Consumer Reports’ road testing is one of the most thorough and punishing automotive tests in the world. Its in-depth and impartial methods separate the serious contenders from the also-rans, and gives an unvarnished view of a car’s real-world performance. Because of this, the magazine has the unique position of being able to make or break a new car in a way that no other publication has. On top of the report card-like rating system, everything from the quality of interior trim to a car’s handling in emergency situations can be summed up in their five-point rating system ranging from excellent to poor. On rare occasions, cars fall below even the lowest poor rating, earning a harsh and foreboding “Not Acceptable” rating.
And as the last few decades have shown, that’s when all hell breaks loose. During the 1980s and 1990s when automakers began rushing SUVs to the market to satisfy the growing demand, Consumer Reports had its hands full warning the public about the increased risk of rollovers, and fending off lawsuits from irate automakers who felt the magazine’s tests were unfairly biased against SUVs. Consumer Reports issued its fair share of “Not Acceptable” ratings long before the SUV dominated American roads, and history has largely absolved the magazine, as it’s now conventional wisdom that older full-size SUVS are a bigger rollover risk than their smaller counterparts. From microcars to hulking SUVs, here are 10 cars that Consumer Reports never wanted to see on the road.
10. 2007-2012 Dodge Nitro
Introduced just before crossover vehicles caught on in a big way, the Dodge Nitro was the answer to a question nobody asked. Suffering from an appalling design and build quality, the Nitro represented everything that was bad about pre-bankruptcy Chrysler. In its video review of the Dodge, Consumer Reports was brutally honest about the terrible Nitro, concluding that its cramped interior, sluggish engine, and cheap feel made it “a chore” to drive. When asked to say something nice about the car, the reviewer was unable to name a single redeeming feature. Despite coming in aggressively named trim levels like “Heat,” “Detonator,” and “Shock,” most consumers saw the Nitro for the penalty box it was and took their business elsewhere.
9. 1968 AMC Ambassador SST
In 1968, independent automaker AMC was on the verge of having a major hit on its hands with the handsome new Ambassador sedan. Even before it went into production, the flagship car made news by being the first American car to ever offer standard air conditioning, and company brass rushed the car into production in order to keep up with expected demand. Unfortunately, it was not to be: The earliest cars off the line were poorly engineered and terribly built. An early-production model earned Consumer Reports’ dreaded “Not Acceptable” rating when a poorly installed fuel filler neck spilled gasoline out of the car during heavy brake testing. Even after the kinks were worked out, the Ambassador’s reputation was permanently tarnished, and AMC limped along another 20 years until it was bought by Chrysler in 1988.
8. 2003 Nissan Murano
When it was introduced in 2003, the Nissan Murano was a considerable success for Nissan. Its striking looks were a centerpiece of the company’s new design direction, and its compact size and upscale interior made it a strong sales success. The Murano was even nominated for the North American Truck of the Year Award – but that didn’t stop Consumer Reports from raising the red flag. During testing, it found that in hard cornering, the steering would stiffen, making the Murano difficult to control. Despite the popularity of the Murano, the magazine refused to recommend the SUV until the issue was corrected. In a rare case of automotive humility, Nissan corrected the issue, and Consumer Reports positively reviewed the 2005 model, giving it a high recommendation.
7. Subaru 360
Businessman Malcolm Bricklin is chiefly known for bringing three cars to America: the Yugo, the Bricklin SV1, and the Subaru 360. After successfully importing Fuji mopeds from Japan in the 1960s, Bricklin realized that he could cheaply import Fuji’s Subaru 360 cars to America because their size and weight exempted them from U.S. automotive safety standards. The flyweight Subaru weighed only 900 pounds, and at under 10 feet long, it made the Volkswagen Beetle look like a Lincoln Continental. Consumer Reports called it “the most unsafe car in America,” and gave the car its dreaded “Not Acceptable” rating. The 360 was an unmitigated failure in the U.S., with one dealership offering six cars for $2,000 just to get rid of them all. Still, it was just enough to give Subaru a foothold in the American market, where nearly 50 years later the company is enjoying record sales numbers.
6. 1978 Dodge Omni
Believe it or not, the Dodge Omni (and the identical Plymouth Horizon) is one of the most important American cars ever built. Chrysler was in bankruptcy protection when it released the Omni, and its sales success almost single-handedly brought the company back from the brink. In 1978, the Omni looked like the future for American cars. It was the first American front-wheel drive hatchback, the first with a transverse mounted engine, and the first with a semi-independent rear suspension. Despite its sales success (and winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award), the Omni’s terrible build quality, atrocious safety record, and dangerously vague steering earned it a Consumer Reports “Not Acceptable” rating. Time magazine followed suit by launching their own investigation and confirmed Consumer Reports findings. Despite the red flags, Americans bought the little hatchbacks in droves. All told, Chrysler built nearly 3 million of the cars between 1977 and 1990. Good luck finding many left on the roads today.
5. Smart ForTwo
The Smart ForTwo was never the success in America parent company Mercedes-Benz hoped it would be. Its 38 miles per gallon rating may have been something to brag about when it was introduced in Europe in 1998, but 17 years later, it’s middle of the pack for economy cars. Along with polarizing styling, a dated interior, limited storage space, and a transmission with the reputation for being one of the worst in the world, there’s not much to love about the little Smart. Consumer Reports says: “This tiny two-seater is good on gas and a snap to park. After that, the positives pretty much run out.” An all-new ForTwo is on the way for 2016, and by all accounts it’s better in every way. We’ll see if that’s enough to make American buyers forget about the car’s disappointing first act.
4. Suzuki Samurai
With its diminutive size and cute looks, the Samurai may look like a pretender, but for years it’s been considered one of the most rugged and durable small 4x4s in the world – and it was absolutely savaged by Consumer Reports. Introduced in 1985, the Samurai was a smaller and cheaper alternative to the Jeep CJ-7 and Wrangler models, and was a considerable sales success until a 1988 Consumer Reports test deemed it dangerously unsafe for American roads. The report was unusual in its strong language, and publicly called for Suzuki to recall all 150,000 Samurais and immediately replace them with a safer model. A damning investigation later found that the magazine altered their tests to increase the possibility of a rollover, and in 1996, Suzuki sued Consumer Reports for the damage the report did to the brand’s sales and reputation. The lawsuit dragged on for years before it was settled out of court in 2004. Suzuki never fully recovered from the ordeal, and pulled out of the American auto market in 2012.
3. Isuzu Trooper
Like the Suzuki incident, Consumer Reports was taken to court over their questionable rollover testing of the Isuzu Trooper (and the identical Acura SLX, pictured here). After receiving “Not Acceptable” ratings in the magazine’s rollover tests, Puerto Rico’s Isuzu distributor sued the magazine alleging a sharp decline in sales after the trucks were deemed unsafe. When the case went to trial in 2000, a jury found that the magazine’s staff “had made several false statements in an article and at a news conference in which it branded the Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle unsafe.” The lawsuit was a major embarrassment for the magazine, and it was one of the last times the American public heard from Isuzu. The company stopped selling passenger vehicles in the U.S. in 2008.
2. 2010 Lexus GX 460
By 2010, Consumer Reports had learned its lesson about crying wolf too quickly, and did everything right when Lexus’s full-size GX 460 displayed a tendency to roll over. After discovering the issue on its test truck, the magazine bought a second one and ran a series of fully-documented tests on both SUVs. The findings were the same, and the magazine issued a carefully worded “Safety Risk: Don’t Buy” statement. It wasn’t as alarmist as the old “Not Acceptable” rating, but it urged consumers to avoid the model until Toyota fixed the issue. Instead of taking legal action, Toyota took the toned down warning to heart and immediately recalled the big SUVs for a stability control adjustment. After the issue was fixed, the magazine retested the Lexus, and found it to be safe.
1. 2001 Mitsubishi Montero
When Mitsubishi released its new Montero SUV in 2000, it stressed the truck’s size and safety, but Consumer Reports’ tests found otherwise. The magazine liked the Montero at first, but found that at taking turns over 37 miles per hour, the truck had a dangerously high rollover risk. The magazine issued one of their dreaded “Not Acceptable” ratings, though by then the magazine’s reputation had become so tarnished after the Suzuki and Isuzu lawsuits that Mitsubishi publicly cast doubt on Consumer Reports’ testing methods. Still, the Montero was far from a success, and it was pulled from the American market in 2006.
While Consumer Reports’ thorough and impartial tests have made the magazine a must-have since its inception in 1936, it made it through the trying 1990s and has emerged stronger and more trusted than ever. Run by the Consumers Union, the magazine still refuses to sell ad space to avoid any outside influence, pays for all the products it tests, and forbids manufacturers from using a positive review in advertisements. Because of this, after nearly 80 years, the magazine’s New Car Buyer’s Guide is a must have for millions of car buyers. Few other publications have the influence Consumer Reports does, and as this list shows, it’s not afraid to use it.
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