By on October 16, 2019

On last Wednesday’s Question of the Day post, we began our examination of terrible styling on sporty cars of the 1990s. First up was America, and the oft-fiddled Mercury Cougar. This week we turn our attention to Europe, and sporty designs from across the ocean that didn’t quite work.

Let’s review the rules. They’re the same as last week, except more continental:

  1. All selections must be model years 1990 to 1999.
  2. Picks must be from a European manufacturer, even if sourced from an import.
  3. Any body style is eligible as long as it’s sporty.

My selection for bad design comes from a brand which largely avoided pitfalls with their sophisticated and slab-sided designs in the Nineties. But no OEM is immune from bad styling decisions, to wit:

The SLK-Class was a new offering from Mercedes-Benz, in the So Hot Right Now compact roadster class. It had no predecessor, as before the early Nineties Mercedes never showed much interest in catering to the whims of the general public ⁠— the sort of people who leased vehicles. But times were changing.

SLK entered production in 1996, riding on a shortened version of the C-Class, the company’s cheapest sedan platform. It had the correct roadster layout, with engine at the front and driven wheels at the rear. Engines were of inline-four or V6 variety, and power was increased in both engines via optional supercharging. A folding metal arrangement was the only roof offered.

The layout and power weren’t an issue, but the styling was. The SLK attempted to carry an amalgamation of styling cues. The front end was an interpretation of the company’s pinnacle offering, the S-Class coupe. The rear was contemporary C-class adjacent, with tail lamps previewed the C-Class that debuted five years later. The whole car was 157 inches long, its piecemeal appearance not aided by stumpy proportions.

SLK interiors didn’t fare much better, especially on early models. Weird shapes (Mercedes’ worst airbag wheel) paired with cheap looking materials, and analog gauges looked sun faded right from the factory. Faux carbon fiber trim was liberally applied. Updates to the SLK occurred along the way, and the model earned a successor in 2005. By then the Nineties design of the first generation was very tired, and it’s only gone downhill since.

What are your picks for bad European sports car styling from the Nineties?

[Images: Ford, Mercedes-Benz]

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45 Comments on “QOTD: Terrible Nineties Sports Car Design From Europe?...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Hey hey now don’t be knockin’ the SiLK.

  • avatar
    retrocrank

    986/996. The day the music died.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      The 996 had its’ share of issues, but I’d say styling wasn’t one of them.

      • 0 avatar
        retrocrank

        I disagree. To me, the 356, 911, 914, and the transaxle cars all show function and engineering as the independent variable and styling as the dependent variable.

        986/996 (and their descendents) were style follows economics as the independent variable and function was the engineering dependent variable.

        Probably good news for the company and shareholders, but I think the core values were lost. The SUV/SUVette/sedans that followed support my point that economics became the dominant driver of design philosophy.

      • 0 avatar
        retrocrank

        I disagree. To me, the 356, 911, 914, and the transaxle cars all show function and engineering as the independent variable and styling as the dependent variable.

        986/996 (and their descendents) were style follows economics as the independent variable and function was the engineering dependent variable.

        Probably good news for the company and shareholders, but I think the core values were lost. The SUV/SUVette/sedans that followed support my point that economics became the dominant driver of design philosophy.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Ok does it have to be a new design or can it be a refresh?

    Series III XJS, very long in the tooth by 1990 and ran till MY96.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJS

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    Uh, 95-02 BMW Z3 Coupe? Looks like the designer was dropping acid with a group of circus clowns.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Despite what Doug said in his recent video, I think and always thought the first gen Audi TT was unsightly. It didn’t seem to have any sort of cohesion and I’ve never liked cars that look the same coming as going.

    The subsequent generations have been major improvements.

    • 0 avatar
      SilverCoupe

      I agree, I called it a squashed bug when it first came out – but I bought one anyway, because I wanted an all wheel drive sporty car, and the Mitsubishi 3000 GT VR4 was old in the tooth and too heavy.
      My wife and my friends all liked it, but I was never totally sold, though I did like the rear view.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      To me the TT will always be a VW Karmann Golf, even had a VW looking face at that time.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    I missed last week’s digging on the Cougar. I thought it was quite nice at the time, even if I never bought one – and I was very interested but life got in the way (baby). It seemed too much a heavier if as-nice-looking rebadge of the 2G Ford Probe, without a drivetrain improvement. The 200-horse engine from the Contour SVT should have been offered.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      You were better off to have admired from afar.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      @ Jeff Weimer – Different gens of the Cougar, actually. Last week’s discussion was about the 7th-gen, MN12 Cougar – the ones from the era when the Cougar and Thunderbird were platform-mates, with the Thunderbird’s being fully “aero” and the Cougar’s being aero but with a GM-ish formal rear roofline.

      I think you’re referring to the 8th-gen, CDW27 Cougar, which (per Wikipedia) was related to the Mondeo and the Contour. The car pictured at the top of this article actually is the European Ford Puma. The Puma had the same New Edge design language as the 8th-gen Cougar. In photos from certain angles, they look very similar. The Puma is related to the contemporary Fiesta, though, and is smaller.

      I like the New Edge styling and thought they both were attractive cars. I only know one person who had an 8th-gen Cougar, and unfortunately it lived up (down?) to that car’s reputation for being problematic. I don’t know anyone who had a Puma, although someone street parked one in a neighborhood I lived in in London. I think they were kind of neat. Think of a design directive “OK, take the Fiesta platform and give me something that’s a little Bill Thomas Cheetah-inspired but in the New Edge design language. And it can’t cost too much.” If that was the goal, I think Ford largely succeeded. I’m not sure how they held up, but contemporary reviewers liked them. Look for the video “top gear car of the year 1997” on YouTube.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        The picture is of the Cougar, the European Mondeo based version with the Ford logo on the grill. The Puma is similarly New edge styled but more compact.

        When I was looking at MN12 Thunderbird and Cougars I took a look at the new 99-02 CDW27 Cougar and found myself unimpressed though the Duratech and Zetec engines were nice.
        I’d take a Probe or MX-6 or even a ZX2 over one.

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          Wow, I didn’t realize that Cougar was sold in Europe. The more you know . . . .

          Yesterday, I actually went so far as to look up a picture of the Puma to remind myself of how similar the front end styling was to the Cougar’s and it seemed to confirm to me, “Yep, that’s actually Puma in that picture.” I also noted that the pictured car is RHD, which reinforced my wrong impression that it was a Puma. It’s the rear three-quarter view and the size difference that really distinguish them.

          I never saw a single Ford Cougar in three-plus years of frequent trips to Europe for work followed by two years of being based there. That makes them rarer in my mind than privately imported Nissan Figaros.

          Anyway, make mine a Puma, as I don’t imagine either has a back seat that’s kind on passengers, and the Puma’s Fiesta & Ka DNA probably makes it more reliable.

  • avatar
    detlump

    Funny story about the Cougar headlamps. Back in my previous career I was an engineer working on those lighting units. There were warranty issues about damage to the black bezels, squiggly lines appearing beneath the projector lens. The headamps left the factory without them, what could have happened?

    It turns out that the protruding projector lens was acting like a magnifying glass and focusing sunlight on the black bezel beneath the projector, causing the damage. Due to the movement of the sun and the vehicle being parked differently, the damage spread! The solution was to add a black metal “eyelash” beneath the projector as a shield.

    Also, spiders were getting into the headlamps so we had to install membranes and foam in the vent tubes! Good times.

  • avatar
    MarionCobretti

    It never made it to America, but I’ve always found the Fiat Coupe to be a little too weird to be attractive. It sounds glorious, and apparently drives great, but it looks like a kit car. Chris friggin’ Bangle, man.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    An argument could be made that the SLK had an ancestor in the form of the 190SL from the 1950s.

    My vote goes to the mid-1990s Lotus Elise. They always looked goofy and awkward to me.

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    I’d say the golf Mk3 cabrio. Golf, which was somehow both cute and boring, just didn’t translate to a drop top, and the fixed rollbar did it no favors. Looked like a basket handle. Also, that 2.0 as the only engine. Barf.

  • avatar
    Sundance

    I didn’t like the first SLK when it came out, but when the second (horrible) generation was introduced, I knew there is always a worse thing to come. Today I think the first gen is quite nice (a soft top would have been better, of course).

    Regarding bad styling: Porsche 968 convertible.

  • avatar
    gtem

    Non US market, but the ’94 Ford Scorpio has got to take the cake for one of the ugliest things ever

    https://www.cars-data.com/pictures/ford/ford-scorpio_824_2.jpg

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Lotus Elan.
    Drops mic. Walks off stage.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    merkur xr4ti didn’t make it 1 year to this question

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    I’m torn between the original Mercedes A Class and the Audi A2, both are compact cars with big car styling badly dumped onto them. The Audi gets an akward front end, the Mercedes is just a mess.

    Then theres the Mercedes CUV of that time which looked a bit too much like a Lexus or Honda CRV.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    And so, kids, these are the things we do not buy:
    – Red cars
    – Houses on corner lots
    – European cars
    – Ford vehicles manufactured after 1953 (last year of the Flathead V8)
    – GM vehicles manufactured after 2003 (last year of the Chevy Small Block)

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