The New Ford Bronco is Both Unique and A Success: Here are 4 SUVs That Prove Being Different Alone Isn’t Enough for the Long Haul
By all the measures that really matter — outsized sales numbers and critical acclaim by the automotive press being at the forefront — the resurrection of the new Ford Bronco is proving to be an undeniable success. The number of orders for the Bronco that Ford has received so far has to be beyond anyone’s expectations and with the entire Bronco line — including the Bronco Sport — representing a type of SUV seldom seen these days, you might wonder if merely being different is enough to ensure an SUV’s strong embrace by the car buying public.
From an historical perspective, it isn’t. Here are four SUVs from the past that prove being different in itself wasn’t enough to create a long term legion of fans. Interestingly, most of these examples actually hung around for a while, despite never being “must haves” for all but a few buyers.
Geo/Chevrolet Tracker 1989-2004
The product of a partnership between Chevrolet and Suzuki, this diminutive SUV stayed on the market in the U.S. for about 15 model years under various names — making it seem like the continued use of an alias was in its best interest. In reality, it was a pretty sturdy little car, but it just didn’t seem to be made for any buyer type in particular. By contrast, the new Ford Bronco was clearly geared toward nostalgia-driven off-roaders looking for a rugged SUV.
The Tracker may have been offered in some appealing configurations, including a soft-top convertible, but its featured driving experience during most of its life span was too primitive for many SUV buyers. It also had a look that seemed to scream, “This is a novelty vehicle”, despite it being a fairly capable ride.
Its underpinnings consisted of what was essentially a light truck chassis, which contributed to making the Tracker a sort of compromised vehicle — it may have had the durability of a truck, but it also had the harsh ride that went a long with it. With its modest wheelbase hovering right around 80”, which is about 20” than today’s standard Mini Cooper, the Tracker also wasn’t the first vehicle to pop into your head when thinking of truly versatile automotive workhorses.
Another of its issues centered on the model’s lack of power. When introduced, the Tracker was propelled by a 1.6 liter engine that was good for a less than robust 80 horsepower, and even by 1996 — a full seven model years after the Tracker’s debut — it still carried less than 100 horses. Coupled with a fairly primitive 3-speed Turbo Hydramatic 180 transmission, this made for less than stellar acceleration, despite carrying fairly low gearing to help get it off the line.
Once you were moving, things didn’t get much better — by a number of accounts the Tracker strained to reach 65mph with passengers inside for much of its existence.
The Tracker’s already modest desirability also took a big hit when a safety report noted that it was prone to rollovers, which didn’t come as a surprise if you were to take a good look at its fairly narrow track and disproportionate height.
Pontiac Aztek 2000-2005
After being unveiled to somewhat positive reviews as a 1999 concept car, the Aztek was rolled out to auto buyers via CBS’s then uber-popular “Survivor” series just a year later — public exposure any manufacturer would yearn for.
One of the Aztek’s several major issues no doubt pertained to the cartoonishly ambitious tagline Pontiac settled on for the SUV: "Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet". That doesn’t exactly leave much room for lowered expectations, does it?
Reactions to the Aztek’s unendearingly odd appearance came fast and furious. Even to this day, the Aztek is a perennial entry on many “Ugliest Cars of All Time” lists. This was likely a case of an SUV’s lack of heritage leaving a sort of aesthetic vacuum to build upon. Despite its lengthy hiatus, the Ford Bronco had five preceding generations to borrow from, but the Aztek had none and Pontiac amplified this lack of history by choosing to go big and bold.
Oddly enough, the Aztek’s chief designer was Tom Peters — the very same man that helped shape Chevy’s undeniably appealing Corvette in its C7 form — who said defiantly in a Business Week interview at the time, “We wanted to do a bold, in-your-face vehicle that wasn't for everybody." Mission definitely accomplished.
Karl Brauer, CEO and editor-in-chief of TotalCarScore.com even went on to say that the Aztek "looked like a station wagon stretched out by a car bomb."
Like the aforementioned Tracker, the Aztek was in reality a competent, fairly useful vehicle — you could even fit a full 4’x 8’ sheet of plywood inside. Also like the Tracker, the Aztek sustained further reputational damage from a less than stellar IIHS safety score.
Chevrolet HHR 2005-2011
Chevy definitely went through a period of time when it really appeared to pine away for the “good old days.” Like its stablemate, the retractable hardtop convertible pickup truck SSR, the HHR borrowed heavily from the past and was inspired by several Chevy Advance Design trucks dating back to the late ’40s, as well as the Suburban. The HHR’s lead designer, Bryan Nesbitt, also helmed Chrysler’s PT Cruiser project and the similarities between the two are unmistakable — luckily you can’t really plagiarize yourself.
The HHR was trotted out in a number variations during its lifetime, including a panel truck version, as well as an HHR SS that debuted for the 2009 model year and was equipped with a number of performance-centric features, including a turbo-charged inline 4 cylinder engine that, despite carrying only 2 liters of displacement, was good for 260 horsepower.
Ultimately, it was Chevy’s decision to brand the HHR as a performance vehicle that would lead to its demise. When Chevrolet’s Performance Division was shuttered in 2011, the HHR went with it. It was actually a pretty good car, with better than expected fuel economy and a quiet ride. On the other hand, its limited wheel clearance was a detriment once off the asphalt and its front wheel drive seemed a little incongruous for the HHR’s automotive segment.
Hummer H2 2002-2009
This entry on the list differs a bit from the others, in that there was a time when the Hummer did enjoy substantial success. It’s just that the very reasons that contributed to its success were also instrumental in its obsolescence.
As nearly everyone knows, the Hummer brand is not only strongly linked to its military heritage, but also to its association with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Legend has it that the actor, upon seeing a group of Hummers roll down the road while filming “Kindergarten Cop,” was immediately captivated, as it brought him back to his days of service in the Austrian army during 1965. He absolutely had to have one and when he finally did, because of Schwarzenegger’s high profile, everyone knew about it. Arnold ended up buying the first two H1 Hummers made for civilian use and a partnership between GM and Hummer resulted in the follow-up H2 being built for the masses — relatively speaking — in the Indiana-based AM General facility.
At first, the H2’s substantial size and 6500lb-plus weight — literally a ton more than the 2021 Ford Bronco in its 4-door configuration — were its pivotal selling points. The very sight of one was intended to convince onlookers that whoever was behind the wheel was a powerful, yet rebellious citizen with a strong fondness for the military. Congress indirectly threw its support behind the model, too. In 2002, the H2’s first year, it passed the 2002 Tax Act, which raised the deduction for ultra-heavy vehicles like the Hummer to $75,000 under the nod and wink auspices of them being used as “farm equipment”. That limit was even raised to $102,000 in 2004.
Despite the rugged connotations the H2 was meant to have, in reality it was a heavy but well-equipped luxury vehicle, with multi-zone climate controls, a leather wrapped wheel, a high-quality Bose sound system, among other amenities.
As the decade following the millennium reached its mid-point, sentiments were beginning to change. In 2006, Congress seemed to understand the folly of actively encouraging excess fuel consumption via a tank-like curb weight and the tax deduction for 6,000lb-plus vehicles was dropped to $25k. At the same time, the model was beginning to be seen as a sort of symbol of excess, despite the H2 carrying a less than astronomical price tag of about $60,000 when it was new. The combination of these two factors put a serious hit on the H2 — Chevy only sold about 1500 units in the model’s final year.