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The Worst-Built Cars

The Worst-Built CarsThe Worst-Built Cars

Let’s get this out of the way: For the most part there really aren't any truly abysmal new cars in dealers' showrooms any more. Even the worst of the lot would be considered superior when compared to some notorious clunkers from the 1970's and '80's. Still, not all models are created equal. Each offers varying degrees of performance, comfort, utility and economy. A few hit home runs in virtually every category, while others may miss the mark in one or more areas, sometimes as trade offs for excellence in another. Some have just stayed on the shelf for too long and are forced to compete with dated designs and technology.

As the latest round of new-car ratings from Consumer Reports illustrates so soundly, the differences between the “best” vehicles in the market and the also-rans is decreasing to an ever narrowing degree. Truly awful cars from the dark days of the auto industry might have been characterized by inferior engineering, dismal – often hazardous – performance, dubious reliability and fit and finish that rivaled the craftsmanship of a seven-year-old assembling a model car while dozy on plastic-cement fumes. By comparison, some highly criticized new cars today tend to commit far more lenient sins.

For example, Ford dropped from fifth place among all manufacturers rated by Consumer Reports to the 11th spot this year, even though its road-test scores actually improved by two points. What makes better-performing cars bad? The magazine chalks it up to “subpar reliability of some new vehicles, due largely to the troublesome MyFord Touch infotainment system and Power-Shift automatic transmission.” We’re not big fans of Ford’s clumsy control system or the too-busy-for-its-own-good gearbox found in the automaker’s smallest cars, but neither qualm is hardly on the same plane as notorious episodes from past model years of cars rolling over and/or out of control in emergency handling maneuvers or bursting into flames following a collision.

Similarly, Honda fell a step out of CR's favor because recently redesigned versions of the compact Civic and Odyssey minivan were good, but not just deemed superior enough to the versions they replaced.

In Pictures: 10 Worst Built Cars For 2012

That said, we poured over the latest data from Consumer Reports' 2012 Annual Auto Issue to identify which models, based on a convergence of objective test results, could be considered the 10 Worst Built Cars for 2012. (See the accompanying slide show for the complete rogues' gallery and selection criteria.)

We started by examining CR’s road test ratings and isolated the models that were ranked at or near the bottom, as noted by an aggregate score under 50. Overall ratings are based on more than 50 individual tests and evaluations, and are presented on a 100-point scale. We then identified those models that received the lowest marks for reliability, based on Consumer Reports subscriber surveys, and were cited for at least two other “worsts,” including bottom-of-the-pack value ratings, highest five-year operating costs, lowest owner satisfaction, poorest fuel economy in a given class and/or worst performance in accident-avoidance tests.

Of the 10 models that comprise our final list of 10 Worst-Built Cars for 2012, all but two of them, the Smart ForTwo and Toyota FJ Cruiser, come from domestic-brand automakers, specifically Chrysler LLC and General Motors. While those automakers have been making great strides in recent years with new and recently redesigned models, they’re still recovering from their near-death experiences in 2008-2009 and the laggards in their respective lines awaiting major makeovers or replacements continue to haunt them.

"GM and Chrysler are building nicer cars with each redesign. Still, their scores are dragged down by several older designs that score low in Consumer Reports testing or have reliability issues," says David Champion, senior director, Consumer Reports Automotive Test Center, "As more new products are introduced, their fortunes could change if they can improve their overall reliability."

In Pictures: 10 Worst Built Cars For 2012

Most of the vehicles on our list are comparatively dated models that have fallen behind the competition in terms of automotive engineering and/or meeting consumers’ expectations. The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickup trucks, for example, haven’t seen a major redesign since the 2004 model year; the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Dodge Avenger, Jeep Compass and Liberty, Smart ForTwo and Toyota FJ Cruiser have received only incremental changes since 2007 or 2008. Even the most modern models in our list, the Dodge Ram 2500 pickup truck (redesigned for 2010) and the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (debuting for 2009) still run on dated underpinnings and have limited appeal except perhaps to a loyal following with specific needs. In Pictures: 10 Worst Built Cars For 2012

There is at least one bright side here, however. For those who can overlook their flaws, most of the models on our least-desirable list tend to command deep dealer discounts and are eligible for substantial manufacturers' incentives, including cash rebates, cut-rate financing and affordable lease deals. For example, the pint-sized Smart ForTwo can currently be leased for as little as $139 a month for 36 months with a $999 down payment. Dodge is offering $3,000 cash back on the midsize Avenger sedan, with Jeep granting a like amount to buyers of its midsize Liberty SUV. The heavy-duty Dodge RAM 2500 pickup on our list is being offered with a $1,500 rebate, while the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks are being sold with up to $2,000 cash back.

Jim Gorzelany is author of the Automotive Intelligentsia 2011-2012 Sports Car Guide, available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and the Apple iBooks Store.