Origins of the Yugo
Perhaps calling it ‘crappy and obsolete’ is unfair to the little Yugo. At the time of its inception, the car wasn’t entirely antiquated. The Yugo started life in 1977 as the Zastava Koral, which was essentially a ‘CommieCopy’ of the Fiat 128.
To be clear, Italian designers from Fiat actually did assist Zastava in the design of the Yugo. But sprinkling a bit of communism onto an already unremarkable car yielded predictable results: The Yugo/Koral ended up being the worst of both worlds.
Yugo Arrives in the United States
In 1986, American entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin saw a market opportunity for a small, inexpensive ‘starter car’ in the states. Specifically, Bricklin decided that the U.S. needed an affordable hatchback. And what better place to find one than the Eastern Bloc?
So he did just that. Malcolm Bricklin worked out a deal with Zastava and began importing a special version of the Yugo for the American market. But we can’t fault Bricklin entirely—on paper. There was a market for a cheap hatchback.
And the Zastava Yugo GV (or, ‘Great Value’) was DIRT cheap. And it was a good value. Originally priced at $3,990 USD (less than $10,000 today), you could buy a brand new car for the price of a used Ford Fairmont. Though it soon became apparent that the Fairmont would’ve been a better option.
American Yugo Specifications
The on-paper specifications of the Yugo were unimpressive but no worse than other cars we’ve seen. The original U.S. Yugo made 55 horsepower from a 1,100cc inline four-cylinder engine. It came with a carburetor and a four-speed manual transmission. Later models with the 1.3L gasoline engine came with an optional slushbox or a five-speed manual.
Early Yugo cars topped out at just 86mph, making it the slowest car available in the U.S. for most of the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the gas mileage figures were better: the Yugo could achieve 30mpg or better on the highway.
Why the Yugo was Awful
The Yugo was just a cheap car made of cheaper parts. Labor wasn’t the issue—the Zastava factory selected an elite team of experienced workers to assemble U.S. models. But the car still sucked because the company didn’t understand the expectations of the western market in the late 1980s.
For one, we expected a glove box. It didn’t have one. We also expected reverse lights, so the factory obliged by mounting two universal fog lights under the rear bumper.
Also, they didn’t bother hiding any exposed wiring. "We’re Americans dammit! We don’t wanna see how the radio works; we just want it to work!" And in the Yugo, it often didn’t.
Everything about the car was sloppy and reflected the low price point. The transmission was sloppy, the steering was sloppy, and so on—it was not up to par. Plus, it lacked basic amenities and essential safety equipment like a passenger-side mirror.
Emissions control components bogged down the already wheezing four-banger. It was almost too slow for American highways, and it had a nasty reputation for breaking down. Need a new pulley? You won’t find it at the local auto store—parts were scarce from the beginning.
The End of the Yugo
America was done with the Yugo by 1992. Plus, the EPA was already breathing down the Yugo’s neck for flagrant emissions violations. But the Yugo was already on its way out globally due (in part) to one of those pesky civil wars. And since the wall was gone, why buy a Yugo when you could have an actual Fiat 128?
The moral of the story is: You get what you pay for. All in all, the Yugo wasn’t atrocious because it was a cheap car. America hated the Yugo because it was significantly ‘less’ than anything they'd ever had before. The Yugo was doomed by comparison.
It’s not the worst car ever built. Not even close. It’s the worst car ever sold to America.
In many countries, the car still finds a niche for cheap transportation and (for Jeremy Clarkson) target practice.
About THE AUTHOR
I rebuild & restore classic cars and trucks when I'm not researching and writing about all things automotive. My current project is a 1978 Ford.Read more about Joshua Weinstein