May 26, 2020
The cars and trucks that deserve a second chance

The cars and trucks that deserve a second chance


Honda Element

We think an SUV like the Honda Element would totally be a hit today.


Honda

Sometimes, the right car launches at the wrong time. But just because a segment-bending vehicle or an oddball take on a proven formula doesn’t become an instant hit doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. In many cases, the car’s time just hasn’t come.

That’s why we think the cars and trucks on this list deserve a second chance at stardom. Whether they were ahead of the curve or just not fully baked, we think these vehicles could totally find new success with a few small changes to their original formulas.

Honda Element

I know a few people who still own or have previously owned a Honda Element. They’ve all loved the thing. It’s just the right blend of practical and quirky, somehow offering way more usability and charm in its demure box shape than nearly any modern crossover on the market. And all those people I know who own a Honda Element are mad at Honda. Why? Because they can’t go buy a new one.

Initial sales for the Element were strong, nearly moving 80,000 units in 2003, its first full year of availability. But by the time it was put out to pasture in 2011, annual sales had dropped to around 14,000. For 2020, I think it’s time for a comeback. Why? Well, crossovers are bigger than ever, and while the Element blurred the lines between a crossover SUV and an MPV, today’s crossovers are so thoroughly boring that a new, similarly quirky Element would stand out.

But the Element’s most attractive feature wasn’t its slab-sided styling, it was the configurability and cleanability of its interior. The way the seats folded up and the doors opened wide made this the vehicle for lovers of big dogs. To that end, Honda even offered a “Dog Friendly” model including a ramp, water bowl and integrated kennel. Back in 2011, 46% of US households had at least one dog. In 2019? That’s jumped to 63%, according to the American Pet Products Association. What more reason do you need to bring this back, Honda?

— Tim Stevens

Mazda CX-7

The fact that lots of people are turning to SUVs isn’t new, which is why I think a reborn Mazda CX-7 can make a lot of sense. The first-generation CX-7 from the 2007-2012 model years was akin to a Mazdaspeed3 for grown-ups, thanks to its potent turbo engine option.

When equipped with the 2.3-liter turbocharged MZR I4, which also powered the Mazdaspeed3, the CX-7 could hustle, thanks to its 244 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Unfortunately, it was far from fuel-efficient, returning an EPA-estimated 17 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg on the highway with all-wheel drive. The suspension was tuned to the sportier side of the spectrum for excellent handling reflexes, but at the expense of ride comfort. Not-so-great fuel economy and firmer ride comfort was fine for enthusiast-minded folks, but less so for most of the car-buying public.

What would help a new CX-7 succeed today? For starters, Mazda’s lineup of Skyactiv engines would provide sufficient power and respectable fuel economy. Its engineers have also been able to do a bang-up job tuning suspensions that offer both confident cornering prowess and compliant daily ride comfort — just check out the Mazda3 and CX-30. Throw in Mazda’s current design mantra of slick and mature exteriors along with near-luxury interior surroundings and a reborn CX-7 would be a heck of a competitor to the Chevy Blazer, ancient Ford Edge and Honda Passport.

— Jon Wong

Scion xB

The first-generation xB was part of the original trio of models that hit the scene when Scion launched in 2003, and I think the most iconic design in the youth-oriented brand’s short history. Affordable, funky and extra boxy, the subcompact crammed a lot of charm and space into a tiny footprint. For a time, the xB was Scion’s most popular model, but a lackluster second-gen version meant the xB didn’t make the cut when the rest of the brand folded into parent company Toyota’s lineup in 2016. That’s a shame, really; a third-gen model could have been the charm.

Scion’s “modify it yourself” attitude meant that the hatchback rolled off the lot with the most basic double-DIN stereo Toyota’s suppliers could find. This was fine for the young target buyer whose first stop was likely a car audio installer to replace the whole rig, but those who didn’t were stuck with pretty crap tech. Today’s young buyers are more interested in Android Auto and Apple CarPlay — software upgrades that grow alongside the phone in your pocket — so a modern xB’s dashboard would boast a more integrated infotainment system that supports those technologies. Throw in a dose of Toyota’s now-standard Safety Sense driver-aid technologies and some Mercedes A-Class-esque RGB ambient lighting — a digital nod to that old Scion “customize it” flair — and the xB could be in fighting shape.

The xB’s appeal centered around style and spatial economy. The little car had plenty of room for people and their cargo, which made it a very city-friendly subcompact. With only 108 hp from its 1.5-liter I4, power wasn’t the point, but fuel economy was pretty good at around 30 mpg. A modern xB could lean into its urban appeal, staying small and friendly, but upgrading to a turbocharged or electrified powertrain with a tad more zip and thrift. The xB would have to grow a bit to survive on today’s SUV-filled roads and to accommodate modern safety equipment, but I think something about the size of today’s Kia Soul would strike a good balance. (In fact, if you’ve read this far and are still interested, just buy a Soul. You won’t regret it.)

— Antuan Goodwin

Pontiac Aztek

Remember the Pontiac Aztek? How could you not? It’s one of the ugliest cars ever produced, and it’s still a lightning rod for controversy, some two decades after it first went on sale. With heinous proportions, nonsensical lines and more plastic cladding than a whole subdivision of vinyl-sided McMansions, this crossover looked less sophisticated than a five-year-old’s crayon drawing of a spaceship.

But underneath that ghastly bodywork was a surprisingly versatile crossover. It gave customers a good view of the road ahead thanks to its elevated ride height. The interior offered serious capaciousness, no doubt thanks to its minivan bones. And for inclement weather or even mild off-roading, the Aztek could be had with traction-enhancing all-wheel drive. Beyond all that, it offered a slide-out cargo tray, could be fitted with any number of roof racks to haul things like bikes or other cargo and there was even an optional tent attachment that fitted over the rear end so you could rest your head when out adventuring. Under the hood, GM’s 3.4-liter pushrod V6 engine delivered around 185 hp and was matched to a four-speed automatic transmission, for adequate if not thrilling performance.

Certainly, a vehicle like the Aztek still has appeal. As long as it didn’t look like an amphibian fished out of the Pripyat River near Chernobyl, I suspect today’s crossover-obsessed drivers would flock to something like this Pontiac, a product with supreme versatility and all-weather capability. GM should consider reintroducing something like this, perhaps as a pure electric offering for its reborn Hummer brand.

— Craig Cole

Acura ZDX

The Acura ZDX was truly ahead of its time. The rakish SUV was actually one of the first crossover-coupe — or coupeover, in Roadshow parlance — vehicles to hit the scene. Practically every luxury automaker has a crop-top SUV (or two, or three) in its range these days. But Acura launched its ZDX way back in 2009.

Yes, the ZDX was tremendously ugly, but under that awkward skin was a familiar powertrain, not to mention a well-appointed interior with lots of cabin tech. The ZDX shared a platform with the larger MDX crossover, and was powered by the same 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter V6, putting its oomph to the ground via Acura’s well-liked all-wheel-drive system. The overall balance and chassis tuning was pretty solid, and I have fond memories of driving the ZDX on long road trips through the midwest.

The ZDX wasn’t without its compromises, though. The cargo are was relatively cramped, ditto the back seats. But then again, that’s par for the course with just about every coupeover these days, and people love those things.

Over the course of its four-year run, Acura sold just over 6,000 ZDX models in the US, making it a relative rarity to this day. But I could totally see this car making a comeback now. Take the excellent new RDX, keep the turbo engine, slick the roof back a bit and presto, coupeover success. It’d certainly look better than the old ZDX, at any rate.

— Steven Ewing

Toyota FJ Cruiser

This one feels like a no-brainer. America’s hardcore SUV segment has proven to be surprisingly robust and vibrant. Jeep’s Wrangler sells hundreds of thousands of units annually, the new Land Rover Defender is nearly here and the long-promised Ford Bronco redux is lurking just up the trail. For its part, Toyota abandoned this segment when it stopped importing the FJ Cruiser in 2014, but as that generation’s certifiably insane resale values suggest, there’s a ready audience for a new one. It’s tempting to think Toyota’s current Tacoma could easily provide a low-cost, hard-wearing platform for this off-road revival. However, the automaker is presently developing a scalable frame to underpin all future pickup trucks, and that more modern architecture would likely be a smarter starting point.

While it enjoys a cult-like following today, the last FJ Cruiser actually hung around for years longer than it was competitive the US. Indeed, there were very real limitations with the old SUV. A new FJ would still need to incorporate heritage design cues to leverage its iconic Land Cruiser lineage. However, this new model would probably be better served by a range of traditional two- and four-door trims than it would be to revisit the old truck’s oddball configuration. (While seemingly neat at first, the last FJ Cruiser’s rear-hinged secondary doors were cumbersome and outward visibility was lousy.) Improved efficiency with a turbocharged I4, a V6 for traditionalists and potentially some sort of mild-hybrid option would help modernize a new FJ without alienating its likely buying audience.

Admittedly, with the new Land Rover and Ford models waiting in the wings, America’s rugged 4×4 SUV segment is suddenly at risk of overcrowding. Fortunately, a proper new FJ Cruiser would also probably sell well in global markets like Australia and the Middle East (the latter still offers the old one today). And besides, body-on-frame SUVs are known to have particularly thick profit margins. C’mon Toyota, you know you want to…

— Chris Paukert

Mazda MPV

The original Mazda MPV was pretty damn weird. Sold from 1988-1999, it looked more like a boxy SUV than a minivan and it had regularly hinged doors. Also unlike other minivans at the time, it was based on a rear-wheel-drive platform and available with a selectable four-wheel-drive system. The MPV was soon outclassed by more traditional minivan offerings, but it remained unique throughout its run.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the MPV one of the first true “crossovers,” and now that crossovers are super prevalent and niched to all hell, it’s time for the MPV to make a return. Overland-ready JDM vans like the Mitsubishi Delica are super popular imports in the US right now, and there’s no new car out there like them. A modern MPV with a capable all-wheel-drive system, sliding doors and a well-packaged interior could be extremely compelling.

Mazda’s gorgeous design language would even work on the OG MPV’s form factor, too — just look at the new, weird, kinda boxy MX-30. And can you think of a more perfect use for Mazda’s turbodiesel engine? The turbocharged four-cylinder found in cars like the CX-9 would work well, too, as would a fully electric powertrain. No matter the propulsion, a rethink of the MPV could be a hit.

— Daniel Golson

Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup

These days, if you want to buy a small truck, your options are still pretty large. You have “midsizers” such as the Chevy Colorado, Ford Ranger, Honda Ridgeline or Toyota Tacoma, but what are you supposed to do if you just want something small, low-key weird and practical enough for trips to Ikea or the beach?

Way back in the 1980s, there were way more options, one of which was the Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup — aka the VW Caddy to the rest of the world — and I think it should be time for that most utilitarian of lagomorphs to rise again.

The way I see it now, the Caddy comeback could be spurred by Volkswagen’s ID line of electric vehicles. It makes sense, too, because they’re already bringing back the VW van in both passenger and cargo forms, and why not add a small, practical pickup to that lineup? Who needs crazy off-road capability or the ability to tow a small moon out of orbit? I’ll tell you who doesn’t: 90% of the American populace. A small, car-looking ID truck — priced right, of course — could be the start of a new American ute revolution and I would have no choice but to stan.

— Kyle Hyatt

Mazdaspeed Miata

Full disclosure: I own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata and it is the best car ever made, full stop. OK, sure, it’s loud, it’s harsh and it doesn’t get great gas mileage, but the 8.5 psi of boost out of the tiny turbocharger gives it just enough oomph without compromising the original character of the Miata’s 1.8-liter engine.

The original Mazdaspeed Miata pushed out 178 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque, a gain of 36 and 41, respectively, over the naturally aspirated Miata. It was only available with a six-speed manual transmission and Bilstein shocks. Visually it distinguished itself with 17-inch wheels, smoked headlights and a few aero upgrades.

To keep that same-but-different intention, I’d want to see a new Mazdaspeed Miata offered only in the RF trim with its gorgeous targa-top profile. A turbocharger slapped on the current 2.0-liter could easily bring power up to 200 hp, and would certainly increase the current car’s 151 lb-ft of twist. Throw in some standard Recaro seats, Brembo brakes and sticky tires and you’re done. Do not add driving modes, do not add driver-assistance features. Make this one all about driving.

— Emme Hall

Chevrolet HHR

Chevy’s retro-styling kick in the mid-2000s resulted in the HHR, which wasn’t quite a wagon, but it wasn’t quite a crossover, either. There was a panel van variant for businesses, in addition to the supercharged, 260-hp SS trim that gave the thing some decent punch. Sounds good, right? I don’t think it was high on anyone’s must-have list, but with some modern touches I think this thing would be a worthy contender in today’s market.

We’ll start with the styling. While I appreciate the visual throwback to the Suburbans and other people-haulers of yore, mid-2000s GM quality means some frumpy bits outside (the taillights, mostly) and a whole lot of crappy plastic inside. GM’s interior design has come a long way, love for petrochemical-derived dashboards aside, and a more modernized HHR interior — and maybe some slimmer LED lamps that better resemble retro cars — would allow the vehicle to remain in its clever compact-car niche with some added style.

While the SS’ 260-hp output would still be plenty meaty today, revising the more affordable engines that would give the HHR a real fighting chance in a modern segment. Ditch the old 2.2- and 2.4-liter Ecotec engines in favor of a low-displacement, high-economy I3, and maybe throw in a mild-hybrid or standard gas-electric hybrid into the mix somewhere. The need for urban business vehicles is ever-present, and extra-thrifty variants would probably have the HHR littering today’s streets in no time.

— Andrew Krok

Dodge Caliber

Today, buyers are keen to find a do-it-all kind of car. It should look good, offer tons of practicality with added cargo space and be able to haul the family around. The Dodge Caliber definitely wasn’t a looker, but boy did it tick a lot of boxes.

Meant to replace the long-serving Dodge Neon, the Caliber ran out of ammunition in 2012 after only five years, just as Chrysler reemerged as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It wasn’t a total sales dud, but with a reboot, I think the Caliber could be just the ticket today. Keep the hatchback body, which is absolutely right for car buyers today, and turn it into a small crossover akin to the Chevrolet Trax.

Dodge’s head was in the right place originally, but cash-strapped Chrysler just couldn’t stick the landing. The Caliber’s successor, the Dart, didn’t hit the mark — it’s been off the market for years now. A new small crossover based on the first Caliber’s core strengths? That could be a real winner today. Just don’t do it without an SRT version, please and thank you.

— Sean Szymkowski

Chrysler Pacifica

We currently know the Pacifica as Chrysler’s trusty minivan, the well-liked replacement for the long-serving Town & Country. But long before we had the Pacifica, we had the… Pacifica.

Look, I love a good minivan as much as the next guy, but crossovers and SUVs continue to dominate the family-friendly space. Chrysler was onto something in the early 2000s when it created the original Pacifica, a larger, upright, slightly more butch-looking take on the solid minivan packaging, with traditional doors instead of sliders, a choice of V6 engines and even optional all-wheel drive. Sounds like one of today’s midsize SUVs, doesn’t it?

The Pacifica was a great idea and a good product, but much like the aforementioned Caliber, Chrysler just didn’t have its heart in this one. The interior was crap, the exterior design aged poorly, the engines weren’t efficient and the Pacifica just kind of felt like a super-dumpy version of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class.

Now, though, the time is totally right for another Chrysler CUV. Soften the lines of Dodge’s trusty Durango, throw a bit more leather inside, and this could totally serve as a Chrysler crossover — something for folks who still aren’t sold on minivan life. Of course, there’s the question of what to call it. Hey, I bet Town & Country is still available.

— Steven Ewing

Chevrolet Volt

OK, this wound is still pretty fresh. This plug-in hybrid sedan was only just canceled last year and who knows what GM has up its sleeve, but the Chevrolet Volt deserves a second chance. After an awkward introduction — Chevy refused to call it a hybrid, which led to some mixed messaging and customer confusion — the Volt quickly settled in as one of the best examples of what PHEV technology has to offer. The second-generation model boasted up to 53 miles of electric range before its gasoline range extender kicked in, a number that is still unmatched by today’s PHEVs.

With the exception of 2015 — when the Nissan Leaf temporarily stole its title — the Volt was the best-selling plug-in car in America for the entirety of its eight-year run, and is still hailed as the best-selling plug-in hybrid in the world. A second-gen model arrived in 2016 with better looks, improved efficiency and better value, but despite holding what appeared to be a winning hand, the deck was stacked against the humble Volt. GM announced the end of the Volt as part of the Great American Sedan Purge of 2018 with production ceasing in early 2019. Sedan sales were being displaced by SUVs and green car buyers were trending away from hybrids to EVs, so GM chose to focus its energy on the battery electric Chevrolet Bolt, which it awkwardly calls a crossover despite clearly being a hatchback.

The Volt did everything within the scope of its design right, but the world changed around it. Today’s fully electric cars are more viable than ever, but plug-in hybrids like the Volt still have a place on our roads for those who can’t yet make the transition for whatever reason, easing mainstream drivers into the plug-in lifestyle while taking large steps toward reduced consumption and emissions. However, the PHEVs left in the Volt’s wake leave much to be desired. Either their plug-in range is lacking or they look like the Honda Clarity. It’ll probably never happen — GM is focused on EVs now — but I’d like to see the Volt or, at least, its Voltec powertrain back on the road at some point, perhaps even powering a compact SUV, if that’s what it would take.

— Antuan Goodwin

Mazdaspeed3

How is there not a new Mazdaspeed3? The latest Mazda3 is a car that punches above its weight in many respects, and a go-fast version is a car that should absolutely exist.

The first two Mazdaspeed3 models rocked 263 hp and quickly became a staple rival to the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI and more. If anything, the WRX shows there’s definitely still a market for affordable performance cars, and hatchbacks give buyers the chance to turn a fun car into a practical one, too. I’m not even sure what should change aside from some more aggressive looks and a more powerful engine. The recipe’s nearly there — Mazda just needs to toss it in the oven.

With the latest Mazda3’s solid overall package, it’s practically begging for added performance to complete the picture. I know Mazda’s chasing the more premium side of the business these days, but maybe there’s a little twinkle of “Zoom-Zoom” left.

— Sean Szymkowski

Chrysler K-car

Another vehicle, or, rather, vehicle architecture that deserves a second chance is the Chrysler K-car. And no, I’m not joking. A mainstay of Mother Mopar throughout the 1980s, this front-wheel-drive platform underpinned a vast array of models from a range of different brands under the Pentastar umbrella. Laughably crude and malnourished by 21st century standards, K-car derivatives like the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant nonetheless saved Chrysler from certain doom during this troubled time. Not only that, this platform spawned the company’s groundbreaking minivans, which went on to sell in huge numbers.

The importance of the K-car range to Chrysler cannot be overstated. But to be clear, I’m not advocating that engineers dust off this Iacocca-era architecture and put it back into production. Rather, what I’d like to see is FCA develop a platform that allows it to profitably build decent-quality cars once more. Today, this automaker is basically out of the car business in North America, with profits instead coming from high-margin trucks and utility vehicles, models like the popular Ram 1500 and Jeep Wrangler.

Imagine if FCA introduced K-car 2.0, a safe, efficient and refined architecture that was supremely flexible, allowing the company to build a wide array of products off the same basic structure, and do so with industry-leading quality at low cost. This is what I’d love to see them do. Pickups and utility models may be popular right now, but cars will make a comeback and our friends in Auburn Hills better be ready.

— Craig Cole

Subaru Baja

There’s no denying that America loves pickup trucks. America even has a history of liking weird “trucks” like the Chevy El Camino, and the unibody Honda Ridgeline has lasted long enough to get a second generation. But the Subaru Baja, essentially an Outback with a bed, only lasted four model years. I think it’s time to try again.

Subaru really wouldn’t need to change up the Baja’s formula for it to work in 2020. The current Outback is the biggest and best one ever, and it would look pretty rad with a bed, higher ride height and some additional body cladding. The original Baja had a pass-through in the bed, and combining that with a roll-down rear window would offer more utility than the Outback would have.

A new Baja would fit perfectly with Subaru’s current active-lifestyle branding and demographic, and it would offer a more car-like alternative to smaller trucks like the Nissan Frontier. Plus, Hyundai is coming out with its own crossover-based Santa Cruz truck very soon, with no other real competitors on the market. So bring the Baja back, Subaru. Just make sure it comes in yellow and has a hood scoop, please.

— Daniel Golson

Porsche 928

Over the years, Porsche’s 928 has been the subject of countless revival rumors, and with good reason. Built between 1978 and 1995, the 928’s legacy arguably looms larger now than it did when the model was still in showrooms. While something of a red-headed stepchild to many Porsche 911 traditionalists when new, today, the 928 is widely regarded as one of the greatest grand-touring sports cars of all time.

The front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered 928 looked incredibly futuristic when it debuted. Today, integrated bumpers like those on the 928’s flying-saucer shape are commonplace, but back in the ’70s, they were unheard of. That the 928 survived for nearly 20 years with only one truly major styling revision is a testament to the staying power of its avant-garde design. And the 928 wasn’t just aerodynamic, it was a peerless long-distance cruiser with excellent handling. By the end of its life, in 1995 GTS guise, it offered 350 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque — enough for a 60-mph sprint in a smidge over 5 seconds, en route to a top speed of 171 mph. Like its looks, the 928’s performance numbers remain remarkably contemporary.

Theoretically at least, it’d be easier and more cost-effective for Porsche to develop a modern 928 than the original model. After all, in 2020, Porsche is swimming in V8 engines of various outputs and parent Volkswagen AG’s MSB and MLB scalable platforms are tremendously flexible building blocks. Sadly, even though Porsche is widely believed to be one of the world’s most profitable automakers, executives in Stuttgart would no doubt rather add yet-another crossover SUV to their stable instead of another traditional passenger car line. In the end, that might be for the best, as it would be nearly impossible for company designers to preserve one of the 928’s most important visual hallmarks. Those “pop-up egg” headlamps would be awfully tough to sneak by modern crash-test regulations.

— Chris Paukert

Volkswagen Beetle

Yes, the final Volkswagen Beetle just rolled off the assembly line 2019, but this car is iconic and it can’t stay away for too long. The little Bug first arrived in the US in 1949 and since then it’s been embraced by everyone from free-love hippies to go-fast off-road racers. With such history, this car absolutely can not be relegated to, um, history.

A new Beetle would make the perfect addition to Volkswagen’s line of ID electric vehicles. The company already showcased the ID Buzz, an electric version of its famous microbus, and the ID Buggy, an EV that harks back to the super-cool Meyers Manx. Both were met with praise from enthusiasts and the press. Adding an ID Beetle would complete the trifecta. This idea isn’t too far-fetched, either.

Since I’m dreaming, I’d want my ID Beetle to be easily modified. The genius of the old Beetle was that your could slam it for the street or lift it for the dirt. But even without that, there’s a market for an affordable EV for the people. If it had at least 250 miles of range and could be charged in 30 minutes, I’d put my name on the waiting list.

— Emme Hall

Mazda RX-7

The RX-7 has always been an outlier of a car. It had great ambition but often found itself hampered by technology. The rotary engine is a good example of this, with its huge power density, small size and light weight — all of which were hampered by crap gas mileage, poor emissions and questionable reliability.

Seeing the venerable rotary engine blessed with modern tech like direct fuel injection, more powerful electronics, modern small turbos and more advanced materials for things like apex and corner seals would make for something truly exciting and different.

It’s a tough market for sports cars these days, but with some of its old rivals making a comeback — the Supra, NSX and GT-R being chief among them — there’s likely a place for a new RX in the hearts of enthusiasts. Worst-case scenario, I’d like to see a new REPU truck or SUV.

— Kyle Hyatt


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