10 Fire-Sale Cars to Steer Away From

These discontinued models might sound like a great deal. Look closer.

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Sometimes, bad things happen to great cars. The exhilarating Pontiac G8, for example, came along just as parent company General Motors decided to kill the entire Pontiac division. The 2009 retirement of the Honda S2000 roadster caused remorse even at Honda. 

[Slide Show: The 10 Worst Discontinued Cars.] 

But most discontinued cars are killed off for good reason, and with a dramatic plunge in auto sales over the past two years, automakers are aggressively thinning the herd. GM is winding down its Pontiac and Saturn divisions, and Saab may disappear as well. Chrysler is killing several duds as it tries to build a thriftier, more exciting lineup. All told, automakers plan to retire nearly 50 models over the next two years, which will turn many showrooms into automotive versions of the clearance rack.

A few discontinued models will be great buys. Others may be deeply discounted—but still not worth the money. To determine which discontinued models are the weakest, I asked the analysts at car-research site KBB.com to first identify models likely to be discontinued over the next couple of years. For some of these models, the manufacturers have confirmed that the car is being axed; others made the list because of strong indicators that they're being discontinued, such as manufacturing changes or declining shipments to dealers. KBB then predicted the residual value of each of those models in five years—the amount it's likely to be worth, expressed as a percentage of its original list price. The median vehicle on this list has a predicted residual value of 22 percent in five years. The highest residual value is 35 percent; the lowest, 15 percent.

Residuals generally reflect the quality and reliability of the car, and the reputation of the automaker. So cars with high residual values tend to be the best-rated and most popular cars, while those with the lowest residuals are often rental-fleet staples or neglected money-losers. Residual values don't really matter if you're likely to own a new car for, say, 10 years, or the car's entire life span. But if you think you'll sell the car or trade it in within a few years, or you might want to buy a leased car after the contract expires, then residual values should be a key part of your purchase decision.

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Smart buyers should weigh price and residual value together. A deep discount on a discontinued model might seem like a great deal, but fire-sale cars tend to have the lowest residuals. A modest discount on a car with higher residuals could be a smarter buy.

Getting a good price depends on how much research you do and how effectively you negotiate. Car shoppers should start by researching the fair market value of a car they're interested in at sites like KBB.com, U.S. News's car-ranking site, Edmunds.com, or Intellichoice.com, then try to push the dealer below that price. Meanwhile, here are 10 discontinued cars that buyers should be most leery of if they care about the vehicle's value down the road:

Kia Spectra. (Starting price: About $14,000; discontinuation date: 2009; five-year residual value: 15 percent.) The dynamic Honda Fit has outclassed all other subcompacts and highlighted the weak handling, soulless design, and other flaws of poseurs like the Spectra. No wonder Kia is replacing its entry-level model with the Forte, a more promising venture.

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Saab 9-7x. (About $40,000; 2010; five-year residual value: 16 to 18 percent, depending on trim line.) It seemed like a good idea back when everybody wanted an SUV, but adding a few refinements to a Chevy Trailblazer and calling it the Saab 9-7x turned out to be a hokey "badge job." The vehicle never felt like a Saab, failed to match competing vehicles from Lexus, Acura, BMW, and Volvo, and was overpriced for a glorified Chevy.

Chrysler PT Cruiser. (About $19,000; 2010; 16 percent.) This funky wagon was a huge hit when it debuted about 75 years ago, but Chrysler, starved for money, never updated the design. So now it's familiar and boring, with performance to match. Ailing Chrysler had planned to kill the PT Cruiser this year but has such a weak product line that it decided to wring one more year out of this moribund wagon.

[Slide Show: The 10 Best Discontinued Cars.]

Mercury Grand Marquis. (About $30,000; 2011; 16 percent.) Parent-company Ford kept this model going well past its prime, to appease old-timers still wanting a sedan they can play shuffleboard in. But the land-yacht era is finally ending. Luckily, most dealers no longer offer the Grand Marquis, although die-hards can special-order one. Don't!

Hyundai Azera. (About $25,000; discontinuation date unconfirmed; 16 percent.) This midpriced sedan follows Hyundai's formula, offering a generous set of features for a couple of thousand less than you'd pay in a competing model. But blasé performance dims the luster. And the Azera, introduced in 2006, predates Hyundai's ascent to the top tier of automakers, which lowers the car's resale value.

Dodge Durango. (About $28,000; 2009; 17 percent.) During the SUV heyday, Durangos were everywhere. But this hulking SUV hasn't been updated in years, and newer crossovers carry nearly as much stuff with a smoother ride and better mileage. Prior to declaring bankruptcy in 2009, parent company Chrysler shut the assembly line that built the Durango and its upscale sibling, the Chrysler Aspen, so any models still on dealer lots have been sitting in inventory for months.

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Lincoln Town Car. (About $48,000; 2011; 17 percent.) It's big and cushy, but this throwback can't match the taut handling, modern features, or sharp design of competitors from BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and half a dozen other manufacturers. This once luxurious nameplate now appeals mainly to limo companies looking for a workhorse they can drive into oblivion.

Pontiac G6. (About $21,000; 2010; 18 to 19 percent, depending on trim line.) The G6 is no G8. Unlike its blistering big brother, the G6 has earned middling reviews, at best, with no distinguishing features. Once Pontiac shuts down, other GM dealerships will continue to honor Pontiac warranties and service the cars, but you'll need a better reason than that to commit to this also-ran.

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Saturn Vue (About $24,000; 2010; 18 to 19 percent, depending on trim line.) The Vue's sister vehicle, the Chevy Equinox, got a well-regarded redesign recently, but since Saturn is going out of business, the Vue didn't. The older version, still on sale, earned decent reviews in its day but fell short on reliability.

Cadillac STS. (About $46,000; unconfirmed; 17 to 19 percent, depending on trim line.). GM's luxury division has had a few hits, but the STS isn't one of them. This large sedan earns decent marks for performance but dings for a mediocre cabin and subpar reliability. And it ranks last among large luxury cars in U.S. News's new car ratings. That's awfully weak, considering that Cadillac is one division GM is actually keeping around.