There’s always going to be some debate about what constitutes a good halo vehicle. Many will argue that it has to be a flagship model, representing the absolute best specifications and features the manufacturer could cobble together for an eyewatering price. While that’s often the case, successful halo vehicles don’t always need to be at the top of the pyramid since the real purpose is to embody the best of what any given brand represents.
But there’s little disagreement on what makes a bad one and they frequently have a lot in common. Irrational pricing and a sudden shift away from brand identity are usually at the core of a real stinker. If you don’t believe me, here are five of the absolute worst halo cars from the modern era in no particular order…
Lincoln Blackwood (2001-2002)
The Lincoln Blackwood has to be one of the most tragic halo vehicles manufactured within my lifetime. The luxury pickup was an abject failure for the Ford Motor Company, despite it predicting the segment’s future trajectory rather well. Today, it’s not abnormal to see someone driving off the lot inside of a feature-rich truck with a six-figure price tag. But it was unheard of when Lincoln launched the Blackwood in 2002.
The manufacturer had seen customers take to the Navigator SUV for a few years and imagined that there might be a way to replicate that success using the F-Series. Considering that the Ford Expedition could be transmogrified into a luxury vehicle, it seemed plausible the same strategy could be applied to the F-150. But Lincoln overshot, compromising much of the Blackwood’s usefulness as a truck by giving it incredibly dumb features. The most inexplicable of these has to be its clamshell tonneau and carpeted truck bed, which drastically limited the driver’s ability to access and desire to haul things. The rest of the pickup was an amalgamation of fake wood, aluminum pinstriping, an optional color five-inch color infotainment display (that would have been impressive for the time), and a bunch of black upholstery.
Equipped with a 5.4-liter DOHC V8 pushing 300 horsepower and 355 lb-ft of torque, Lincoln was asking $52,000 almost 20 years ago. While this again would prove to be a reasonable sum for deluxe pickups manufactured later on, it was a bit much at the time. The company only built 3,356 and discontinued the model after it had been in production for just over a year. Cadillac would ultimately see more success with its Escalade EXT, which was more functional and ostentatious than the Blackwood. But Lincoln would return with the Mark LT before Ford realized that the best solution was to keep offering more options and higher trims on the F-Series.
Subaru SVX (1991-1996)
In the 1990s, Japanese automakers had highly distinctive performance models serving as halo cars — most of which would go on to become automotive royalty. Nissan had the 300ZX, Mazda had the RX-7, Toyota had the Supra, Honda/Acura had the NSX, and Mitsubishi had the 3000GT/GTO. Each offered concrete evidence that their respective automaker could not only build a driver’s car but also inject it with a distinctive personality that actually said something about the rest of the brand’s lineup. Unfortunately, Subaru’s entry was the (Alcyone) SVX.
Full disclosure, I have a friend who owns one and I have an unlimited amount of nostalgia for it. But it is an odd choice for the brand and made for a truly horrible halo vehicle. Launched in 1991, Subaru had not yet started building the WRX and figured its showpiece automobile needed to be a luxurious grand tourer and thought the aircraft-inspired XT coupe made a good starting point. The end result was a huskier successor equipped with the 3.3-liter horizontally opposed flat-six EG33. While the biggest motor the company had produced, it only made about 230 horsepower. This resulted in the SVX’s dynamics trailing its rivals and the issue only worsened the better equipped the cars became.
Meanwhile, the best aspects of the coupe also turned out to be the most problematic. The SVX had one of the most advanced all-wheel-drive systems on the market (FWD would be offered later) but people had not yet started flocking to AWD in droves and the decision made the vehicle heavier, resulting in acceleration figures that were more in line with mid-level Japanese performance vehicles than the big dogs Subaru was gunning for. It also came exclusively with a 4-speed automatic in an era where sporting vehicles typically benefited from having a manual transmission. That made the SVX shine the brightest when it could be piloted around at highway speeds, something it didn’t usually need AWD for.
The double window design worked incredibly by shielding drivers from rain when open and helped give it a distinctive look. But it also didn’t create much of a breeze on swelteringly hot days, sullying the otherwise enjoyable (albeit relaxed) driving experience. Ultimately, Subaru’s faithful didn’t really want to buy a car that cost roughly $10,000 more than its next most-expensive model. The company only sold 24,379 globally, with North America accounting for about 14,000 before it discontinued the model in 1996.
As a positive, the Subaru SVX is probably the cheapest way a person living today can buy a vehicle designed by ItalDesign Giorgetto Giugiaro — unless you’re willing to settle for something hideous like a Daewoo Lanos or Eagle Premier.
Chrysler TC by Maserati (1988–1990)
What happens when you tell two companies that have gradually lost their identity to jointly develop a halo vehicle? The Chrysler TC by Maserati.
Essentially a super-premium Chrysler LeBaron (although technically a chopped Dodge Daytona), the TC is the direct result of the bromance between Lee Iacocca and Alejandro de Tomaso. Having helped Chrysler corner the market on price-conscious Americans, Iacocca wanted something that could cater to a more upscale clientele. This resulted in a series of bizarre luxury concepts designed on a shoestring budget before de Tomaso figured his company, Maserati, should give it a whirl.
Launched in 1988 and equipped with the best little engine the company had at the time (the 2.2-liter Turbo II), the front-wheel-drive convertible would see numerous changes to its powertrain in an incredibly short timeframe. Later automatics would be swapped to a 3.0-liter Mitsubishi 6G72 V6, while 500 TC’s would receive an upgraded version of the 2.2-liter with 16 valves that had been engineered by Maserati. The later models also came with upgraded pistons, turbocharger, connecting rods, crankshaft, and intake manifold resulting in a much higher peak output of 200 horsepower. They also utilized a 5-speed manual from Getrag, in order to handle the added oomph. Having built up a few automatic Mopars from this era, I can attest to this being an absolute necessity.
The TC by Maserati was an absolute disaster and cost Chrysler a fortune to manufacture thanks to its utilization of premium materials. Interiors used hand-stitched Italian leather, removable hardtops came with opera windows, and even the retractable softtop versions still collapsed into a body-matching receptacle. Few expenses were spared: The cars came equipped with most of the high-end items one would expect to see on models coming from premium marquees. Building one cost the Chrysler over twice the $33,000 starting MSRP and it just continued getting more expensive as the years progressed. The company ceased production in 1993 barely managing to sell 7,000 examples. In the aftermath, practically everyone involved in the project attempted to downplay their own involvement.
Cadillac Allanté (1986–1993)
Often compared favorably to the Chrysler TC, the Cadillac Allanté has been a grim reminder that there is no accounting for taste. Aimed at the luxury coup market then dominated by European brands, it also followed a similar design trajectory as the Maserati Mopar. But Cadillac had the money to bring out the big guns, tapping Pininfarina to both model and build the roadster’s exterior. Bodies were then shipped all the way from Italy for final assembly at Hamtramck Assembly in Detroit, requiring the automaker to charter specially equipped Boeing 747s.
As one might imagine, this also helped drive up cost. Base models were priced at $54,700 in 1987 (roughly $126,644 in today’s money) and later model years would see the Allanté growing even more expensive as the number of options ballooned. Well-equipped examples could easily eclipse $64,000 and very little of that seemed to be devoted to providing the best driving experience. The first examples of the Cadillac Allanté utilized a 170-horsepower transverse and fuel-injected version of the 4.1-liter HT-4100 V8 that had undergone some light performance modifications (high-flow cylinder heads and a tuned intake manifold).
While this would be upgraded to a 4.5-liter LW2 V8 a few years later, resulting in 200 hp and 270 lb-ft, the two-seater wouldn’t really start to make sense until it received the 4.6-liter L37 Northstar V8 in 1993. Limited to the final year of production, the Northstar Allanté yielded an output of 295 hp and 290 foot-pounds of torque. However the vehicle’s front-wheel drive, cushy suspension, and 4-speed automatic really allowed it to be sporty in a straight line.
The car certainly has its defenders, most of whom point to the unicorn 1993 model that’s still slower, less engaging to drive, and only a tad more comfortable than a $17,800 Eagle Talon TSi from the same year. Obviously, some of us don’t feel like the Allanté deserves its borderline cult status (the Buick Reatta is so much cooler). But Cadilac managed to manufacture 21,430 examples and it’s not quite the worst halo vehicle General Motors produced for the modern era…
Cadillac ELR (2013–2016)
Basically the automotive equivalent of someone saying “watch this” before face planting onto concrete, the Cadillac ELR was GM’s first attempt to put Tesla on notice. Chevrolet had already proven the public had at least some appetite for electrification with the Volt and, with most early adopters being well-heeled, it seemed to make sense to see if electrification could be taken upmarket. Having shown the popular Cadillac Converj in 2009, GM thought it could bring the canceled model back into development by 2011.
Announced as the Cadillac ELR, the model wouldn’t arrive until late 2013, and the end result kind of surprised everyone. While a few inches longer and wider than the Volt, the ELR was still technically a compact automobile many felt was inappropriately sized. Cadillac “solved” this by making it a two-door coupe, despite the majority of its customer base being older people who preferred larger vehicles with more doors. Worse yet, offered less interior volume than the Volt in just about every appreciable dimension (including cargo volume).
A series hybrid with plug-in capabilities, the ELR also borrowed the front-wheel-drive Volt’s powertrain — a 1.4-liter EcoFLEX I4 working in tandem with an electric motor and generating power for a 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. While this was good for a total range of 340 miles, its 39 miles of all-electric range was actually smaller than what was available on the Chevy.
Cadillac decided to ask for $75,000 in the first year while promoting the government incentives helping to tamp that down. But there were few takers when the model was effectively an exceptionally nice Volt, which was retailing for roughly $35,000 at the time.
Then came the ELR’s infamous commercial. GM’s marketing department opted to have veteran actor Neal McDonough play the role of an American businessman as he issued a barrage of platitudes at the audience. It was incredibly effective in grabbing people’s attention but also ended up being extremely polarizing before that kind of thing had taken over every aspect of American culture. Half the audience saw it as an unapologetic love letter to American values, while the other half viewed it as unpleasantly nationalistic. But it didn’t help sell the car and those who praised the ad often felt the ELR wouldn’t have been the kind of vehicle a no-nonsense capitalist would ever choose for themselves.
Production ended in 2016 with Cadillac stopping short of 3,000 deliveries.
[Images: Lincoln; Subaru; Chrysler; Cadillac]