Alfa Romeo 156
This major roll of the dice by parent Fiat Auto in 1997 saved the famed Alfa Romeo brand from terminal decline. The 156 became a desirable challenger to the 3 series.
Widespread skepticism greeted the arrival of Audi’s version of the VW Golf – but not among buyers, who proved eager to pay significant premiums for the A3 even though it drives much like the Golf.
This was the first model to stretch BMW beyond its core business: premium sedans and station wagons. True to the brand’s heritage, the X5 drove brilliantly and sold brilliantly. BMW has never looked back.
When the futuristic Focus came in October 1998, it was not a moment too soon. Replacing the outdated Escort, the Focus’ eye-catching design and great handling brought temporary relief to the company’s coffers.
After Europeans got used to its wacky looks, Ford’s cute Ka showed that combining an old powertrain with contemporary styling was a good way to make small cars pay. The Ka also took the heat off the fading Fiesta.
Things were grim for Mazda in 2001. It had dull products, no image and collapsing sales. The smart-looking, fine-driving Mazda6 re-established respect for the brand and paved the way for a fresh new line of models.
The painful 2001 rebirth of the Mini was worth every bit of BMW executives’ agony. Its superb design made it an immediate hit and created a niche for premium small cars.
The Zafira was an intelligent response to Renault’s Scenic. The Zafira added a crucial extra – seven seats – sending VW and Ford designers back to their drawing boards for their minivans.
After the 106/306 combination failed to replace the charismatic 205, Peugeot needed to regain the customers it had lost. The 206 could not afford to fail – and it didn’t.
Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking could have ruined Porsche’s iconic sports car image when he decided to produce an SUV. But despite taunts that it is ugly, the Cayenne has been a massive hit.
Even former Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer underestimated just how successful the ’97 Scenic’s family-friendly formula would be. The car showed that minivans could be mighty profitable.
Toyota’s funky RAV4 was a breakthrough design that dispensed with technical complications. Fun and stylish, the RAV4 was the first SUV built for the urban jungle instead of a real one.
With its lightweight aluminum structure, the Audi A2 could have turned small-car design upside down. But with a hard ride, a high price and Audi failing to promote the novelty of the car, the A2 never caught on. Production stopped in 2005.
The undeniable logic of underpinning macho American styling with blue-chip Mercedes engineering and German build quality proved a disappointment to drive. Sports enthusiasts prefer to stay with their Audi TTs and Mercedes CLKs.
This four-door sedan was supposed to spearhead a Chrysler assault on Europe in the late 1990s. It failed miserably. Consumers disliked its looks, raucous engines and poor quality.
Like many Fiats before it, the Stilo was supposed to re-establish a brand that had quality problems and slipping sales. The Stilo is better built, but buyers find it too pricey and too Germanic.
Former Chairman Nick Scheele’s plan to quadruple Jaguar’s sales by entering the lower-premium segment backfired badly when the promising X-Type became seen as an upscale Ford Mondeo. Buyers stayed away, causing destructive discounts.
Built in the Netherlands alongside the Volvo S40, this was to have been Mitsubishi’s big push into Europe. It was so painfully bland that it introduced dealers to an alien concept – fat discounts.
GM thought this oversized, US-centric family box could compete with the Renault Espace and Toyota Previa. Buyers disagreed. The Sintra lasted just 26 months before the ax fell.
Renault Vel Satis
French government ministers were among the few customers for this fine, if imposing, bid to compete with Mercedes-Benz with an elegant French-flavored luxury model. Renault now admits that the Vel Satis was a gamble that failed.
Saab 900 (1995-1998)
GM hoped it could make a premium sedan by adding a center ignition key and Saab styling cues to its ancient Ascona platform. The result barely could be considered a Saab. The 900 had to be reworked into the 9-3 before anyone wanted it.
Smart could have chosen any segment for its first four-seat model. It chose the toughest of all – small cars. The resulting ForFour lacks distinction and has not sold as well as hoped.
Toyota Carina II
Forgotten this one? That’s hardly surprising. This rare misjudgment from master builder Toyota was noisy, uncomfortable and cheap-feeling. The first Toyota built in the UK, it soon was replaced by the Avensis.
With the exception of Bugatti, the Phaeton rates as former VW group Chairman Ferdinand Piëch’s greatest folly. Built with fanatical perfection, the S-class competitor has everything – except the name to go with the price.