5 Controversial Cars From the Past Decade

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- You can't hit a home run in either baseball or automotive design without swinging for the fences and risking a strikeout -- and here's a look at some controversial models from the past decade that did just that.

"There are people in the industry who believe that a vehicle needs to be emotionally stirring in some way to be a success, and I think there's a lot of truth to that," says Joe Wiesenfelder of Cars.com, which recently named the 10 Most-Polarizing Cars of recent history.

Wiesenfelder and Cars.com's other editors created their ranking by considering all models from the past decade or so that had both vocal supporters and opponents among auto critics and the public alike.

Widely panned models such as the 2001-05 Pontiac Aztek sport utility vehicle didn't make the list because they had plenty of enemies, but few friends. "The term 'polarizing' suggests that there are two poles -- supporters and detractors -- but the Aztek was just ugly," Wiesenfelder says.

The expert believes automakers sometimes create polarizing vehicles by accident, developing what they think are sure-fire "winners" but finding out after a car reaches the market that part of the public loathes it.

Other times, Wiesenfelder says, manufacturers deliberately OK polarizing designs because they figure cars that some buyers love and others hate will sell better than those that neither inspire nor upset.

"When people go to automakers' focus groups and see a car that's just kind of OK, they might give it a score of five out of 10 across the board -- but a polarizing car might get a mix of sevens and threes," he says. "The final scores look the same on paper, but the reality is that people who give a vehicle a seven or higher will buy it."

Read on to check out the five polarizing vehicles at the top of Cars.com's rundown. Years shown in parentheses refer to the model years when a given car was available, while dollar figures refer to 2014 manufacturers' suggested retail prices for base versions of those vehicles still in production.

Fifth-most-polarizing car: Ford Flex (2009-present)

Ford rolled out the boxy-looking Flex large crossover SUV at a time when square cars were all the rage (the equally boxy Kia Soul and Nissan Cube premiered in the same model year).

Some buyers hated the Flex instantly, but the model continues to have its proponents even though Ford redesigned the Explorer (its traditional-looking large crossover) in 2011.

Wiesenfelder thinks the Flex endures because its boxy design offers more interior room than regular SUVs. "I think people who buy the Flex like how practical and roomy it is and don't primarily think about styling."

If you're flexible enough to go for a Flex, 2014 models start at $29,910.


Fourth-most-polarizing car: Toyota Prius (2001-present)

Eco-friendly drivers have made the fuel-efficient Prius the bestselling hybrid in America, but the model also has detractors who see it as the poster child for a leftist, tofu-and-granola lifestyle that they hate.

South Park even devoted an entire 2006 episode to slamming a car that looked suspiciously like the Prius for reducing America's smog problem but increasing "smug" -- the smugness that some hybrid owners display toward those with less-efficient rides.

"Prius drivers can be polarizing," Wiesenfelder says.

If you're a Prius proponent, the model's 2014 version starts at $25,010.

Third-most-polarizing car: Chrysler PT Cruiser (2001-10)

Critics and some car buyers fell in love with the PT Cruiser as soon as the retro model hit the market for 2001.

A cartoonish take on 1930s and '40s cars, the wagon won that year's prestigious North American Car of the Year award and other honors before eventually going on to sell more than 1 million units. General Motors even unveiled the similarly styled Chevrolet HHR in the 2006 model year.

But for every car buyer that loved the PT Cruiser, it seemed like someone else hated it. "Some people really liked the design and some people really didn't," Wiesenfelder says.

He says Chrysler and GM killed off the PT Cruiser and HHR once the "fad" they represented ran its course. "That's one of the risks of dramatically styled vehicles," Wiesenfelder says. "They don't always have staying power."


Second-most-polarizing car: The entire Hummer line (1992-2010)

Just as the Toyota Prius has a "green" image that some people like and others don't, the now-dead Hummer brand had a gas-guzzling, right-wing persona that inspired both love and hate.

A Hummer fan club continues to this day, while the site fuh2.com (now defunct) once encouraged people to post selfies of themselves giving Hummer drivers the finger.

The brand's gargantuan size, horrible fuel efficiency and accolades from famous Hummer owner (and noted Republican) Arnold Schwarzenegger made buying one as much a political statement as an auto purchase.

"The Hummer was a political hot potato -- the poster vehicle for inefficiency," Wiesenfelder says.

AM General premiered the original Hummers in 1992 as civilian versions of the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (or "Humvee") that the firm had been building for the U.S. military since the 1980s. General Motors then licensed the Hummer name in 1999 and added smaller H2 and H3 versions to the original H1 model.

The high-priced, high-margin vehicles made GM tons of money at first, but rising gas prices -- and, Wiesenfelder believes, the U.S. military's declining image amid the increasingly unpopular Afghan and Iraq wars -- eventually hurt sales. Ultimately, GM killed off the brand when the automaker downsized after its 2008 bankruptcy filing.

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Most-polarizing car: Nissan Juke (2011-present)

The Juke tops Cars.com list of most-polarizing cars thanks to a front end that the site describes as looking like "an angry Pokemon."

"The Juke's styling evokes the most-extreme reactions both pro and con -- but more on the con side," Wiesenfelder says. "It has a strange 'face,' and the single element that makes it controversial is the headlight arrangement."

Wiesenfelder says Nissan took the unusual step of placing the Juke's running lights atop the car's hood rather than below the headlights on the front grille where most vehicles have the them.

He says that makes the running lights look like furrowed eyebrows atop a pair of angry eyes, giving the Juke a wrath-filled "expression."

"It definitely isn't the traditional face that you find on virtually every other car," the expert says.

Still, Wiesenfelder says the hatchback sells particularly well in Europe "partly because of the car's small size, which makes it more viable there."

If you find yourself jiving for a Juke, 2014 versions of the small crossover start at $19,980.

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