Cars can fall foul of public and press opinion for all manner of reasons when they're new
Yet some are judged too harshly. Here’s our list of cars that deserve a second hearing, arranged in alphabetical order:
Small, lightweight (just 895kg in its lightest form), efficient, three-cylinder engine: it all sounds very familiar nowadays, but the Audi A2 offered all of this way back at the turn of the millennium. Therein lay the problem for the aluminium-bodied German supermini as it was just too ahead of its time, and further hamstrung by prices that were higher than for more mainstream small cars.
The simple, stylish cabin of the A2 had a minimalist appeal, while the fuel economy lured in some buyers thanks to the excellent figures of the turbodiesel engine. However, many thought the suspension was too firm and Audi pulled the plug in 2005 after 176,377 A2s had been produced. At the time, few mourned the A2’s passing, but hindsight has shown it was a sound concept and it now enjoys cult status as an emerging classic.
With the crisply styled third generation of BMW 3 Series selling like cold beer at Oktoberfest, the German firm reasoned a smaller version would broaden its appeal and fill the coffers. Enter the 3 Series Compact, which was shortened by 200mm over the saloon and fitted with a three-door hatch to take on the Audi A3.
There was a good deal of snobbery directed towards the first E36 Compact as it did away with the sophisticated Z-axle of its saloon, coupe and estate sisters. In its place came an E30-derived semi-trailing link design that was decidedly tail-happy. Not that many Compacts had the power to indulge in power slides as it was only offered in most markets with either a 1.6- or a 1.8-litre petrol engine. Some got a 323i with silky six-cylinder engine, but those who chose the Compact found it was fun and offered a gateway into BMW ownership previously not offered. You still see a fair few about which is testament to high build standards.
The BMW Z3 arrived in 1995 to catch the crest of the fun, affordable roadster wave started by the Mazda MX-5. It should have surfed this popularity all the way to the bank, helped by an appearance as James Bond’s car in Goldeneye. The problem was BMW launched the Z3 with merely adequate four-cylinder engines and a chassis developed from the 3 Series Compact. As a result, handling was so-so and performance even less impressive.
By the time bigger, brawnier engines pitched up two years after launch, keen drivers were lapping up the Porsche Boxster for similar money. Yet the Z3 has stood up well in the intervening years and its retro styling has aged better than some other contemporary BMW products.
Jean-Pierre Ploué has come closer than most to recapturing the style and spirit of a brand’s heyday, in this case with his Citroen C6. Ever since the DS went off sale, fans have yearned for a true successor and it looked like Citroen had delivered it with the C6 in 2005. Sleekly quirky in its styling, it featured de rigeur Hydractive suspension for a pillowy ride and the cabin was tastefully appointed.
While many delighted in the details of the C6, far fewer would stray from the safety of their German saloons when it came to changing the company car and that sunk the C6. It was a rare sight when on sale between 2005 and 2012, and is now an even more unusual sight. It’s a pity as the C6 was a good car.
There are two types of people in the world: those who laugh at the Fiat Multipla and those who get it. Plenty fell into the former camp, but here was a car that could seat six adults in comfort (three in the front), carry their luggage and took up no more road space than a Volkswagen Golf. It also handled and rode well, and came with some reasonably efficient engines.
The Multipla really did deserve better as its left-field approach could have inspired more of this type of thinking. Fiat went along with the laughing to begin with in its clever marketing campaign, but sadly the Multipla was subjected to a weak facelift in 2004 that did away with the original distinctive looks.
Ford had been enviously eyeing the success of the Vauxhall Calibra and introduced the US-built Probe to Europe in 1993. The basics were there thanks to a chassis that handled better than its arch rival and zesty 2.0-litre four-cylinder and 2.5 V6 petrol engines. However, there were a couple of stumbling blocks in the Ford’s path.
The first was the name, which attracted some unfortunate connotations which nobody in the cut and thrust of the company car park wanted to face. A second, more pressing problem was the cost of the Probe versus its rivals. As a result, the Calibra comfortably outsold it in the UK with a Vauxhall badge, in Europe as an Opel, and Australia as a Holden. But nearly 30 years on, we reckon the Probe still looks fairly decent and modern.
For its fourth-generation large saloon, Honda threw everything it had at the Legend, which was launched at the 2004 Tokyo Motor Show. It was more compact than its predecessor, sleekly styled and featured the company’s SH-AWD – Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. It drove well and the 295bhp 3.5-litre V6 engine was supremely smooth. How could it fail?
Well, a £35,000 asking price saw to that as the Legend was pricier than its competition from Germany. With a Honda badge on the nose, it simply failed to attract buyers. As a consequence, those customers missed out on a car built to very high standards and fitted with all manner of luxury kit as standard. Now, the Legend is an intriguing alternative to the usual German executive saloons.
Comedy and car building both rely on timing. For Ginetta, the joke was on them unfortunately when it launched a pretty two-seat, mid-engined coupe in 1989. Well made and keenly priced, the G32 should have been the car to take the small British firm into the major league. Then Toyota launched its second generation MR2 that offered everything the Ginetta did but with the might of the Japanese firm behind it. By 1992, Ginetta had decided it wasn’t able to compete and stopped production of the G32.
The usual cheap jibe directed at the Jaguar X-type was it’s just a Ford Mondeo in a fancy frock. What’s wrong with that? The contemporary Mondeo was one of the best handling cars of its era, and the X-type had a classic Jag air to its styling. Granted, the X-type’s steering could have done with a bit more feel and launching without a company car-friendly diesel at the time was a misstep, but otherwise the Jag took the fight to its German rivals fairly well.
But we're not really giving this prize to the saloon, and rather more to the estate (pictured) that arrived in 2003 and was - and is - very well regarded, so much so that the Queen owned one. The X-Type gets another bonus point for pioneering all-wheel drive for Jaguar.
Another large French car that had a big job on its hands to replace an illustrious forbearer was the Peugeot 605. It drove the final nail into Peugeot’s rear-wheel drive offering as it used front-drive and a range of engines borrowed from the 405 and the 3.0-litre V6 shared between itself, Renault and Volvo. Although not as swishly appealing as a BMW or Mercedes, the 605 served up good handling, a supple ride and decent performance.
Even so, the 605 faded into obscurity even before its production ended in 1999, to be replaced by the gawky, mediocre 607. The sharp-suited 605 may not have been missed by many, but it still sold more than 250,000 examples in its decade-long life and proved a tough, durable large saloon.
Porsche 911 (996)
You may wonder how a Porsche features among a collection of cars that deserved better appreciation when they were new, yet the 996 generation of 911 warrants a place. Plenty of longstanding Porsche fans were aghast at the move to a water-cooled flat-six motor, but without it the 911 would have died out due to emissions regulations that consigned the old engine to history.
Then there were the ‘fried egg’ headlights of the early 996 models. They were the same as the Boxster’s and nobody complained about that car, though some also moaned the 911 looked too similar to its cheaper sister model. However, this was not just family resemblance but financial necessity to get Porsche back on monetary terra firma. Treated harshly when new, the 996 has matured into a desirable modern classic.
Renault Sport Spider
The Lotus Elise delivered a fatal blow to many budding sports cars launched around the mid-nineties, not least the Renault Sport Spider. At first sight, the lighter, cheaper, faster Lotus was the only choice, but a brave few picked the Renault. Light weight and with the feisty 150bhp 2.0-litre engine from the Clio Williams, it was phenomenally quick on road.
Renault’s mistake was making the Sport Spider too back-to-basics, only offering a windscreen to UK buyers when right-hand drive was made available. Even that concession wasn’t enough and only 1800 Sport Spiders were made. Yet it fulfilled its role as a track day car that could be used on the road and is now a sought-after addition to many collectors’ garages.
Renault launched the Avantime at the same time as the Vel Satis four-door. Probably because of its long list of flaws and faults, the Avantime has gone the way of so many large French cars to end up in oblivion. Sure, the looks were an acquired taste, but the Avantime was a superb long-distance cruiser and easily as refined as any of the German executive mainstays. And it was an MPV-coupe - and how many of them do we ever see?
The cabin was packed with luxury kit and Renault didn’t stint on safety equipment either. Interior space was another generous tick, but it still sank without trace. When production ended after just two years in 2003, a mere 8557 examples had rolled off the line in total. But it has minor cult status today, and we know why.
It all looked so promising for the Rover 75 at its 1998 launch during the British Motor Show in Birmingham. The car’s styling and engineering had been well received by the press, and it was all going very well right up until company boss Bernd Pischetsrieder stood up and lobbed a bombshell at the gathered media: he spoke of Rover’s deep problems and undermined confidence in the car and company in a single blow.
That reverberated through showrooms when the 75 went on sale in mid-1999, some six months after initial press drives of the car. Sales did recover in later years to some extent, particularly with the superbly refined diesel model, but the damage was done to the 75. In hindsight, we know it was an excellent design, but Pischetsrieder's speech meant it never stood a chance.
Rover 200 BRM
The Rover 200 BRM was hamstrung at launch by the very thing that distinguished it, namely the historic link to the Rover-BRM turbine car. By 1998, hardly anyone interested in buying a hot hatch knew or cared about this ancestral tie-up, but they liked the snazzy orange lower grille and 143bhp 1.8-litre engine up front that gave 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds.
A comfortable ride and hand-stitched leather interior marked out the 200 BRM, but most buyers only saw the £1275 premium over the equally powerful and fast Rover 200Vi. In the end, only 1100 buyers stumped up £13,495 for this bespoke hot hatch that helped lay the groundwork for the MG models that followed.
There’s no doubting the sales success of the Vauxhall Calibra, which continued a long line of Vauxhall/Opel coupes going back to the Opel GT of the 1960s. While there were plenty happy to be seduced by its wind cheating looks, there were just as many who sneered at its Cavalier underpinnings. As a result, the Calibra didn’t handle as well as it looked, but it still went like stink if you ordered it with the V6 engine or, better still, the 201bhp 2.0-litre Turbo with four-wheel drive.
That all-wheel drive system addressed most of the Calibra’s dynamic shortcomings, but Vauxhall preferred to push the Cavalier SRi and GSi models as Super Touring racing made it big on television.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Tampering with its heritage was a risky plan for Volkswagen when it introduced the New Beetle in 1998. Here was a retro-themed take on the car the company was founded on but using front-wheel drive Golf components underneath. Despite all the hoo-ha from fans of the air-cooled original, enough people bought into the updated idea to warrant VW launching a second-generation New Beetle in 2011.
The Beetle endured a lot of criticism for not being as practical as a Golf and more expensive than the car it was based on. However, the reality is VW got in on the retro act three years ahead of MINI and built 1,163,890 first-gen New Beetles.