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Here's Why the Yugo Is One of the Worst Cars Ever Made

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2016

I recently flew down to Atlanta to review some cars. The cars were a Chevy Corvette ZR1, two Lamborghinis, a supercharged Jaguar, and ... a Yugo. Needless to say, I was especially excited by the Yugo.

And you would be, too, because it's generally agreed that the Yugo is one of the single worst cars ever sold in the United States. And I don't mean one of the worst cars "at a certain price level" or one of the worst cars "during a certain time period." I mean that many people consider it to be one of the worst cars ever sold. Maybe the single worst. And I've always wanted to find out why.

So I flew down to Atlanta, and I met up with the owner of the Yugo, Austin, who lived in a nice subdivision in a nice house with a nice garage. Parked in the driveway: a fairly new Cadillac SRX. Parked in the garage: one running Yugo, and another Yugo parts car. This man has his priorities straight. Or perhaps his neighbors complained the last time he left his Yugos outside.

Now, for those of you who don't know anything about the Yugo, allow me to provide a little background. The Yugo was a small hatchback (oddly, there was also a convertible version) that came to the United States from Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Yugo was imported by Malcolm Bricklin, the same man who brought us Subaru, although the Yugo had a slightly different purpose: to be the cheapest car in the United States. And, indeed, it was the cheapest car in the United States. It was also one of the worst.

From the moment you walk up to a Yugo, you're struck by a little bit of sadness. It's a feeling you don't get with any other cars. Maybe it's the fact that the one I drove was the sort of pale yellow that reminds us of an era when the walkie-talkie was considered high technology. Or maybe it's the fact that this thing has been beaten down by every single one of those "worst cars ever made" lists. But regardless of why you feel it, you feel it. You know you're going to be disappointed.

It's especially cheap inside. Although I wouldn't call the interior unexpectedly awful, I'd definitely say it's a product of what this car was: not just a 30-year-old vehicle, but a vehicle that was intended, 30 years ago, to be the least expensive on the market. There are only a few buttons. Everything is made from crappy plastic. And the entire dashboard and center console are one single mold. There are only two air vents, both in the center. And you can easily see the giant bolt holding down the seat-belt receiver. So I would say, in terms of interior quality, the Yugo met my expectations.

I was also expecting the driving experience to be quite bad. It met my expectations there, too.

Of course, the Yugo is slow. You knew it would be slow the moment you looked at it, or the moment you heard of its "cheapest car" status, or the moment you did any research on what's actually powering it (a 55-horsepower 1.1-liter carbureted 4-cylinder). But if you had any doubts about its slowness, they'd be erased the second you opened the hood, when you discovered the engine is sharing its space with the spare tire. And that the spare tire is larger.

The thing that surprised me most about the Yugo's driving experience was this: Not only is the handling quite vague and floaty, but the ride is rather harsh. Usually, there's a tradeoff here: A car with a nice, comfortable ride usually has vague, disappointing handling; a car with a harsh ride usually has quick, sporty steering. But somehow, the Yugo's creators blessed it with both a harsh, jarring ride and poor steering and handling. Considering this today, several weeks after I drove the Yugo, I still find this a little impressive.

Of course, I'm also impressed with just how hilarious it was to be driving down the street in this thing. I drove this car in a rural, pickup-filled exurb well outside Atlanta, which meant I was competing for space on the road with full-size trucks -- all of which were about ten times larger than the Yugo and twice as fast. And here I am, with my foot on the floor in this tiny old hatchback, just trying to maintain my speed going up hills, laughing the entire time at the absurdity of enjoying my time behind the wheel of this tiny little car -- just 24 hours after driving a Lamborghini.

The Yugo's owner, Austin -- who has a good sense of humor about the whole thing -- told me several interesting stories about Yugo ownership. One is that people do approach him at gas stations, armed with full knowledge about what it is -- and stunned that there's a Yugo that's still on the road. Another relates to his Yugo parts car: He needed a few parts that his Yugo doesn't have, and it's cheaper to buy a nonrunning Yugo than try and source individual parts. So what does a Yugo parts car cost? "I traded the guy a hundred bucks and a .22," Austin told me.

So is it the worst car ever made? Unequivocally, the Trabant I drove several weeks ago is worse -- much, much, much worse. On a different level of bad. The Trabant makes the Yugo seem like you've gone on "The Price Is Right," and you've won a free trip to Las Vegas, and they've sent a limo to pick you up at the airport.

But if you judge the Yugo against other 1980s cars, it's certainly quite bad. The worst car of its time? Probably. One of the most hilarious cars on the road today? Probably that, too.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Here's Why the Yugo Is One of the Worst Cars Ever Made - Autotrader