The country of Yugoslavia is shown on a printed map.

The Worst Cars Ever Made: Part 1 – The Yugo

Some vehicles reach icon status thanks to their legendary performance, while others owe their notoriety to eye-catching style. An appearance in a popular movie or TV series could help a model go down in the history books, as could some success in a professional racing series.

Then there are the models that become household names for all the wrong reasons.

The industry has seen a few duds in its days, from the Pontiac Aztek and Plymouth Prowler to the Lincoln Blackwood pickup and some optimistic-if-early takes on the modern EV. These models have become automotive punchlines due to their low sales, quirky designs, and spotty performance.

That said, there’s one clear winner when it comes to picking the biggest loser: the Yugo.

This budget-oriented subcompact was produced in the former country of Yugoslavia by automaker Zastava, whose name literally translates to “red flag.” Americans didn’t heed that very obvious warning, buying over 140,000 imported Yugos between 1985 and 1992, but most drivers’ familiarity with this ill-fated model can be credited to the late-night talk show writers, who probably put more than a few kids through college by ruthlessly dragging this Eastern European creation…

What comes with every Yugo user’s manual? The bus schedule. How can you get a Yugo to do 60 mph? Push it over a cliff. What do you call the shock absorbers inside a Yugo? Passengers. These jokes might be a little lazy and rote, but they’re sure to resonate with any driver who ever struggled to get up to highway speed behind the wheel of a Yugo.

Dinged for its boxy, clunky design, its slipshod engineering, and its all-around cheapness, the Yugo is the unquestioned king of the lemons. So, how did this luckless model come to fruition? What went wrong, and is it really as bad as Jay Leno and his comedy cohorts say? We’ll answer all that and more as we kick off our Worst Cars Ever Made series with the little subcompact that couldn’t…

Eastern Promises

Given the less-than-stellar reputation of the Yugo, few will be surprised to learn that Zastava didn’t start out as an automaker. Founded as an arms manufacturer in 1853, the company only expanded into the auto world in the late 1930s when it started producing trucks designed by Ford for the Royal Yugoslav Army—though Zastava Arms is still Serbia’s leading producer of firearms.

Following WW2, Zastava would win a contract to produce Jeep models, but it was the company’s 100th anniversary that brought the biggest change of focus. In 1953, Zastava started manufacturing vehicles under a license from Fiat, with the Milletrecento sedan representing the first model. Powered by a 1,300 cc engine (Milletrecento translates to “one thousand three hundred”), the model would be followed by a full lineup of vehicles based on the Fiat 128, including the Zastava 101, 128, 311, 600, 601, and Skala.

Zastava continued to produce Fiat-based models for the next three decades, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the Yugo would make an appearance. Introduced as a more compact version of the company’s existing 128-based models, the Yugo would be exported across Eastern Europe. The early Yugo boasted an overhead-cam engine with a top speed of 90 mph and was fairly basic in every regard. From its basic black interior and single rear tail light to sparse metal trim and lack of a rear window defroster, the Yugo wasn’t out to win any award for luxury, though later models would see some respectable upgrades.

While it’s easy to paint the Yugo with a broad brush, models could actually vary dramatically between years. 1988 to 1991 are widely considered the Yugo’s golden years thanks to high quality-control standards, with some 200,000 units rolling off the assembly line in 1989 alone. A growing reputation saw Zastava drop its own name from the model, rebranding it simply as “The Yugo,” but this moment in the sun wouldn’t last long; a deteriorating political situation in Yugoslavia saw quality fall off a cliff, and the brand never really recovered.

The car might be maligned by Western standards, but the Yugo was really an ideal car for the time and place in which it was produced. Ultra-affordable cars like the Yugo drastically improved the day-to-day life of citizens in struggling communist countries like Yugoslavia. Sure, it might look like the prototypical lemon when compared to the cars coming out of the US and Western Europe at the time, but comparing these first-world countries against the emerging economies of Eastern Bloc countries isn’t really a fair comparison to begin with.

Coming to America

If the Yugo had remained an Eastern European model, it would probably never have achieved its questionable reputation in the West. There are dozens of car companies around the world that have never exported to the US, and the Yugo certainly wasn’t some sort of one-of-a-kind creation, so how did the notorious sedan come to land on US shores?

Blame Malcolm Bricklin. This serial entrepreneur—who also happens to be the man to have brought Subaru to America—had found success importing the Fiat X1/9 and 2000 Spider via International Automobile Importers (IAI) and was looking for new opportunities.

Bricklin was actually the second US businessman to import the Yugo, but he was the first to find any sort of success. Miro Kefurt imported a shipment of Yugos to the US in 1982, rebranding the car as the Yugo GV (“Great Value”) and helping to form YugoCars, Inc. in Sun Valley, California. The red, white, and blue Yugos would make their US debut at the 1984 Los Angeles Auto Show and, although their patriotic colors were certainly appreciated, their generous warranty and price were the biggest selling points.

The Yugo came with a ten-year, 100,000-mile warranty, free maintenance, and a total cost of just $4,500 (about $13,000 today), making it an intriguing prospect for pure value alone. There was only one problem: the car was never going to pass the California Air Resources Board’s emissions testing, and Kefurt was left holding the bag.

That’s where Bricklin came in. He first spotted the Yugo at the LA Auto Show and was so intrigued by the prospect of importing the Yugo that he immediately flew to Yugoslavia to ink a deal. The failed emission test and the fact that YugoCars, Inc. still held the exclusive import contract for 5,000 vehicles wasn’t enough to deter Bricklin and IAI, who bought the Yugo’s marketing rights for $50,000 (or about $10 per car).

IAI worked out the emissions kinks and dropped the original 45-hp 903cc Yugo 45 for the larger Yugo 55, which boasted a 1,100cc engine producing 55 hp. The upgrade meant a drop in fuel economy, but it was an important change for one big reason: without the larger engine, the Yugo struggled to reach a top speed above 75 mph. This might be fine on the average Yugoslavian road, but it was downright dangerous on a busy American highway. In the end, the larger Yugo 55 US model would feature a top speed of 86 mph, which, while an improvement, would still make the Yugo the slowest car on the market in 1984.

After making an estimated 500 changes to bring the Yugo in line with American safety and emissions standards, the car was ready for its debut. With a starting price of just $3,990, Bricklin had managed to make the Yugo even cheaper than Kefurt’s version. The original Yugo was offered in three trims: the GV, GVL (which featured a more refined interior), and the GVX.

Billed as Yugo’s “sporty” offering, the GVX would still be underwhelming by most standards with its 1,300cc engine and a zero-to-sixty time of 13.56 seconds. Later models included the GVS (which had a body kit and other appearance-related upgrades), the GVC (with a glass sunroof), and eventually the Cabrio convertible model. The company also planned a larger model dubbed “Florida” with an automatic transmission, but Yugoslavia’s internal struggles would put a stop to that.

The Eastern European country was in the midst of some serious changes, which largely upended Bricklin’s empire and brought the Yugo’s story to an early end. The United Nations would enact sanctions against the country in the early 1990s, which hampered Zastava’s ability to export the Yugo.

The Yugo would go out with a bang, literally, as NATO accidentally bombed Zastava’s automotive manufacturing facilities instead of the arms manufacturing facilities it had intended to target. YugoCars would try to introduce a fuel-injected version of the GVX in 1990, but it would be too little too late as the company faced a 126,000-unit recall for Yugo models that violated EPA standards.

Bricklin wouldn’t be able to overcome this financial hurdle, and the Yugo’s importing came to an end. The automotive entrepreneur would attempt to revive the Yugo in 2002, landing a deal with Zastava to import a new model called the ZMW, but would soon move on to a short-lived stint marketing China’s Chery passenger brand.


So, just how bad is the Yugo?

The quality—or lack thereof—is obvious as soon as one squeezes into the Yugo’s cabin. The dashboard and center console consist of a single plastic mold that hosts just two air vents. (Bonus: Peek into these vents and you’ll be met with a mess of wires that, if we had to guess, probably doesn’t represent the most sensible—or safest—design approach.)

Zastava didn’t waste money dressing the Yugo up, or even covering some of its more unsightly components; the emergency brake and bolt attaching the seat-belt receiver to the body of the vehicle both lack any sort of plastic covering and are just there for all the world to see. This no-frills approach abounds through the Yugo, creating an interior that screams “budget-oriented.”

The car also didn’t have a glove box or air conditioning, which meant a sweaty ride in all but the mildest temperatures—but maybe if you could just get it up to speed and crack a window, it wouldn’t be so bad? Good luck: to call the Yugo’s acceleration sluggish would be an insult to mollusks. Given the car’s transaxle transmission and 55-hp 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine, this probably comes as little surprise, but even the official numbers don’t hold up to scrutiny; while many reviews claim a zero-to-sixty time of 14 seconds, real-world testing is another story altogether.

The team at Donut Media recently tested an ‘89 Yugo and made the bold decision to take the car out on the LA Freeway, where it took a glacial 35.3 seconds to hit the 60-mph mark. Not only that, the Yugo virtually exploded upon achieving this feat with the transmission linkage breaking away from the shifter and scraping against the ground. Sure, some of this could be due to the Yugo’s advanced age and a lack of maintenance, but it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

Speaking of velocity, the speedometer’s 110-mph top speed had to be nothing more than some sort of sick inside-joke at Zastava, but that isn’t too surprising when you learn that this model’s engine was being fed its gasoline by a seriously outdated carburetor. A harsh ride and poor handling are par for the course in the Yugo, which isn’t that surprising when you consider the fact that it lacks power steering.

This model’s 139-inch length would have been considered small even by late-1980s standards, but today, the Yugo would be dangerously dwarfed by the ever-expanding pickups and SUVs that rule the road. The ’89 Yugo tested by Donut also tended to drift to one side when the driver let off the gas, and it idled at such an ear-splitting volume that one reviewer likened it to an air compressor.


All-in-all, it seems like the Yugo provides a driving experience that can be described as “harrowing” at best, but is it really one of the worst cars ever made?

The Yugo might have become an automotive punchline (even The Simpsons got in on the fun with a memorable scene: “She’ll go three hundred hectares on a single tank of kerosene”), but that designation isn’t exactly fair. In judging the Yugo, it’s important to remember the time and place from which it emerged; in many respects, the Yugo was a feat of automotive engineering, given the limited access to purpose-built equipment, shaky supply chains, and Yugoslavia’s unstable political situation.

Sure, by Western standards it might be an all-around dud, but for those Eastern European drivers looking to increase their mobility, visit family, or pursue new job opportunities, value-oriented models like the Yugo were a godsend. Context is everything, so while the Yugo might provide some low-hanging fruit for the late-night comic set, it might not really be as bad as all the jokes imply. That said, you probably won’t see us rolling into work behind the wheel of a Yugo anytime soon.