Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Top 25 Cars That Made An Impact

Cars and trucks are indelible parts of our lives. And picking only 25 that made names for themselves — good or bad — during the last 25 years is no snap. The USA TODAY auto team wrangled mightily over which belonged on the list. But finally, a rough consensus emerged.

If your choices differ — and we're betting they just might — let us know by commenting below.

1 1992 Toyota Camry

Not sexy, but a game-changer. Japan Inc.’s first truly American sedan. The late Robert McCurry, then head of Toyota’s U.S. sales, demanded Japan give him a bigger, smoother car. It helped propel Camry to best-selling car and pushed Detroit close to irrelevant in the car market

2 1991 Ford Explorer

Genteel by the standards of the day, smoother and more powerful than Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu Trooper, Explorer started the SUV craze. Despite a breathtaking sales plunge, it’s still among the top-selling SUVs.

3 2001 Toyota Prius

Too weird, critics said, when it hit U.S. shores in summer 2000. Who’ll gamble on an odd-looking sedan with a preposterous gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain? Just 400,000 U.S. buyers so far, who love the 40-plus mpg.

4 1984 Chrysler minivans

Revolutionary. Family-size Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth vans that fit the garage and were easy to park. Unstoppable until SUVs came along.

5 1986 Hyundai Excel

Hah, hah, hah, hah. A little South Korean car cheap enough at $4,995 to put on your credit card. Solid foundation, apparently. More models were added, sales boomed, quality improved. Hyundai’s now No. 7 in sales, behind Detroit 3, Japan Big 3.

6 1986 Ford Taurus

Crisp handling for the time, wholly out of synch with the barges Detroit had been selling. A wild success until the late ‘90s when Honda Accord and Toyota Camry turned Taurus into a rental car.

7 1990 Lexus LS 400

A Japanese luxury sedan as good as Mercedes-Benz? Absurd. Not.

Gary C. Knapp. AP

8 1990 Mazda Miata

The affordable, two-seat sports car lives. Better than your best euphoric recall of those Triumphs and MGs you couldn’t quite acquire during your misspent youth, or wished you hadn’t if you did.

9 1986 Acura Legend

The first separate luxury brand from a Japanese maker prices its flagship Legend sedan at — gasp — $20,000. Pioneers the way for Lexus and Infiniti and helps establish the notion that the Japanese are capable of true luxury cars.

10 1996 Toyota RAV4

SUV body on a Corolla compact car chassis. Voila, the first crossover SUV.

11 1994 Ford Mustang

The Mustang that saved Mustang. Ford said kill it, but engineers crafted a cheap redo to keep it alive until the beloved, nostalgic ‘05 overhaul.

12 1991 Saturn SL

A little plastic car made in Spring Hill, Tenn., sold by dealers who posted the price and stuck to it. The customer-friendly showrooms, no-haggle pricing and flexible union rules are still around. Saturn Aura won this year’s North American Car of the Year Award and Saturn sent the trophy around to owners to enjoy.

13 1997 Ford F-150

First stylish modern pickup, first with a standard three-door cab. Created a blinding flash of the obvious for the rest: What if we design these things for people, not just cargo?

14 2003 Hummer H2

The SUV equivalent of WWII’s "a bridge too far?" No more than a war-like body on a modified Chevrolet Suburban chassis, but it instantly became a lightning rod for environmentalists claiming the SUV craze was killing the Earth.

15 2002 Mini Cooper

Proof you can sell a small car for a big price if you have the look and the legacy.

16 1998 Lincoln Navigator

Detroit’s first luxury SUV, beating rival Cadillac Escalade by 16 months. Profits hit an astonishing $15,000 each until rivals poured in, gas prices went north and sales went south.

17 1986 Yugo

Hit the U.S. for $3,990, a grand less than the Hyundai Excel. There were fights for places in line to buy such an affordable car, and fights to get rid of it when its flaws became evident. The butt of late-night comedy show jokes. Probably ruined any chance the Yugoslavs had of selling cars in the U.S.

18 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser

Instantly created a new segment and a mad rush to pay far more than sticker price for the retro-styled four-door hatchback officially classed as an SUV. Even the government paid sticker-plus to crash-test a couple.

19 2001 Pontiac AzteK

It was supposed to look hip, but never rose above ugly. Said GM CEO Rick Wagoner: “You know you’re going to get a love-hate reaction, but you kind of hope there’s somebody on the love side.”

20 2003 Cadillac CTS

The car that saved Cadillac, allowing Detroit to claim at least one credible luxury brand. Taut, modern styling. Rockin’ Led Zeppelin music in zippy TV ads. Whoa! Suddenly, Caddy is cool. Rival Lincoln still is searching.

21 1986 Suzuki Samarai

The tiny Samurai SUV introduced mini-SUVs to the U.S. and became synonymous with “rollover” when Consumer Reports branded an ’88 model tipsy. Suzuki sued and won a partial victory in 2004. But by then the Samurai was barely a memory and mini-SUVs were tainted.

22 GM Impact

An experimental electric car — no gasoline, no pollution, no buyers. GM did put a few into the hands of consumers, starting in 1994. But GM eventually impounded the cars after deciding they caught fire too easily while recharging. Or, some environmentalists say, as a move to kill electric cars.

23 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle

A safer, better equipped, more powerful version of the little car that could. VW’s grudging acknowledgement that the U.S. market was important enough for a car of its own. You couldn’t see it without smiling.

24 2005 Scion xB

The box. Stodgy Toyota creates an edgy brand for the next great bubble of buyers, Gen Y. Toyota panicked when rival Honda launched the likewise boxy Element first, also aimed at young buyers. But Scion seems closer to the target: Average xB buyer is 37. Honda says the average Element buyer is 44.

25 2002 BMW 7-series

Gave us two things we didn’t need: Ungainly styling in back, complicated iDrive mega-control system inside. Unfortunately, BMW being BMW, other brands felt a need to follow.