For this latest round of This or That, I've roped Editor Greg Migliore into what I think is a rather fun debate. We've each chosen our favorite terrible cars, setting a price limit of $10,000 to make sure neither of us went too crazy with our automotive atrocities.
I think we've both chosen terribly... and I mean that in the best way possible.
2005 Chrysler Crossfire SRT6
Jeremy Korzeniewski: Why It's Terrible:
Taken in isolation, the Chrysler Crossfire isn't necessarily a terrible car. In fact, it drives pretty darn well, and there's a lot of solid engineering under its slinky shape. Problem is, that engineering was already rather long in the tooth well before Chrysler ever got its hands on it, having come from Mercedes-Benz, which used the basic chassis and drivetrain in a previous version of its SLK coupe and roadster. Granted, the SLK was an okay car, too, but even when new, it hardly set the world on fire with sporty driving dynamics.
Chrysler took these decent-but-no-more bits and pieces from the Mercedes parts bin – remember, this car was conceived in the disastrous Merger Of Equals days – and covered them with a rather attractive hard-candy shell. Unfortunately, the super sporty shape wrote checks in the minds of buyers that its well-worn mechanicals were simply unable to cash, though an injection of power courtesy of a supercharged V6 engine in the SRT6 model, as seen here, certainly helped ease some of those woes.
In the end, Chrysler was left with a so-called halo car that looked the part but never quite performed the part. It was almost universally panned by critics as an overpriced parts-bin special, which, I must add, was damningly accurate. As a result, sales were very slow, and within the first few months, dealers were clearancing the car at cut-rate prices, just to keep them from taking up too much of the showroom floor.
Why It's Not That Terrible, After All:
I can speak from personal experience when discussing the Chrysler Crossfire. You see, I owned one. Well, sort of... my wife owned one. I had recently purchased a 2004 Mazda RX-8, a car that I still remember quite fondly, and my wife quickly tired of watching me speed away every morning in a car I loved while she was stuck in an old Volvo 240 wagon. It's not that the Volvo was a bad car – far from it, in fact – but it's nowhere near as fun as a sports car. And so I completely understood when my wife told me she wanted a new car of her own.
I took my lovely wife to look at a lightly used Lotus Elise, a Mitsubishi Evolution VIII and a Subaru WRX STI. She liked all of them, for different reasons, but decided she'd rather have something more comfortable. I took her to look at the BMW 330i, and we tested a model equipped with the ZHP performance package. It was love at first drive. But she still really wanted to look at the Chrysler Crossfire, too. She loved the way it looked, and knew it was a Mercedes underneath. Expecting that she'd certainly prefer the BMW, I was confident that's what would be parked in our driveway when I returned from work that day, but it wasn't. She chose the Crossfire.
Never have I driven a car that garnered so much positive commentary as that Chrysler Crossfire. Yes, I most certainly preferred driving my RX-8, but it was the Crossfire that was consistently commented on by our neighbors, friends and family. It was a bit small inside, and not particularly practical – we did still have the Volvo wagon – but it truly managed to make you feel like a celebrity in traffic. Even if its chassis and powertrain were a generation behind the times, it still rode pretty well, and was entertaining enough to make driving fun.
Couple its uniqueness with its low cost of entry – to my wife's credit, she negotiated an excellent price... due at least in part, I'm sure, to the salesperson's desire to get it off the lot – and German engineering, and you end up with a terrible car that's not really too terrible after all. But boy did I wish she'd bought an Elise...
1984 Pontiac Fiero
Greg Migliore: Why it's Terrible
Like Jeremy, I selected a car with an attractive body that literally covered up its flaws. The Pontiac Fiero was supposed to be a different kind of car for General Motors. It was, though ultimately for many of the wrong reasons. The Fiero held so much promise – a reasonably priced, mid-engine American sports car sounds pretty good-but fell short in execution. While Jeremy points to old Mercedes underpinnings as the downfall of the Crossfire, my Fiero is working with chassis genetics from Chevy's Chevette and Citation. I'd take an old Benz over any of that junk.
GM's plans to give the Fiero a dynamic V6 powerplant weren't realized initially (though later they were), and the car began life with the so-called "Iron Duke" inline four-cylinder. The 92 horsepower the Duke belted out wasn't great, even for the time, though it did return decent fuel economy.
None of this really mattered, because enthusiasts will mainly remember the Iron Duke as the Fiero engine that caught on fire. This happened between 135 and 260 times, according to various estimates, and ultimately in 1990 GM recalled the entire run of four-cylinder Fieros from 1984-88. The fires are believed to have stemmed from poor connecting rods and a leaky oil system, but Fiero fans still think of the Duke as being royally flammable.
Why It's Not That Terrible After All:
Okay, most of the fires occurred in 1984 models. The other years had better parts, and things weren't as combustible. Fires are obviously a big deal, but they still only occurred in a fairly small percentage of the cars. It's not forgivable, but for argument's sake let's forget about that. The Fiero looked great, and its wedge-shaped styling is timeless. I look at it and see a Lotus or a Bertone. Sure the Fiero has some really '80s touches - look at many of the wheel choices – but if you're buying an '80s car you probably like that.
This example of the Fiero is from the '84 model year, but later ones had a spritely V6 and in 1988 it received an all-new suspension. Ironically, it was a decent car when GM decided to axe it. The Fiero was also solid in IMSA competition, it's been in many TV shows and movies and as this listing shows, it's collectable yet still affordable.
Somehow, we'd both ended up choosing cars from their first model years (the Crossfire appeared in 2004, but the high-po SRT6, seen here for sale just under our $10,000 price cap, model came in '05). I wasted no time in pointing out the error of Greg's ways.
Korzeniewski: Greg. Greg, Greg, Greg. Choosing a Pontiac Fiero from 1984? First year, which maybe *maybe* has some sort of intrinsic value to collectors, but is chock full of all the issues you yourself pointed out in our opening statement.
It's got the Iron Duke four-cylinder boat anchor, and it's mated to a three-speed automatic transmission. 0-60? Yeah, probably. Eventually. At least this particular example never actually caught on fire. At least, not as far as we know...
And, again as you yourself said, it wasn't until 1988 that Pontiac managed to get the car's chassis sorted, which means the '84 you've chosen uses parts that were already behind the times when they came to market when Gerald Ford was serving in office. On the positive side, it's a lightweight mid-engine coupe. On the negative side, that Fiero may be the least fun-to-drive mid-engine coupe ever made.
As you would expect, Greg had a retort at the ready (and a pretty good one, if I'm being honest).
Migliore: Jeremy! (I believe that's a line from Wedding Crashers, which came out the same year as your '05 Crossfire.) How can you pick a car that was once sold on Overstock.com?
I won't totally rag on the Crossfire, though. Your point of it being a terrible car that's not too terrible holds water. I mean this is essentially a Mercedes with Chrysler styling cues, which actually look pretty good. And yeah, the 3.2-liter AMG V6 is a beast for that era (uh, 10 years ago) and a car that size. So yeah, it's not totally dog. In hindsight, the criticism at the time seems a little elitist and condescending. If the car had Mercedes badges on it, auto writers would have loved it.
Still, it was the wrong car at the wrong time for Chrysler, something the plummeting sales figures proved. It didn't move the needle with enthusiasts, or luxury car buyers or really anyone after the initial launch buzz wore off. In a few more years, literally no one will remember this car.
On the other hand, people still love the Fiero. It's an icon. Its foibles are being forgiven as memories of the car's problems fade with time. People remember the good things. It's a definitive car for the 80s, a time we're starting to look back on with increasing fondness.
I can't argue with Greg when he points to the plummeting sales figures of the Crossfire. Of course, that conveniently overlooks the plummeting sales figures of Greg's chosen Fiero. You didn't think I'd let all that '80s nostalgia slide unchecked, did you?
Korzeniewski: Yes, Greg, you're right. The automotive world will indeed forgive a multitude of sins as time passes, as is the case with the Pontiac Fiero. But you and I, and everyone else who has owned, will own or at least get the chance to drive a Fiero – particularly one with the anemic four-cylinder engine and under-engineered suspension bits built between 1984 and 1987 – will experience the letdown of great, athletic looks coupled with economy-car underpinnings.
Drivers of the Crossfire, on the other hand, will enjoy a solid driving experience. While it's true that the Crossfire was already a bit behind the times on its very first day of sale, and that it was far too expensive at launch, at least its borrowed chassis and drivetrain components were well designed and engineered. And even if its 3.2-liter supercharged AMG V6 engine only makes 330 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, that was enough to push it from 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds. That's plenty quick, especially for a nice looking car under $10,000.
Your Fiero? It's got 92 horses underhood, funneled through a 3-speed automatic. That's good enough to get it to 60 in about 11 seconds. If it handled great, that'd be one thing, but it doesn't. In reality, it's pretty darn boring. So, while we may look back with fondness on the Fiero in general, let's not pretend that its iconic because of its scintillating ownership experience.
Glacial acceleration from the Fiero duly pointed out, I thought for sure I'd won the argument once and for all. I was wrong. So says Greg.
The Concession Stand
Migliore: Actually, when I think of an ownership experience for a third car that's essentially a toy, what could be better than a Fiero? If you like to wrench on cars, well, this Pontiac gives you plenty to work with. If you're less mechanically inclined, pay a little more and get one of the better ones from the later '80s. I mean, if you are spending five to ten grand on something to have fun in, do you really want a mid-aughts Chrysler?
With a Fiero you've got a summer of car clubs and car shows ahead of you. Maybe not the conventional ones – you can cross Pebble off your list – but at least you can have some fun with this thing. It's still relatively light, looks like a concept car compared to the bland-o-boxes you see on most American roads and mid-engine driving dynamics aren't something that should be dismissed lightly.
I'll concede that I'd rather have a Crossfire if I actually had to do a commute of any length or was at all concerned about reliability. I'm sure the Chrysler would be more likely to start in the blizzard that's enveloped the Midwest as I type this-but there's no way it would get down my unplowed street. So you see, the Crossfire has been reduced to a three-seasons commuter car. The Fiero is a near-classic.
Aha! Greg used the one word you can never use in such an automotive argument. Concede. I'll take that concession and run with it.
Korzeniewski: Well, that's something we can agree on... I'd rather have a Crossfire than a Fiero for a morning commute, too.
And as far as car clubs go, don't count out the Mopar guys so early. The Pentastar's – well... what used to be the Pentastar, at least – history is full of half-baked cars that went on to develop a hearty following. From Shelby Dodge models and turbo Caravans to SRT4 Neon and Calibers, followers of the Chrysler and Dodge brands have a long and storied history of latching onto good ideas with poor execution, turning them from historical asterisks into historical asterisks with a loyal following. The Chrysler Crossfire SRT6 will be no different.
If my wife's Crossfire ownership taught me anything, it's that people love to ogle the German/American mashup. Take it to a car show and you'll draw plenty of stares from those who remember seeing them on showrooms and driveways when they were new. I guarantee it.
I'll park it right next to your '84 Fiero and we'll see which garners more interest.
I really thought I had him on the ropes when I trotted out the history of terrible performance cars from Chrysler. But then Greg doubles down.
Gauntlet extended. Gauntlet Accepted?
Migliore: Hey nobody likes a hunk of Mopar muscle more than me – give me a '68 Charger any day – but the Crossfire misses the mark in this department. And I'll take that bet: Fiero vs. Crossfire on the street. Bring it on.
Looks aside, the Fiero is just so much more compelling in every way. I mean the huge recall for those burning Iron Dukes alone makes it more interesting than the Crossfire, which is afterthought of the failed Daimler-Chrysler marriage of equals. The Fiero isn't just a more interesting car, it's better at being bad. The Crossfire wasn't even that bad of a car. It just fell short of expectations and didn't really excel at anything. On its best and worst days, the Fiero is simply a better option for enthusiasts.
With that, we leave it up to you, dear readers. Which editor has chosen the better terrible car?