The Yugo: Worst Car Ever?

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Nebojsa Raus / AP

A production line for the Yugo in Kragujevac, central Serbia

What do you call a Yugo with a flat tire? Totaled. What's included in every Yugo owner's manual? A bus schedule. What do you call a Yugo that breaks down after 100 miles? An overachiever.

Americans love to hate the Yugo. It has been included on — and topped — many worst-car lists, including TIME's 50 worst cars of all time. In The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History, Jason Vuic details why — despite the book's clever title — the Yugo isn't the worst car ever. Vuic explores how this little East European car that couldn't quickly fell from "Yugomania" glory to being one of the most loathed cars of all time.

The Yugo has been called a hopelessly degenerate hunk of trash and a vile little car. Critics have said it's hard to view on a full stomach. It's easy to start feeling bad for the little guy.
Oh, sure. I had these memories as a kid in the 1980s of the car being panned by everyone, but I didn't approach this book just to make fun of the car. I like little cars. I really didn't pan the car. I've read a couple reviews that say, "Vuic doesn't lay off the Yugo." But I'm not really calling it anything. I'm trying to examine why Americans have made it such an icon for failure. I wanted to understand why we hate this car so much, even though most Americans have never seen a Yugo, let alone driven one.

But you deem it the "worst car in history" in the title of your book.
Absolutely. That is what it is known as to anyone over 35 who has heard of the Yugo. But I actually believe it is not the worst car in history. If a car is marketed in the United States and sold in the United States, that means it passed certain presale standards. [The Yugo] had to pass a safety test, a crash test. It had to pass an emissions test.

So it is one of the worst cars in American history, but not necessarily in the world's history?
Americans tend to see America as the world. The Yugo was a bad car in America in the 1980s, but we don't realize that there are many, many cars that never dreamed of coming to America. The Russian Ladas and the Czech Skodas of the world. Just the fact that the Yugo came here meant it was far and away better than many other cars in many other countries.

But it was very popular in the beginning, right? You reference "Yugomania."
The summer before it came, you had all this media attention: a $3,995 car? What's going to happen? It's a communist car — will Americans buy it? The press was just nonstop, and it created a consumer fad. Then there's that segment of American car buyers who truly do want an appliance. They don't want their cars to be status symbols; they just want to drive from point A to point B. And there's always going to be a slice of Americans who want a bargain. So in the fall of 1985, people flocked to buy them.

How did the hype ultimately contribute to the Yugo's downfall?
The Yugo was in part a victim of its own success — what goes up must come down. When everyone lined up to buy the car, Consumer Reports reviewed it, and when they panned it, the same press that had created the hype jumped on the bandwagon to say, Look how bad it is.

And from that negative press sprang numerous bad-car jokes, many of which you feature in your book. Do you have a favorite?
I like the one that goes: Why does the Yugo have a rear-window defroster? So you can keep your hands warm while you push it. These aren't jokes I had a hard time collecting. They're everywhere. But with a lot of these jokes, you could simply [substitute] Pinto or Fiat. There's something about cars that we love to goof on. People love driving high-status cars and love goofing on low-status cars. It shows you the centrality of the automobile in our culture. It is a powerful, powerful object.

Are there any takeaways from the Yugo story? What do you expect when the Tata Nano hits the U.S. next year?
I'm not bashing Tata; I hope a little car like that goes. But the Nano does have many similarities. One is that they are creating premarket press — it's everywhere. They are creating the preconditions for a mania, and I don't think you should do that — it's not a pair of jeans or an album. They're going to create a mania and then invariably, the press will jump on board. The Nano will shoot up briefly, people will be in line, and then Consumer Reports will review it. And it's going to get the reviews you'd expect: it has one windshield wiper, its door panels are glued on from what I've read, it has tires the size of pizzas, its seats are bolted to the floor, O.K.? You're looking at a car that costs $2,500 and uses dated technology.

It's interesting that you can almost foretell its future.
I want the Nano to succeed. I hope they read my book, because I see so many things happening already that look like it's going to be a disaster. It's going to pass its safety and emissions tests, but it's still going to be dangerous if an SUV hits it. It's going to get walloped in a crash test. And invariably, like what happened with the Yugo, someone is going to die in a crash. The Nano will be in some wreck, and it will turn out that quality was the cause. The press will jump on it, and the whole cycle will start again. But as I said, I'd love to be wrong.