On August 26, 1985, the day the Yugo went on sale in America, dealerships sold 1,050 units, putting the Yugoslavian-made car on the road to becoming the fastest-selling first-year European import in U.S. history. Three months later, Fortune named the Yugo one of a dozen Outstanding Products for 1985, and Motor Trend nominated the Yugo for its Import Car of the Year award.
But success was fleeting for Yugo America, thanks to a handful of scathing reviews in 1986—most notably a write-up by Consumer Reports, which noted that the Yugo it tested was a sorry sample, as it had twenty-one defects attributable to sloppy assembly or incomplete dealer preparation. The last sentence of Consumer Reports’ review opined: “If $4,400 is the most you can spend on a car, we think you’d get better value from a good used car than a new Yugo.” After that it was all downhill for the Yugo, which went from being an industry laughingstock to a national joke.
In “The Yugo,” author Jason Vuic goes beyond the wisecracks (though a Yugo joke is included at the beginning of every chapter) to tell the story of the short unhappy life of the car, the men who built it, the men who imported it, and the decade that embraced and discarded it. It was a wild and woolly ride for all involved, including senior vice-president of production and engineering Tony Ciminera, who was nearly killed—on two different occasions—while test-driving prototypes in New Jersey.
Though Ciminera subsequently demanded and implemented hundreds of design changes, the Yugo developed a reputation for atrocious quality, and critics were even less forgiving when Yugo America rolled out the GVX, a seven-thousand dollar car that did 0 to 60 in 13.56 seconds. Car and Driver’s review of the GVX was, in a word, brutal, [and] the 1988 Motor Trend review was even worse, notes Vuic, recalling that the GVX made ominous noises of a guttural variety, then in the middle of a simple suburban road test it broke down.
Today Americans regard the Yugo as one of the most notable consumer product failures of all-time, not to mention one of the defining symbols of the 1980s—right up there with New Coke. Yet the car had a long run in Yugoslavia, as the last Yugo didn’t roll off the assembly line until November 11, 2008. And as Vuic notes in the epilogue, the Yugo may yet find new life, because the Serbian government has engaged in negotiations to restart production in Africa. “Will there be a Yugo-Mobutu? A Yugo-Congo?” asks Vuic. Stay tuned.