The unthinkables: manufacturers' most oddball models

Alfa Romeo SZ

Sometimes a manufacturer breaks the mould, with fantastic results. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t all go to plan…

No one saw the Alfa Romeo SZ or Volkswagen Phaeton coming: cars unlike anything their maker – sometimes any maker – had created before. We review the good, the bad and the ugly

A Ferrari soft-roader? It’ll be a very fast soft-roader, and one that may even introduce the Maranello wail to Dubai’s Big Red, a huge, shifting sand dune that needs traction and torque in spades to be successfully crested. 

But a maker of cars designed to go as fast as possible to point B from point A, a maker that has forever harnessed the benefits of Tarmac-skimming centres of gravity and sylphic frontal areas does not sound like a maker of vehicles featuring neither of these desirables. Still, a Ferrari SUV really is coming and it’s likely to be as far removed from a WW2 Jeep as a smartphone is from a red telephone box. 

It’s also what the market wants and accurately judging that fickle arena of desire has produced a lengthy lineup of cars that, at one time, would have been unthinkable progeny for their creators. Some have been jarring additions to their makers’ ranges. Some have fallen from grace with equally jarring effect. And others, unexpectedly, have become lynchpins for their makers. Here’s a selection of the most notable.

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan 

What we said then: “Rolls has, like Porsche did with the first  Cayenne, tried to put clear Rolls-Royce cues into the design. Maybe they just don’t translate to an SUV, or maybe we’re just not used to it yet.” 

The market demanded an SUV of Rolls-Royce and the market got it. An off-roading Rolls-Royce is not such an alien idea. The robustness of the early cars meant they were frequently used off road in Arabia, courtesy of Lawrence, and as armoured cars during WW1. But as with the first Cayenne, the Cullinan’s look is troubling.

2010 Aston Martin Cygnet 

What we said then: “To the majority of buyers of today’s conventional city cars, the launch of the new Aston Martin Cygnet must rank as one of the daftest this century.” 

Apart from hijacking the innards of a Morgan three-wheeler, Toyota’s cubist iQ has to be one of the unlikeliest building blocks for an Aston Martin. Apparently the result of a (surely fevered) conversation between the bosses of these companies, the Cygnet struggled to find takers but, perversely, has become sought after now since deletion. 

2011 Mini Coupé

What we said then: “Inspired by classic independently produced Mini-based coupés from companies such as Broadspeed, Marcos and Midas, the new Coupé is not exactly elegant – not in the traditional sense, anyway.”

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a Mini Coupé, but the real thing, though, wasn’t what most might imagine as rakish Minimalism. The bubble-topped two-seater appeared to be wearing a kind of helmet forward of its frumpily vestigial boot, producing a rear end that reminded us all what a brilliantly sculpted car the original Audi TT coupé was.

2006 Audi R8 

What we said then: “The most radical road-goer to wear four rings since records began.” 

Audi channelled its inner Lamborghini with the superb R8, a model introduction all the more surprising because Ingolstadt actually owned the Italian supercar maker. Even more surprising were the R8’s entertaining dynamics and a ride better than any other Audi, A8 included.

2009 Renault Twizy 

What we said then: “It’s another electric vehicle that, we can’t help but conclude, would be better with its own power source on board. But the Twizy has a loveable character.”

It is loveable, too, and quite unlike any Renault, ever. But the appeal palls in rain and cold, both penetrating the tandem occupant zone copiously without the optional semi-enclosing doors. It doesn’t go all that far on a charge, either, although that may be a good thing. Great on the right day, in the right weather. Which is why it has no rivals.

2000 BMW X5

What we said then: “An extreme take on the whole crossover concept.” 

BMW bet first and bet bravely on this sports utility vehicle that really was sporty. It looked faintly ungainly but it carried, handled and played dirt-road explorer with aplomb. Car buyers loved it and still do, this SUV now a BMW mainstay.

2003 Volkswagen Phaeton

What we said then: “If there’s one word that seems to define the VW Phaeton it’s ‘why?’.”

Ferdinand Piech’s folly, the VW Phaeton made sense only to VW’s boss and, eventually, Chinese buyers, whose liking for big saloons prolonged the life of this supposed VW flagship for longer than it deserved. Piech’s ambition for VW was admirable – the same upmarket thrust yielded the successful Touareg – but it made as much sense as selling billionaire jewellery in John Lewis.

1999 Toyota Yaris Verso

What we said then: “Brilliant package with a neatly designed seating arrangement, all for a good price.”

This under-wheeled cargo carrier was among the first supermini-scale MPVs. Despite a body as ugly as it was voluminous, the Yaris Verso sold moderately well but it was still an image-compromising product.

2011 Chrysler Delta

What we said then: “A bit different from the norm, but too patchy to recommend it.”

The last Lancia to be sold officially in the UK was the Delta in the 1990s but the model did return, in third-generation form, after being engineered for righthand drive. Fiat crassly sold it here not as a Lancia but as a Chrysler and it never really caught on. (See also Ypsilon.)

1998 Fiat Multipla

What we said then: “There should be more cars on the road like the Multipla. As a means of transporting families, it is a work of genius.”

This deviant Fiat was also an ingenious chunk of convenience, its barrel body housing six and packing bins, shelves and bottle holders. “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it,” ran an ad quoting Confucius. Quite.

2002 Mercedes Vaneo 

What we said then: “Its versatility should see it appealing to those with more than just kids to move around.”

This super-practical car was the unexpected work of Mercedes-Benz’s commercial vehicle division, which left its indelible signature on this deeply unsexy machine by calling it Vaneo. It sold almost as slowly as the Maybach 57.

2005 Peugeot 1007

What we said then: “The 1007 delivers both a compact exterior and a truly upmarket interior ambience.”

Its four seats were reached via sliding doors, it was packaged short and tall for easy parking and it was sold in cheerful hues. It made rational sense – more than the new Mini and Fiat 500. But these two annihilated it, the 1007’s appeal not helped by its under-wheeled stance, sluggish doors and pension book aura. 

2004 Ssangyong Rodius

What we said then: “Is it possible to get past the Rodius’s look? Yes, but what’s underneath isn’t much better.”

This mutant cemented Ssangyong’s place at the weird end of the automotive spectrum. A giant high-riding hatch with an estate car extension for which no planning permission can ever have been received, it remains the 21st century’s ugliest car.

1999 Honda Insight

What we said then: “Bristles with fuel-saving technology yet should be as easy to own as a Civic.”

It didn’t look dissimilar to a fish. A technical adventure from Honda was no surprise, but the world’s first hybrid car was. The Insight’s complexity was even bolder than the NSX’s. But it was too much of a science experiment to succeed.

2001 Renault Avantime

What we said then: “Renault’s GT has radically different design ideas.”

No one needed an MPV coupé apart from the Matra factory in Romorantin, which had lost production of the Espace and needed a replacement. Massive doors and two-tone paint added to the drama of this new concept, its lux cabin winning a few admirers.

2002 Porsche Cayenne

What we said then: “Massively talented Cayenne keeps faith with Porsche heritage. It’s fast, sure-footed and surprisingly nimble for an SUV.”

This was a car to get the mind grappling. Grappling to understand, grappling to find beauty. Eventually, we all did with the grappling, exposure buffing away this Porsche’s sculptural disconnects, its mighty abilities winning it respect. But at its launch, what a shocker.

2005 Jeep Commander

What we said then: “Although the Commander is about as rectilinear as it’s possible for a car to be, the space increase over the Grand Cherokee is not that impressive.”

Kind words, compared with late Fiat Chrysler Automobiles boss Sergio Marchionne’s view of the Commander: “That vehicle was unfit for human consumption. We sold some. But I don’t know why people bought them.” The only advantage the Commander could muster over the Grand Cherokee was a pair of seats for a pair of small, agile and uncomplaining kids. Big discounts were the only thing this Jeep commanded. 

1989 Alfa Romeo SZ

What we said then: “Nice legs, shame about the face.”

The press were rendered mute when the covers were pulled from this. Why was this slab-sided, flat-backed, narrow-tracked Alfa so ugly? Was it actually finished, with its black hole of a grille and frameless headlights? It was. The SZ’s shape troubled less with time, and it was way, way better to drive than it looked.

2018 Jaguar I-Pace

What we said then: “Could this week’s road test subject be the most significant to leave the halls of a British manufacturer since the McLaren F1?”

Who would have thought it? A maker far too reliant on a glorious back catalogue, often with disappointing results, fires itself into the future with the first premium European all-electric car in the world. It looks nothing like an E-Type, an XK or a Mk2. But it does look, and go, like a Jaguar

1990 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton 

What we said then: “What makes the Lotus Carlton a truly great supercar is the sober thoroughness of its execution.”

The Carlton was a middle manager’s motor, well able to pound motorways and cart families. There was a hot one, too: the 3000 GSi, which pounded harder and carted faster. And then GM instructed Lotus to extract ferocious pounding and carting from the Carlton. Once transformed, this 377bhp Vauxhall outsprinted Ferrari’s Testarossa and annihilated the BMW M5 to become the fastest saloon in the world. Nobody expected that.

2015 Bentley Bentayga

What we said then: Ettore Bugatti was not being entirely kind when he described a Bentley racing car as ‘le camion plus vite du monde’ – the world’s fastest truck. 

Bentley’s SUV-previewing EXP 9 F concept produced plenty of acidic froth at its 2012 Geneva debut, but that didn’t stop Crewe from building a tall, bulky vehicle of the kind that it once produced regularly, if without four-wheel drive. It sells, though.

2001 Renault Vel Satis

What we said then: “This quirky exec is interesting and luxurious if not entirely convincing.”

Renault’s aim for something different from your regulation German executive saloon was achieved with total success: the Vel Satis was nothing like a BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class or Audi A6. Scoring that conceptual bulls-eye was about the Vel Satis’s only success, though. This awkward, bustle-backed hatch managed neither to handle like a BMW nor to ride like a Renault.

1991 Nissan Figaro 

What we said then: “The Figaro’s perky turbocharged 1.0-litre engine, convertible roof, generous spec and looks could get the car a cult following.”

From the stagnant pool containing what was then one of the dullest car ranges on earth, Nissan launched the almost absurdly cute Figaro. It was the personification of everything Nissans of the day were not – characterful, colourful, shiny, desirable and fun.

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Source: Autocar Online

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