Over the last 15 years, we have watched all kinds of cars go into production, but let’s be real, some are more important than others. Our definition of “important” here is as simple as we can make it: significant on a grand scale in terms of impact on the auto industry, on car design, on culture as a whole.
As a reminder, this isn’t a collection of the best cars, or the prettiest ones. Nor is it just a collection of the fastest, slowest, or most extreme. And it’s not in order.
Before the GT-R came out, there was a vague notion that sports cars were all about carefree driving, pointless joy, intangible feelings of night runs into the country for no good reason. What was a sports car wasn’t quantifiable.
The GT-R crushed that idea with speed. Raw speed. Speed blaring down a race track, down a drag strip, beating supercars that cost two, four, ten times as much as it did, with just a twin-turbo V6 under the tall hood. Other carmakers tried in vain to defeat it (Porsche the most thin-skinned of all) but everyone has come to just recreate it. Every supercar manufacturer out is stripping manuals from their cars, adding all-wheel drive, and making their cars as quick and as easy-to-drive as possible. As GT-R-like as possible.
2005 Ford Mustang
There had been retro cars before, but the 2005 Mustang is the one that made the whole thing feel somehow validated. The PT Cruiser was a desperate ploy for relevancy. The New Beetle was a flash in the pan. The Thunderbird was quickly forgotten. But when Ford showed a 1960s-lookalike new Mustang in 2005, right in the middle of the Bush Years, it felt like an affirmation. Yeah! New tech! Old style! Mission accomplished! Was it all hollow? Maybe, but it did give the world a more lasting successor and a new asthetic direction.
The 2005 Mustang walked so that the Challenger could run. No car better illustrates that everything the car industry tells you is a lie. The Challenger is a cobbled-together mishmosh of tech and platforms that go back to Mercedes in the 1990s. The engines are big and suck gas. There are no facelifts or updates of any meaningful measure. There is no “new and improved” here. There is no eco anything. There is only thick gravy cascading down on a plate of turkey. The whole world gobbled it up.
There are better sports cars, but when all is said and done, the impact of the 86 triumvirate is going to be clear. These cars coming out in 2012 was like a wave coming back, for small but trusty sport coupes from Japan that we all thought died out after the Bubble Era burst. We had all seen the Integra die, the Eclipse die, we had barely even grown up with attainable rear-wheel-drive cars, and then these things appeared. We will be seeing them at amateur drift events, terrorising side streets, everywhere, for decades to come.
Tesla Model S
It’s hard to really assess the importance of the Model S for two reasons. The first is that Tesla itself is a startup, and that means that it is forced, by definition, to run on hype. The model is not to sell enough cars to make a profit. The model is to get enough investment to keep the production lines rolling. Tesla boss/hype man Elon Musk has to keep promising more, embellishing more, every day, or else Tesla becomes just another car company and the whole thing withers away.
The second is that the Model S isn’t the best-selling EV the world has ever seen. There are more Nissan Leafs out there. I don’t even have a count for how many oddball battery-electric economy cars are running around in the Chinese market at the moment.
But with all that being said, there’s no great way to even understate the importance of the Model S. Before it, there were cars like the Zap Zebra and assorted beefed-up golf carts. After it, there are electric cars from Porsche, Volkswagen, Ford, desirable cars, not just Mitsubishi MiEV competitors or compliance cars meant to placate California bureaucrats and few others.
Hell, I don’t think we’d even have the performance hybrid cars without the Model S. Certainly the Honda Insight wasn’t convincing Porsche to make a 918, or Acura to make an NSX.
I still remember seeing the CLS when it was new on Top Gear. I mean, I remember getting some torrent link off of Final Gear and seeing the CLS on Top Gear. It was immediately clear that it was both ugly and stupid. It was a sedan, a practical car, but melted. The taillights were too big. The headlights looked like they’d been near a fire. It was not just weird, it seemed antithetical to what Mercedes even was. What it was supposed to be. What the three-pointed star meant.
But once you saw them on the road, something changed. CLSes dared you to hate them, daring you to criticise the way the roof chopped out space for anyone sitting in the back seats, or the way the styling didn’t quite look like anything was supposed to look like. It was a Pontiac Grand Prix, only so expensive that you questioned your own judgment about it.
No surprise then that the car world is now full of CLSes, from the BMW X6 to even the new Mustang Mach E, all chop-roof, intentionally impractical vehicles. The point is to show off what you don’t need, what you can do without.
That which the CLS did, the X6 did more brazenly. By the mid-2000s, sedans were teetering out of the realm of being the vehicle of choice for a practical-minded driver. Everyone was switching to SUVs as gas got cheap. But even in the 2000s, even in the Escalade and Hummer days, there was still a sense that you got an SUV for at least some kind of practical concern. If you didn’t need the off-road capability, at least you needed the space.
The X6 exposed that lie. We were in it for the look, and the X6 made that more obvious than ever. Fuck the practicality. Looks alone. There hasn’t been a crossover, SUV, anything, that hasn’t tipped its hat to the X6.
Even if you go to the heart of Tokyo and look at the most utilitarian kei car hatchback, you’ll see that it has some crease, some crinkle, some illusion that it’s not the box-on-wheels that it is. This sense of embarrassment about a car being a functional object on wheels, a tool for transportation, stems from the X6. Oh, you bought the X5? What exactly do you need to be hauling around back there anyway?
This is not a ranked list, which is good, because that means I don’t have to spend hours arguing with my coworkers why I think the Prius is the most important, most influential car of the past decade and a half. There is no Eco Car movement without the Prius. There is no Subaru. There is no Model S. There are no hybrid hypercars. There is no sense that cars can still be cultural phenomena.
If you do take a moment to look longer at the car, though, what the Prius did wasn’t act as a stepping stone to full electric cars, as people framed it after the second-generation debuted in 2004. It stretched out the time that we all kept lying to ourselves that cars could somehow work in a climate change future.
That if they were just eco enough—a hybrid with 40 MPG now, with 50 MPG later, a full EV some time after that—then somehow disaster might be averted. The whole idea of championing rising Prius sales, of building more cars and stuffing more of our roads, as somehow helping anything is a lie. But the Prius was a convenient lie, that we could buy our own indulgences out of it. There’s no lie that the car industry has loved more.
2011 Ford Raptor
In 2010, the Ford Raptor tip-toed into the world as a suspension kit paired with the blue oval’s ubiquitous the Triton V8 engine. By 2016, the truck had been successful enough to warrant a rebirth with a twin-turbo V6.
But 2011 was the year the Raptor, snagging a 6.2-litre V8 from Ford’s Super Duty line, really made a name for itself. It truly became a standalone model that was not only a halo vehicle for Ford, it also had no small part in moving the desert off-road scene into the mainstream.
The fifth-generation Ford Explorer was a generally unremarkable family SUV, but it will forever be burned into the minds of many as the vehicle that moved police motor pools from sedans over to sport utilities.
This vehicle effectively replaced the Crown Vic as America’s default cop car, and while there are still Dodge Chargers and Chevy Caprices running around with red and blue lights, the police Explorer–known officially as the Pursuit Utility–has become the go-to for skull-cracking since it came out in 2012.
The Frontier was redesigned for 2005 and has been developmentally static since. While most products are tweaked and invested in and innovated on to keep the interest of mercurial consumers, Nissan is the only corporation that’s been brave enough to adopt the survival strategy of the humble sloth: Expend absolute minimal energy and pray for survival.
And, hey, it actually worked. Today’s Frontier is alive and selling, essentially indistinguishable from itself for the last 15 years. Not too many products, let alone automobiles, can claim that.