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Six wrong guesses get no respect

Some good vehicles just aren't big sellers

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2013 Toyota Venza

POSTMEDIA ROB ROTHWELL Enlarge Image

2013 Toyota Venza

Automakers can't guarantee success for a new car or truck, even after spending hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars on development, testing and market research.

Each new vehicle is a great big guess. An educated guess, for sure, but still a risk of eight, nine or 10 figures and several years.

The wrong guesses can be total flops -- as Acura's ZDX proved to be. Or merely underperformers -- vehicles that, as the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield would say, "get no respect."

These aren't merely vehicles with low sales. Porsches sell in small numbers, but they get plenty of respect. Nissan's Titan pickup is barely a blip on the sales charts, but that's because everybody knows it'll be replaced in the next year by what's expected to be a vastly improved model.

Rather, these are good vehicles that "get no respect" even though they deserve it. They were carefully thought out and are from automakers with good reputations. On paper, their descriptions and specifications would suggest success. Their driving dynamics and efficiency are perfectly acceptable for the type of vehicle.

Yet shoppers have responded with a collective yawn in the marketplace, if they notice them at all -- even though automakers' discounts can make them one of the best deals in the showroom.

Here are six such vehicles, currently on sale, that "get no respect."

Honda Ridgeline

It's the least-popular pickup of any still in production.

Launched in 2005 as a 2006 model, its novel design and features attracted practical iconoclasts and helped it initially sell well enough to earn its keep. Now, not so -- although Honda insists it will remain in the lineup for a long time.

"It gives you a lot of utility and drives very well, but it's not as 'trucky' as others, so doesn't have the 'cred,' " says Jake Fisher, head of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

The mid-size crew-cab truck is built on a platform loosely related to Honda's Odyssey minivan, making it the only unibody pickup. Others are a traditional steel frame and a separate body and cargo bed bolted to the frame. Truck fans often see unibody construction as less rugged, although Ridgeline is rated to carry up to 1,546 pounds, more than some more conventional full-size crew-cab pickups.

Honda sold just 5,822 Ridgelines in the U.S. in the first four months this year, fewer even than the Nissan Titan's 6,150 buyers. And that tiny year-to-date total is up 19.2 per cent from the period last year, according to Autodata, on the strength of low-interest loans. Also, a fancier Sport model added to the 2012 lineup has been increasing awareness of the truck.

Toyota Venza

This seemed a surefire bet. It was launched as a 2009 model that was a sleeker-than-normal crossover SUV at a time of crazy enthusiasm for crossovers. And it is based on the chassis and drivetrain from the popular, reliable and top-selling Camry sedan.

Venza fizzled in the marketplace.

It's begun to struggle back a little after minor updates a year ago for the 2012 model, but Toyota still sold only 14,378 in the U.S. in the first four months this year. The vehicle most like it in appearance and personality, Ford's Edge, had 31,847 takers in the same period.

Toyota didn't do the Venza any favors by initially pitching it as a mid-size car: The result was that it didn't show up in Internet searches for people shopping for crossover SUVs. Toyota finally started classing it as an SUV with 2012 models to make sure it wouldn't be overlooked.

Venza marketing flip-flopped, too.

At first, it was pitched to well-turned-out urbanites. No go. Then, in a series of entertaining but apparently unpersuasive ads, the company tried shifting the focus to "active matures" -- older couples, primarily.

Ford Flex

It's styled like a refrigerator and intriguing to people old enough to remember what some customized cars looked like in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Looks cool, has EcoBoost power, practical as a van but way less lame," is the consensus of top analysts at Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.

But not among buyers, who apparently find the look too far outside the mainstream. Just 7,252 Americans have picked Flex this year, down 23.9 per cent from an already paltry tally a year ago, according to Autodata.

But for shrewd buyers, Flex demonstrates the value of paying attention to cars others don't.

Kbb.com says its average transaction price in April was $38,000, significantly less than the $42,000 average for full-size crossovers and conventional SUVs with similar capabilities.

Nissan Quest

It's the "other" minivan, overshadowed by the big dogs from Chrysler Group, Honda and Toyota.

Quest is lush inside and smooth-driving. It "can move people with the best of them," says Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo.

But it looks a bit odd because it's closely related to Nissan's Elgrand luxury van sold in Japan and a few other world markets and it would have been too costly to make major alterations for U.S. tastes.

It doesn't help that the minivan market continues to shrink and might not hit 500,000 sales this year. Automakers not long ago were counting on a 600,000 floor, followed by a rebound as the auto market recovered.

Quest is trickling out at a rate of about 1,100 a month this year, one-tenth the pace of the other big-name vans.

Mazda5

A mini-minivan sized closer to the original 1980s Chrysler minivans than to today's huge family conveyances that still perversely are called "mini" vans, Mazda5 is unique in the U.S. market. Usually being in a class by yourself is an attribute. Not here.

While sales are booming compared to last year, up more than 50 per cent, that's still fewer than 2,000 a month, and April was an especially lousy month, with fewer than 800 sales.

Mazda5 came to the U.S. in 2004 as a 2005 model, got an update in 2008 and a thorough remake for the 2012 model year. It's an afterthought for the U.S. market; Mazda sells it globally -- such small people movers are a popular and crowded market segment elsewhere -- and was able to make it U.S.-legal at a relatively low cost.

"A car that nobody really cares about," says Consumer Reports' Fisher, even though "it's a really nice package, lots of room, sporty to drive.

"But the dorky looks keep it from mainstream appeal."

Acura TSX Sport Wagon

Launched in 2010 as a newbie in the 2011 TSX lineup, the wagon has foundered. Acura said then that it would need to sell just 4,000 a year in the U.S. to justify its place in the lineup because the car was sold elsewhere and generally did well in those other markets.

At the current pace, the wagon will do barely better than half that this year. About 200 a month are finding owners.

The sport wagon is a tight fit for most American-size folks, especially in the back seat where a wagon's supposed to house kids and their detritus. The lack of all-wheel drive means the wagon's not a substitute for a crossover SUV.

"Practical, and practically unheard of," says kbb.com.

But because nobody wants it, deals abound, kbb.notes. If it suits your needs, you likely can get one for several thousand dollars less than the average price of $37,800 for cars of similar size and luxury.

As a further sign of the TSX Wagon's lack of respect, Acura Canada announced in 2010 it would be selling the car here. A few months later, Acura Canada said the launch was delayed "until further notice." There has since been no further notice.

-- USA Today

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 B10

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