By on June 21, 2012

One of the key lessons learned by American automobile marketers in the 1990s was: friendly cars flop, aggressive cars sell. Have they learned this lesson too well?

The Neon should have been a home run for Chrysler, with its all-Detroit, no-Mitsubishi-or-Simca ancestry and Civic/Corolla-beating bang-for-buck specs. This was not the case, and the Neon went on to populate rent-a-car lots and— soon after— junkyards in large quantities. Some blame alleged lack of quality in the Neon, but I’ve always suspected the Neon’s happy “face” and Chrysler’s 1995-96 “Hi!” ad campaign was the bigger factor.
After the defeat of the Evil Empire and the ass-kicking triumph of the Gulf War washed America’s palate clean of the nasty taste of the Fall of Saigon and the Iranian hostage crisis (not to mention the not-quite-ass-kicking farce of Reagan’s only real war), American car shoppers wanted vehicles that looked like victory!
Honda staggered into this new reality with the sugary-sweet-looking del Sol and alienated all the young first-time male car shoppers who had once snapped up CRXs in a frenzy. This was exactly what Honda USA didn’t need on top of Soichiro Honda‘s death, Acura’s lack of a V8, and a weak economy hammering Accord sales. Blame cuteness!
After the “Hi!” debacle, Chrysler decided that the Neon’s replacement would sprout fangs, facial tatts, and a glovebox full of temporary restraining orders. The very name suggested a car that would cold blast its opponents: Caliber!

Just in case there was any lingering doubt about this car’s lack of cuteness, here’s a lug-wrench-to-the-teeth ad for yez. And yet… perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. The broad-brush-strokes glory of the Gulf War and Cold War victories has been replaced by a couple of incomprehensible conflicts that drag on and on and on, and the highways are clogged with increasingly angry-looking machines snarling at one another. Could the focus groups decide that they want friendly after all?

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67 Comments on “Question: Will Cuteness Always Equal Sales Death In America?...”

  • avatar

    Seems to me like the Neon sold like hotcakes at first. Then people discovered what a complete piece of crap it was….

    The Del Sol was a bit too cute and feminine, but it was also (relatively) heavy, slow, numb, and leaky, and in no way a replacement for the CRX.

    • 0 avatar

      Not only did the Neon sell well, it sold very well and for a long time. I’m surprised no one checked the sales figures before using the Neon as the basis for this editorial. Here are the US sales numbers: As a reference, the best selling compact, Toyota Corolla sold 240,259 US sales in 2011. The most the Caliber ever sold was 84,158 in 2008.

      1994: 178,960
      1995: 240,189
      1996: 245,303
      1997: 208,652
      1998: 196,497
      1999: 183,797
      2000: 163,332
      2001: 137,353
      2002: 126,118
      2003: 120,101
      2004: 113,476

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Momma

        Thanks for finding that, I was feeling skeptical. I always liked the unadorned and unpretentious styling of the 1st gen Neon. I’d drive a Neon R/T or ACR today if I found a garage queen. If it’s good enough for Grassroots Motorsports to rally in, it’s good enough for me. Also: the Caliber was so ugly and the name so stupid I wanted to find the party(s) responsible and hurt them.

  • avatar

    Check that…mostly homogenous, largely bland vehicles sell VERY well here (see: Camry, Accord, etc…)…aggressive cars (see: Mustang, Camaro) tend to do relatively well. Cute cars may start out with a flourish (see: New Beetle…perhaps, but I hope not Fiat 500) then whimper away. In the end, trucks still rule. We like ’em bigger here…

  • avatar

    I think this applies for men, whereas women mostly like cute. Take the Fiat 500. I’d drive an aggressive looking Abarth, but not a base model. On the other hand, my long ago girlfriend had a Honda delSol,and it was a lot of fun driving up and around Napa valley. Hers was black, so less cute, but still too cute to be a guy car. The Caliber? That was just a bad car.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      The only person I knew with a Del Sol was a young college grad (this was 1999) who had the car purchased for her by her father. I so wanted to… get to know her better. She lived in my appartment complex but it was not to be.

      • 0 avatar

        Del Sols seemed to be the car of choice back then for daddy’s little girls. This is the 6th time I’ve heard (3 of them I know in person) of women college grad who received one from daddy as a gift.

  • avatar

    Let’s see sales numbers for the Neon and the Caliber. It seems to me that the Neon was a huge seller until word of quality shortcomings spread. The Del Sol was a flop because it was a half-arsed Miata competitor with FWD and awkward proportions. The Miata was cute, and they sold all they wanted to until the market was saturated.

  • avatar

    I remember checking out the Neon when it was first released. As soon as I sat in it there was a deal-killer. The driver’s left armrest ended in a cup that seemed like it was designed as a custom-tailored resting place for Captain Hook’s stump. I couldn’t find a place to put my arm. Although I was interested in a manual, the automatic transmission was not tailored to the car. It was a power-sapping 3-speed automatic that really killed performance and gas mileage even more than the automatics in the competitive cars.

    Toward the end of the Neon’s run, I sat in the SRT-4. I couldn’t believe it was the same car. I was seriously tempted.

  • avatar

    I found the Neon to be cramped and of poor quality. IIRC these were touted not just as Civic killers but Saturn killers as well. Saturn had their issues but they were better cars than Neons.
    The only redeeming quality a Neon had was it’s motor. It had a lot of power for a little car, beyond that it was an appliance.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget Neons also out handled the competition but the combo of cuteness and drivers car did not equal sales. Add to this some unfortunate cost cutting (check out allpar) she was doomed.

  • avatar

    I put 106,000 miles on a base ’96 Plymouth Neon 2-door with a 5-speed manual. Only car I ever bought new. Yeah it was spartan in the inside, the only option I got was AC and I put in decent stereo and an alarm just to get keyless entry. That little sucker had decent amount of power, 132 hp I believe with the SOHC 2.0 liter, but I can’t imagine how terrible it would be if it were an automatic.

    The only thing I ever had to do to that car was put in a clutch and recharge the AC at about 90k. It was still running great when I sold it, but you can guess it wasn’t worth much.

  • avatar

    Three words:

    “Three speed automatic”

    • 0 avatar
      schmitt trigger

      +1 Stuntmonkey!

      My parents purchased a Neon. They also lived on top of a hill. If by the time you hit the base of the hill you weren’t going at least 45 mph (not easy on narrow winding roads), the darn thing would downshift immediately to 2nd gear, and as one was approaching the top and if were carrying a passenger or luggage, it would downshift to first. The engine would howl and shake.

      Sometimes you could buy extra power if you remembered to shut down the A/C just before the climb.

      That, and overall lousy quality.

      • 0 avatar

        As bad an idea as keeping the 3 speed was it probably saved the neon from an even shorter death just imagine an ultradrive bolted to a neon to see what I mean.

      • 0 avatar

        Reminds me of the ’88 Tempo my parents once had. I never drove it (much too young at the time). Near my aunt and uncle’s house, however, is a big hill; the Tempo had to be going 50 mph + at the bottom. I remember having to back down at least once.

  • avatar

    I actually think the problem with “cute” is that the manufacturers haven’t attempted it often, and partly as a result don’t often know how to execute it well. They’re experts at both bland and aggressive.

    It’s also a factor that the great majority of car designers are car guys, and as such are personally attracted to aggressive designs. To do cute, they must do something they don’t personally have an interest in or feel for.

    I noted the lack of “cute” while performing observations inside GM’s design staff for my Ph.D. dissertation back in 1998. They were testing over a dozen different exterior design concepts for a new family vehicle. None would remotely be designed as cute. The response of the vehicle’s chief designer: “We don’t do cute.” He said this in a tone that suggested that GM was wrong to not even attempt a cute design, but that’s just the way it was. And is.

    Cute designs have often been strong sellers, at least initially:

    –Neon (brought down by quality)
    –PT Cruiser (never sufficiently updated)
    –New Beetle (ditto prior to the 2012)

    Sales declined after the initial rush in many cases, but this wasn’t because the styling was initially a problem. The only case I can think of of a cute flop: the Nissan cube. The 500 falls into a gray area, but I don’t think the car’s styling is holding it back.

    Like any design that relies heavily on styling to sell cars, cute cars must be updated frequently. Bland designs have a longer shelf life.

    • 0 avatar

      I love the way the 500 looks. So finally, I had the chance to drive one for an hour, on what I have personally come to call the Robert Moses drive (FDR and West highways surrounding the island of Manhattan in its entirety – plus choppy pavement in and out the particular zipcar location where I picked it up). Quite simply, it was an alienating drive. I even got impatient with my wife, who drove her half-course cautiously, and it only later occurred to me that the car is actually uninviting. Rereading the reviews on this site – especially yours – gave me a new appreciation for the weaknesses of this car. Sad.

      • 0 avatar

        I think if you drove the Fiat less timidly, you might find it a pleasant little car.

        Super fast? No, it’s not, but it’s got plenty of zip, much like the small economy cars of yore where a mere 67HP was more than adequate for most situations.

        I drove one and found it fun and really begging to be driven hard so drive one like you stole it and it’ll wake up and let you know about it in a good way.

        As for the ride, I drove the sport and found it firm, but not harsh with great damping and had great communication, letting the driver know what’s going on. Now the steering could use a bit more feedback but it wasn’t bad at all overall.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      “The only case I can think of of a cute flop: the Nissan cube.”

      Michael, what about the Mazda3? The main things that differentiate it from the competition are relatively good performance and the smile on the front fascia. I bet they could sell many more with the aggressive face of a Sonic.

      Another car that lost aggressiveness is the Chrysler 300c. It’s almost like it lost testosterone with age, losing chiseled facial features and packing on the pounds.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point about the designers, Michael. The prevalence of men in these kinds of positions may well have something to do with this.

      I know I for one am getting tired of the aggressive look. It’s everywhere and seems to reflect an underlying anger that seems to have afflicted our current culture. A little of the ‘aggressive’ look is fine, but as with most things, it should be kept in due proportion.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Did the Caliper start out that ghastly looking even as a concept?

  • avatar

    The original Miata, the new Mini and the new Beetle all did pretty well.
    Also – don’t forget, the original Beetle was the best selling import in America for well over a dozen years.

  • avatar

    Hi Murilee,

    You said: “One of the key lessons learned by American automobile marketers in the 1990s was: friendly cars flop, aggressive cars sell. Have they learned this lesson too well?”

    I am not sure you can say this as a general rule. Others have pointed out that women like cute. And there is still the enormously successful original (1957-1970) VW Beetle that was “cute”, was distinctive, was well made, had good traction, was economical, was easily repairable, and sold like hotcakes among both genders. So maybe if a whole bunch of other good things come along with “cute”, then “cute” isn’t so bad after all.

    Or are you suggesting that we as a nation, in this war-involved modern era, have become more macho anyway, and would reject “cute” regardless of any accompanying virtues??


  • avatar

    I don’t think the Cold War had anything to do with automobile design preferences.

  • avatar

    “Some blame alleged lack of quality in the Neon…”

    There was nothing alleged about it, it was pretty obvious…

  • avatar

    It seems like cute is alive and well in the form of the CUV; heck many of them are referred to as “cute utes.” I’m thinking of the RAV 4, CRV, or any of Hyundai’s offerings which are all cute in a chubby toddler with the remains of a chocalate bar smeared around his mouth sort of way.

  • avatar

    Just ask Mazda about how well cute sells.  I loved the huge ‘let’s have some fun!’ grin on the previous Mazda3.  It was perfectly suited for the car and the brand – Mazda is all about fun in the driver’s seat and the 3 is a perfect whimsical scooty fun car.   The styling reminded me of the look your dog has when you get home from work and his tail is wagging so hard that his hind legs jump back and forth – pure unadulterated joy.

    Unfortunately it seems most people would prefer to look badass than joyful.

    • 0 avatar

      3 years ago, I got one of the last few 2009 Speed3’s because I could not stand the look of the 2010’s. HUGE mistake. I paid dearly for being shallow. :(

    • 0 avatar

      I think a grin can work, IMO Peugeot pulls it off alright.

      However, on the Mazdas I didn’t think it looked playful or whimsical. It reminded me of a psycho Joker-mobile.

      • 0 avatar

        And the Acura smile was horrible. They are getting rid of it right?

        I do like my Fiat 500 Cabrio though. It is really fun on the PCH. But I still get the JLo comments.

  • avatar

    I never owned one, but I thought the original Neon was a great visual design. A relative drove one for almost 200K with no major issues, but he was and is a Mopar fanboy.

  • avatar

    The Caliber never sold in the quantities that the Neon did.

  • avatar

    I thought the neon’s Hi! campaign was very good. It made me interested in the vehicle. Plus apparently it handles well. But then I heard about all of its problem (the cheap interior, poor NVH, harsh ride) and that made me lost all interest on the car. Plus Chrysler had a really bad reputation for quality back then.

    We’ll see if the Dart will fare any better. It might well be a great car, it’s just that Chrysler has had bad reputation for so long… Will people believe it will be different this time?

  • avatar

    I never cared for “cute” in any of my cars or any of my other appliances, its creepy and they’re just machines, thus they should look like machines.

    Plus, bland looks are timeless and don’t sacrifice interior spacing just to look like something that its not.

    Not to mention, I’m not big on “aggressive” either, its just plain stupid.

  • avatar

    I liked the Neon launch ads. They fit the personality of the design of the car and linked it to the target audience in a compelling way. Chrysler sold a lot of them at introduction and a few years thereafter. Then their reputation got updated with reality. But I have to chime in here and say that I owned a ’98 Coupe with the five-speed (built in Normal Ill., not Mexico, and after they put a real head gasket on the engine).
    Bought it because I thought that for what it was, the Neon struck the right balance of power (DOHC/5-spd) handling (for a FWD design) and fuel economy. Oh and I needed something to commute in and the 0.0% financing worked for my budget. But at least I got mine in Badass Black :). It went 162,000
    mi over the course of 10 years. Replaced one head gasket within a whisker of the extended warranty running out (I never buy those) at 85,000 miles and a clutch on my dime at about 120,000 other than oil and filter changes that was it. The Caliber was such a hot mess and the diving sales results proved it. Way to go Mercedes Benz!

  • avatar

    A big prob with “cute” is it gets old fast. There is something for car designs that don’t age quickly.

  • avatar

    Cute/quirky seems to be a selling point for cars that can’t really be compared to others. It worked well for VW in the 60’s & 70’s. Initial sales of the Neon were good. My wife at the time, and most of her friends loved them. None of them were “car people”, maybe that was the market they were going for.
    My only experience with a Neon was a one week rental. For mostly city, flat Florida driving it was pretty good. Friends who have had them seem to be hit or miss. Some loved the little beasties others wanted to cover them with gas and give it a Viking funeral.

  • avatar

    Most mechanical things are not “cute”. Mechanical things are usually serious things, and “cute” suggests that they may not be serious, i.e. not worth a lot of money.

    That would suggest to me that a successful car that is cute needs to also be affordable and endearing enough so that the cuteness can be peddled as a sort of virtue. This, like good comedy, is probably much harder than it looks. The Beetle hit both of those targets, so it could be a success. The del Sol did not, so it didn’t.

    That doesn’t mean that aggression always works, either. There are certain segments for which it backfires or offers no appeal (ask Nissan about the Quest minivan), while it does help to sell certain SUVs. The middle of the road is probably the safest place to be for most designs, most of the time.

  • avatar

    I remember a study from back in college about how people saw faces in the front of cars. That’s not surprising, but what the study found was that agressive, angry/mean faces were more desirable to buyers.

    Obviously, people buy cars for a number of reasons, including price/value, reputation, prestige, and style. I would say that a “cute” car generally won’t do well on the style meter, but it may be a sales success if it does well enough in other categories. I think cute cars that fail do so because they are simply cute cars and don’t offer much else.

  • avatar

    I reject both cute and macho options. I don’t want my car to look like it’s grinning (Mazda 3) or snarling (Hyundai Elantra).

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Didn’t we already have a column about girly/manly cars? Cute is the same as a girly car. I knew a retired Navy SEAL who drove a new Beetle Convertible. Are you gonna tell him he drives a “girly car”? His ride put an end to the girly /manly ride debate to me.

    Cute? I’d advertise it as “Cheeky” and show the lowest MSRP.

    Honest? The original Beetle and stock trucks are honest. The do what they’re supposed to do,; no more no less.

  • avatar

    Besides the 3-speed automatic and head gasket issues, the third strike against the Neon was when you got power windows on the four door, it was only the front two. The rear still had to be rolled down manually.

    Still, optioned properly, the Neon was generally okay. As many others have pointed out, it sold substantially better than the truly ungainly Caliber. The Neon might have been ‘cute’, but the design was also cohesive.

    The Caliber? Not so much (unless if maybe a vehicle that looked like the Aztek’s little brother was appealing to you). And, geez, the Caliber’s interior was truly made of the hardest, cheapest plastic of the day.

  • avatar

    There sure seems to a lot of Neons still driving around, many with over 200k miles. No one can deny it’s been a hell of a race car.

  • avatar

    The Neon was a cute but crappy car in the first place. My parents bought a 98 Neon. The car had a horrible oil leak problem and they had to replace the engine at 40,000 miles. Eventually they gave the car to my sister and at 60,000 miles, the car was totaled by a flying tire on the freeway. The insurance company told her that they don’t bother fixing neons.

  • avatar

    I see plenty of neons still out and about, and this is camcord country.

    I don’t see the purpose in a Del Sol. It’s not a real convertible, it seats 2, their slow, and it has no trunk. So I’m guessing no one bought one because it would’ve had to have been used as a weekend car and if I was able to drive in the 90’s I can think of plenty of other weekend cars I’d rather have. Hell, the ZX and the F-bodies had t-tops too.

  • avatar

    Cuteness is not the cause of failure. Instead, cuteness is often the result of poor quality, because the car makers can’t make a statement with their good quality and will have to play the cuteness card (such as Neon, New Beetle).

  • avatar

    Please please please please Please could we have an end to the “aggressive” wars, the automotive rictus, and the fish-mouth look?

    I want a car that looks like a car, please. If you have to do something other than bland, could we have beautiful? Please?

  • avatar

    i think cute generally doesn’t work for men (obviously) or women

    women have flocked to SUVs for that taller and ‘safer’ feeling

    the only time it works when its an icon like the Mini and its mixed with cheeky aggression and “racy-ness”… it didn’t work for the VW Bug and I’m guessing it will continue to fail for VW

    i think meek, plain cars are fine… there’s a market for Corollas and Camcords but cars that are overtly cute and cheerful?

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I thought the del Sol Si was a hoot. Handled quite well too.

    • 0 avatar

      The del Sol was a CRX minus what made the CRX so useful: a hatchback. Honda also soften just about line on the sharp looking CRX. End result – del Sol = girly car. Its a shame because by the time the del Sol came out Honda’s VTECs were just starting to gain traction as serious 4 banger power plants. A VTEC powered CRX would have been all kinds of awesome.

  • avatar

    Neons sold well, until all the recalls and ‘repair programs’. But also competition. Die hard Mopar fans claim it was ‘good’, but they are fiercely loyal.

    The Caliber and Dart would have still been called Neon if Chrysler’s previous owners didn’t let it rot. Could have helped too if penny pinchers allowed better parts in the first year!

  • avatar

    Interesting topic …

    “I actually think the problem with “cute” is that the manufacturers haven’t attempted it often, and partly as a result don’t often know how to execute it well. They’re experts at both bland and aggressive.” –> I agree , mass-producers are probably not brave enough to experiment with niche-cars …

    I like Neon’s design – especially in 2-door execution …

    Other cuties: Deihatsu Copen , Nissan Figaro (both don’t exist anymore)

    “I don’t think the Cold War had anything to do with automobile design preferences.” –> I’ve read an interesting theory: that SUV sales increased in USA during Bush-administration may be associated with “country militarisation” / war with terrorism … etc … (poeple want cars that looks rather like tanks
    –>”cute-cars” don’t make You “feel safe” … :)

  • avatar

    I think both can sell well. Look to 1965. The bug and the Mustang. Two of the best selling single models ever. One was cute and ine was aggresive, but both sold like no cars before them. Of course they both exist now as watered down reproductions, but we need car companies to make bold design decisions again and they could be wildly rewarded as in the past.

  • avatar

    Where is the VW Cabriolet on this list ? The ultimate chick car , although the banned Vanilla Dude would say there is no such thing . Don’t see the Del Sol as cute , but rather a change for a semi topless vehicle by Honda . If these cars don’t sell Mazda USA will soon be selling their smiley face cars elsewhere and lose the U.S. market . So no – cuteness does not equal low sales otherwise the Barbie car Miata would have been gone long ago !

  • avatar

    My dad had a ’95 Neon – the rare base model with the giant grey bumpers. He bought it new to replace a stripper Eagle Summit hatchback that he hated. I learned to drive on that car, and took my driver’s test on it.

    It was a really decent car, although he didn’t keep it long enough for it to develop any problems – it got totalled 3 years later, when he got t-boned by what was probably the last running Renault Encore left in NJ.

  • avatar

    Nah, it really depends on the underlying car and its merits. As a teen in the early 90s, the Miata was decidedly a chick car. When the Z3 came out, it was colloquially known as the “Miata for men” thanks to slighly more aggressive styling.

    Now with a couple decades behind it, I no longer consider the Miata a chick car at all. In fact, I very rarely see women driving them anymore.

  • avatar

    I go for cute. I’ve got 250k miles on a diesel New Beetle. My first car was a ’77 AMC Pacer, of which I’ve had four. Angry is an easy emotion to pull off in car design; “beautiful” may be the hardest, with cute not far off. In terms of the national zeitgeist, the 2000’s were possibly the least cute era of American history since the early ’80’s, when even professional hairstyles could draw blood. Everybody in the ’00’s wanted their own 9/11-proof bunker-on-wheels.

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