The 1941 Willys MB not only served our troops during World War II, but also gave rise to the SUV, a vehicle type that would boom for years to come. The midengined Lamborghini Miura of the 1960s set a blueprint for supercars through the '70s and '80s. But we don't have to travel back a half-century to find cars that changed the automotive design landscape. Here are ten modern cars that rocked the status quo and inspired serious changes in the new cars we see today.
2002 BMW 7 Series
Few modern car designs are as despised as the 2002 BMW 7 Series. That year, BMW's flagship sedan traded the suave lines and swagger of the previous E38 generation for blunt and blocky shapes. It had lines above its headlights that looked like eyebrows. The trunklid, nicknamed the Bangle butt after BMW designer Chris Bangle, appeared to be an afterthought to increase luggage space. And inside the cockpit was the dreaded iDrive, a complex infotainment system controlled by a frustrating rotary knob.
But as much as everyone disliked that car, its design inspired other carmakers to move in that direction, creating more elegant versions of Bangle's work. Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, for example, adopted a version of the Bangle butt. All luxury cars have grown to the same large, blocky proportions pioneered on that BMW, in part to meet today's crash standards and provide increased visibility for the driver. Look inside any Audi, Mercedes, or Lexus these days and you'll find their version of iDrive.
The 2002 BMW 7 Series was an ugly duck. But Bangle's design, for better or worse, pushed sedan design to where it is today.
2003 Scion xB
At the dawn of the millennium, Toyota realized its buyers were getting older—much older. Kids didn't want to own a Toyota—it was their parents' car. So Toyota created Scion as the company's "youth brand" in the U.S.
Ten years on, Scion's overall success can be debated. But what can't be questioned is the significance of Scion's first car—the original xB. Scion imported Toyota's Japanese domestic market bB and sold it as the Scion xB, a hip and youthful people mover. Kids thought it was dope (that's right, I said "dope"—it was 2003 after all), while older folks wondered why a small boxy car would appeal to anyone.
The xB was a hit. It inspired Nissan to bring over its Cube and Kia to build its own youthful box, the Soul. It also proved that sleek lines and big horsepower numbers weren't the only ways to get younger buyers into dealerships. The xB could be highly customizable with parts and equipment available right from the Scion store—including electronics. Today automakers have found that the electronic interface has become a major driver for people to buy specific cars. That's why even the most inexpensive cars, like Chevy's new Spark, have been designed with leading-edge infotainment systems.
2005 Ford Mustang
By 2005 retro car designs were emerging from all sectors of the auto industry. But it was the redesign of the Ford Mustang that re-created the American muscle car. The Mustang faithful had waited years for a tribute to the original 'Stangs of the 1960s. Ford's remake brought forward just the right design cues to recall the past and melded them into a body that looked modern at the same time. It was brilliant work.
In 2005 there wasn't much competition for the Mustang. A year earlier GM imported a rather boring-looking Australian coupe with a great chassis and dubbed it the new Pontiac GTO. It was faster than the Mustang, but compared with the 'Stang's retro design, the GTO was a dud and it flopped. However, just as the original 1964 Ford Mustang had inspired the ponycars from Chevy (1967 Camaro) and Dodge (1970 Challenger), the 2005 Mustang sent domestic designers to their sketchpads to reimagine these muscle cars once again. By 2009 we had retro-designed, high-horsepower machines from Chevy and Dodge. Today these models have proliferated into extreme performance versions as well as basic six-cylinder models.
Our friends at Car and Driver, have pegged 2015 for a relaunch of another classic muscle-car nameplate—the Barracuda.
1998 Audi TT
When the original TT coupe launched in the late 1990s, it was as if an Audi concept car had been dropped onto dealership lots. The TT's tight lines and clean, undecorated profile looked fresh—unlike anything else on the market. And that's a very difficult task to accomplish, especially for a sports coupe. Overnight it made Audi the company to watch for serious design.
It's hard to imagine a single modern car that has so thoroughly moved the design of its own company as much as the Audi TT. For 15 years Audi has been borrowing from the design language it pioneered with that car, and the brand's popularity has soared over that time, based in part on Audi's unique style. Did the original TT inspire those other cars? We're sure of it. At the very least, it's probably not a coincidence that you still see new cars wearing the same circular interior air vents that the TT brought back into fashion.
1998 Smart ForTwo
The Smart ForTwo makes a painfully clear case that influential design does not have to be wrapped around a good car. The Smart ForTwo is flimsy-feeling, underpowered, and has the mechanical sophistication of a cut-rate blender.
But take away the driving experience and the Smart is actually a fairly interesting car to look at. And more importantly, this car was at the beginning of the modern minicar boom. The second generation Smart ForTwo was the first modern minicar for sale in the U.S. (excluding the Mini, which isn't really all that mini). The ForTwo's compact dimensions and spunky personality inspired other automakers to build their own minicars. None of these cars look like the Smart, but the youthful personality and overall footprint of today's minicars, such as the Fiat 500, Scion iQ, Chevy Spark, and VW Up trace back to the Smart.
And perhaps the all-new Smart, coming soon, will borrow some of its mechanical makeup from parent company Mercedes-Benz. We can dream, right?
1990 Mazda Miata
The mighty little Miata is the oldest car on our list, but it could well be the most influential. The little Mazda can trace its roots back to the British roadsters of the 1960s, but the small, rear-drive roadster was a rarity when the Miata arrived; most had died off by the early 1980s. The Miata's blend of lightweight affordable fun and tidy styling made it a hit and saved that small-sports-car formula from extinction.
Strangely, the Miata didn't inspire too many affordable roadsters. It took nine years for Toyota to launch the MR2 Spyder and 15 years for the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice twins to arrive. It was the luxury automakers that really took to the idea. In 1996 alone, Porsche launched the Boxster, BMW brought out the Z3, and Mercedes-Benz hit the market with the SLK—all three (relatively) expensive sports roadsters were likely inspired by the success of the Miata formula.
1998 Lexus RX 300
In the 1990s the midsize crossover didn't yet exist. If you wanted to haul around your family in something other than a minivan or station wagon, you probably bought a body-on-frame truck-based SUV. Yes, you could get a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4, but neither of these crossovers was roomy enough for large families.
In 1998 Lexus unleashed the midsize RX 300, an entry-level luxury crossover that looked like nothing else on the road and rode on a heavily modified front-drive Camry platform. It was the perfect package—one that delivered carlike handling, respectable power, and excellent fuel economy. Back then, the design even looked a little radical compared with the trucky SUVs on the road.
An original RX 300 doesn't look dated or out of place on today's streets. That's because 15 years later most manufacturers are using the RX 300's formula. The Toyota Highlander, Acura MDX, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, and Dodge Journey are all modern examples of crossovers built on front-drive midsize platforms.
1994 Dodge Ram
Truck design doesn't change very often. In the early 1990s Dodge's full-size pickup had been the same for almost two decades, the same was essentially true for Ford and Chevy. For years pickup truck designs were made up largely of right angles. There was a box for the engine, a box for the people, and the box in back to haul stuff. But the 1994 Dodge Ram changed all that.
The Ram was a radical departure for both Dodge and pickups in general. The new Ram brought styling cues from the oldest Dodge Power Wagons of the 1940s as well as those of giant 18-wheelers. The most significant design departure was the front fenders that dramatically sloped away from the grill. The styling gave these trucks a distinctive look, and the Ram jump-started Dodge pickup sales. In addition, that Ram inspired bolder pickup designs from Ford and Chevy. Ford's 1999 Super Duty had a similar front fender and grille design.
Today, nearly 20 years on, both Dodge and Ford are still using the cues from that 1994 Ram on their trucks. Like we said, truck design doesn't change very often.
2004 Mercedes-Benz CLS
Before the 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLS arrived in 2003, there were coupes, sedans, sports cars, and wagons. But Mercedes-Benz created something new. The CLS was billed as a four-door coupe—essentially, a sedan with sexy coupe sheet metal. The roofline looked chopped, creating a sweeping profile.
Today it seems obvious that luxury-car buyers would want a roomy sedan with sleek sheet metal. But the CLS was the first; it was popular, and it influenced other automakers to build their own four-door coupes. VW was the first to follow with the Passat CC. Then came Porsche's Panamera, Audi's A7, Aston Martin's Rapide, and, most recently, BMW's Gran Coupe. Even crossovers have been given the four-door coupe treatment—as evidenced by the BMW X6 and Acura ZDX—to limited success.
2004 Toyota Prius
When the original Toyota Prius arrived in July 2000, probably few people imagined it would become synonymous with the word hybrid (even though the Honda Insight hybrid came before). That's because the first generation was not an inspired design; it looked like a dorky little conveyance.
But in 2003 the all-new second generation Prius landed with a silhouette fresh from the wind tunnel with a coefficient of drag of just .26. That futuristic slippery shape would become the go-to look for high-fuel-economy vehicles. The added bit of good news for consumers is that this hatchback design is also practical for carrying stuff. So it wasn't too difficult for Toyota designers to morph the Prius into the even more practical new Prius V. There's a reason both the second-generation Honda Insight and Chevy's advanced plug-in, the Volt, both look quite a bit like the Toyota Prius.
- Chris Bangle