General Motors, Chrysler and Ford's Revolutionary Cars and Failures

"What we've seen today is the ultimate culmination of many years of iffy, so-so products in the face of what turned out to be better products," Nerad said.

Ford's Big Blunder: Pinto

The Pinto lasted a decade and might have been considered a success story if it weren't for the car's safety problems. Because of a design flaw, the gas tank tended to rupture when the car was hit from behind, sometimes resulting in deadly fires and explosions.

To make matters worse, a memo surfaced indicating that Ford knew of the design problems but did a cost-benefit analysis showing that it would be cheaper to pay out any potential injury and death claims than to redesign the car.

The Pinto was tiny and popular but ultimately a PR nightmare.

"The vehicle just became a ball of fire," Phillippi said.

Maybe not as spectacular of a failure, but equally hated was the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. This car was groundbreaking as it helped herald in the age of the crossover SUV, vehicles that offer the size and feel of an SUV but the manageability and handling of a typical car.

The Aztek fell short on looks.

The problem with the Aztek was simply that it was ugly. Really ugly. This was not the type of car anybody would have wanted to be seen driving around the neighborhood in.

GM's Chevy Volt: A Green Electric Car

Perhaps the most ambitious effort of recent times to reinvent an auto company came from General Motors and its engineering marvel, the EV1. This electric vehicle promised to revolutionize the market, the same way GM hopes to again today with the Volt, more than a decade after the EV1's 1997 debut.

The car came out of California's zero-emissions-vehicle mandate and ran completely on electricity. It had all the promise of saving the planet from excess greenhouse gases.

GM's EV1 was supposed to lead to gas-free driving.

Then reality struck. The battery didn't last long enough, the car was tiny and not powerful enough for American drivers' tastes.

But the real problem was cost. GM couldn't find an affordable way to manufacture the car. The company went from being a leader in the electric car business to being known as the company that killed off the electric car.

"Instead of a positive in environmentalists' eyes, it became a major black eye for General Motors," Nerad said.

For the AMC Pacer, the problem wasn't cost but bad design. Sure, it was a bit dorky looking, but it was also impractical, with more glass than you could ever imagine on a car.

"This was like a fishbowl on wheels," Phillippi said. "It had extraordinary issues with the inability of an air conditioning system to keep up with the sun."

The Rebirth of Ford: Explorer, Crossover Flex

Ford stuck gold in 1986 with the Taurus. The car was more aerodynamic than most cars of that generation and had rounded edges that were practically unheard of back then.

"It was a dramatic departure from everything else on the road at the time," Phillippi said. "It was the car that saved Ford."

It might not seem like it today, but in its time, the design of the Taurus was groundbreaking.

The other automakers quickly scrambled to redesign their cars with similarly rounded edges.

Ford hit success again in 1990 with the introduction of the Explorer. The mass-produced SUV led the way for an influx of the cars and cleared the path for larger SUVs, including Chevrolet's Suburban and Tahoe.

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