The Five Most Important Vehicles of the Past 25 Years

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Over past quarter century, what we drive and will drive in the future has been defined by these groundbreaking models.

1997 Honda CR-V.

First Place – Honda CR-V / Toyota RAV4 (Tie)

The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 arrived together in America about 1997 creating what has now become America’s largest vehicle segment, but both models had been bopping around in Japan for a few years prior. When the cute ‘utes first appeared they were bare-bones compared to the ones we now drive. Both had the spare tire hanging off the rear tailgate as if we might someday actually be off-road in one. Those kidders! The 2017 CR-V is now Honda’s most important family vehicle and recently became Honda’s top-selling model in the U.S. market. Honda has sold over 4 million CR-Vs in the U.S. over five generations, and 2 million of those have been built in America. Honda’s CR-V is now duking it out with Nissan’s Rogue for the top-selling non-truck model in the U.S. market.

The RAV4 actually beat the CR-V to the U.S. market by about a year but seemed to have a personality crisis. Over the years, the Toyota RAV4 has been offered as a four-door, a coupe, and a soft-top. After it settled in, the RAV4 became one of America’s best-selling vehicles. The 2017 RAV4 Hybrid is now the top-selling AWD green vehicle in the country. Only Toyota’s sales dominance in cars has kept the RAV4 from being Toyota’s top-selling automobile.

Second Place – Ford F-150

Fire off all the comments you like saying that Ford’s F-150 should be in first place, but give us a chance to explain. First of all, this model started well before fifty years ago. Second, we don’t really know its sales, since the 250, 350 and larger Ford trucks are lumped in with its numbers each month. They are impressive nonetheless.

The reason we place the Ford pickup on this list, as opposed to say the Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram, is innovation. No automaker has had more guts when it comes to messing with a winner than Ford has shown with its F-150. Ford first moved away from V8 engines to smaller displacement turbocharged engines, catching the whole industry by surprise. Its EcoBoost engines are now the preferred choice of customers and they just keep getting better.

Second, Ford’s jump to aluminum bodies was an industry-changer. Of course, every automaker had been inching towards aluminum, and specialty sports cars had been made from non-ferrous materials for decades. Yet, it was Ford that went all-in on its top production model and they have reaped the benefits and withstood the criticism. Love them or hate them, Ford trucks define the second-largest automotive segment.  More importantly, Ford’s planners and engineers continue to push forward the development of America’s top-selling nameplate when sitting on success would have been easy to do. Even Ford’s Raptor performance truck displays the company’s signature aluminum construction and turbocharged engines.

Third Place – Chrysler Minivan

The Chrysler minivan is the most uniquely original American vehicle design of the past 50 years. Like the RAV4 and CR-V, the Chrysler minivan started its segment. When it appeared in 1984 Chrysler needed a win and the minivan delivered. Toyota’s Previa minivan didn’t appear for six more years and the Honda Odyssey for ten. By the time its competitors caught up, Chrysler was already marketing its second-generation of the minivan. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Volkswagen didn’t even bother to copy the Chrysler minivan. Instead, it private labeled it as the Routan and sold it for five years.

Over its many years of production, the Chrysler minivans have had their ups and downs. Today, the new Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid is arguably the world’s most advanced seven-passenger vehicle. It has an 84 MPGe rating and generates just 106 grams of CO2 per mile. A Toyota Prius hybrid generates 171 g/m by comparison. The Pacifica Plug-in also has a 570-mile range when fully fueled and can be driven 33 miles on electricity alone.

Fourth Place – Toyota Prius

The interesting part about this most important vehicle of the modern era is that GM and other American automakers had the technology and passed on it. Toyota alone, and then Honda, developed the modern hybrid only after a consortium that included GM gave it a pass. No other automaker has had as much success with green vehicles as Toyota and it is primarily due to the Prius.

The Prius has saved more fuel than any other model. It is the top-selling green car ever and is still the top-selling green car in each month of 2017. The Prius is also the only green car to have ever broken into the mainstream in terms of overall sales. During the peak of its popularity, it was the most popular car sold in many markets including California and Japan.

Over the past couple of years, other choices have tempted green car buyers, but the Prius has adapted. Its first-generation Prius Plug-in trim sold respectably during the rise of the modern EV and in the previous month of April 2017, the Prius Prime Plug-in was the top-selling EV in America.

Fifth Place – Tesla Model S

There has never been an electric vehicle that sold at the same rate as other vehicles in its segment until the Tesla Model S. Elon Musk’s vision is easy to poke fun at, but he is still the guy in the room who owns a spaceship. Tesla has changed its mission over the years and now has its sights set on high-volume, mainstream segments. Whether Tesla will succeed or not is debatable, but what is not is that Tesla upset the apple cart with the Model S and Tesla is the only new automaker based in America to have emerged in the modern age.

The Model S has plateaued in sales in the U.S. market, and Tesla Model X has not performed well in terms of sales and quality, but Tesla has reset the bar on performance almost as an aside from its main mission. The Model S has defied critics and cemented its position as a groundbreaking model for a company that has found a new focus.