Trying to predict how a new car is going to sell can be difficult. Companies spend millions of dollars on development, and some cars are hits while others are total misses. On paper, you would have thought that the Honda CR-Z was going to be a hit, with a cool look, great handling, and excellent fuel efficiency. Unfortunately, Honda erred a little bit too much on the side of fuel efficiency, and the CR-Z’s slow acceleration led to slow sales.
Other cars look like they’re headed for disaster and end up being great successes. Sometimes the car looks like it would be wrong for the company. Other times, companies look like they’re building a car for a demographic that doesn’t exist. Heck, sometimes a company looks like it’s intentionally ignoring proven steps to success. Whatever the problem, just because a car looks on paper like it’s destined to fail doesn’t mean that failure is inevitable. Some cars definitely shouldn’t have worked but actually somehow end up being successful.
1. Hyundai Genesis
In the mid-2000s, Hyundai had been doing really well as a growing company that sold competent-enough family transportation. Its cars, like the Elantra and Sonata, were pretty good but nothing terribly exciting. Then Hyundai had to go and decide to build a sports sedan that offered most of what you would find in a BMW 5 Series but for less money. Who would do that? There was no way that anyone would be willing to pay $40,000 for a Hyundai.
The thing is, people actually were willing to pay $40,000 for a Hyundai. It wasn’t quite a 5 Series, but the Hyundai Genesis offered owners a lot of value for their money. No one would have expected it back in 2008, but sales were strong enough that Hyundai developed a second generation that’s currently on sale.
2. Mini Cooper
For years, sub-compact cars in the United States were synonymous with inexpensive, basic transportation. The smallest cars in a manufacturer’s lineup offered the fewest features and options, and the goal was to make them as cheap to buy as possible. Presumably, the only way American buyers could be convinced to give up their all-important interior space was if the price was extremely low.
By that standard, the Mini Cooper was a plan destined for failure. No one would pay premium car money for something the size of half a car. Cars like the Mini Cooper were for Europeans. Apparently cars like the Mini Cooper were for Americans, too, because buyers bought them up almost as fast as Mini could make them. Who could have guessed?
3. Tesla Model S
If someone told you 10 years ago that the guy who invented Paypal was going to start an electric car company, you would have probably treated it like real news in the same way that another supercar startup promising 2,000 horsepower is real news. At that point, the only electric cars anyone in the U.S. had experience buying were Power Wheels Barbie Jeeps. An electric car company couldn’t possibly stay out of bankruptcy for more than a year.
Somehow, though, Elon Musk figured out how to get Americans excited about electric cars, and owning a Tesla Model S is actually cool. Tesla is far from bankruptcy, and it’s set to introduce an electric SUV called the Model X this year. It might be surprising, but it’s looking pretty successful.
4. BMW 1M
When BMW adds the letter M onto the name of one of its cars, it’s doing more than just adding a trim level. M cars have a storied performance history, and each model is specially developed by BMW’s M division for high performance driving. M cars get special engines, special transmissions, special suspensions, and even special body work because everything about an M car is supposed to make it unique.
The BMW 1M, on the other hand, didn’t look like it was going to be very special. It had unique body work, but the engine was a slightly tuned version of the one that could be had in a 3 Series or Z4, making it the first M car without a bespoke engine. Despite being cobbled together with off-the-shelf parts, the 1M turned out to be amazing and fully deserving of its M designation.
5. Acura NSX
A lot of companies have tried and failed to build a better Ferrari, but that never seems to stop them from trying. Usually those companies are startups with dreams that go nowhere or established high-end sports car manufacturers trying to move upmarket. In the late 1980s though, one company was developing a car to best the Ferrari 348, and it wasn’t either of those two. It was Honda.
Granted, Honda had an established Formula One program, so it had experience with high performance cars, but no one had any idea how successful the NSX would end up being. Years later, it’s still loved by fans and desired by collectors. Even better, there’s a new NSX on the way that’s rumored to be able to take on modern Ferraris as well.
6. Toyota Prius
When the Toyota Prius first came to the United States, it was a dorky little car that promised great fuel economy with the help of something called a hybrid engine. Like the Honda Insight, the Prius had a reputation of being a car for tech geeks and weirdos. Then a crazy little thing happened. The Prius actually made owning a hybrid cool.
The Honda Insight was a great little car, but it was the Toyota Prius that took hybrids mainstream. Not only were normal people buying Prii, wealthy people who could afford luxury cars were suddenly interested in being seen driving a Prius. Even celebrities started buying them. If it hadn’t been for the Prius, hybrids could still be stuck struggling to get any sales traction.
7. Hyundai Veloster
Hatchbacks are often called five-doors due to the extra access to the interior that lifting the hatch provides in comparison to a sedan. There are four doors to get into the passenger compartment and one door to get in the back. Sometimes, though, manufacturers sell those cars in shorter, three-door configurations. When Hyundai was designing the Veloster, it decided to throw convention out the window and build it as a four-door hatch.
With a weird layout, a radical look, and economy car underpinnings, it looked like the Veloster was headed for cancellation faster than the CBS musical-drama Viva Laughlin. Contrary to expectations, the Veloster actually ended up selling quite well. As it turns out, customers actually like their economical hatchbacks with a little bit of quirk and style.
8. Porsche Cayenne
Porsche is a sports car company. In fact, you could argue that Porsche is the sports car company. No other sports car company has managed to build anything as successful and iconic as the 911, and while many 911-killers have been built, few have come close to succeeding. Porsche has built cars other than the 911 over the years, but it never strayed too far from building sports cars.
Then, in the early 2000s, Porsche decided to build an SUV called the Cayenne. It was heresy, and there was no way that Porsche had any business building an SUV. That SUV ended up being incredibly popular, outselling the 911, and eventually leading to a smaller SUV, the Porsche Macan. The 911 might be the iconic Porsche, but it’s the Cayenne and the Macan that are paying the bills.
9. Mazda Miata
In both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase, boarding a sinking ship is a bad idea. Kia found that out when it introduced the Borrego right as customers in the United States were jumping the body-on-frame SUV ship in favor of more fuel efficient crossover SUVs. In the late 1980s though, that sinking ship was small roadsters. The MG B, Triumph Spitfire, and Fiat Spider had all been discontinued, leaving only the Alfa Romeo Spider in the segment.
Mazda saw an opportunity though, and in 1989, it introduced the Miata. The segment that the Miata belonged in may have been dying, but the Miata ended up being a huge sales success. People might not have wanted small roadsters, but they wanted Miatas, and they bought them in droves. Years later, they still are.
10. BMW i8
The BMW M1 is such an iconic sports car that, when BMW began developing an M version of its 1 Series, it refused to call that car an M1. Developing a spiritual successor to the M1 would mean building a car that could not just perform well but also live up to the M1’s legacy. Nothing says “M1 legacy” quite like a hybrid-electric sports coupe with the three-cylinder engine from a Mini Cooper.
In practice, the i8 is far more than just a Mini Cooper hybrid with some fancy body work. It’s a proper sports car that’s received near-unanimous praise and multiple awards. Unsurprisingly, BMW is selling as may of them as it can build.