Today, after extensive research (why this post is so late) we discuss America’s tries at compact cars within the last twenty years.  These are the histories of the Big Three’s attempts.  Some of them have very interesting histories.  Okay, we all know that Ford has it’s great new Focus, Chevy has the mediocre Cruze, and Dodge still has that horrible Caliber.

So, let’s dive into the world of barely roadworthy cars!  There is one thing I ask of you:  Please do NOT succumb to a case of road-rage should you see one of these things on the road (I can’t even call them cars)!

The Chevy Cobalt was a very bad car made from 2004-2011.  It had rough engines, a badly designed, cheap interior, and it looked like a slightly squashed 1960’s VW Beetle.  Car & Driver said of the unredeemably ugly Cobalt, “…The Cobalt has looks only a blind mother could love.”  It had a ready-to-haul sounding 155 horsepower, 2.2 liter four-cylinder.  There was also a 172 horsepower, 2.4 liter four-cylinder that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ford Falcon.  By this time, there needed to be a performance version.  Chevy introduced a supercharged 2.0 liter engine that would send a lion running for mommy.  After two years of many Cobalt SS’ sitting on a dealer lot, Chevy decided to turbocharge the engine.  Now, the only thing running for their radar gun would be the Highway Patrol!  It was one of the fastest compact cars ever built.  So, you think that Ford Falcon with a 427 V8 is fast?  Think again, Officer…

The replacement for the Cobalt is much better.  It is called the Cruze, and it blows away all your expectations of an American compact car.  I wouldn’t call it Chevy’s best effort yet, but it feels like a better second generation Cobalt.  The one thing that would get the Cruze cruzing (get it?) off the lots would be an SS version.  The 260 horsepower, 2.0 liter Ecotech engine from the Cobalt SS, a Tremec six-speed manual, and a body kit and 20″ wheels, and you’ll have a Dodge Neon SRT-4 ACR on your hands (hopefully)!

Dodge is notorious for making some pretty bad cars.  Think Magnum, 2010 Grand Caravan.  But, they do have the Challenger.  But I’m wandering away…  The first generation Neon was a pretty decent car.  It was cheaper than imports, had more horsepower, and was more powerful.  It won many awards, including Motor Trend Car of the Year 1996.

The Chrysler CEO at the time, Bob Lutz said of the first generation Neon, “Good, fast, or cheap.  I’ll take at least two, maybe three.”  Chrysler enjoyed huge success at the wheels of the first generation Neon.  When the second generation Neon came out in 2001, it was much worse than anybody could have imagined.  Sales dropped, and Dodge introduced an ACR (American Club Racer) model that was SCCA (Sports Car CLub of America) compatible. Sales were still slow.  So, Dodge introduced the SRT-4 model in 2004, but nobody expected much, until Road & Track tested one, and found that it was almost as fast as a base Porsche Boxster.  Dodge then started making ACR SRT-4.  They started to disappear off the lots like magic.  They re-started the pocket-rocket craze!  Unfortunately, quality started to go down hill soon afterwards.  When the last Neon rolled off the Bennington, VT assembly line, nobody really cared.  The replacement for the Neon is the Caliber.  The Caliber is Dodge’s failed (make that epic, please!) compact car. It is made in the same production plant as the Neon.  It is a world-wide vehicle.  That should be Dodge’s ticket to success.  Alas, no.  The Caliber is badly designed, and it feels like you’re driving a Conestoga wagon.  Further problems include:  hearing the engine with the stereo cranked up all the way, road and tire noise would give a deaf person a head-ache.  The last Caliber for the European market was built on December 10, 2010.  The Caliber hasn’t been updated since it’s 2006 introduction at the Chicago Auto Show.  There has been an SRT-4 version that was kind of a pocket-rocket. More like a cheaper alternative to a VW GTI.  Production is supposed to stop for the U.S. spec Caliber in November 2012.  The replacement for the Caliber will be based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.  It will hopefully have a turbocharged gas engine, and a diesel version.

The Ford Focus was introduced in 1998 to the European market.  A last-minute legal case forced Ford to hire a few lawyers to fight a case against a German magazine called “Focus”, over the name.  In the end, Ford got the name “Focus”, and the magazine had to change to “focus.”  The Ford Focus came to North America in 1999, as a 2000 model.  It came in four different body styles: four-door sedan, three-door hatchback, five-door station wagon, and a five-door hatchback.  Some three-door hatchback SVT (Special Vehicle Team) Focus’ came with a G-Shock digital watch.  The first generation Focus was produced from 1998-2007.  Some of the awards it received were Car & Driver’s 2001 Car of the Year, and 2004 Motor Trend Car of the Year finalist.  The first generation had almost nothing wrong with it.  The next iteration, the 2007-2010 Focus didn’t live up to the expectations of it’s predecessor.  It had chrome simulators all over the place, plastic wherever one looked, and had sporty, yet terrible seats.  No back support, no thigh support, no neck support, so you might as well rip out the seats if you own one, and put a milk crate in!  It came in a four-door sedan and two-door coupe body style.  The 2009 model year was by far the worst sales year for the Focus.  The 2007-2010 Focus never won any awards from any auto magazines, but Consumer Reports liked its fuel economy of 33 mpg. A few months ago, Ford introduced a restyled version of the European second generation Ford Focus.  Already, it has won awards from Motor Trend, Car & Driver, and Consumer Reports.  It has an amazing sounding 160 horsepower, 2.0 liter four-cylinder.  In six months, it has sold as many units as the 2009 model did in a year (55,345 cars).

Thanks for staying with me through all of this!  I’m going to give you some sage advice:  if you are at a rental lot, and the manager offers you a great deal on a 2010 Focus, any model year Caliber, or a Cobalt, go take a taxi!

4 thoughts on “America’s Failed Compact Cars

  1. What is the best value compact car on the market?
    What about the foreign manufacturers compact cars?
    I like the turbo diesel injected TDI motor from VW.
    Keep up the great writing.

    1. The VW turbo-diesels are pretty good for the money. It just depends on what you’re looking for. If you want something with good fuel economy, and pretty fast, than the 2012 Honda Civic Si is a pretty safe bet.

  2. Don’t be shy….tell us what you really think about these compacts.

    Say it like it is….don’t hedge or hold back.

    Enough of this mamby pamby stuff.


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