Trend-setting. Far-reaching. Record-setting. In a word: Important. Use whatever descriptors you'd like, what we're looking at today are the most forward-thinking cars of the last decade. Some cars are hugely successful in terms of sales while not being all that interesting or important to the advancement of the automobile. That's fine, we need those kinds of vehicles, and many of us drive them on a daily basis.
There are other cars, though, that are so advanced, radical or just plain impressive that other automakers sit back and take notice. These are the models we'll look back at in another 10 years and remember as vehicular landmarks. To qualify for consideration, a car had to have an introduction between the year 2000 and 2009, or at least get a major redesign during that time period.
Interestingly, this list was extremely difficult to agree upon. Some of our team members pushed very hard for models that ultimately didn't make the list, while others argued vehemently that some of our included vehicles didn't belong. Ultimately, we compiled a diverse list of vehicles for you to consider, and we think it's well worth taking your time to peruse.
2002 BMW 7-Series
Why does the 2002 BMW 7-Series deserve a spot on our list? After all, hasn't it been on the market for ages? Why, yes it has -- but its redesign for the 2002 model year set a styling precedent that still resonates through the market today.
Like it or loathe it, Chris Bangle styling set the tone for countless other vehicles -- including some from rivals like Mercedes-Benz (S-Class) and Jaguar (XF), but also more mainstream vehicles from Ford (2010 Taurus) and Mazda (Mazda6). Suddenly everyone knew exactly what you were talking about when you said Flame Surfacing or Bangle Butt.
Plus, the first application of iDrive is the precursor to all of these other all-in-one GUI controllers, including Audi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar (again, like them or loath them). As such, the 2002 7-Series couldn't be kept off the list.
Honda FCX Clarity
Honda has always been an automaker content to go its own way in the face of conventional wisdom. Are electric cars the answer to our oil consumption problem? Diesel? Biofuels? Not if you ask Honda, which is putting the vast majority of its eggs in the hydrogen basket.
Though Honda actually beat the original Toyota Prius to market slightly here in the States with its original Insight hybrid, Toyota is the clear hybrid leader all over the world. Honda, though, clearly holds the lead in the minds of most motorists in the hydrogen race. The FCX Clarity is the reason.
Nearly every major automaker in the world is working on hydrogen fuel cells, but only one has actually put the vehicles into the hands of paying consumers: Honda. Plus, the FCX Clarity is a clean-sheet design that isn't based on any other vehicle's platform. Finally, it works just like you expect a real car to work. And that's a triumph of engineering that can't be dismissed.
Crossovers may be the single biggest development of the 2000s. Where families once flocked to midsize sedans, wagons, minivans and traditional SUVs, now they are putting car-based utility vehicles in their driveways. But not all crossovers are created equally. Some, like the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, Chrysler Pacifica and Pontiac Aztek, were based on minivan platforms. Others, such as popular models like the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano and Lexus RX, are based on sedan guts.
But there are other options to consider, too. Are you in the market for a rear-wheel drive crossover with aggressive styling and an overtly sporty demeanor? Is the Infiniti FX on your list of contenders? It should be, as this is the vehicle that kicked this particular trend into high gear.
The FX is based on Nissan's ubiquitous FM platform, meaning it's powered by a longitudinally mounted front midship engine that sends power to the rear wheels. That means it has the same underpinnings as the excellent Infiniti G and Nissan 370Z.
The FX also brought with it the notion that so-called utility vehicles didn't really need to be all that useful, just so long as they were highly stylized and sufficiently sporty. Anybody else thinking BMW X6? We are.
Have you noticed the preponderance of dramatically sloping greenhouses on today's dealership lots? Like, for instance, the Volkswagen CC, the Jaguar XF, the Mazda6 and the upcoming new Hyundai Sonata? Assuming you appreciate that styling trend, you can send a thank-you note to Mercedes-Benz, who popularized this kind of shape with the CLS.
You could even make an argument that Porsche and Aston Martin borrowed a page from the CLS for their Panamera and Rapide, respectively. And, if you do make that leap, you could also draw a parallel between the sloped-roof CLS and the new segment of crossovers that adopt a similar design -- the BMW X6 and Acura ZDX being the most notable of that group.
In other words, the CLS started this whole less practical but much-prettier design language... for better or for worse.
Small cars are cheap cars, right? Well, no, not always. You can thank the Mini Cooper for that trend, which was the first modern small premium car in the U.S. that met with success; and still probably the only one thus far, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been hugely influential, from the importation of the Volvo C30 and Audi A3 on to the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta.
Do you think there's a chance we'd be seeing the Fiat 500 without the Mini? Highly unlikely. Even the much-maligned Smart Fortwo's importation to the States probably had at least something to do with the success of the little Cooper. Further, the brand is in ever-expanding mode with convertibles, extended-length Clubmans and oven soft-roaders on the horizon.
None of this is to say that the Mini Cooper is without its fair share of flaws. Its reliability has been suspect and it's just as expensive to get fixed as it is to purchase in the first place. The car's ride isn't very good and the engines have been criticized as being too harsh. Still, the Mini Cooper is one of the most important new model launches in recent memory and it's earned a well-deserved spot on our list.
Ah yes, that brings us to the Porsche Cayenne. Few vehicles in recent memory have been as controversial as this one, save for perhaps the German automaker's own Panamera. But these days there's simply no argument against profits and their ability to float a small automaker like Porsche through turbulent times... and that's exactly what the Cayenne accomplished. So, do you like seeing cars like the 911, Boxster and Cayman -- and yes, even the Panamera, on the market? Well then, thank you, Cayenne.
The Porsche Cayenne is based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Touareg, and both vehicles were designed to be completely off-road capable. To drive that point home, Porsche won the epic Transsyberia rally with specially prepared -- but still completely street legal -- Cayennes and commemorated the victory with a small batch of production versions.
So the Cayenne makes this list both for the foresight of Porsche to put this vehicle on the market in the first place and for the actual vehicle's insane ability to perform amazing feats on the racetrack, on the road and off. Impressive, to say the least. The Cayenne was also Porsche's first V8-powered vehicle (with up to 550 horsepower in the latest Turbo S) since the 928 left the market in 1995. Controversial? Absolutely. Successful? Beyond even Porsche's lofty expectations.
Toyota kicked off quite a market segment when it introduced the United States to its new Scion brand in 2002. It's no secret that Toyota's average customer has rapidly graying hair, and Scion was an attempt to attract a new, younger audience to the Japanese automaker's stable.
Did it work? Well, sort of. The average Scion buyer is quite a bit younger than the typical Toyota buyer, so that's an apparent step in the right direction. But Scion had a much larger impact on the American market as a whole, as the seminal xB kicked off the box-it-came-in styling trend that continued on with the Honda Element, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube.
Yes, the Cube hit the market in Japan before Toyota's bB, the Japanese model that the American xB is based on, but Toyota had the foresight to introduce the shape to (what once was) the World's Largest Automobile Market. Others followed, but not before the original xB cemented itself in the minds of Americans.
In time, we'll all be driving cars powered by electricity. Well, maybe. The debate still rages on whether electric motors will become the predominant propulsion technology in the next 50 years or if biofuels, hydrogen or some other alternative will take over from the classic petroleum-powered internal combustion engine. Anybody up for steam?
Regardless, one thing is for certain. We can thank Tesla Motors -- and its founders, including Martin Eberhard, who is no longer with the company -- and its exciting Roadster for bringing electric vehicles into the minds and households of American families. What's more, Bob Lutz has publicly pointed a finger at the Roadster as one big reason the Chevy Volt is soon to come into existence.
Granted, one $100,000-plus sports car doesn't a new segment create. Still, there's no doubting that the world will one day look back at the Tesla Roadster for reviving the electric car and kicking EV development -- and, of course, lithium ion battery packs -- into a seriously high gear.
2004 Toyota Prius
Is there a single more important vehicle of the last decade than the Toyota Prius? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Some point to the Honda Insight, which hit the market one model year before the Prius, as being more “forward thinking”; Prius fans counter that the Insight was a tiny, two-seater that didn't have nearly as sophisticated a hybrid powertrain as Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive.
Regardless of your stance, remember that we're only talking about the second-generation Prius here, the five-door hatchback model that hit the market in 2004 and is the car you instantly picture when someone says the word “hybrid” With the 2004 Prius, Toyota proved that a hybrid vehicle didn't need to be a penalty box with no room -- a hybrid could be a real car that anyone could drive every day and just happen to get great fuel mileage.
If it weren't for the success that Toyota had with the Prius, what are the chances that we'd have nearly as strong a green movement as we do today? Would there be hybrid versions of just about every single new mainstream model from every single automaker from Suzuki to Ford to Porsche? We'll never know, obviously, because the Prius did in fact prove to be that popular.
Very few cars on this particular list were unanimous choices amongst our bloggers, but none were more divisive than the Volkswagen Phaeton. After all, the car was by all accounts a marketplace failure here in the United States (it has enjoyed some popularity in Europe, especially in VW's home market of Germany). But we're considering the impact the Phaeton had on the marketplace, not necessarily the actual car -- though it was indeed a very, very good car.
Volkswagen -- and particularly its leader, Ferdinand Piech -- took a big gamble by greenlighting the Phaeton for production. The car showed mainstream automakers that they could "reach for the stars" so to speak, by going up against the established luxury players without creating a new brand. The effect the Phaeton had on the Hyundai Genesis sedan is debatable, but do note the fact that the Korean automaker chose to keep the car a Hyundai, just as Volkswagen did with the Phaeton.
Not only that, but Volkswagen took the kitchen-sink approach when it outfitted the Phaeton with every single gadget known to man. That included what's perhaps the most advanced HVAC system in the world, which included a dedicated dehumidifier so that there's no chance of foggy windows. Don't forget the 6.0-liter W12 engine with 444 horsepower and 5.0-liter turbocharged diesel V10 with 308 horsepower and a mind-boggling 553 lb-ft of torque.
What we had in the VW Phaeton was a great car that was too far ahead of its time and that failed due to the badge on its grille -- a problem rectified by Hyundai by simply leaving its stylized H emblem off the Genesis' face. Thanks for the lesson, Volkswagen.