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These Cars Were Set Up to Succeed But Failed Anyway

On paper, these eight cars should have been winners. They were not.

Look, not every car is a winner. There are plenty of cars out there that were universally panned when they launched, pegged immediately as candidates for an early grave. "Kill it with fire," that sort of thing. Less known are the other vehicles that ultimately met that same fate even though they started out with rosy prospects. Basically, for every Pontiac Aztek there is a half-dozen other models that missed the boat despite being born with what looked like a silver spoon sitting on the driver's seat.

The reasons behind their often slow-motion failures weren't always immediately clear. But the stories behind these promising cars that nevertheless found a way to fail are often fascinating, and provide insight into not just the decisions behind their design and production, but also the state of the market and signs of the times that they were launched in. So, let's take a look at eight cars that should have succeeded, but didn't, and why:

2010-2013 Acura ZDX

A few of you might be scratching your heads right now, thinking "the Acura . . . what?" We don't blame you. The Acura ZDX's time on this earth was over in a blink of the eye, with the bulky, slope-backed crossover limping along from the 2010 through 2013 model years before being quietly put out to pasture after sales never materialized.

And yet, one has to wonder why the Acura never caught on. Just two years before, BMW had braved raspberries with the unveiling of the X6, a similarly hunched-over four-door SUV it called a "sports-activity coupe," or SAC for those of you with adolescent senses of humor. The X6 would spawn a raft of imitators and launch an entirely new market segment that now includes entries from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche, and Range Rover.

So, where was Acura? The ZDX is, if anything, a more extreme take on the crossover coupe genre with pointy, eye-catching styling. It was impractically tiny inside (particularly in terms of cargo space), but so was the X6. Could it have been the vast performance gap between the two vehicles? The ZDX was notoriously heavy with a curb weight of nearly 4,500 lbs, yet it lacked the available V-8 engine found in the top-tier X6; its modest V-6 engine produced just 300 horses. Without the performance to back up its suggestive looks, Acura's SUV-coupe never stood a chance among buyers still trying to figure out what it was, even while BMW found enough buyers willing to buck existing trends and start a new one.

2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR

There is no way around it: The Chevrolet HHR was introduced in the mid-2000s as a PT Cruiser clone in a bid to soak up some of the retro-themed compact Chrysler wagon's success. For all its flaws, the once-Plymouth, then Chrysler product did major business, racking up more than a million sales before it was shunted to the side for the decidedly less impressive Dodge Caliber. Chevy was in for a shock when the HHR—which featured the same pontoon-fendered looks, '50s-style snout, and affordable pricing as the PT—managed only half of that wagonlet's sales numbers over the eight years it was on sale.

How did General Motors manage to mess up what seemed to be a sure thing? Blame casual build quality, a slathering of hard plastics throughout the interior, and reliability issues that would turn off repeat buyers. Nothing about the wagon indicated it had been designed half a decade after the PT's own plastic-fantastic look, and would-be customers noticed. We'd award partial credit for the turbocharged and sportified HHR SS, which for reasons beyond comprehension, was also offered in the windowless van-style Panel body style, a decision so baffling as to be almost cool in its boldness.

2006-2014 Subaru B9 Tribeca

It only seems like the current Ascent is Subaru's first foray into the world of three-row SUVs because almost no one remembers the 2006-2014 B9 Tribeca (later just Tribeca). Few of these oddly named family haulers ever left the showroom. In fact, in its first year of production, today's Ascent (new for 2019) found more buyers than the Tribeca did in its entire nine-year run. Consider it a low hurdle, as only 77,000 Tribecas were sold overall.

Tackling the three-row segment should have been a slam dunk for Subaru, a company that had produced pioneering crossovers like the Outback and family favorites like the Forester, and seemingly had a built-in audience primed for something bigger. Here's why it wasn't.

From the start, adapting the hawk-eye styling found on the contemporary Impreza sedan and hatchback to the much larger Tribeca canvas was controversial at best. The Tribeca's thirsty six-cylinder boxer engine, drab cabin, and class-trailing interior room, and the B9 managed the unlikely feat of seeming both weird and boring at the same time. A restyle for 2008 models stripped what limited charm the Tribeca had, leaving a bland visage that did nothing to remind buyers Subaru still sold a three-row crossover—even while that vehicle type generally was exploding in popularity.

1995-1999 Oldsmobile Aurora

The early 1990s was marked by upheavals in the luxury segment. Established European brands expanded their reach, domestics recovering from their baroque efforts in the '70s and '80s took their lumps, and Japanese upstarts burst onto the scene with a wide range of premium options. It was into this context that GM came up with a plan to transform Oldsmobile into an American version of the Acura and Lexus success stories, by way of a complete lineup overhaul emphasizing technology and fresh style.

This charge was lead by the Oldsmobile Aurora, a car that should have attracted at least as much attention as rivals like the Acura Legend. With a 250-hp 4.0-liter V-8 adapted from Cadillac's Northstar—and used in Indy Racing League competition—the Aurora came so loaded with equipment and was so comfortable and attractive that it didn't matter it was front-wheel-drive. In 1995, it seemingly launched at precisely the right time to enter the mix and take on Japanese rivals.

It was not meant to be, however, largely due to missteps in GM's marketing of the sedan. Although cheaper than the imports, the Aurora cost $5,000 more than any other Oldsmobile on the lot, which made it hard to convert existing customers. The General would double down on the Aurora's price tag by increasing it further the following year, all while sales continued to plummet.

The final nail in the coffin was driven by the typical GM product planning of the day, which in this case dictated that the follow-up second generation Aurora would be diluted to include a more affordable base model with a V-6 engine. By the year 2000, deprived of any of the exclusivity or panache it may have once had, sales would halve and the Aurora would begin its fade into the sunset along with the entire Oldsmobile brand, which was shuttered by 2004.

2002-2003 Lincoln Blackwood/2005-2006 Mark LT

The Ford F-150 is a license to print money, with current sales approaching 900,000 units a year. It's been the most popular truck in North America for decades, and has legions of devoted fans. It's also served as the foundation for two of FoMoCo's highest-profile recent failures: The Lincoln Blackwood and later Mark LT luxury pickups.

Both trucks were no-brainers on paper when they appeared in the early and mid-2000s. Ford had seen success selling increasingly luxurious versions of its full-size F-series pickups, and it was a small leap from that momentum to the idea that a Lincoln-branded version of the F-150 would be a profit machine. This was decidedly not the case.

Yes, luxurious trucks would, years later, become plentiful in the full-size market, but no, Lincoln was not Ford's shortcut to that future. Back in 2001 when the Blackwood launched for 2002, Lincoln had almost zero recognition or credibility among high-end buyers, so stripping away the F-150's considerable customer quality, adding questionable features such as a carpeted cargo bed, and slapping on a much higher price tag had predictable results. Surely, this misguided effort wouldn't be repeated by the blinkered product planners incapable of comprehending Dearborn's luxury-market limitations. Alas, Ford tried twice, rolling out the less-distinguished, more F-150-like Mark LT for 2005. Like the Blackwood, it, too, lasted only two model years.

2006-2007 Mazda MazdaSpeed 6

Coming off the success of its Mazdaspeed 3 hot hatchback in the mid-2000s and eyeing the dollars being generated by go-fast import sedans like the WRX STi, Mazda elected to apply a similar formula to its mid-size Mazda 6 sedan. It stepped right past the 6's milquetoast four- and six-cylinder engine options and went for a turbocharged four-cylinder unit, matching it with a lineup-exclusive all-wheel-drive setup and a slick manual transmission. The creation was dubbed, creatively, the Mazdaspeed 6.

All the "right" mechanical pieces were there, and Mazda wasn't wrong about the hype surrounding the STi and its Mitsubishi Lancer Evo foil. That the Speed 6 never caught the same fire as the Speed 3 can be explained by a confluence of factors, not least that the Mazdaspeed 6 lacked the World Rally Championship motorsports/street crossover beef enjoyed by the Subaru and Mitsu.

Also, the Mazda's 6.2-second 0-60 mph time was at least a full second slower than either of the segment's leading lights even with 274 horsepower at the crank, thanks to a hefty weight penalty from its larger platform. (The 6 was, ostensibly, a mid-size sedan, whereas the WRX and Evo were rally-bred compact sedans.) Its all-wheel drive system wasn't nearly as sophisticated, either, and combined with its portly character the car simply didn't deliver the handling or thrills needed to succeed. Combine this with mechanical issues plaguing the first-generation turbocharged 2.3-liter engine, and a following failed to materialize that would carry the Speed 6 past its two years on the market.

2004-2006 Pontiac GTO

For those who weren't there, GM enthusiasts spent a significant portion of the early 2000s bemoaning the fact that Australia's Holden got all the "fun" rear-wheel drive, V-8-powered platforms, while Americans were still licking their wounds after the (ultimately temporary) passing of the Camaro. Combine that pent-up musclecar lust with the resurrection of a vaunted Pontiac brand name, and the GTO seemed perfectly poised to steal sales away from higher trim levels of the Ford Mustang and give the GM faithful somewhere to turn.

That never happened of course, and the final-generation GTO would help usher Pontiac to its recession-induced grave after only three years of existence. The GTO underwhelmed with its forgettable, hand-me-down looks that left it looking like a Chevy Cavalier or Pontiac Sunfire writ large. (In fact, the looks were simply carried over from the Aussie Holden Monaro, which had originated from the same Opel that underpinned another dull-as-dirt GM failure, the Cadillac Catera—remember, the Cadillac that zigs!). More unforgivable was the tepid performance from its 350-hp LS1 V-8, which had difficulty overcoming the two-door coupe's considerable mass (the quarter-mile took more than 14 seconds to saunter by).

Pontiac would gift the GTO a 400-hp 6.0-liter engine in its second year, significantly boosting performance. It was too late, as the damage had been done to the coupe's image. Buyers stayed fixated on its blah visual personality, its inability to live up to the GTO's vaunted heritage, and its surprisingly high price point. What could have been a renaissance for Pontiac was, through mismanagement, transformed into a harbinger of doom.

2002-2005 Honda Civic Si EP3 Hatch

American tuners had been clamoring for the Honda Civic Type R to cross the ocean for a decade, but by the time it did, it traversed the wrong body of water. Rather than source a Type R from Japan, Honda grabbed the EP3 hatch from Europe and sent it to the U.S. by way of the Atlantic, which proved to be a mistake that would keep another R out of the U.S. for more than a decade until the current model arrived for 2017.

You see, in the early 2000s, Honda was building two versions of the Civic Type R, one for the home market and another for Europe. It was the latter that would be renamed the Civic Si and sold to Americans from 2002 to 2005, using a strange breadvan-type body style that looked little like the standard Civic coupe it sat next to in the showroom. Its even bigger sin was the K20AS engine under its snub nose, whose 160 horsepower wasn't at the same level as the 212 horses from the K20A in the Type R prowling Tokyo streets. Combined with a lack of a limited-slip differential and an understeer-prone suspension setup, the entire deal disappointed Honda fanatics coming down fresh off the high-revving, 100-hp-per-liter 1999-2000 Civic Si coupe.

The Type R had a built-in audience eagerly awaiting its arrival, but its bait-and-switch tactic would see it outshone by nearly every one of its competitors. The car was replaced by the much more powerful eighth-generation Civic Si, which returned to a high-revving coupe format while adding a four-door sedan option.