Odd Looking Cars Don't Sell, But Automakers Keep Trying

Nissan Cube and other oddballs are today's Edsels. How ugly is your ride?

Walk through any auto show these days and chances are you will find an odd looking car or truck that you think: "Wow ... interesting, though I can't imagine actually buying one of those."

Some of those cars, trucks and SUVs exist just as "design exercises," so that car companies can float trial balloons to see how the public will react to a new idea. But sometimes the feedback actually pushes auto companies to build an odd design.

History shows time and again, though, that auto companies would do better to stay within the lines of convention. Not that they should churn out boring cars and trucks year after year. But they might save themselves a lot of money if they were better at tossing out the ideas that push the envelope too far.

The Nissan Cube is one such vehicle. Square as a breadbox, and with a side-hinged rear hatchback door and oval rear window, the car sold just 22,968 last year, and 8,677 so far this year through April. Honda is discontinuing the similarly squarish Element, which sold 67,478 at its height in 2004, but fell to below 14,000 last year, not enough to keep it going or justify a redesign.

The Hummer H2, which seemed to appeal to a military wannabee crowd of drivers in denial about eventual $4.00 per gallon gas looked like an SUV so audacious it would never be built -- only it was. The Hummer military vehicle was made popular in the first Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm. Arnold Schwarzenegger's interest in a "street-legal" Hummer led to the $100,000 Hummer H1 being offered to consumers. Then, GM, which bought the right to develop street-legal vehicles under the Hummer brand name, saw the demand for a Hummer H2 that could priced at half that, and the Hummer H2 was born. GM sold it for seven years, with its high water mark coming in 2004 when it sold 34,529. In all, GM sold 152,939 Hummer H2s. But, obnoxious and menacing looking, and getting about 9 mpg, the hulking SUV became, as one GM executive put it, "The poster-child for global warming." The Hummer brand had become so toxic by 2009 that GM couldn't find a buyer for the brand and instead shut it down.

Ford, known for the car that is synonymous with design failure -- the Edsel -- struck again in 2002 with a luxury pickup truck called the Lincoln Blackwood. The pin-stripe paint-job and glitch-ridden automatic retracting bed cover created a design package so objectionable to most buyers that it might have been better called Edsel II, or Albatross. Lincoln sold just 3,356 Blackwoods in one model year.

Ford designer Joel Piaskowski says polarizing design can be a blessing and a curse. Even if some people fall in love with a design, they may be hesitant to purchase it because they are worried about resale values. Car designers can't take as many risks as fashion designers, because car buyers tend to be more conservative.

"You're dealing with dollars and cents," he says. "Clothes cost pennies compared with cars. That's the same reason you don't see radical home design."

Hyundai is testing the waters with a new and curious design called the Veloster, a three-door crossover SUV. Three-door? Technically, it might be called a four-door, since it has rear hatchback door. But what makes one want to call it a three-door is that it appears to be a door-door coupe, but it actually has a third door on the passenger side that opens for greater access to a very cramped backseat. Cars with unconventional third doors, such as the MINI Clubman and Saturn Ion coupe have never been big sellers.

"The reaction to the Veloster has been tremendous since we first showed it," says Hyundai Motors America CEO John Krafcik. "The younger buyers we feel will be very attracted to it aren't at all limited in their thinking of how a car should be or can be designed."

Larry Erickson, a design professor at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, says it's hard to tell if some more radical designs are duds, because the automakers still may have made money on small batches of the cars.

Radical design often sparks an emotional response in buyers, and people who want the car really, really want it. So they are more willing to pay higher prices, at least at first. "They may want it more than anyone else," he says.

One of the most infamously ugly and criticized vehicles of the last quarter century was the Pontiac Aztek, an SUV GM built. The company, though, tried to save money by building it atop the engineering platform that had been used on the automaker's very unsuccessful line of minivans. The Aztek's design proportions were awkward and uneven, prompting comparisons with lunar landing vehicles. The enormous back-end of the SUV was especially off-putting, giving the whole vehicle a kind of bad Tonka-toy look.

About the Honda Element, says Erickson, "It gave Honda something different; showed people that Honda sees itself as a different kind of car company. Things like the Element make sure you know that." On the Nissan Cube, he says, "I don't know how the Cube is selling, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good thing to do."

AOL Autos has assembled a gallery of vehicles famous and infamous for their odd and risky design. Leave us comments on what you think of them. Would you buy one? Did you? if you actually bought one, tell us why and what you think of your purchase.

View Gallery: Odd Looking Cars

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