Feature

Patriotic acts: The most important American cars of the past 25 years

2007 HUMMER H2

2007 HUMMER H2  (GM)

When history takes a look at the brand-new cars (and trucks) of the past 25 years, it won't be kind to many of them. So many nameplates failed to launch, a whole dealership in a parallel universe could be filled with the copies that went quietly to fleet sales or corporate use. That parking lot will not be pretty, filled with Azteks, Breezes, and Montereys.

Some new vehicles rightfully can be called game-changers, whether they were introduced to great acclaim at critical moments in an automaker's history, or sold strongly and kept momentum going. Sometimes, the most important cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans of the past 25 years forced automakers to change the way they did business. And in doing so, they pointed the way to the future.

TheCarConnection's editors have taken a look back at the major new vehicles of the past 25 years, and come up with ten vehicles that changed the course of history--for all autos and for their automakers. By those measures, these are the most important new American cars to be introduced since the 1987 model year:

Dodge Ram

Since the early 1980s, Chrysler's slice of the full-size pickup market was next to nothing, compared to the big chunks claimed by Ford and GM. Chrysler saw the potential for a stylish truck, and knew it needed something distinctive to make a major impact in the segment. In 1994, comeback-minded management that had already put the Viper, the LH sedans, and the Neon into production, picked a risky design for the new Dodge Ram, one that aped the big rigs. It worked, and it reshaped truck sales into a three-way race. Today, Ram is its own brand, running a strong third to the perennial leaders, Ford and GMC/Chevy, and the highly profitable trucks are one reason Chrysler was preserved and not sold off piecemeal during its 2009 bankruptcy.

Ford Contour

The auto industry was going global, as the 20th century called it a wrap. Ford had shared platforms between its various divisions, even selling European cars as Mercurys and underpinning compact Fords with Mazda platforms. The Contour and its Mercury Mystique companion were the next step of globalism: they were Ford's first real shot at linking car development between the independent branches of its far-flung family tree. The Contour's architecture was meant to feed multiple brands: it replaced the compact Tempo in the U.S., the C/D Mondeo in Europe, and even gave Jaguar a new small car to sell around the world. The Mondeo was a resounding success: the other spin-offs were Ford's first fails at using global vehicles in mainstream U.S. segments and in luxury brands, and the whole exercise taught lessons it used on its next global car, the Focus.

Chrysler LH cars

They introduced "cab-forward" into the marketing lingo of car fans everywhere, and restored the automaker's legitimacy in the passenger-car realm. The Chrysler LH cars weren't quite a "last hope," as some critics said, but they were exceedingly clever reworkings of the hand-me-downs Chrysler had salvaged from its failed relationship with France's Renault. From launch in 1993, the LH family sold well, eventually spawned six vehicles--the Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision, Dodge Intrepid, and Chrysler LHS, New Yorker, and 300M--and gave the company time to triage its small and compact cars and pickup trucks. Before long, Chrysler was firing on all cylinders, and was headed for the deal of the century with Germany's Daimler.

HUMMER H2

The whole HUMMER exercise of marketing, research, and development rang the death knell for the old GM. GM had won the rights to the HUMMER brand in 1999, and by 2002 it had an SUV fit to wear the badge. Perfectly executed for its mission, but not its moment in time, the H2 was everything GM didn't need in the 2000s--another gas-guzzler, another brand to sustain. HUMMER was the tipping point that showed everyone--everyone except GM management--that the company couldn't hope to juggle eight brands and fill their showrooms with new products while it struggled with a huge pension problem. The political blowback alone from HUMMER's militaristic image would have worried a smaller company to death, but GM had far bigger problems than Greenpeace and Air America on its corporate platter.

Ford Focus

The Focus has only been around for three generations in the U.S., but each one is noteworthy--and as a whole, the Focus is the best American example of a globally successful nameplate. From 2000-2004, Americans drove a Focus fairly closely related to the European one--a big step toward the stretch goal of integrating European and American product development, to cut costs and improve products at the same time. The second generation, reskinned while Europe's new car moved forward, introduced 35-mpg fuel economy and Ford's Bluetooth-driven SYNC system. Finally, today's third-generation Focus finally brings to fruition Ford's goal of cutting the number of platforms it builds, while making engaging cars to drive. The C-family of cars includes everything from the 2013 Ford Escape to the Volvo C30 to the Mazda3--and it counts among its citizens the 2012 Ford Focus, TheCarConnection's Best Car To Buy 2012.

Cadillac CTS

It's the stake that GM put through the heart of old luxury. From its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, Cadillac spent a dozen or more years wandering in the cultural desert, while the Germans plundered its sales and Lexus racked up customer-service accolades and quality scores by the armload. The first sign of life came in the form of the STS, a front-drive sedan that dared to put a "sport" behind one of its letters. Then, in 2003, the rear-drive CTS launched the brand back into contention, fueled by a Zeppelin-themed ad campaign and driven by Art & Science styling. The watershed change in Cadillac erased the previous, awful attempts at entry-level cars--Catera and Cimarron--and gave GM's "standard of the world" standing again in the luxury realm.

Ford Explorer

A category killer that updated the family station wagon's image, the Explorer fattened Ford with profits throughout the Nineties, from the day it was introduced in 1991. It's fair to say the profits from Explorer alone could have bankrolled Ford's Volvo and Land Rover acquisitions at the end of the decade. The party came to a screeching halt, though, in 2000, when reports of tread separation on Firestone tires on some Ford Explorers led to a huge recall. Some 270 fatalities were linked to the problem, and the massive public-relations debacle at the automaker wasn't completely put to rest for years.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

The Jeep Grand Cherokee could have beaten the Explorer to the punch, as development was largely complete in 1987, when Chrysler was devolving from Renault. The separation delayed the Grand Cherokee's introduction to the 1992 model year, but it didn't put a damper on sales. The Jeep SUV instantly challenged the Explorer for sales supremacy, and went toe to toe for most of the 1990s, cultivating a more rugged reputation that served it well until SUVs began to fall out of favor. Today's Grand Cherokee is the best ever, based on Mercedes' M-Class architecture, and sales are booming once more--helping Jeep sales to pass those of Chrysler's more mainstream Dodge brand.

Chevrolet Volt

The single most important American car of the past 25 years, the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle was conceived before GM went into bankruptcy as a green-car competitor to the Toyota Prius.

It was born into controversy: of "Government Motors," of "killing the electric car," of then-GM vice chairman Bob Lutz calling global warming a "crock of s---." Lutz, who played a role in developing seven or more of the cars on this list, later changed his tune, and said that electrification was inevitable--and had a hand in the Volt's survival through GM's 2009 bankruptcy.

It's been politicized as a "car designed by Congress," and been glowingly described as a Space Shuttle for the U.S. auto industry. The Chevy Volt does have a moonshot mission: to replace the horizon of today's cars with something that reaches further, while staying tethered to today's expectations. It's capable of 40 miles of pure electric driving, but carries enough gas for another 300 miles or more of extended-range power. To some that makes it superior to the electric Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric, while purists disagree.

Has the market spoken? The $42,000 Volt is finally selling in decent volumes, and it took home honors as the 2011 North American Car of the Year. In time, it may be seen as an engineering triumph or as a political novelty, or both--but there's no doubt it's the most historically significant car of the past 25 years.

Honorable Mentions

Saturn SL: It was different. It was faintly awful, in many ways. It lost a ton of money for GM. In the balance, Saturn wasn't a great spend of billions of dollars, but it was an inkling that it was possible to break down GM's notoriously hierarchical culture.

Ford Escape Hybrid: The most efficient truck ever in Ford's lineup, it seeded the ground for EcoBoosts and Hybrids across the blue-oval lineup.

1995-1999 Dodge Neon: A reverse-halo car that earned Chrysler some cred in the Civic segment, long before the Dart hit the bullseye.

1991 Dodge Viper: The car that yanked Chrysler back from the land of the dead, with sheer horsepower.

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