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The most embarrassing cars

Des Toups



Smart ForTwoNo one buys a Hummer to fade into the woodwork. 

Instead, look-at-me vehicles like the Hummer do exactly the opposite: They attract the eye, polarize opinion and practically demand to be judged.

What’s the car that makes America cringe the most? The Smart ForTwo.

We showed a gallery of 12 nominees to 1,500 licensed drivers, who were asked to indicate which one would be embarrassing to be seen in. Then they were asked to rank the three most embarrassing. Finally, they were asked why each vehicle was embarrassing and given the option to write in a reason of their own.

The “Cringe Score” below represents the weight of all first-, second- and third-place votes expressed on a 1 to 10 scale. The Smart ForTwo -- about half the size of a Hummer H2 or Lincoln Town Car -- was the runaway winner. “It looks like I couldn’t afford a real car,” one participant said.

Vehicle Cringe score No. 1 votes Most-cited reason Top write-in
1. Smart ForTwo 7.6 497 Too small Unsafe
2. Nissan Cube 3.6 113 Tries too hard Just plain ugly
3. Hummer H2 3.5 208 Too big Immoral
4. Chevrolet SSR 2.1 93 Tries too hard Tacky
5. Volkswagen New Beetle 1.9 83 Too 'girly' Ridiculously 'cute'
6. Subaru Baja 1.6 60 Tries too hard Funny looking
7. Lincoln Town Car 1.6 73 Too 'Grandpa' A prom rental
8. Pontiac Aztek 1.4 57 Tries too hard A design disaster
9. Chrysler PT Cruiser 1 28 Too 'Grandpa' A cliché
10. Honda Element 0.9 24 Tries too hard A box on wheels
11. Chevrolet HHR 0.7 27 Too 'old' Looks like a hearse
12. Nissan Murano Cabriolet 0.3 11 Too 'girly' Ugly as hell

Just under half of all drivers surveyed rated the ForTwo embarrassing, and a third of them gave the Smart their first-place votes. A large number of second- and third-place votes pushed the Nissan Cube past the Hummer for second place overall.

Who’s embarrassed?

We compared dislike across age ranges, and though tastes were largely similar, they differed most on two vehicles. Drivers 45 and older were far more likely to be embarrassed by the Hummer H2 than younger drivers were, and they were much less likely to be embarrassed by the Volkswagen New Beetle.

Some vehicles fared better among men than among women.  Women were more likely to be embarrassed to be seen in a Lincoln Town Car, a Hummer H2 or a Subaru Baja. Men didn’t want to be seen in the New Beetle or the Smart ForTwo.

Vehicle Age 25-44 Age 45-65+ Women Men
Chevrolet HHR 14% 13% 16% 12%
Chevrolet SSR 27% 16% 21% 21%
Honda Element 13% 15% 16% 12%
Hummer H2 18% 31% 33% 18%
Lincoln Town Car 18% 13% 20% 11%
Nissan Cube 35% 33% 36% 32%
Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet 8% 4% 4% 8%
Plymouth PT Cruiser 18% 14% 17% 15%
Pontiac Aztek 16% 19% 16% 19%
Smart ForTwo 51% 46% 43% 53%
Subaru Baja 23% 17% 23% 16%
Volkswagen New Beetle 27% 12% 11% 26%

Only the Nissan Cube, Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet, Smart ForTwo and Volkswagen New Beetle are still in production.

Better embarrassed than bored

Nissan Cube

Hummer H2

Chevrolet SSR

Volkswagen New Beetle





Subaru Baja

Lincoln Town Car

Pontiac Aztek

Chrysler PT Cruiser

The bolder the car, the bigger the gamble.  Sometimes it works.

The wait to buy a PT Cruiser back in 1999 stretched for months. More than 30,000 people ponied up $99 to reserve a place in line before the Smart’s 2008 debut. And the in-your-face Hummer drew critical praise and sold well even as backlash against its size and gas mileage mounted.

Honda Element

Chevrolet HHR

Others stumbled right out of the gate and disappeared quickly.  The Chevrolet SSR evoked classic pickup truck styling, had a folding hardtop and a lusty V8 engine, and it was gone in a heartbeat. Subaru sold only a fraction of the 24,000 Baja trucklets it expected to move each year and pulled the plug after four model years.

Nissan Murano Cross Cabriolet

In failure, some cars attain a perverse sort of cool. Consider Walter White’s loser-mobile in “Breaking Bad,” a serially abused, plastic-shrouded Pontiac Aztek minivan/SUV that accrues in death all the street cred it lacked in life.

Success doesn’t necessarily spare future embarrassment. Nothing about the Lincoln Town Car was daring except that it sold steadily and largely unchanged for decades, earning derision as the ultimate retiree car -- and a bundle for Ford.

Yet the list of write-in candidates indicates that some drivers would prefer even an obsolete dinosaur to conformity and blandness. The top write-in suggestion for most embarrassing car was the very sensible, very successful Toyota Prius.

This is why you can’t sell your purple minivan

The survey also asked drivers about their tastes in colors, vehicle styles and accessories.

Men were pickier about color than women were -- but women objected to orange pretty strongly.

What color makes you cringe?

Color Total Women Men
Depends on car 38% 44% 31%
Purple 17% 15% 19%
Yellow 16% 14% 17%
Orange 13% 17% 10%
Brown 5% 4% 7%
Gold 5% 4% 7%
Green 2% 1% 3%
Red 2% 1% 3%
White 1% 1% 2%

Which is the most embarrassing type of vehicle?

For most embarrassing types of vehicle, it’s the inexpensive compact that tops the charts for both men and women. But look at who’s more embarrassed by a minivan.

Type of vehicle Overall Women Men
Inexpensive compact 29% 29% 30%
Minivan 23% 20% 26%
Eco-friendly hybrid 15% 12% 19%
Large SUV 11% 11% 11%
Large pickup 10% 13% 7%
Large luxury car 9% 13% 5%
Sports car 2% 2% 3%

Which is the most embarrassing vehicle accessory?

When it comes to accessories, it’s important to remember that someone cared enough to purchase them and install them in the first place. Which makes headlight eyelashes all the more mystifying.

Accessory Votes
Headlight eyelashes 34%
Bumper sticker for a candidate who lost 18%
Fast and Furious-style spoilers and wings 15%
‘My child is an honor student’ bumper sticker 13%
Stick-figure family decals 13%
Other 6%


CarInsurance.com commissioned an online-panel survey of 1,500 licensed drivers, who were shown a gallery of 12 images of vehicles. Participants were asked to rate each vehicle as embarrassing or not, then to rate their top three choices, most embarrassing first. The Cringe Score assigned point values to all 1, 2 and 3 rankings, then standardized them to a 1 to 10 scale.

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7 Responses to "The most embarrassing cars"
  1. Ariel

    You need to check again the Honda Element. The price for older Elements with over 100K miles is crazy. They are the new car to have if you are 50 and older. I met a 65 year old guy who has 4-5 different cars, but that is the only one he drives. A friend of mine bought one and his wife told him to park it behind the house because she didn't want anyone to see he drove such an ugly " box on wheel" car. One day her car was in the shop, so she had to drive his Element to work, that day was the last time that he got the keys back to his car. She kept it for herself. He had to go and purchase another Element for himself. Honda made this car for the young 18-20 year old, but the older smarter generation who understood the daily practicality and Honda quality bought it and are now driving it proudly into the sunset. And they are willing even to pay today those ridiculous high prices for such used high millage "Box on wheel" embarrassing cars.

  2. o1o_

    Seems most Americans still don't get it. With the oil supplies rapidly running out, cars aren't getting bigger. They're getting smaller. Didn't the Smart car have to pass all the same safety tests as every other car on the road?Better get used to cars the size of a smart car. In the coming years, you won't have a choice.

  3. Dean Phillips

    I own a SmartForTwo. I also, have a Porsche 911, a Mercedes G500, a Mini Cooper S and a BMW 3-Series. It's not a function of not being able to afford a better car. I drove my Smart from Florida to Utah and it handled it flawlessly -- and at 43 MPG. If you look at the demographics, I think you will find they are owned by a higher net worth that most luxury cars owned by pretender-wealthy owners. Also, it had a Mercedes Safety Cell and eight airbags. So, it's safer than many cars on the road. It a pretty safe bet that the owners are not McFamilies. No room for junior in this one. So, let the Minivan Mommies stick to their family trucksters with the automatic electric sliding doors and entertainment centers. Drive one and you may change your mind. There's a reason they sell so well in Europe.

    1. Dee September 03, 2013 at 7:38 AM

      There is a reason they sell well in Europe; small cars fit in Europe and European lifestyle, not in U.S. Don't kid yourself they are not as safe as a large car no matter how many airbags the put in these tiny cars.

        Reply »  
  4. Wild Bill

    Wonder why the ugly Prius or Insight isn't on the list? Must have done the polling on the west coast where people seem to love slug-performance cars.

  5. HGB

    Let's face it, if all cars looked the same life would be boring. That's why variety is the spice of life. I don't agree with many designs I see and I could certainly improve some, but who am I? To one person size matters, to another utility, another sexy and fast, etc. I own a Smart car. It's not my only car, yet it's my daily driver. Why? It's fun to drive. It's safe, contrary to what people believe, and it's darn easy to park. Those who believe it's ugly should realize that if the design is modified radically so it would fit in with other vehicles it's interior would be compromised in room for the head, legs and so on. A 6'4" person of girth can still find comfort inside and there is adequate head room left. Frankly, I'm not embarrassed at all sitting in my micro fun car. At 8'8" long it's considerably shorter than the FIAT 500. There are no other cars on the road which do what this little car can do in so many ways. To reiterate, parking is easy, gas costs are easy, insurance is easy, wow factor is easy -- and it's a great conversation starter.

  6. Pablo

    What about the Ford Flex? Every time you're in it, you feel like you're in a hearse. Especially if it's black. Scary.