By on February 10, 2020

In case you missed it, the 92nd Academy Awards were splashed all over television and social media last night, with a film by the name of Parasite taking home multiple Oscar trophies. This surprised many and was generally considered an unexpected choice.

Few of us around these parts can be considered movie buffs, despite our occasional “TTAC at the Movies” post, but we do know our cars. This leads us to today’s question: what cars can you recall as being extremely surprising … for reasons good or bad?

The natty Dodge Spirit R/T shown above is top of mind thanks to a Slack conversation with this site’s discerning Associate Editor a few days ago. When launched, your author recalls buff books of the day marvelling at its speed, if not its style.

I seem to recall Car & Driver using one of them as a chase vehicle for some sort of supercar test and being surprised to see it in their rearview mirrors, keeping up though the twisty sections of Hocking Hills or wherever Yates, Bedard, & Co. were on that particular day. A total of 224 turbocharged horsepower stirred by a five-speed stick in a small(ish) sedan is nothing to sneeze at today; in the early ’90s, it was remarkable.

What makes it into the golden envelope for your pick as one of the most surprising cars ever built?

[Images: Chrysler Corp, via source]

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38 Comments on “QOTD: Surprise Winner, Oscar Edition?...”


  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In keeping with the previous column/article, the Volvo 262C. After all there was not requirement that the surprising car be successful.

    I might also recommend the Honda CR-X? A vehicle with perhaps no competitors at the time.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    Every time I see a Prowler on the road, I’m astounded that the thing was green lit and produced by a major automaker.

    • 0 avatar
      Jon

      My neighbor has one. He is really proud of it. Every time he talks it up, I shut my mouth and nod… Some people like green beans in their chili.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        eh, it (and the PT Cruiser) were the right products at the time the “retro” craze hit.

        The problem is that they were still selling the same damn thing 10 years later, well past the time the retro thing had worn off.

    • 0 avatar
      StudeDude

      Chrysler was not afraid to take risks back in the ’90s pre-Daimler. The had some quality issues but the cars were cool and innovative.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I think the same about the SSR. The only thing that would get my attention is finding one of those powered by the 6.0/6 speed manual combo.

      • 0 avatar
        Tele Vision

        @ eng_alvarado90

        My friend’s Dad bought one last year. LS2 with the T-56, just like in my CTS-V. He was looking at a storage facility as an investment and the owner opened a unit to show him the size of it. The owner’s SSR was in it – 20 minutes later it belonged to my friend’s Dad. No idea what he paid.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Chevy Sonic.

    When I was handed the keys to one in New Orleans I begged, pleaded, requested anything.

    “Sorry sir, that’s all we have.”

    Ugh.

    The Chevy Sonic was anything but a rollerskate with a steering wheel. It had acceptable power, rolled at 80 MPH on the Interstate with the flow of traffic with ease, was poised, and surprisingly quiet. The interior seems vastly larger than the exterior dimensions, it sipped gas, and the seats were comfortable. Controls were logical, the “motorcycle style” gauges grew on me, and it had nice proportions. It was just plain fun to drive, and I quickly found myself thinking that a 6-speed manual and this would be a barrel of monkeys.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I thought the same about a 2015 Sonic rental I was handed in DFW Airport. Back at Sixt counter there were only a dozen Yaris and this Sonic. I picked the later just because it was a LTZ HB with the 1.4T (the Yaris was a base model). Good power to weight ratio, nice interior and infotainment system and it only sipped 3 gallons on our 3 day commute. A 6 spd manual would’ve been icing on the cake but I’m aware there haven’t been a single rental car with a manual transmission for years.

  • avatar
    TOTitan

    I owned one from 99-03. They were indeed fast and handled not too bad for a K-car derived platform, but were not very well built and engine was a Chrysler 2.2 block with a Lotus head that tended to warp and have chronic head gasket failures. I finally had had the head milled and a custom all copper head gasket made that solved the problems. I sold it after four years of mostly fun driving for a few bucks more than I paid for it.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Cobalt SS. I saw a magazine do a comparison with it an the typical hot hatches that we all know and love. I recall thinking why did they include itt, that’s just cruel. It ended up winning.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    I learned to drive on a Spirit R/T. that car was hot s**t back then.

    almost worth its voracious appetite for head gaskets and timing belts.

    had multi-layer steel gaskets been around back then it probably would have been fine. Fixing the timing belt problem probably would have needed a design change to the engine block.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    I keep a pretty open mind when car shopping and am generally not set on any particular model or brand. I always have a leading contender though, but find that I rarely buy my original top choice after driving competing vehicles. Ford Flex in 2009 was a good example for its general goodness, handling and people hauling ability. 2006 Mazdaspeed6 is also a good example. Despite its horribly harsh ride in the Speed6, the car was absolutely bonkers for a midsized family sedan intender and I had fun every time I got behind the wheel. Also surprised at late 2000’s Civic Si which was a surprising amount of fun for a car that was not incredibly powerful.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Good surprise:
    0. Nissan Juke
    1. Lacrosse Avenir
    2. ’19 Mustang GT

    Bad surprise:
    0. Jaguar XE
    1. Mercedes E300
    2. 5th gen Camaro

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Pleasantly surprised by my current 2016 Highlander Hybrid. It’s a long story, but I bought it for reasons that have little to do with its qualities as a vehicle. I didn’t expect to enjoy driving it, especially since it was a downgrade from two straight Lexus flagships. But it’s a more convincing Lexus than you’d expect, except for a few feature omissions. It isn’t that much worse than the LS 460 as a comfy cruiser. It evokes memories of “fat Toyotas” of the early ’90s.

    Unpleasantly surprised by the Grand Marquis “Ultimate Edition” I rented a few years ago in LA. I was familiar with Panthers and their demerits, but this one was worse than most. I haven’t driven something that vague since the horribly abused ’82 Ram Van that shuttled people around campus at my college job. Build quality was also complete crap by the standards of the time (2011), probably thanks to tooling extended past its reasonable life.

    Also unpleasantly surprised by the F30 BMW 330i (volume version). FWD or not, i believe either of the last two generations of Honda Accords to be far superior to drive, and just as comfortable inside. The F30’s engine was powerful, and I really don’t have anything else nice to say about it. I haven’t driven a G20 yet to see if it’s any better.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      If you push it the F30 at least acts like a RWD car. I don’t have much experience with Accords but I assume they default to understeer at all times.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        The F30 gave me no desire to push it whatsoever. Just a desire to finish my drive and get out.

        Yes, the Accords are FWD and will behave as such at the limit, but below the limit they are more satisfying. Steering and body control are both far better.

  • avatar
    lstanley

    2010 Hummer H3T.

    Is it ridiculous? Yes
    Is it mostly useless? Yes
    Is it awesome? YES!

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I remember our HS principal had Chrysler sedan version of the turbo. I can’t remember the name of it but it had cool phone dial wheels similar to 944T of that era.

    Surprise for me was 2015 Impapla LT 4cyl rental. Large ,quiet ,steady handling and handsome interior for the price point.

  • avatar
    imnormlurnot

    Ford Contour SVT; it fits both the good and the bad.
    The good:
    Nice drive and ride; v6 sounded great (at least inside the car it sounded great), good gas mileage.

    The bad:
    Water pump failures, shrieking bushings in rear suspension, wheel bearing failures, shoddy assembly.
    At least the repair cost were somewhat reasonable.

    • 0 avatar
      dividebytube

      I so wanted a V6 Contour – non-SVT – since it was supposed to be the poor man’s BMW of the 90s.

      The 4-cyl Contour was a BHPH special back then… quite a few of them around. Now? I can’t remember the last time I saw one. But somehow the Grand Prix and Grand Ams of the world still soldier on… well kinda… even their cockroach numbers are dropping with time.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    I was pleasantly surprised by an MR2 Spyder.

    I know it gets some hate for its odd looks and low power compared to previous generations, but the ultra low weight just makes it a blast to drive.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    Honda Prelude Four-Wheel Steering

  • avatar
    Sobro

    Bad surprising: I figured the Dodge Journey couldn’t be as bad as everyone says. On an overnight rental my wife decided she could see better out of it than whatever other option was presented. I figured I’m just driving it to the hotel and back, she’s driving it 40 miles RT to see a friend that night.

    What a horrible, hateful car that was. I think it was powered by NVH.

    And she ended up not taking the trip because the friend came to the hotel instead.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      I remember driving a brand new Journey on a test drive the year they came out. I almost didnt even bother with the test drive after seeing a couple of very visible manufacturing defects both inside and out. But….”you think you hate it now?…..wait until you drive it!”

      Sort of mind boggling that it is still on sale. The refresh, that is now undoubtedly stale, probably helped a little. Hopefully they have fixed the production bugs a decade later but it had no redeemable driving qualities back then, doubt its that much different.

  • avatar
    JMII

    Volvo C30

    My wife had one and it was the perfect upscale hot hatch. These little cars were completely overlooked and thus sold poorly. The 5 cylinder turbo was quick, with a smooth and soft ride. Big rear hatch had lots of storage, super comfortably seats, minimalist sleek interior with sexy exterior styling. However in a very un-Volvo like fashion it broke down constantly and required specific parts that were impossible to source in the states. Wife hated letting it go but it wasn’t worth the upkeep.

  • avatar
    ravenuer

    I’m going to toss in the 2005-2012 RAV4 V6. I stumbled upon a 2010 V6, CPO w 8k on it. Absolute rocket ship when allowed to be and I get 27-28 mpg on cruise on the highway. Don’t think I’ll ever sell it.

  • avatar
    Erikstrawn

    Late C4 Corvette. I was a Nissan tech at the time, and we got a C4 on the used car lot. What a rattle-trap of dubious build quality! It rode hard and the old small-block was pretty short on power. The huge tires tried to follow every line in the pavement. The interior was chintzy at best. After driving a 300ZX, it was a poor step down.

  • avatar
    millerluke

    My two biggest surprises:
    1) 01 Chev Impala. That thing wouldn’t die. Every mechanical problem it had, was a simple fix – a loose wire here, a loose connection there. Engine and transmission were stout! Finally had to get rid of it, with almost 400,000km, when the body rusted away. I loved that car.

    2)2015 (ish) Nissan Versa. I had one as a rental when my vehicle was in for service – thank goodness I wasn’t paying for it. It had 7000 km on it, and the climate control knobs were falling off, the engine… well, let’s say the hamster was dead. Tinny and loud, a total piece of junk. It made me angry just being in that hateful thing, I can’t imagine how mad someone would be who actually paid money for it.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Mine is more of a surprising concept than a car itself, and this is strictly because I always had a somewhat warped view of what was necessary for a car to be operational and “safe” while not being a “road-block.” I was gobsmacked to learn that anything above an itty-bitty compact could safely motor along with a 4 cylinder engine. I’d always assumed, because I was ignorant, that anything midsize or above requires a V6 of some sort. I also learned what my father meant all those years prior when he’d talk about a “big 4.”

    When I got my 2003 Accord with a 4 cylinder, I was skeptical that it would get out of its own way. I was surprised to learn that it did just fine. Then, when I drove a friend’s 4 cylinder Ranger…mind blown (just keep that in 3rd gear for uphill freeway ramps).

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    I had a one-year employee lease on a ’98 Z24 and was pleasantly surprised – not refined, but a fun little car.

    Drove an HHR for a week during a body shop repair – was surprised by the dreadful driving dynamics of that vehicle. (I understand the packaging appeal to some, but ugh.) Was *so* happy to get my G35 back.

    Saw a Lincoln Blackwood this week – I was surprised at the time (2002MY – only) and am still surprised by the spectacular failure of that vehicle (total U.S. sales 3,356).

  • avatar
    Fleuger99

    I loved my 1993 Ford Probe GT (AKA Mazda 6 underpinnings). Nice interior and the V6 engine had good performance for back in the day. It also looked great and was pretty reliable.

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