has 250 automotive showrooms scattered across the country. Volvo, by contrast, has 350 dealerships, and Toyota has over 1200. Suzuki also has a far stronger reputation for building motorcycles and ATVs than cars. The Kizashi also struggles because it tries to straddle several segments: it may be far better than many compact cars, but it’s just a bit too small to be competitive with midsize sedans. And while Suzuki would have you believe the Kizashi’s quality and performance are on par with the likes of an Audi A4, the car is still saddled with a low-rent Suzuki badge.
Finally, there’s the issue of the other products in the showroom. Most Suzuki models on sale today are several years old and no longer very competitive, and quality new products like the Swift haven’t been imported from Asia and Europe. Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why many new-car buyers might skip visiting the Suzuki showroom. In doing so, they’re missing out on a gem of a family sedan.
Average monthly sales: 2075
We just wrapped up one year with our Four Seasons Volvo S60, and came away very impressed. The Volvo sedan was something of a sleeper hit that seduced us with its fabulous interior, smooth yet powerful engine, and outstanding steering. Whether being used as a luxury cruiser to blast along the highway, or as a grocery-getter to run around town, we found the S60 to be versatile and rewarding. Still, since it went on sale here in 2010, the Volvo S60 hasn’t sold in very large numbers.
One problem could be that, despite offering two powerful turbocharged engines, the S60 isn’t really seen as a sports sedan. Purists looking for cars in this segment may ignore the S60 because it is front- or all-wheel drive, whereas enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward rear-wheel-drive cars like the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Luxury buyers could be put off by the Volvo badge, which lacks the driveway cachet of a Lexus or a Mercedes emblem. Volvos tend to have a reputation as staid boxes for dull drivers. Based on the modern looks and lively personality of our S60, those connotations are totally unwarranted.
Twelve months behind the wheel convinced us that the Volvo S60 has the refinement, style, and performance to take on the best from Japan and Germany. Now Volvo just needs to convince customers of the same thing.