The scariest cars we've ever driven
In our Halloween special, the Auto Express team have cast their minds back to the scariest cars they’ve had to endure
You might think Halloween is reserved for ghosts, witches and monsters, but after decades of reviewing cars, we’ve learned that if you want to feel a true sense of dread then a car can truly be the most terrifying thing.
Yes, cars can be every bit as scary as the most frightful horror story, often for unintended reasons. So, to celebrate Halloween, we asked the Auto Express team to tell us all about their most fear-inducing moments behind the wheel.
What follows is a heart-stopping round-up of the scariest cars we've ever driven. Some scared us with their devastating performance, others with their ‘spook-tacular’ ineptitude and others just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Read on for our Halloween special, but don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Content editor Alastair Crooks and the hair-raising...
If you’ve had the enlightening experience of driving the original Focus you’ll probably be questioning its entry into this list. It’s not particularly scary to look at - the angular design of the Mk1 Focus has softened over the years and morphed into a forgettable hatchback silhouette - and the Focus was also efficient and reasonably cheap to run so it’s not like you’d get a fright looking at your bank account. In fact, my first ever car, a 2004 Ford Focus Zetec, had barely a flicker of a warning light throughout my ownership.
So why is the Ford Focus scariest car I’ve ever driven? Well, someone had the bright idea of stuffing a Sierra Cosworth engine into one and turbocharging the heck out of it to produce well over 320bhp and then I had an even brighter idea to drive it.
Granted, there are current hot hatchbacks like the Audi RS 3 and Mercedes-AMG A 45 S which might have more power, but the boostiness of the Cosworth engine in a stock-looking Mk1 Focus was both equally hilarious and terrifying. Even the four-wheel drive system (also nicked from a Sierra) couldn’t calm the manic personality of this Frankenstein Focus.
Reviews and features editor Richard Ingram and the eerie...
Land Rover Series I
The scariest car I’ve ever driven was a 1949 Land Rover Series I. A car built almost exclusively for off-roading, the vague and heavy controls made it quite the handful to navigate from A to B.
And despite my short drive being restricted to the Land Rover’s Solihull off-road course, it was clear this car was built with one sole purpose. It took the steep inclines in its stride and managed to ford water I’d feel uncomfortable swimming in, but simply getting it going was a challenge in itself.
The clutch required legs of steel, while turning the steering wheel felt like the tyres were wading through treacle. The bouncy ride and thinly-covered seats didn’t make it particularly comfortable either – especially by today’s standards. The fact it was raining at the time, with the windows steaming up quicker than we could wipe them clean, was the icing on the cake.
Land Rover has come a long way since the original 4x4 launched 70 years ago, but that haunting experience will stay with me for some time to come…
Consumer editor Hugo Griffiths and the ghostly...
Many, many years ago, on a misty autumnal night, I came across the only car that has ever truly scared me. It was a ‘courtesy’ car, collected after working hours when the garage was closed, its keys left unceremoniously on top of its front offside wheel.
There was absolutely nothing right about the example of mid-90s Proton Saga I had been lent. Even if it had been in perfect nick, the sclerotic 1.3-litre engine, woeful gearchange and 80s hi-fi-style dashboard plastics would have held little appeal.
Being up to date with all my immunisations, I was relatively sure any communicable disease passed on to me by the coating of filth adorning its interior would be recoverable from. I was even willing to put up with the perishing rubber of the steering wheel leaving gritty deposits on my hands.
But it was the steering itself that proved truly terrifying. The system was vague, to the point it bore so little resemblance to road behaviour it could have been controlling a car in a parallel dimension. Added to this, however, the car had a propensity to pull to the left significantly and inconsistently. One minute it would be tracking true and fine, the next it would be trying to take me off into a ditch.
After wrestling this paranormal Proton for about three miles, and making it home with several fresh grey hairs, I had so little faith in how this Saga would end I cancelled my evening plans and stayed in, unwilling to put my life, or the lives of other road users, at any further risk.
Chief reviewer Sean Carson and the terrifying...
On the face of things there’s nothing scary about a swoopy coupe like the Infiniti Q60, but when I got behind the wheel of the 2.0T model, my opinion quickly changed. That’s because said Q60 was fitted with Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering system. The brand calls it the “first digitally adaptive handling system” and I can see why nobody had bothered to do it before.
It’s not very good. In fact, in wet conditions at our test track it was downright evil. Combined with the car’s seriously lacking body control, through high-speed corners the vague and disconnected (literally) feel relayed back was scary.
Turn the wheel at high speed and little of note would happen at first. Then the car’s front axle would lag behind your input, lethargically applying steering lock. It was as disconcerting on the road, the Q60 wandering ghost-like in its lane with no movement from the steering wheel to speak of.
Senior review Sam Naylor and the chilling...
Caterham Seven SuperSprint
When the prospect of driving a Caterham of any kind is on the table, I’m usually the first to volunteer. Each one I have driven over the years has been brilliant, and up among the best drivers’ cars I’ve ever tried.
But I was trembling after a few minutes of driving the SuperSprint model early in 2018. It was one of the coldest days of the year and the limited-run Seven doesn’t have a proper windscreen, only a tiny aero screen to deflect some of the breeze. I soon found out that, as I’m six foot two inches, my head was some way above the screen right in the firing line for stray gravel and insect life. With a 50-mile motorway journey ahead of me, I was spooked. I think it took about an hour to warm up after that drive - and then I had to head back to the office once we’d finished photographing the car.
In 2017 I had a similar experience with the bonkers Caterham 620R on a greasy test track, which had about as much grip as a bar of soap on an ice rink - but at least my nose didn’t feel like it was about to fall off on that occasion.
Staff writer Alex Ingram and the creepy...
Vauxhall Meriva Mk1
While I’ve never been truly terrified by a car, my one and only time behind the wheel of an original Vauxhall Meriva showed that it was scarily bad.
During a stint working in the motor trade in Edinburgh, I delivered a Meriva I’d sold to its new owner in Chester. It was the 23rd December, the handover had to be completed in a dealership and, pushed for time, I had to get a move on. And a hurried Meriva is one at its worst.
Sharing its platform with the 2000 Corsa - never lauded for sparkling handling itself - the Meriva gained plenty of weight, and most of it high up. As a result the Meriva lumbered from corner to corner, compounded by steering with all the life of a zombie and the gloopy feel of a rotten pumpkin.
It offered little in the way of comfort to compensate, and the 1.6-litre petrol engine was noisy and gutless, so it was just as nasty on the motorways as it was along the twisty roads of the 250-mile route.
I could’ve excused the Meriva if this was a tired example, but it wasn’t: it was six years old at the time, but the mileage was low and its condition was immaculate. It says a lot about it that the customer’s trade-in - a knackered Rover 25 diesel - felt infinitely more pleasant to drive.
Content editor Dean Gibson and the paranormal...
Being given custody of a classic sports car worth millions is pretty scary, and that's where I found myself a couple of years ago, when Jaguar extremely kindly offered Auto Express the chance to drive the C-Type from its Jaguar Heritage Trust collection. I tried not to think about how much it was worth. To be honest, there was plenty of other things going on to take my mind off of that.
Firstly, there was actually fitting into the thing. A 1950s sports car isn't designed for a six-foot lump like me, so there was next to no legroom in NDU 289, and my right thigh was wedged between the chassis and the huge steering wheel, making the heavy unassisted wheel even harder to steer than it should be.
Oh, and I was warned about the extremely heavy and grabby clutch just before I fired up the straight-six for the first time. Plus there was the ritual of the twin fuel pumps - turns out if you leave them both on, the Jag's as rough as old houses as it over-fuels, so the car coughed and spluttered on its way before I turned one off and had the motor running smoothly.
Then there was the location for my drive. It took place as part of Coventry's excellent MotorFest, so I was driving the C-Type around the closed Coventry Ring Road, in convoy with a group of other heritage Jags. This included the ear-splitting XJ12 touring car and Le Mans-winning XJR-9, driven by none other than sports car star Andy Wallace. So the onus was on not stopping - racing cars don't like stopping - and with these two behind me, among others, that played on my mind a bit...
I didn't stop, but getting used to the heavy controls, double declutch gearshift (no syncromesh) and initial rough running meant I did go slower than walking pace at one point. Then, once I got used to the car, it started raining. In an open-top sports car. With no windscreen to speak of. And I wear glasses, so visibility was dreadful. Plus there was a layer of rubber on the tarmac, courtesy of the drifting display from the day before - not great for grip, especially when the huge, wooden wheel was being gripped tighter by my right thigh than my wet hands.
I did five laps in total. By the end, the steering wheel had rubbed my thigh raw, my left leg ached from the heavyweight clutch and my upper body was numb from the wet and the effort of steering.
A nightmare drive? Yes. But also one of the best I've ever had.
Head of motoring video James Batchelor and the spooky...
It all seemed like a good idea at the time but it turned into an experience I would not like to repeat. Ever.
The idea was simple: Take Britain’s cheapest car, Dacia’s £5,995 Sandero Access, and drive to as many Dacia dealers as possible in 24 hours. At the time, Dacia’s retailer network was over 100 dealers so it would be a tough order to complete the challenge, but Dacia was confident it could be done.
I didn’t complete the challenge. I managed a miserable 19 dealers in a journey that took me from Portsmouth to London, Wales, and the North of England. I came back with severe backache, ringing ears and a deep-seated loathing for the bargain-basement hatchback. Just mention the words Dacia, Sandero and Access to me and I now whimper and act rather strangely.
Automotive managing editor Stuart Milne and the ghoulish...
I’ve driven cars at 190mph on track and at 2mph axle-deep in mud, but the only time I’ve ever felt close to death was in a car that’s not actually a car. Not officially, at least.
That ‘car’ was the electric G-Wiz and the roads were in central London. With no performance to speak of and the safety credentials of a crisp packet, dicing with buses, meandering tourists and amphibious taxis was a drive I never want to repeat. I felt like a marked man in the tiny, flimsy quadricycle, a sensation made worse with images of the now-famous G-Wiz crash tests flashing through my mind. The G-Wiz set the electric car back a decade, at least.
Carbuyer content editor William Morris and the frightening...
Ford Fiesta MkIII
Learning to drive in my mum’s MkIII Ford Fiesta was pretty scary. It felt heavier than a tank, had no power steering, no torque at any revs and was slowly falling apart in a deliberately spiteful manner.
Taking a roundabout at more than 12mph meant the car ejected its hubcaps in protest and my mum always insisted I stop the car and go back to pick them up. The car’s other vindictive habits included popping the door open whenever I wound my window down past a certain point, as if to encourage me to throw myself out.
In the end, I watched with glee as a mechanical arm smashed through the front windscreen of the car as it was put on a lorry for scrap. As this happened, the tortured spirits of previous owners could be seen leaving the driver’s seat - or it could have just been dust.
Web editor Steve Walker and the sickening…
"A new power in personal transport" was how the Sir Clive Sinclair billed his Sinclair C5 when he launched it on an unsuspecting populace in 1985. What he neglected to mention was that this electrically-assisted three-wheeled pedal car is one of the scariest machines ever to appear on UK roads.
My heart-stopping 'drive' in the C5 came in 2005 or thereabouts when a colleague, who'd acquired several of the 'classic' machines on eBay in the firm belief that they would soon skyrocket in value, invited me to have a go in one. The two-mile lunchtime sandwich run to the local petrol station got off to a bad start when I realised what kind of power the C5 was packing. Modest uphill gradients that you'd normally need a spirit level to detect had its electric motor floundering badly and my legs forced to crank the pedals.
A two mile bike ride is one thing but a Sinclair C5 is no bike. There's one gear and you're obliged to adopt a weirdly uncomfortable seated position with your legs over the handlebars. On downhill stretches, 15mph is just about possible, on the flat you'd be lucky to see 8mph. It feels quicker than that because you're a centimetre off the tarmac but it's nowhere near quick enough to stop you feeling like a man crossing an international shipping lane on a lilo.
Traffic thundered past, most of it completely oblivious to my tiny plastic chariot creeping along in the gutter. I winced as each vehicle passed, bathing me in exhaust fumes and grit, convinced that next up in the traffic queue I'd created would be a panel van with my name on it. I made the garage without incident and I've never felt the urge to kiss a petrol station forecourt before or since but, if anything, the return trip was even more terrifying.
You've heard about our scariest car encounters, now tell us about the scary cars you've driven in the comments section below...