Was the Yugo really the worst car ever?

How we get from here to there.
Jan. 15 2010 7:00 AM

Was the Yugo Really the Worst Car Ever?

A new book explains why the tiny automobile was so reviled.

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After overcoming any number of hurdles with production, distribution, and design, all explained rather rivetingly by Vuic, the Yugo finally made it to America, where it went from "Yugomania" media sensation to late-night joke staple almost overnight. (Leno: "Yugo has come out with a very clever anti-theft device: They made their name bigger.") But it sold. As Vuic writes, the Yugo was the "fastest-selling first-year European import in history." For some, it was a perfect third car; for others, it was a rare chance to own a new car. The ad campaign bore a cheeky, pragmatic message of thrift ("the Road Back to Sanity"). But as the new-car smell began to fade, Yugo's reputation began to catch up with it. Consumer Reports panned it, saving the deadliest line for last: "If $4,400 is the most you can spend on a car, we think you'd get better value from a good used car than a new Yugo."

But was it the worst car in history? No; Vuic's subtitle is a teaser. First, simply by dint of being approved for sale in America, the Yugo was far from the world's worst. "Any ranking is relative," observes Vuic, "but as a rule if an automobile passes U.S. safety and emissions tests it is a relatively decent car." However bad the Yugo may have been, it was worse in Yugoslavia. And even in NHTSA's grueling safety tests, Yugo wasn't the worst performer; that honor fell to Isuzu. Yugo didn't even have the worst death rate per 10,000 vehicles. A trio of Chevy cars (the Corvette and the Sprint two-door and four-door) held the gold, silver, and bronze in that unwelcome category.

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Even if the Yugo wasn't the worst car in history, it seemed preordained to receive that title. There have been plenty of bad cars in America—Hummer, for example, has fared only somewhat better in Consumer Reports than the vastly cheaper Yugo—but Yugo became the über-bad car. Why? Vuic has a few good theories. There's the size issue. Americans have long been biased against small cars, even if our vague sense that "big car equals good" and "small cars equal bad" is an oversimplification. (All things being equal, one is safer in a crash in a large vehicle than a small one, but things are rarely equal: Design matters, as do drivers.) Then there's price. Vuic notes that Americans clearly wanted bargains—Wal-Mart also became a household name in the 1980s—but "cars were a different story. Cars meant status, and if your car was a Yugo, your status was low."* Or perhaps it was simply that the Yugo was Yugoslavian. "Maybe it was the communist thing," one dealer reflected.

Had things gone differently—had the quality improved, had more models been rolled out—Yugo might have had a future in America. Bricklin's once-infamous Subaru, for example, went on to become a juggernaut: Last year it was the only major automaker to post a profit. Yugo's brief flirtation with success, notes Vuic, let the export dreams of a thousand developing-world makers bloom, as the manufacturers of everything from the Indonesian Lincah Gama to the Greek Desta to the Indian Mahindra briefly dreamed of making theirs the next affordable car option in America. Vuic's history is a fascinating read, and an instructive one for the present moment. We now live in another time of fulsome transition in the automotive world: A Chinese company purchased Volvo, and the country is set to buy more cars than the United States this year; Saab was nearly bought by the previously obscure Dutch company Spyker, a boutique, loss-making luxury automaker run by a flashy serial entrepreneur and backed by a Russian bank whose owner recently survived an assassination attempt. And we all await the planned 2011 U.S. introduction of the Tata Nano, the budget Indian car that will be, like the Yugo, spiffed up for American market standards. Whether Americans will be any more willing to embrace something small and cheap this time around, in the absence—for now—of high fuel prices, is unclear. But Malcolm Bricklin would surely smile at the proposed cost: The base price will probably be less than half that of the mid-1980s Yugo—the one with the empty fuel tank, that is.

Correction, Jan. 27, 2010: The original version said that Wal-Mart launched in the 1980s. The retail chain did expand considerably in that decade, but the first discount store opened in 1962. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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