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5  of the Worst Cars Ever Built

5 of the Worst Cars Ever Built


As a motoring journalist I’m lucky, I get to drive some of the most world’s amazing cars, but occasionally you get behind the wheel of an absolute lemon; here's my top 5 worst cars ever built.

The 5 of the Worst Cars Ever Built

Motoring journalist, John Swift, dishes the dirt on the 5 worst cars he's ever driven:

  • Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph – downright dull
  • Renault Fluence ZE – ill-thought through
  • Lancia Beta – erratic rain hater
  • Jaguar S-Type – triumph of accountants over designers
  • Renault Vel Satis – sheer madness

As a motoring journalist I’m lucky, I get to drive some of the most world’s amazing cars, often in far-away places; but, some much heralded cars can be a complete let down, so bad that you’re left scratching your head wondering what the manufacturer was thinking. These are my top 5 absolute lemons.

Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph

Hanging above the assembly lines in the Rolls-Royce factory at Pyms Lane in Crewe used to be a quote from Henry Royce which said `Take the best there is and make it better’. I can only assume it had been taken down and put into storage whilst this car, the Silver Seraph, was being developed.

New Rollers don’t come along very often and the Silver Shadow model this one replaced had been in production for at least 20 years, so it was expected to be a big jump forward. Well, it wasn’t.

The trouble was that the company had been recently flogged by former owners, Vickers, who couldn’t make a go of it, to BMW (and later by them to VW as if in a game of pass the corporate parcel) and underneath the metal was a BMW V12 straight from the 7 Series. Open the door and the switchgear felt familiar to anyone who knew the Bavarian luxe barge and you don’t fork out for a Rolls only to find bits from other cars in it, do you?

Rolls Royce Silver SeraphThe kindest that could be said of its looks is that they were ‘OK’, inoffensive. It was a lot more sweeping than the right-angled and upright lines of the Silver Shadow, but perhaps because of that it lacked the grandeur, the haughty presence, of its predecessor.

The V12 was predictably smooth and the ride was OK, although the press launch I attended rather optimistically included some laps at the Oulton Park race track where I felt sick rather than impressed.  A race track is not a Roller’s natural habitat!

True, the interior had the Rolls touches. It still took 150 man hours to make the wooden fascia, but rear legroom was noticeably less than in many other, and what you would regard as lesser, cars and that is no good; whatever else, a Rolls-Royce should not be or feel inferior in the comfort stakes.

The Silver Seraph’s worst crime was that it was bland and forgettable, it lacked the magic you expect, the joy of ownership of having a Rolls and shortly after launch that is what the company did, forget it. This car had what must be the shortest production run of any Flying Lady, lasting just four years between 1998 and 2002 before being killed off.

Today, a good second hand one will cost less than £30,000 – about the same as a top-spec Ford Mondeo.

Not the company’s finest hour and a long way short of Henry Royce’s dictum.

Renault Fluence ZE

This is not so much a tale of how a bad this car was, but of how far an industry can develop in a very short time.

A couple of years from now and an average family car of the type you or I will buy will be either entirely or partly powered by electricity and capable of running a very minimum of 100-150 miles on battery power.

Yet, just a few years ago, when battery power was reserved for the Nissan LEAF and milk floats, and EVs (electric vehicles) were something for save-the-earth eco-warriors, but not remotely practical or appealing for most drivers, Renault came up with the Fluence Z.E. (Zero Emission).

It looked like, and essentially was, a four door Megane with a boot, but instead of having a petrol or diesel under the bonnet it had a big battery pack behind the back seats.

During the press conference introducing the Fluence, the company spoke bravely about how the time had come for cars like this, how the planet could not continue to be poisoned by transport pollution and that the only feasible, practical, affordable solution, if we still wanted personal mobility, was to use electricity.

But, how would that work, many of us asked; back then public recharging points were things more of science fiction than reality and the question was, how do you recharge the battery? Perhaps you could install one at your office if you were senior enough to merit a reserved parking spot, or at home, but that doesn’t work for very many. And anyway, say you wanted to go on a long journey…

Reanult FLuence on charge outside a futuristic houseThe answer lay in the Fluence’s range which, as we were about to find out, was not very far.

It’s an exaggeration to say that by the time we had driven to the end of the drive at the hotel where Renault held the event, the battery was flat, but not a big one.

Worse than the feeble distance it could cover, its battery depletion wasn’t linear and seemed to come down in big steps. In a normal car, and assuming average driving, the fuel gauge will gradually creep down in a steady, consistent way you can have confidence in.  Not so in that early EV. Renault reckoned (optimistically in my opinion) on the Fluence being capable of about 120 miles on a full charge, but the display showing miles left in range, and the percentage of battery charge dropped down in big steps, bearing no relation to how hard, or indeed, gently it was being driven.

Range and percentage of charge left to power those miles fell, seemingly regardless of how many miles you’d actually covered or how fast or slow they’d been driven – and they fell at an alarming rate. We had gone a handful of miles only, certainly no more than ten, before I lost confidence in the whole thing, turned around and went back to base so as not to be stranded by the roadside.

What, I wondered, was the point of these things, they’re useless, impractical and no one in their right mind would give up a normal car for one.

Do you know when this was? 2011.

Just a few years ago and I have to marvel at just how far the technology, the infrastructure, the market and the demand have come since…

Lancia Beta

You know how you look back at something you’ve owned and think the only good time was when you got rid of it? Well, that’s how I felt about a Lancia Beta I once had on my drive.

Being a sucker for all things Italian, I was easy prey for the salesman suggesting I might like the second hand, bright red Beta HPE in his showroom.

It looked sleek and good for an estate car, had a nice 2.0 litre engine which made all the right noises and it drove well too. It was probably the easiest deal he had clinched in years and we soon exchanged money for keys.

Sadly, the transaction did not include a warranty because it didn’t take very long for me to discover why Italian cars of that time (late 1980s) had such an appalling reputation for unreliability.

Blue Lancia Beta seen side onOn a wet morning there was no point trying to start it, no matter how much WD40 you sprayed over the electrics and so I became all too familiar with the bus route from home to work.

And it had one unusual feature not found in other cars, a built-in shower, or as Lancia preferred to call it, a sunroof. If it was raining (and assuming the engine worked), this leaked so much that with a bottle of shampoo and bar of soap you could arrive at your destination smelling clean and fresh.

Water ingress was quite a thing for the Beta; the door mirrors were adjusted by little plastic stalks and yes, they let in water. On a right hand bend your hand got an unwelcome squirt.

The struts holding up the rear hatch never worked, the suspension soon began to sag and inevitably the tin worm began to appear in a rash of rapidly oxidising steel.

Rusty, but alas, not very trusty.

It was a bittersweet day when it went and was replaced by a boring but reliable Vauxhall Cavalier.

Jaguar S-Type

`Too much Ford, not enough Jaguar’ was the reaction of many when this car first appeared at the start of 1999. At that time Jag was owned by Ford which dusted off previously shelved plans for a mid-size saloon to complement the big XJ, and the S-Type was the answer. The result - might of the Ford accountants overcame the will of the Jaguar engineers.

 With its four headlamps and slightly chubby, podgy lines it was reminiscent of Jag’s fabled S-Type from the ‘60s. Much was made of this and many people `ooh-d’ and `aah’d’ over it, but no one in the company could convince me why it seemed such a good idea to be looking back over their shoulder and referencing the past when styling its cars, instead of looking forward, being daring and making a virtue of doing so.

I drove this at the press launch and was not alone in being seriously underwhelmed by the horrible, cheap, plasticky feel of the dashboard and fascia. The Jaguar engine was good, a 4.0 V8, we knew that from the XJ it also powered, but the ride and handling were sloppy and just not what was expected of a Jag.

Jaguar S-Type turquoise coloured carThe problem was that the S-Type shared a lot of its hardware with the Ford Lincoln and it showed. What may work for Americans doesn’t always translate over here and the S-Type was not well conceived. It felt like a car done to a tight budget, the build quality seemed iffy, early cars had reliability issues and you just thought there was a lot of ground to make up if Jaguar was serious about challenging the Germans, or the Japanese with Toyota’s Lexus brand.

Jaguar is an emotional brand, its cars are supposed to make you feel good about driving, as today’s much coveted models do; at that time, among the British press corps, there was a strong wish to see Jag as class leader; but on that initial test it felt disappointing and you know what they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression and Jaguar didn’t take it.

In fairness, over time it was developed into a proper car that could go head to head with anything from BMW or Mercedes and in particular the supercharged S-Type R was – and remains to this day on the second hand market - a proper sports saloon.

The S-Type did indeed become a good car in the end, but it was too little, too late; the damage was done right at the start of the project when the might of the Ford accountants overcame the will of the Jaguar engineers.

Renault Vel Satis

Call it cynicism, but I often think that if a manufacturer has a car it’s not entirely convinced by it will take journalists to the fanciest location, ply them with the finest wines and feed them the finest dishes in a bid to create a feel-good factor and put a gloss on the press launch event; in other words the flashier the event, often the trashier the car.

For this launch, Renault flew us by private jet to Nice and then across the bay to David Coulthard’s hotel in Monaco, which should have started my alarm bells ringing; sadly, even this effort and expense was not enough to salvage the Renault Vel Satis.

Where does one start…its’ looks were not so much challenging as downright frightening, the fake wood plastic interior was horrible to look at or to touch, it didn’t ride or handle especially well and you just knew that the depreciation would be of a scale rarely seen in the automotive world.

Plasticky dashboard of the Renault Val StatisThis Renault was expected to challenge BMW and Audi, so one had to admire the optimism if nothing else.

The Vel Satis made no sense on any level. Even basic market research would have shown that Renault is not a premium brand in the eyes of the drivers flocking to the German cars and something as indefensibly ugly as this was not going to persuade them otherwise.

The ugly Renault Vel Satis on the roadRenault said it would appeal to people wanting to be different, but the same researchers would have looked at company car parks full of Mercs, Audis and Beemers and thought `but no one wants to be different, they just want to be seen in the hip German brands’ and if customers did want a large and comfortable car, Renault already had the Espace MPV.

It was a mad car, born of a mad idea.

Still, the hotel was nice.

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