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

Some vehicles turn around failing carmakers while others add to the problems.

ByABC News
March 30, 2009, 5:41 PM

April 8, 2009— -- Nothing says cool, hip and exciting like a Ford.

Well, maybe not. But the U.S. carmaker is trying to change its image as it launches a new marketing campaign for a fuel-efficient, small car it hopes will help pull it out of a slump.

Ford has picked 100 everyday Americans who will test drive and live with the new Fiesta, a compact car aimed at competing with those made by Toyota and Honda. The 100 "young trendsetters," as Ford calls them, will share their opinions on all kinds of topics through social media outlets ranging from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube.

The "agents" applied for the opportunity online, posting short videos on YouTube explaining why they would be the best representative agents for the "Fiesta movement." More than 640,000 people have viewed the applications on YouTube.

Ford, like its counterparts in Detroit, hopes that one car will help save the struggling automaker. But unlike General Motors, which is putting its energy and brand behind an electric car, Ford is hoping that a small, compact will be hip enough to revive its image.

General Motors is staking a lot of its recovery on the fate of the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that it says will revolutionize the market and restore the company's brand name.

It isn't the first time that an automaker has pinned its success on one breakthrough model.

Many have tried but only a few have succeeded. Here is a look at some of those game-changing cars and those who fell way short of the promise.

One of the best-known success stories is that of the minivan.

In November 1983, Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager. The world was never the same for soccer moms again.

"It's a far cry from today's minivan, but it really did revolutionize the market," said AutoTrends consulting analyst Joe Phillippi.

Chrysler dominated the market at first as other car companies struggled to play catchup. That, in turn, helped turn the company's profits around.

"It's hard to imagine that it was 25 years ago," Phillippi said.

Nothing said outdoor ruggedness, but family-friendly, like the Cherokee.

This revamped, smaller version of the old Cherokee really kicked off the modern SUV age. It also came in a four-door version, making it a the first jeep that could also serve as a family car.

"They sort of invented the four-door mid-size sport utility vehicle," Phillippi said.

But not every car is a success, despite Detroit's deepest desires.

The Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto both came out in 1971 and were an attempt by American automakers to compete with the compact, more fuel-efficient cars imported by Toyota and Honda that were then first flooding the market.

The Vega's reliability was well, less than reliable.

Phillippi said Chevrolet came up with an all-aluminum engine, "what they thought was going to be an innovative way to manufacture" a car. The problem was that the engine cylinders wore out faster than expected and burned though oil at "an alarming rate."

Jack Nerad, market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the car was crucial in hurting General Motors' reputation, compared to the reliability of foreign cars.

"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.

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 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 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."

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.

High gas prices and a tightening of consumer credit just recently drove people away from the profitable SUVs and helped lead to Ford's current problems. The company is now trying to reinvent itself with the Flex, a crossover vehicle whose success or failure has yet to be determined.

GM has a lot resting on the success of the Volt.

"GM is at least one generation behind Toyota on advanced, 'green' powertrain development. In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt," the report said. "While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable."

Nerad also said the cost would be a major issue for GM.

"It can certainly change perception about General Motors but there has to be some skepticism about whether or not it can sell in sufficient numbers profitably to markedly affect GM's bottom line," Nerad said. "It could be enough to help a company redefine itself. Beyond sales, look what Prius has done for Toyota."

Nerad said what GM really needs are some hit conventionally powered products.

Phillippi concurred, saying that "the Volt is obviously going to be expensive. It's going to entail a lot of new-applied technology. It's not going to be an economy car."