The most underrated cars (of the past 2 decades)

These cars deserve more spotlight. Now they get it.

41w ago

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This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. In today's article I try to review those underdogs that deserve a bit more popularity based on their engineering features, but for some reason they failed to receive the respect they deserve. This one may be a bit more Euro-focused than other episodes, but don't let this encourage anyone from sharing different views.

10) Fiat Panda

Italy's historically narrow streets make the Panda an ideal police vehicle.

Italy's historically narrow streets make the Panda an ideal police vehicle.

Did you know the Fiat Panda has been the best-selling car in Italy for 8 consecutive years? Truth to be told, the Italian market was always Fiat-land, local buyers prefer domestic products over import, in the years preceding the Panda’s reign, the Punto was the market leader for more than 15 years. But then we must remember that the Punto was no bad car either, so is it different this time around with the current generation Panda? It is in a very competitive market segment, but even amongst small cars it is one of the most practical and fun one. What’s great about the Panda is that for such a small money it also packs a standard amount of driving joy. Yet in the rest of Europe they are rarely seen, which is a shame. The Panda is a colorful little car that does the job of transporting people perfectly while providing an excellent passenger cabin – the interior is really full of cool details, sitting in one is a happy time.

Why it should be better appreciated: Millions of Italians can’t be wrong, the rest of the world should take notice.

9) Nissan 350Z/370Z

Chris Forsberg's Formula Drift champion car. You don't have to do the same to your Z. But you can.

Chris Forsberg's Formula Drift champion car. You don't have to do the same to your Z. But you can.

The Z-generation was the crown jewel of the Nissan-Datsun empire for a long time, but that changed with the introduction of the almighty GT-R. A Z-car is no longer the most expensive and fastest vehicle one can order in the local Nissan dealership. But does it make it a worse offer? Actually, no. They are still blisteringly quick and represent an ideal entry into the world of sports cars for anyone. But that’s the case with many other cars that are overshadowed by their bigger brothers, such as the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4 or Alfa Romeo 4C – so one might wonder: what makes a Z stand out? On stock form it doesn’t seems to be the fastest, lightest or most sophisticated car in this category.

Yet it has one important Joker card: it has the biggest and most active customization community. And that does not simply mean people who put stickers on their cars, but actual power increase. If you fancy the idea of building your own track car, the internet is full of various aftermarket Z performance parts, guides and Nissan designed the car to provide an excellent basis for this activity: the engine won’t fall apart from a slight performance increase, there is ample place to work on the car when replacing parts, the layout is logical. That does not mean that one is forced to use a Z in such ways, it’s also a great road car for Sunday cruising on the beach without any modification, but it is a very appealing plus that most of its competitors lack.

Why it needs more appreciation: Possibly the best tuner’s car.

8) Mitsubishi i-MiEV

The i-MiEV was also known as the Peugeot iOn and Citroën C-Zero.

The i-MiEV was also known as the Peugeot iOn and Citroën C-Zero.

EVs were the big story of the century so far and they come in many forms. But lately the most popular ones are big fancy ones packed full of tech gadgets, autonomous driving, tons of batteries and the promise of power. It’s like manufacturers are trying to avoid to look anything like an i-MiEV, which is basically an electric forklift built into a kei car. By many measures it’s an awful vehicle: it’s small, slow, old-school, looks totally harmless and retailed for a lot when new. But then we must face the truth, that those are not real qualitative properties and that to some, the i-MiEV may even look appealing. There are people who appreciate easy parking, don’t require much space, never exceed speed limits, still use classic Nokia bar-phones and don’t mind living with the image of a car that doesn't matches the might of the sport car parking on the neighbour's driveway. That does not necessarily mean that they are anti-petrol heads, it’s just that they prefer simple things over high-tech. And no law ever stated that an EV has to be high-tech. Then there is the i-MiEV which is not – making it very reputable.

Why it needs more appreciation: It’s an honest electric car.

7) Chrysler 300C / Lancia Thema

This may be the most ridiculous rebadging ever. Yet there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Thema.

This may be the most ridiculous rebadging ever. Yet there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Thema.

This car was born on the eve of the Fiat - Chrysler merger, essentially still being a project designed autonomously by Chrysler. And Chrysler wasn’t going in the wrong direction with this one! The new Chrysler 300C was a bargain – it’s big, it has a powerful, modern engine selection, is very comfortable and they fixed the reliability and quality issues American cars used to have. Objectively, the last generation 300C is a good job! Fiat’s management thought the same and as a last attempt to try and keep Lancia afloat, in Europe they rebadged it as the late Lancia Thema’s successor. And that was a huge mistake! While the 300C may be a superb car, it’s a terrible Lancia. It’s not really innovative, it doesn’t look slim at all, it won’t break down on every trip and is technically only available in black.

While the general conclusion on the 300C / Thema is that if you are looking for an oversized, torque-y luxury saloon, you should absolutely shortlist it, it’s pretty obvious that diehard Lancia fans despise it. But don’t let badge engineering fool anyone: just because they had to use a once-famous manufacturer’s name to try and sell this car, it was fine on its own too.

Why it needs more appreciation: Last proper American sedan you could have in Europe.

6) Suzuki Jimny

Proper use of a Suzuki Jimny this time of the year. Image courtesy of Hilltip Finland.

Proper use of a Suzuki Jimny this time of the year. Image courtesy of Hilltip Finland.

Since a new version of the Jimny was just released this year it’s quite a hot topic. That was not the case in the lifetime of the previous generation Jimny, it was mostly unnoticed for years. Many think of the Jimny as a minimalistic off-roader that is probably not capable of more demanding tasks. Wrong! It is a full-fledged utility vehicle packed into a very small chassis. And unless you prefer to work with the biggest wrenches even in the tightest places there’s no reason to dislike the size, since in many cases it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage.

Why it needs more appreciation: Outclasses most SUVs and even some pick-ups.

5) Ferrari California

With a mid-life revamp the California received Ferrari's award-winning 3.9L V8 engine also used in the 488.

With a mid-life revamp the California received Ferrari's award-winning 3.9L V8 engine also used in the 488.

Consumers in general have a very annoying habit on how they think about valuing goods. People associate low prices with low quality. Cheap wine is bad. Cheap meat is to be avoided. Cheap household electronics fail and set your home on fire. And to some extent it’s great that we have these prejudices, because they are often observed to be true. But what does such a thing as a cheap Ferrari stands for?

The California was the entry level model introduced in 2008. It’s unclear whether Ferrari wanted to cater for millionaires suffering from the financial crisis or it was just fortunate market timing, but it worked thanks to Ken Okuyama’s beautiful design. It’s not really an outlier from the Ferrari range, neither it filled any void in the sports car or grand tourer world. It’s just a basic Ferrari that offers what people think of a Ferrari. And the best thing about this is that it did not fell into the trap the Dino fell into previously. The California is not a lesser-Ferrari that offers only some of the Italian luxury car experience: it is the Italian luxury car experience itself. It is pretty neutral compared to other models, but this neutrality gave way for the rest of the lineup to become more specialized. What one misses by not buying a more powerful model grown too scary to handle in a first Ferrari anyways – the California sets a great golden standard on where this experience should start and where it should end.

Why it needs more appreciation: The cheapest Ferrari is the best Ferrari.

4) Subaru Levorg

The 2.0 engine was not available in all markets, but even the smaller capacity version warrants plenty of power.

The 2.0 engine was not available in all markets, but even the smaller capacity version warrants plenty of power.

On car enthusiast sites – such as DriveTribe itself – one can come across endless horde of station wagon lovers. Many of them are into powerful versions. One would assume this results in many Subaru Levorg aficionados amongst their ranks. I ran a quick check on that, but compared to similar wagons from Volvo, Audi or Ford, the generic interest in the Levorg seems dismal, to say the least. That is surprising considering what a bargain Subaru packs in this car: all-wheel drive system, decent suspension, modern gadgets, boxer engine, posh interior. It’s difficult not to sound like a Subaru salesperson, but it is actually tricky to find any negative aspect of this car. What many believe is one, is the CVT gearbox – but that really is such a minor part in the big picture that does not fully explains the lack of Levorg’s popularity. My personal conspiracy theory is that Subaru tries to artificially keep the media spotlight off of the Levorg, so they can focus on delivering the highest quality without having to expand manufacturing volumes. But that’s probably the worst conspiracy theory ever. As far as I’m aware, the Levorg actually sells well on the other side of the globe, but in Europe – and even in the US - it’s a niche car.

Why it needs more appreciation: Mildly powerful performance wagon that nobody has.

3) Skoda Octavia

All Octavia designs aged suprisingly well. The 1st gen. vRS still looks stunning, whereas a Golf GTI IV does not.

All Octavia designs aged suprisingly well. The 1st gen. vRS still looks stunning, whereas a Golf GTI IV does not.

Remember anyone ever saying how great the Czech cars are? Maybe we should do that more often. Even though Škoda is a subsidiary of Volkswagen, it always delivers something smarter from the same engineering material. A small degree of design freedom left for the Czech ingenuity can make a great difference in the end product and in the past it showed often. First, they hidden an umbrella in the door, then offered the most spacious interiors, an ice-scrapper in the fuel cap, bulletproof-suspensions and who knows what else.

The Octavia won many private and company buyers with it's enormous boot. Note: this is not the estate version.

The Octavia won many private and company buyers with it's enormous boot. Note: this is not the estate version.

When Volkswagen bought into the venture, they tried to position the brand in the lowest price range of the market to basically fulfill the role of what Dacia is nowadays. That changed a lot over the course of the years and Škoda’s quality improvements are threatening Volkswagen sales itself. And that’s not how Volkswagen wanted the story to unfold. They wanted their own brand to be recognized as a premium car, which never really happened. It's not a classic fairy tale in which David beat Goliath, because let's face it: Škoda as a whole is not quite there yet to head-on compete against Volkswagen. But its best-selling model - the Octavia - is on par with VW’s best-selling one, the Golf. And the Škoda offers a heck of a lot more value. In the end, there is no point crowning a new best European compact car, but we should definitely set the Octavia as the new benchmark car instead of the Golf that was used by automotive journalists as an etalon for decades.

Why it needs more appreciation: The Golf is dead. All hail the new Golf.

2) Lotus Elise

There was already a suspicious 'Final Edition' limited series issued in 2011, but they are still being manufactured.

There was already a suspicious 'Final Edition' limited series issued in 2011, but they are still being manufactured.

It would be a bit too obvious to pick Colin Chapman’s own company from the list of British manufacturers that follow his design principles to decrease weight as executing it best. Ariel, Ginetta, Zenos or Radical may do a better job in putting together non-mass-produced lightweight cars. Lotus still knows the recipee but refuses to serve it in a contemporary way.

However, during its 20+ years of lifetime the Elise became a worldwide known icon of the British roadsters comparable to the MG B, Triumph Spitfire or even the Jaguar XK and E-Type. The Lotus Elise is also responsible for giving the world the Hennessey Venom, the Opel Speedster or the infamous Tesla Roadster electric car.

A base model Toyota Aygo offers more luxury than Lotus does. But not putting in extra weight is the key here.

A base model Toyota Aygo offers more luxury than Lotus does. But not putting in extra weight is the key here.

The Exige is also based on the Elise, so it's no overstatement that this platform was the key for Lotus to stay alive. Despite all this, its age makes it very controversial. Can the Elise be regarded as the best lightweight sportscar? While the handling, weight-distribution and suspension are still on the point, its interior is far too spartan, offering close to zero comfort and no modern electronics resulting in a disputable overall value. It will certainly not remain competitive for long without having a huge makeover. There may be better lightweight sportscars out there by now, but the Elise definitely earned its place in automotive almanachs.

Why it needs more appreciation: It is a true survivor.

1) Alfa Romeo Giulia

The only thing exotic about the Giulia is that Alfa still refuses to design a car with a central license plate in mind.

The only thing exotic about the Giulia is that Alfa still refuses to design a car with a central license plate in mind.

There’s a sad trend with Alfa Romeo reviews. Whenever the press receives their test cars ecstatic articles are written on how great and wonderful the new Alfa Romeo is. But then nobody buys them and they are looked down by many armchair-experts. Not sure if this is a sign of distrust towards automotive journalism or maybe it has to do with the brand. We could call it the AR G-Series, ALpha rOMeo Ger or Alfie G250 – not sure if that changes anything, it would be a fantastic motor vehicle with any other badge on its nose as well. So, if the brand name discourages anyone from liking the car, let’s just call it the Julia and pretend it’s a Japanese car or whatever nationality one trusts.

The Giulia collected numerous awards, but the ones received for body describe it the best. It's firm and safe.

The Giulia collected numerous awards, but the ones received for body describe it the best. It's firm and safe.

What matters more than the image with this car is the level of excellence it packs in a conventional sedan form. Things futurist have been talking about for years, like brake-by-wire or torque vectoring on the Q4. It is a result of long and costly R&D from various leading automotive suppliers and from Alfa Romeo itself. Not to mention the tight fittings – if somebody is a quality assurance nerd the Giulia is one to check out, It's hard to come by any affordable car with so tightly fitting body panels – if you see a gap on a Giulia it’s likely been damaged and then badly repaired.

All in all, the Giuliua has a name of its own with many enthusiasts, but unfortunately sales are so low that it can barely pay for its existence. Even though I wouldn’t call the Giulia exotic at all – it’s a regular sedan, the design is nice, but certainly not extreme, so it’s a mystery what scares away potential customers.

Why it needs more appreciation: Not because it’s an Alfa Romeo, but because it’s what a 21st century car should be like.

Honorable mentions

Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86, Honda CR-Z, Alfa Romeo 159, Jaguar XJ, Smart Roadster

Previous editions:

1. On the most impressive designs.

2. On the most disappointing trends.

3. On the most improved companies.

4. On the greatest motorsport controversies.

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