When you think of iconic cars, how many were made in the past quarter-century?
There is a large portion of the gearheaded public whose hearts will always lie with the earliest incarnations of the Ford Mustang, red Corvettes and the Italian supercars whose posters lined the walls of their childhood bedrooms. But any auto enthusiast who had his or her engine revved by The Fast and The Furious films might have a soft spot for street cars 13 years old or younger. The same goes for the collections in video game series including Gran Turismo and Need For Speed, which have done just as much for auto worship in recent years as Steve McQueen films did more than 40 years ago.
The folks at auto website Cars.com realized that the automotive ring of honor could probably use some updating. An iconic car doesn't have to be famous, flashy or even well-liked: It just has to set trends, have a unique sense of style or bring enough muscle to the mix to burn itself into drivers' memories.
The following 10 cars all left their mark on automotive history, for better or worse.
10. Pontiac Aztek (2001-05)
A vehicle best known for being the ugliest car produced within the past decade is an "icon"? Keep in mind, however, that not all icons are remembered for their greatness. The Edsel and the Yugo, for example, are remembered with a shudder by car lovers both for their appearance and for their futility on U.S. car lots.
The funniest part about the Aztek is that just about everything but the car's exterior design and sloping cargo space were brilliant. If you owned one of these monstrosities, you were driving a vehicle with car-based, unibody construction that had all of the space and height of an SUV but few of the gas-guzzling concerns. Although the rolling philistines laughed at you from atop their truck axles, they’d burn through $60 worth of gas, and ultimately trade them in a few years later when gas prices soared.
9. Ford Explorer (1991-94)
Where did the great American station wagons and minivans go? This sport utility vehicle ate them.
While not the first of its kind, the Explorer was the first SUV to capture the American consciousness. Buoyed by relatively cheap gasoline and a recovering U.S. economy, the Explorer saw sales jump from 283,000 in 1991 to nearly 403,000 in 1996.
The Explorer made the U.S. a nation of SUVs but, as mentioned in the Aztek example, fell out of favor quickly once the economy stalled. Sales have since climbed back up to 178,000 in 2013, but the Explorer is now just another crossover vehicle among the sea of similar vehicles, and is an oversized reminder of an indulgent, bloated automotive past.
8. Hummer H2 (2003-09)
The jaunty little hero of the first Gulf War, the Humvee made its way into Arnold Schwarzenegger's garage and into the hearts of every American for whom big just wasn't big enough. It was just luxurious enough for a nation of Paris Hilton/The Hills excess and just popular enough to keep General Motors above water.
Then gas prices hit $4 a gallon and that was the end of that. Sales of the H2 slid from more than 34,000 in 2003 to little more than 6,000 by 2008. General Motors went bankrupt and took a bailout, while the H2 spends much of its time parked in contrarians' driveways.
7. Mini Cooper (2002-06)
Years of driving fuel-efficient but flimsy Geo Metros and Hyundai Excels had given U.S. drivers the impression that small cars were not only underpowered, but cramped and inherently bad. Films such as 2002's Austin Powers: Goldmember however showed that a modernized take on the classic British Mini could not only be fuel-efficient, but fun and fast at the same time.
In the decade after its return to the U.S. market, the Mini sold 2.5 million vehicles and became a cult favorite. Now Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda and several other automakers each have sporty, options-packed subcompacts. For a marque called Mini, it's had a major impact.
How is the U.S. hero of World War II and a car that's been produced for civilian use since the 1940s considered an '80s and '90s icon?
Simple: Sales of what was once known as the Jeep CJ were in the tank until Chrysler came along and bought the brand. Chrysler put the "square headlights" Jeep on the market with all the ground clearance and 4x4 capability that Jeep die-hards loved, but year by year added features such as an extended roll cage, rear seat belts and antilock brakes to make it a safer, more comfortable ride. It's the modernized features lumped into a package that still has the basic look of a World War II Jeep that made the Wrangler so vital to Jeep's continuing legacy.
Dodge Viper RT/10 (1992-95)
The folks at Chrysler weren't thrilled that Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Maserati and their ilk were making U.S. muscle look flabby by comparison.
That's when they got creative. Since Chrysler just happened to own Lamborghini at the time, they asked the company to give their bulky truck engine an aluminum makeover. "Team Viper" did its thing and, by 1991, a Dodge Viper was turning heads as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500.
Despite Chrysler's various ownership issues the Viper has remained. The new Italian owners are so enamored of it that they've kept it going as the SRT Viper. Its current 8.4-liter, V-10 engine cranks out 640 horsepower and tops out at 206 miles per hour.
4. Ford Mustang (2005-09)
After the first-generation Mustangs of the late '60s and early '70s, the car began to lose its way. There was the ugly and underpowered Mustang II that served as a nod to the oil crisis of the late 1970s. While the 5.0-liter '90s upgrades were well received and carried into the next generation's redesign, the Mustang was Vanilla Ice's car. It was cool, but not iconic.
That changed in 2005, when the Mustang was redesigned with a "retro-futurist look" that was basically an update of the first generation's classic aesthetic. Fans responded instantly. Sales jumped from fewer than 130,000 in 2004 to more than 160,000 in 2005. It gave the Mustang line a huge boost and prompted Chevy and Dodge to make similar retro tweaks to their Camaro, Charger and Challenger.
3. Volkswagen New Beetle (1998-2010)
Even icons get tiresome.
The Beetle traces its roots back to World War II, but by the mid-1970s other compact cars began encroaching on the Beetle's turf and Volkswagen was staring down bankruptcy. To right the ship, Volkswagen had to ditch the Beetle in favor of the Golf hatchback.
By the time a concept car surfaced in 1994, engineers had figured out how to put the engine up front, how to give it front wheel drive and a more spacious interior and make it look like an updated version of the original while giving it little tweaks such as a flower vase in the dashboard. Its overwhelming reception began the era of "new futurism" that brought drivers updated versions of beloved cars such as the Mustangs and Camaros mentioned just an entry earlier.
2. Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990-97)
Mini has made strides in the low end and Chrysler's 200 is filling in admirably for the Sebring, but neither of them are the sporty little two-seater that the Miata is.
Oh, and neither provides Porsche Boxster performance at roughly half the price. In fact, this little roadster got a big boost from Consumer Reports a few years back for not only matching the Boxster's performance, but proving a more reliable vehicle with fewer repair bills.
1. Toyota Prius (2004-09)
Simply put, nobody cared about hybrid vehicles until this car came around.
The first-generation Honda Insight got a combined 65 miles per gallon but had weird, covered rear wheels and looked like an escaped concept car. The first-generation Prius, meanwhile, got 48 miles per gallon, but was ugly, cramped and not overly powerful.
Before the second-generation Prius arrived, Toyota had never sold more than 25,000 of it in the U.S. in a single year. At the second generation's peak in 2007, Toyota sold 181,000 Prius models here. Now nearly every major automaker produces a hybrid vehicle, but their cars aren't the ones that boosters and critics alike mention when referring to a hybrid.
[Related video: 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in]
- Ford Mustang