Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What were they thinking?

These halo vehicles were supposed to get buyers into the door, but instead they drove them away

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By definition, a "halo" vehicle is supposed to beam a positive light -- or brand image -- about its maker. Or, for more practical reasons, attract new vehicle buyers into showrooms filled with less exciting cars and trucks.

Historically, the original 1990s Dodge Viper is considered the most successful halo car of all time. It enhanced Dodge's role as Chrysler's "performance" brand at a time when it was better known as the maker of plebeian rides such as the K-Car and the Neon. Unfortunately, not all halo cars have been seen as gems:

2002-2006 Volkswagen Phaeton

The original Volkswagen Phaeton full-sized luxury sedan was then-VW boss Ferdinand Piech's attempt to have the People's Car brand take on the top German luxury automakers. Built on the Audi A8 and Bentley Continental platform, the Phaeton was critically acclaimed. But its VW badge wasn't worthy enough to get that primo valet parking spot at the golf club, and Phaeton owners had to sit alongside low-end Golf buyers in VW service departments.

1991-1994 Jaguar XJ 220

Born to compete against late-1980s supercars such as the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959, the Jaguar XJ 220 may go down as one of the most botched-up halo vehicles of all time. Officially announced in 1989 with a V12 engine, all-wheel drive and a projected top speed of 220 miles per hour (hence the name), by the time Jaguar got around to actually making the cars in 1992, the XJ 220's engine had become a castrated turbocharged V6 and AWD drive had reverted to RWD only.

1978-1981 Volvo 262C Bertone Coupe

Desperate to shed its "safety car" image, Volvo put the call in to famous Italian design house Bertone to produce a new halo vehicle: the 262C. Hopefully Volvo didn't pay Bertone too much for this quickie chop-job. As 85 per cent of the regular 262 sedan's structure was kept, Bertone only had to modify the roof, upper doors and windshield. Unfortunately, the end result looked like a Volvo that didn't survive a rollover test.

1991-1997 Subaru SVX

Here's the reason Subaru doesn't do halo vehicles anymore: Just look at the automaker's first (and only) lame attempt at the GT coupe market: the SVX. Like Volvo, Subaru went to Italy for styling help, this time to Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign. Unfortunately, Giugiaro only had so much to work with. Compared to other Japanese halo cars of the time -- Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra Turbo -- the big and heavy Subaru was a dog when it came to on-road performance and handling.

2002-2005 Ford Thunderbird

First seen as a concept in 1999, the 11th-generation Thunderbird was a halo car that should never have left the spotlight of its auto show stand. The convertible did nothing to help Ford's mainstream image, other than prove the automaker was fresh out of new product ideas. Based on a shortened Lincoln LS rear-drive chassis, the two-seat T-Bird was slow in a straight line and sloppy in the corners. A soft suspension made the car wiggle and jiggle over bad pavement like a worn-out Lincoln Town Car.

2003-2006 Chevrolet SSR

Obviously the Chevy people missed the Blackwood incident. How else can you explain why the automaker would produce a two-seat, retractable hard-top convertible pickup? "Three reasons we decided to build the SSR. First, it's pretty cool -- a halo vehicle for Chevrolet. Second, journalists all said we should build it. Third, Rick (GM chairman Wagoner) said we should build it," Bowtie exec Tom Wallace told AutoWeek at the time. Ah, of course. Blame the journalists.

1997, 1999-2002 Plymouth Prowler

Plymouth should have been working on small, fuel-efficient and well-made family cars to take on the Japanese or Koreans. But instead, we got the Prowler: a modern take on the classic 1932 Ford hotrod. Perfect. Like the T-Bird, the two-seat Prowler (based on the 1993 concept car of the same name) was an attempt at cashing in on Boomer nostalgia. But a weak V6 and a four-speed automatic didn't exactly help it live up to its "hotrod" image.

1987-1993 Cadillac Allanté

The Allanté was created to battle luxury imports such as the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. But like most ideas from Detroit during this era, things didn't work out as planned. Instead of casting a positive light on the brand, the Allanté only highlighted General Motors' inept financial management. How's this for cost effectiveness: the body of the Allanté was designed and built in Italy by Pininfarina; then finished bodies were flown in, 56 at a time, to Detroit for final assembly.

1989-1991 Chrysler TC by Maserati

The TC by Maserati was supposed "to change the way the world looked at Chrysler" and to create a new image for the automaker. But like the Allanté, it had the complete opposite effect. First, it took the American-Italian partnership five years to get the car to market. And the wait definitely wasn't worth it. At least the Allanté had a V8 -- a Chrysler four-banger with a Maserati cylinder head powered the TC. It drove like the K-Car LeBaron Convertible-in-Italian-drag it was based on, and was poorly made and unreliable.

--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2014 F2

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