The idea behind the BMW 318ti was straightforward so it should’ve worked, but somehow it didn’t. In 1995, BMW introduced its E36 3-Series Compact model to U.S. buyers. It was their attempt to present a premium compact car they thought would be perfect for the emerging market. The 318ti had all the classic BMW features, design, and performance, but they sold far fewer than anyone expected.
Unfortunately, American car consumers didn’t even consider buying this version of the 3-Series. For some reason, the sedan, coupe, and convertible proved to be far more popular. The 318ti was on the market for just a couple of years, selling around 10,000 examples in total.
Back in the early â80s, the Audi was just an upgraded Volkswagen with not much to offer. Then, the motorsport department proposed entering the rally championships with an innovative all-wheel-drive model they named the Quattro. Suddenly, Audi had a championship-winning car at the forefront of two new technologies, an all-wheel-drive system and turbocharging. This resulted in rising interest in the company as well as the global success of Audi as people know it today.
The Quattro Sport featured a 2.1-liter straight five-cylinder engine with a turbocharger and 306 HP in street trim. With a short wheelbase, light body panels, short ratio gearbox, and 306 HP, the road-going Quattro Sport was capable of achieving 0 to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. Despite that, Audi only sold several hundred examples in America. Sadly, the Quattro flew under the radar of most domestic enthusiasts.
They presented the first Citroen 2CV in 1948. Soon, it became a bestseller, not only in France but also in the rest of Europe. The early models had a diminutive flat twin engine with only 375 CC (21 CID) that delivered only nine horsepower. But later versions grew to 600CC (40 CID) to produce 29 HP.
Despite its diminutive power and performance, the Citroen 2 CV was immensely popular all over the world, selling in almost four million copies. Citroen sold it briefly in the USA, but it didn’t attract much attention from car buyers. Simply, people thought the car was too strange, underpowered, quirky, and ugly.
The UK car industry relied heavily on exporting in the post-war years because it was the only way to survive in a changing market. Realizing that America was the biggest, most profitable market, Austin decided to present a nice-looking convertible they designed especially for U.S. buyers.
They named the car the Austin A90 Atlantic. It had nice features, a 2.6-liter straight-six engine, and decent power. It should have been a success, but it failed miserably. Austin made around 8,000 of them, but only 350 ended up in the states.
The French company, Renault, thought it would be a great idea to send its new supermini, which they called the Renault 5 to America. Painfully slow, strangely designed, small, and badly put together, the Le Car soon became a subject of jokes.
In fact, most people considered it to be the worst choice in the compact car class. Renault struggled to sell them and eventually pulled out of the market. Despite the success of the Renault 5 in Europe, the Le Car is considered a terrible failure in the eyes of most American car enthusiasts.
Alfa Romeo left America in 1995 only to return in 2009. However, the last model Alfa sold there was the gorgeous 164 Sedan with the famous Busso 3.0-litre V6 engine with 210 HP. With a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of around 7.5 seconds, fantastic sound, precise manual gearbox, and great handling, the 164 a dynamic sedan.
With the cool looks, the Alfa Romeo 164 should have appealed to most U.S. buyers. However, due to poor management, marketing, and dealer support, performance-oriented American buyers didn’t know how good the Alfa 164 was, so the model flopped in the states.
In the late â80s, the Peugeot 405 was one of the best European mid-size sedans. It came with modern styling, nice performance, and lots of cool features. It sold incredibly well, and they exported them all over the world. In 1988, Peugeot offered this car on the American market, including a hot 405 Mi16 version and a station wagon.
With an affordable price, French styling, decent performance, and nice features, it should be a success. However, in a few years, they sold just around 4,000 examples and in 1991, Peugeot pulled it from the American market for good.
If you don’t know what the Sterling 825 is, nobody can blame you. Although they marketed themselves as the next big thing in the luxury segment on the American market, Sterling is a forgotten brand. They didn’t have a chance to leave their mark and moved to the margins of automotive history. However, Sterling has an interesting story. Basically, it was a British company they established in the late ’80s with Honda’s capital and Rover’s design. Back then, Honda owned Rover and wanted to enter the American market with a luxury model.
So they envisioned building the Sterling, a luxurious car they would base on the Acura Legend. That may sound like a strange combination, but the finished product looked nice with a stylishly-designed interior. Also, it got decent power from a Honda V6 engine. After its introduction in 1987 and promising sales numbers in the first few months, the first problems showed up. The Sterling was poorly put together, with troublesome electronics, and even developed rust issues. Honda tried to improve the production process, but there wasn’t much they could do. So, by the early â90s, the Sterling 825 was gone but nobody was sad about it.
If you think the Yugo was the first communist car they ever sold in the USA, think again. Back in 1959, the Czechoslovakian Skoda offered its compact Felicia model to U.S. buyers. For the late 50s, it was brave for a communist company to try to sell anything in America, but Skoda was brave enough to try.
The Felicia was a solid and competent car by European standards but tiny and underpowered by American. With almost no dealer network, high prices due to export fees, and no marketing, the Felicia was doomed right from the start.
Citroen has made over 1.5 million of those fantastic, highly advanced sedans with its self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension and front-wheel drive. Thanks to the futuristic interior, aerodynamic design, aluminum hood, and plastic roof, the Citroen DS was an enormous success.
They also sold the DS in America where people thought it was a technical marvel, so it had modest success on the market. But despite all the advantages of its basic design, the Citroen had problems with its underpowered four-cylinder engines and complicated mechanics, so the U.S. sales were reserved.
One of the last models Fiat offered to American buyers before it left in the early â80s was a futuristic compact hatchback they called the Strada. The car looked cool and had a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an interesting interior layout. However, it was also badly constructed and rust-prone. And that didn’t help Fiat’s reputation.
So, after just two years, they pulled the Strada from the U.S. market. Interestingly, in other parts of the world, the Strada, also known as the Fiat Ritmo, proved to be successful.
The Opel Kadett was one of the bestselling European compact economy cars ever. It was inexpensive and had decent equipment. Also, it was durable and easy to maintain. For years, it enjoyed enormous popularity, so they exported it worldwide.
Since the Opel was part of GM, during the â60s General Motors decided to import the Kadett to America, selling them through the Buick dealership network. At first, Kadetts sold well but soon, the demand was gone, so American buyers turned to Japanese compacts.
DAF is a Dutch truck manufacturer who also produced cars at one point. The DAF 600 was a small, economy model with the infamous Vatiomatic transmission, which started a revolution. In Europe, those small and economical DAF 600 models with automatic transmissions proved to be perfect city cars.
In fact, they were easy to drive and park and budget-friendly to maintain. So, in the early â60s, DAF entered the U.S. market by establishing a network of 69 dealers. However, it only sold a handful of cars before the end of the decade.
Back in 1967, Fiat introduced the Dino, a coupe and convertible sports car that featured a Ferrari V6 engine from the 246 GT Dino. The coupe was designed by Bertone while the convertible was styled by Pininfarina. The two cars shared mechanics, engine, and performance, but the design was totally different. The coupe featured an elegant fastback profile.
Fiat officially sold the Dino Coupe in America. If you look at the classified ads, you could find one for as little as $15,000. That is definitely the most affordable way to own a piece of Ferrari magic at Ford Fiesta prices. If you’re a budget-minded enthusiast, look for the Dino Coupe since it’s more common and affordable than the convertible. The later 2.4-liter V6 version is better and faster than the early 2.0-liter model.
In the late ’60s, German automaker Opel was one of the most popular economy car manufacturers in Europe. Since General Motors owned the company, its design department approved and even styled all of the Opel models. That meant that most Opels looked like scaled-down versions of Chevrolets or Buicks. That was exactly the case with the GT, a sporty-yet-affordable coupe Opel presented in 1968.
Opel needed a sports car to base on the Kadett, its entry-level model. So in the mid-’60s, Opel got approval from GM to introduce such a vehicle. The design was heavily influenced by the Corvette and the GM concepts from the mid-’60s. Of course, with its 1.3 and 1.9-liter four-cylinder engines, the Opel GT lacked the power and performance of the Corvette, but it had the looks with its fastback rear end.
One of the coolest-looking, most exclusive Citroens ever produced was the gorgeous SM debuting in 1970. This elegant coupe had some interesting features. When Citroen presented it to the public, it made the competition look and feel outdated. Through various stock market transactions, the company became the owner of Maserati. Citroen thought it would be great if they could somehow use Maserati’s powerful engines and sports car know-how to produce a luxurious coupe with signature Citroen design and style.
The aesthetics were clearly French with its self-leveling suspension and front-wheel drive. But, instead of the underpowered four-cylinder engine, they added the 2.7-liter V6 that Maserati developed, which provided the power. Citroen marketed the SM in the USA, selling more examples than in Europe. In America, the SM competed against the Mercedes SLC or Cadillac Eldorado in the personal luxury segment. Soon, car buyers praised its ride quality, smooth engine, and style. Unfortunately, the oil crisis and economic recession killed the model. Citroen ceased production in 1974 after producing more than 12,000 cars.
Even though SAABs were always known for their sedans or convertibles with turbo engines, during the 1960s and early ’70s, SAAB did produce a sports coupe. As expected, it was strange, obscure, and quirky just like the rest of the range. There were three generations of SAAB Sonett sports car. The first one was a racing prototype from the ’50s but the second and third were regular production models.
Designed on a box chassis and fitted with the fiberglass body, Sonett was initially equipped with a tiny SAAB’s three-cylinder two-stroke engine with just 60 HP. As you can expect, customers were disappointed with the poor performance but soon company fitted a 1.7-liter V4 borrowed from Ford’s European division. The power grew slightly but V4 had much more torque. However, small Sonett still wasn’t a record-breaker. Production stopped in 1974 after less than 15,000 examples were made in all three generations.
Back in the late ’80s, Yugoslav car manufacturer Crvena Zastava attempted to enter the American market with their compact model, the Yugo. The Yugo was a nice-looking three-door hatchback they built on a Fiat 127 chassis. However, that added improvements in design and technology. So under the hood was a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection. But for the U.S. market, buyers got updated equipment, a radio, and even AC as an option. From today’s standpoint, the Yugo was a basic and even primitive car. But for the middle of the 1980s, it was a decent proposition as well as a solution to the economy car dilemma. The Fiat mechanics were relatively common in the U.S. since Fiat had just left the American market in the early ’80s.
So why did the Yugo receive such bad reviews from consumers back in the day? And why do most people consider it to be one of the worst cars Fiat ever sold on the American market? The reason was simple. Both the driving dynamics and quality were horrible even by the standards of the day. The engine had 65 HP going to the front wheels over a badly-assembled five-speed manual gearbox. The performance was painfully slow, but that is not the worst thing. The fit and finish were bad, too. But to make things worse, Yugo importer Malcolm Bricklin didn’t import enough spare parts. So if your Yugo broke down, and eventually they all did, spare parts had to travel for months from Yugoslavia to America.
Most people don’t know this, but it is easy to become the proud owner of an almost classic Maserati for as little as $10,000. For that money, you can buy a decent Maserati BiTurbo, which got introduced in 1981 and produced until 1994. The BiTurbo lineup of cars started with the 222 model, which was a handsome two-door coupe. It continued with 420 and 430 sedans they built on the same basis. There was even the beautiful convertible by Zagato design house, but it is more expensive and quite rare. They intended the BiTurbos to be entry-level Maseratis at more affordable prices.
Under the hood was a new generation of turbocharged 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter V6 engines with high power output from 180 HP to 270 HP in later years. The interiors were luxurious and they fitted them with all kinds of creature comforts. So, you are probably asking why these fantastic-looking cars from an exotic brand like Maserati can be so affordable. The reason is simple. The BiTurbo generation of cars was not reliable and prone to mechanical issues. Maserati made over 40,000 of BiTurbos in a 13-year period but just a small fraction are still on the road. However, the modern technology and aftermarket components improved the quality of the gorgeous but flawed BiTurbos. Some brave owners reported these cars finally can be reliable. So if you want an Italian exotic, but are on a budget, the Maserati BiTurbo could be the solution for you.
Behind this strange name lies one of the most interesting affordable sports cars of the ’70s. Fiat introduced the X1/9 in 1972. It was a small two-seater with a T-Top, mid-mounted engine, and two trunks, in the front and in the back. Think of it as Porsche Boxster, only 20 years older.
Despite fantastic looks and technical layout, the X 1/9 was underpowered with just around 60 HP from its small 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The performance was not impressive, so most owners decided to fit bigger engines. However, you can find them at bargain prices since they exported them to the U.S. but never really got popular there.
If you are looking for an Italian performance sedan on a budget, now’s the time to pick up an Alfa Romeo Milano 3.0 V6. Romeo imported them to the American market in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The Milano was an elegant four-door model with some interesting technical features. It had a De Dion rear suspension and transaxle gearbox, making it handle like a racing car. Along with a three-liter, 200 HP V6 engine, the Milano delivered a decent performance. In fact, people compared them to the BMW 5 Series.
The 404 was a popular French mid-sized family sedan Peugeot produced from 1960 to 1975. It came with a 1.5 or 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine or a 1.9-liter four-cylinder diesel unit. It was one of Peugeot’s bestsellers and was popular all over the world. The Peugeot 404 was a masterpiece of contemporary car design. It had straight, elegant lines and sported a chrome grille and rear fins.
Since chrome fins were an American design feature, it’s obvious where the Peugeot designers got the inspiration for their 404. In fact, if you saw the 404 from the back, it would remind you of several American models from the period. If you saw it in traffic, you could easily mistake it for a domestic model. The only sign that would give the 404 away is its compact size. This Peugeot is about a third smaller than a regular U.S. sedan from the early ’60s.
The beginning of mass production of the hatchback body style can be traced to the late â50s and early â60s with the Austin A40 Farina being one of the more popular models. This British economy car had a three-door layout with a two-piece opening tailgate. Its diminutive dimensions, clever engineering, and trunk space made this little car quite practical.
These are the coolest and most interesting European cars that flopped in America. For various reasons, they didn’t sell well in the U.S. Did you choose your favorite? Perhaps some of these cars would sell better if they re-introduced them today.