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Diamonds in the Rough: Which Cars Have the Unexpected Wow Factor?

Updated on March 24, 2020
Alex Toma B profile image

I've always had a passion for cars. Being an editor on Autoexpress back in the day gave me the opportunity to learn many things about them.

When we go into a jewellery shop we know what to expect. They display diamonds and gemstones that sparkle with their brilliance from the shop’s fluorescent lighting; they do not generally have the rough, uncut gems displayed under the glass for us to judge.

This is the same in the world of vehicles. Top brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Lotus, Maserati, and Bugatti do not have diamonds in the rough, because we totally expect the wow factor from their vehicles. They come with a price tag that demands us to be wowed.

For instance, Porsche 911 coupe is a classic for the ages. Each generation seems to make its mark with fantastic handling, super-fast gearbox and a meaty engine wrapped up in a sleek supercar body, all factors of wow that we expect from Porsche. The only "surprise" wow from the Porsche is its running cost.

But what are some of the cars in the past and present of car engineering that have that unexpected wow factor? Cars we did not see coming that may become the stuff of legend as a future classic? Non-supercar branded cars that unexpectedly surprise us with their on-road performance? A true diamond in the rough that is going to dazzle us as the next Ford Mustang, the future’s true classic car.

Ford Capri

Even though it is a Ford, and not everyone’s cup of tea, the Capri has proven to be an all-round cool car. Said to be the European equivalent of the Ford Mustang it is a fastback coupé with a great price, a good engine, and it looks mean. What more can we ask? It first entered the market in 1968 but hit us hard with wow! in the early 70s. It’s a car model that has improved steadily through time until the end of its production run in 1986.

Audi Quattro

A four-wheel-drive, it's originally designed to be a car for the World Rally Championship, which means that it needs to be a production vehicle able to be tweaked for racing. “The first rally car to take advantage of the then-recent rule changes that allow the use of four-wheel drive in competition racing.” Also, according to a Footman James bloggist, “The Audi Quattro, along with the Mini, is thought to be one of the most significant cars in the post-war era thanks to its use of four-wheel drive in a sleek sports coupé chassis.” There you have it.

Mini Cooper

Small, easy to park, cheap to run, and made famous in the movie The Italian Job. How cool is that? It continues to hold its popularity as a loved model for so many. It is tiny and adorable, has model and spec options for a run-around car and a zippy racer, and it’s within reach for the masses due to its maintenance economy and price tag. The Mini placed in the top three in the below-mentioned competition, Car of the Century, and rightly so. It’s a true classic (see the Footman James quote above).

Madza MX-5

Known as the Miata, it is a Japanese-made, affordable sports car reminiscent of a bygone era. Yes, it is annoying when someone takes up the last parking space with such a pint-sized car. But despite its micro-body, it has a whole lot of big features on offer. The 50:50 weight balance between the front and rear provides near-neutral handling. Its oversteer is controllable and makes this car great for the amateur racer. Jeremy Clarkson said in 2009, “[I]f you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.”

Triumph Spitfire

It isn’t Corgi diecast models that will make this vehicle by Triumph a true classic in the future. With a Giovanni Michelotti-designed body, the British roadster was in production for 18 years. It was marketed to be affordable for the U.S. convertible-loving culture with a bit more room. Autocar tested the car in November 1962, heralding it as a “refined car with a number of advanced features” with “appropriately good performance and fuel economy”. Overall, valuing it as “one of the least expensive genuine 90mph cars.”

Subaru Impreza

Subaru has offered the Impreza, a surprisingly popular vehicle, in coupe, 4-door sedan and 5-door wagon/hatchback variants. Its standard engine variants appeal as a family car, with some appeal to the younger generations with the turbocharged WRX variants, and probably due to the Impreza’s popularity in the rally car world. In 2019, the Impreza was deemed the ‘lowest depreciating sedan after 5 years’.

Sunbeam Tiger (1965 V8)

The little classic number was famously driven by Maxwell Smart, a.k.a. Agent 86, in the Get Smart 1960s TV series. Chris Riley, from News Community Newspapers for carsguide.com.au, says the Tiger is “described as a poor man's Cobra”, and “the Sunbeam Tiger was the cheapest way to have a Shelby engineered, small block, Ford-powered, two-seat British convertible in the 60s.”

Volkswagen Type 1 “Beetle”

The car that was meant for the people. The VW ‘Beetle’ or ‘Bug’ had the longest production run of a single platform car from 1938 to 2003 – that alone is a pretty big wow! It returned the engine to the rear of the car, with rear-wheel-drive. Put into production through Adolf Hitler’s vision for a mass-produced vehicle to travel on the Reichsautobahn, production for civilian-use cars was halted until the late 1940s. VW put out their Concept One car in 1994, in 1998 started production of the “New Beetle”, and the “Beetle” (A5) in 2011. By 2019, production had come to a halt. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, because death is part of life. However, the Beetle lives on in our hearts and our memories as a true hall-of-famer.

What makes this car a wow? It is iconic. In 1999 there was a car competition title Car of the Century, and the VW Type 1 was voted fourth overall as the most influential cars. Ahead of it was the Ford Model T, the Mini, and the Citroën DS. The VW Type 1 also has a Hollywood-related claim to fame with the Herbie movies.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Jeep? There is just something about the Jeep that is much loved with more than just a religious cult following. It has featured in countless movies, but their legend surpasses that of the Hollywood scene. It stands on its own merit as Jeep can boast its own culture with its own wave to fellow Jeep owners. It has a rich history in patriotism and fighting for the cause. Over the years, Jeep has worked on its foibles, namely its issues with flipping over, incorporating improved strength and grip technology. A 4x4 designed for utility, it can be cute, sporty, adventurous, and hyper-masculine. Considered all-terrain, the Jeep is versatile. It offers a plethora of modifications and a number of variants and can be tailor-made for the individual. Jeep is your best friend.

Honda CR-X VTEC

The Honda CR-X was miles ahead of its time when it debuted in 1989. It was a stylish wonder, a 3-door hatch for ease and coupe looks. With a lineage of racing performance, the CR-X “was the first model in the UK to benefit from Honda’s novel VTEC variable valve timing technology,” (Carvine). It came equipped with double-wishbone suspension for agility, designed with a powerful engine, for its time, and became the standard for future Type R models.

Ford Focus

Another Ford on the list, the Focus is a hot hatch, reliable, a lot of different options with low to suped-up specs, for the plebes and the racing kings. The Ford Focus, really? Yeah, really. It surprises us with its continuing good looks. How many times have we thought, "I can’t believe that’s a Ford Focus." It has managed to stay on top of the sales charts for a bit now, and its 2020 version has improved upon some of its lesser performing features, plus it has a wide range of variants to choose from.

Mercedes-Benz 190 SL W12

Not your fancy 4-door luxury sedan, it was manufactured in 1954 as an affordable, smaller, lighter, basic vehicle, differing from its more sport-performance and lux forebears, it still featured excellent engineering and independent suspension. The 190 SL had a shortened frame and came with a newly crafted engine, modelled after the motor in the larger Mercedes-Benz 300 SL cars, but tweaked for better performance. Production ended in 1963, but this model paved the way for accessible Mercs with more affordability and more aligned specs for every day in mind.

Toyota Prius

Although, not exactly intended as a diamond in the rough, but as a shiny new carbon-less diamond, and the fact that it did not end up with the ‘Nice Try’ award, solidifies its legitimate place in the future of car-making. Going out on a limb in a petrol-infused market, the Prius dared to be a hybrid with plug-in capabilities. Its move from the sedan to four-door, liftback styling has made it one trendy vehicle. It became the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle under any name thanks to Toyota’s far-reaching dealership chains. The Prius has proven its longevity and worth in a market hungry for change. It is not just for the into-it granny or the bleeding-heart celebrity as some naysayers first thought.

Bottom Line

There is no doubt that there are many cars unmentioned here that should be, and this list is in no particular order of importance either. Add to it as you wish, because the exiting and industrious world of cars has nothing if not opinions about what is the best of the best. There are other diamonds in the rough that have come before, exist today, and are still to come, but enjoy the humble offerings above for what they are: an attempt to pay homage to a few that glimmer for a moment in the sun, catching our eye and wowing us with their shiny sparkle, their memory never to fade.

© 2020 Alex Toma

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