Where good cars end and bad cars begin: The automotive 'Mendoza Line'

November 8, 2016

Right-handed Mario Mendoza stood in the batter's box July 14, 1979, like he had nearly 500 times before that day. The bushy-haired, bespectacled shortstop for the Seattle Mariners had recently traded one coast for the other, going from Pittsburgh the season before to Seattle, which probably better suited the solid defensive infielder.

Mendoza sauntered into the box in the bottom of the second inning with the sacks packed full of Mariners, two out, and his team already down 0-3.

Orioles ace lefty Mike Flanagan was on the mound. The all-star was putting together a stellar 1979 campaign so far, on his way to winning 23 games and the AL Cy Young award as the league's best pitcher that year.

Mendoza bat sixth that Saturday as a "clean-up" man—his job was to bring home each of the three men standing on base. One swing could reverse fortunes for the Mariners, who were digging themselves out of an early season hole in the standings.

Almost as quickly as Mendoza was up, he was down. The skinny shortstop managed only a dribbler back to Flanagan, who threw him out at first base.

It wasn't uncommon for Mendoza, whose record for managing success about 20 percent of the time would bond his name to an esoteric baseball term that managed to crossover into mainstream parlance.

If Mendoza managed a hit just one in four times, instead of one in five, he would have been wholly average. If he would have managed one hit in three attempts, he would have been a sure fire, first-ballot hall of famer.

He didn't, and the "Mendoza line" became famous for being good enough to keep around, but just bad enough to be wholly forgettable.

The Mendoza Line

The Mendoza Line

The pitch

Can the same measure be applied to cars?

In many ways, the world of cars is like the majors: There are many all-stars entrenched among forgettable role players, some of whom are so toxic for clubhouse chemistry that they’re shipped off to another team. (Catera, we’re looking at you.)

The intersection of the 2016 World Series and our own award season had us wondering: How much effort does it take to make a good car? How bad does a car need to get before we call it an i-MiEV?

Thankfully, we have a body of evidence and a bag of measuring devices to find out.

Ground rules—but not doubles

First, we need to lay some accepted ground rules. The Mendoza line in baseball is famously set at .200. We find no shortage of irony that the soon-to-die, perennially average Chrysler 200 bears the same numerals, but we digress.

The all-time league leader in batting average is undoubtedly Ty Cobb who finished with a mark of .366 for his lifetime. We'll take Ted Williams' 1941 .406 performance as the gold standard for a single season, and we'll set Bill Bergen's .170 average as the low watermark for repeated futility after more than 2,500 career at-bats.

(To avoid any surly remarks about comparing a car with a phenomenal drunk and first-rate terrible human, we're considering Cobb's on-field performance only—please direct any nastygrams about Cobb's character and legacy to Cooperstown, N.Y.)

We can set similar benchmarks with the more than 200 cars we have rated on The Car Connection using our updated methodology. The Bill Bergen? The 2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV notched a lowly 3.8 out of 10. The Ty Cobb? Perhaps that's the 2017 Land Rover Range Rover, which consistently tops our scoring with an 8.8. We even have a Ted Williams too: the 2017 Aston Martin DB11 earned a fantastic 9.0 (although, we're not sure how long that'll last after fuel economy scores come in for the thirsty V-12).

"Faulty logic!" you say. "There are more than 300 new cars each year, and you've only rated two-thirds of them!"

"True," we reply. "But, have you ever met baseball?"

The Mendoza Line

The Mendoza Line

Baseball invented flawed logic, friends. The great American pastime is the sport that literally threw us the curveball and embraces the flawed "human element" like pine tar on 31 ounces of turned White Ash. It's also the sport that votes for its all-stars before the halfway point in the regular season, which helps account for the multiple appearances by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.

We apologize for nothing compared to baseball.

With a body of more than 200 new cars, we've covered most of the ground already this season. The remaining list of cars we haven't yet rated is littered with a few interesting prospects—the Mitsubishi Mirage and Bentley Bentayga—but not enough to significantly change our lines.

Furthermore, if baseball and automobiles had clearly defined, objective criteria to define the best and worst among them, then Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, and Bob Gibson may as well have been names from your local Isuzu dealership.

We have numbers that are debatable—and that's the fun part.

Walking the line

Rather than punish the bad ones, we can establish what constitutes our all-star team for this year.

This season, 25 MLB players finished with averages .300 or higher—a benchmark that surely will earn many of those players lucrative raises. In 2000, during the height of an era widely regarded as "juiced" in one form or another, 53 players finished with averages above .300. In 1908, the lowest point of the "dead-ball era," just seven players finished the season with an average of .300 or higher.

What's that do for our car analogy? Perspective.

We can confidently attest that we're out of the 1980s Malaise-era machines that extracted so much futility from so few cars. In the same turn, we're probably not living in the late-1960s when muscle cars came to be, the Ford GT40 was born out of pure spite, and astronauts drove super cool matching Chevy Corvettes.

If we take the top 25 ranked cars from our TCC list, we field a dream garage of today's new cars. Among the top-scoring cars, our list includes the Honda Accord, Chrysler Pacifica, Audi R8, Acura NSX, Volvo S90 (sound familiar? It's mostly the list of our Best Cars to Buy) among others.

But in truth, if we used the same criteria for major league hitters, our top 25 cars would be .330 hitters or better—there were only three of those in the majors this year.

The Mendoza Line

The Mendoza Line

If we open up our ranks for .300 or above, the list balloons to almost 100 cars, or nearly half of the rated vehicles on TCC. A rating of 7.2 on TCC or better would be our comparable silver slugger, and that's many more cars.

"A ha! Flawed logic again!" you say. "You're far too generous with your ratings and this can never work!"

Check your swing.

Our measure was for lifetime averages with a wider spread. The single-season differential this year was smaller—only .348 for D.J. LeMahieu down to Danny Espinosa's .209. Accounting for the smaller spread, our cutoff gets closer to 7.7, of which 53 cars qualify.

Take into account that cars are more efficient nowadays and verifiably safer (both objective measures that improve overall scores), and that a V-6 Honda Accord is faster to 60 mph than a 1983 Ferrari 308, we're living in a very good—but perhaps not golden—era for cars.

And the winner is...

Our Mendoza line lands on a nameplate that ends after this year, but not coincidentally. Nearly every models rated below our Mendoza line will end this year (the others probably should too), including our major league leader in mediocrity, the 2017 Jeep Patriot.

The Jeep Patriot sets our virtual baseline for more work needed in the minors. Its 4.7 overall rating hovers below our theoretical 5 as average for new cars on the road today, with some forgettable cars below it including the outgoing Toyota Yaris, Mitsubishi Lancer, and Dodge Journey.

Which is not to say that the Patriot didn't deserve its time in the "bigs." We noted in our review of the 2017 Patriot that the middle-of-the-road Jeep "may not be the newest or best-equipped, but its value is hard to deny." Jeep sold more than 275,000 examples of the Patriot worldwide last year too, making the car an outgoing global best-seller for the brand.

Mendoza's career spanned 8 years and earned him a statue in the Mexican baseball hall of fame, too.

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