PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) — In the post-recession United States, aesthetics are just about the last thing anyone is looking for in an automobile.
According to Polk, the average U.S. car has been on the road for more than a decade as drivers conserve cash, but even new-car buyers aren't being swayed by good looks. The share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the past five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com, while the Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010.
With the Department of Transportation noting that just 28% of 16-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds have drivers licenses – down from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978 – car dealers are lucky if kids are giving their vehicles a look at all. Their parents, meanwhile, just want something that can help them keep the job they're feeling awfully lucky to have.
Even then, they're spending less time in their car than ever. The DOT notes that U.S. drivers, who had been racking up a steadily increasing number of miles since the 1970s, started cutting back in 2008 and never returned to that peak. Meanwhile, traffic information service Inrix notes that as average gas prices started spiking in 2010, average commute times during peak hours dropped from more than four hours to less than two.
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A study done this spring by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that the average U.S. driver actually started cutting back well before the recession, peaking around 2004 but dropping 6% by 2011. While the total miles driven in the U.S. rose 3.8% from 1948 to 2004, they've been flat since. A 4% drop in vehicle ownership since 2006 and a 4 percentage-point drop in licensed drivers since 1992 aren't helping.
If ever there was a time to sneak an ugly car past an unsuspecting U.S. public, it's now. Our Ted Reed has taken great pains to rehash our nation's sordid history of ugly vehicles, but even his lengthy lists of unfortunate vehicles don't do justice to the horrors of the modern auto marketplace.
There have been vehicles released within the past year that are every bit the detriment to design that the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, 1977 Lincoln Versailles and 1985 Cadillac DeVille were. The following are just 10 examples:
10. 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage
No hybrid engine, no plug: Just a light little econobox that makes the most of its fuel.
Emphasis on "little" and "econobox." The only 2014 model to make Reed's list of terrible cars this year, the Mirage is about 12 feet long and little more than 5 feet wide, the Mirage doesn't even provide the illusion of space.
Made in Thailand and built with a pokey 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine, the Mirage has all the power of a stiff breeze. It's built in the grand tradition of the Geo Metro, Hyundai Excel and the other tiny, fuel-efficient hatchbacks of the late '80s and early '90s, but with all of the stripped-down qualities that soured U.S. drivers on those cars in the first place. Not only are Mirage drivers investing in an unfortunate-looking toy, but they're not getting a whole lot more than mileage out of their investment.
9. 2014 Toyota Prius
Take your pick of the original-recipe sedan, the Prius C compact or the Prius V wagon: They're all dowdy little utilitarian vehicles that nobody's buying for their exterior features.
Don't believe us? Ask auto pricing site Edmunds' John Pearley Huffman, who referred to the Prius as "The polliwog of green piety. Efficiency reduced down to the point of ennui." Yeah, it doesn't get much prettier from there.
When discussing the Prius with Forbes in 2012, New York Times automotive writer Lawrence Ulrich noted that customers buy a Prius – the best-selling hybrid in the U.S. – in spite of its looks, not because of them: "It's as frumpy as any car I've seen, like an over-full colostomy bag."
Well, Toyota, it could be worse: The Prius could look like the contents of that colostomy bag. But as long as it's roughly a third of the base price of a Tesla Model S and gets about 50 miles to the gallon, the Prius doesn't mind having its name dragged through the mud ... or worse.
8. 2014 Nissan Juke
Nissan absolutely loves the ugly in this car.
The Juke has been out there for four years and instead of making its freaky performance crossover with six headlights into a staid bore headed for the rental lots, Nissan opted to go full-tilt weird with it. The grill now has a triangular shape, the parking lights on the top of the fenders now have LED daytime running lights built into them and Nissan has countered the car's "ugly" label with a term of their own: polarizing.
In their view, people once called Eames chairs, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the original iPod "ugly." Sometimes, "ugliness" is just design that the middle of the road isn't quite ready for yet. In the Juke's case, there are a whole lot of people who are into keeping the Juke weird. Though Nissan sold fewer than 9,000 Jukes in 2010, that figure rose to 38,000 by the end of last year.
You may call it ugly, but Nissan calls it a pretty decent niche.
7. 2014 Lamborghini Veneno
You don't see the words "ugly" and "Lamborghini" occupying adjacent real estate in a sentence very often, so cherish this moment.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lamborghini, the Italian automaker decided to make a supercar with a 6.5-liter V12 engine boosted up to 740 horsepower. They also decided to make it look like a Decepticon that didn't make it off of Michael Bay's cutting room floor during post-production for one of his Transformers films.
Seriously, it's the Batmobile that Bruce Wayne sent back. There were only three of these roadsters made, with each of them starting with a base price of $4.5 million. The critics have been less than kind to evil-twin Speed Racer's aluminum-foil Mach 5, though.
The hottest take comes from Edmunds' Huffman, who declared it "the worst thing out of Italy since Fascism." Somewhere, Fabio breathes a sigh of relief.
6. 2014 Mini Paceman
Since its roles in the Austin Powers series and The Italian Job, the Mini Cooper has been embraced in the U.S. as a compact with a whole lot of power and style.
But that was way back when the British had a say in what the Mini looked like -- back when the Mini was actually Mini. But no. Instead, the Mini's German overlords at BMW stretched the Mini Cooper into the five-door Countryman and then, for reasons unknown, kept the Countryman's brutish headlights and grill, stuck on a set of massive taillights, added a bulky chrome frame and dared to call it a Mini.
Awful would be a better term. But that seems to be where BMW is taking the Mini these days. As Vanity Fair automotive lifestyle writer Brett Burke said to Forbes two years ago about Mini's overall aesthetic, "Cool yarmulke is an oxymoron and should never be used as a design inspiration."
5. 2014 BMW X6
The very purpose of the crossover is to get the space and utility of an SUV onto a sedan's frame. It's meant to take the best of each vehicle type and turn it into one vehicle that's both more practical and more efficient.
It's why you don't take an SUV and try to cram it into a coupe. BMW didn't get that memo and made a $62,000 vehicle that isn't as compact as a coupe, isn't nearly as spacious as a compact SUV and isn't very good at justifying its existence.
Its year-over-year sales are completely flat and it's the third-least-popular BMW behind the still-limited i3 electric vehicle and the quickly fading Z4 convertible. That it looks like a crossover giving birth to a coupe doesn't help its cause.
In Huffman's words, "It looks like a Bavarian cockroach."
4. 2014 Nissan Versa Sedan
At least Nissan can defend its strange-looking Juke as the artistic product of free-thinking designers. The Versa looks like it was produced in plants in the former Yugoslavia and Czech Republic by Eastern Bloc bosses who thought the Yugo and Skoda had too many amenities.
Nissan could have just named this vehicle "Car" and gotten away with it. There are a scant 14.9 cubic feet of trunk space that actually comes up short of the Note hatchback version's cargo room by 10 cubic feet. It has traction control, ABS brakes, airbags and a whole lot of other safety features that are fairly standard by now.
Its 109-horsepower engine is tiny, its NissanConnect tech offerings are extra and its chrome accents, trip computer, outdoor temperature gauge, four speakers and 60/40 folding rear seats are listed as key amenities. What would draw someone to this car beyond price? Well, the automatic does get combined mileage of more than 35 miles per gallon. From a buyer's perspective, that's the only thing that looks remotely attractive about this faceless sedan.
3. 2014 Lincoln MKT
Get it? MKT, like market... because it's a grocery-getter wagon?
Don't worry, most U.S. car buyers didn't get it, either. Though Lincoln calls this beast its "touring" crossover, the MKT looks as if it's spent more time touring the depths for krill. With a grille straight out of a whale-watching excursion, a nose even a prizefighter would cringe at and bloated frame modeled on the Ford Flex, the MKT is inefficient and unpleasant.
But that's kind of what you'd expect out of a car that's being used as a hearse in some portions of the U.S. With the Lincoln Town Car gone, Lincoln was leaning on this as a car-service replacement. Instead, it gave the MKT a facelift last year that actually sent sales plummeting to 6,000 from 7,000 a year earlier.
2. 2014 Honda Pilot
Snub-nosed like last decade's SUVs, boxy as an '80s Volvo and with a big-eyed face of giant halogen headlights that even a parent couldn't love, the Honda Pilot is the ugliest reminder of the nation's pre-"cash for clunkers" proclivities.
It looks as if Honda slapped the rear of an entirely different SUV onto the front of a sedan it never got around to making and called it a car. In Car and Driver's words "the rear end simply looks irritated to share a vehicle with the front." It's one of the most brutish vehicles on the road in 2014 and drivers rarely seem able to grasp its clunky corners.
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That doesn't mean they don't love it, however. After a 2009 redesign that came right after a recession sales soared from 84,000 that year to 127,000 last year. That's still shy of a pre-recession U.S. record of 152,000 Pilots sold in 2006, but it indicates that U.S. drivers haven't completely lost their love for big, ugly SUVs.
1. 2014 Infiniti QX80
QX4, QX56, QX80 ... whatever name Infiniti finally lands on for this vehicle, it shouldn't be pretty.
The former QX4 and QX56 got a new badge for 2014, but it still has the size, chrome and schnoz of a vehicle that got its first major facelift in 2004. A giant chrome grill, chrome vents and other chrome accents spread along its hulking exterior give it the look of a truck that came off the set of a mid-aughts Birdman video that never aired.
It's a garishness typically reserved for the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX and other full-sized SUVs that faded out of style after the recession. But the folks at Infiniti felt confident enough in the QX80 and the 12,000 vehicles its sold since last July that they not only kept it as big and awkward as ever, but they're giving it a super-luxurious Limited trim in 2015.
It's a big, ungainly throwback that still draws as much attention for its 400-horsepower V8 engine as it does for its hideous frame.
By Jason Notte