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The 15 Most Important Cars of the Decade

© Motor Trend Staff

As we say goodbye to 2019, we also bid farewell to the 2010s. There's no doubt that the last 10 years have produced some truly influential cars, from electric vehicles with practical driving range to SUVs that helped shape the modern automotive landscape. But which cars from the outgoing decade are the most significant?

Tesla Model S

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It would be entirely inconsistent if we did not recognize the Tesla Model S' contribution to the motoring world; after all, we did name it the Ultimate Car of the Year during our 70th Annual MotorTrend retrospective. Seriously, can you think of a company and car that has had more of an impact around the world, in the last 10 years, than Tesla and its Model S?

Consider the doors it opened and the markets it created, with its range, performance, and game-changing supercharger network. The impact of that vehicle still resonates when you look at more recent competitors like the Porsche Taycan. -Ed Loh

Volvo XC90

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This has undeniably been the decade of the crossover. New entries have flooded the market in all sizes and price ranges, but Volvo's three-row XC90—our 2016 SUV of the Year—was among the most forward-looking of them all. Its Thomas Ingenlath design marked the stolid brand's pivot away from sensible-n-safe to safe-sexy. It marked the debut of the highly flexible Scalable Product Architecture platform that has underpinned most new Volvos since, and its daring Drive-E 2.0-liter-four-cylinder-only powertrain strategy has proven to be a savvy one, offering turbocharging (T5), turbo + supercharging (T6), and turbo + supercharging + plug-in-hybrid (T8) options that deliver increasing performance and even economy/ecology at the top of the price ladder. And the T8 model's jumbo battery has allowed the XC90 to serve as an autonomy development platform both inside Volvo and with third party developers. This alone should ensure this mid-teens crossover's place in the history books well into the next decade. -Frank Markus

2011 Hyundai Sonata

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Korean automakers landed on everyone's radar because of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata. When it debuted for the 2011 model year, it shocked the automotive industry with its daring, coupe-like exterior styling dubbed Fluidic Sculpture, which has since inspired Hyundai vehicles that followed it. That long list includes the latest Sonata with its cool LED daytime running lights that integrate into the chrome accent strips on the hood.

The 2011 Sonata and its sibling, the Kia Optima, were also the first to embrace the downsizing trend with a lineup of two four-cylinder engines and a hybrid variant. It ditched the V-6 in favor of a turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4, making the Sonata one of the first to go all in on forced induction. Hybrid variants also bucked the trends of the day, offering more power and a conventional six-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT.

Together with Hyundai's long warranties and build quality improvements, the Hyundai Sonata was the risk that led to plenty of rewards. Hyundai Motor Group and its three marques are now respected as formidable competitors, and they've even hired a dream team of designers and engineers to keep their momentum going and expand into the luxury and performance segments with compelling entries. -Stefan Ogbac

Tesla Model 3

© Motor Trend Staff

You can argue that the Tesla Model S could be the best of the decade—it was the first electric vehicle to win MotorTrend's Car of the Year award, and recently we named it Ultimate Car of the Year during a special comparison for our 70th Anniversary. But the Tesla Model 3 has given Tesla the ability to grow into a mainstream brand, and it continues to be the electric model to beat in terms of range and price.

Even if you take away its electric appeal, the Model 3 is the best sport sedan you can buy today, and we proved that in a comparison earlier this year, where it beat the Genesis G70 (our 2019 COTY) and the new BMW 3 Series. The Model 3 also took Tesla to a different level—it's estimated to sell more units this year than the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Audi A4 combined. And the fact that almost all automakers are going electric with the Model 3 as their target is impressive. -Miguel Cortina

Porsche 911

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Familiarity breeds contempt. It's become fashionable in some quarters to decry the 911 as a car trapped by its history. Others denounce it for changing too much; for getting bigger, more comfortable, the clattery yowl of the iconic flat-six now suffering the indignity of being muffled by turbochargers—even in cars with no Turbo badging.

The 911 started the decade as the 997. Then came the 991.1 and the 991.2. Now we have the 992. This cadence is remarkable for a car that went through past decades with only minor tweaks. The 992 is as beautifully rendered a 911 as has ever been built. The exterior design, its surfacing and detailing and proportion, is simply sublime. The powertrains—we have only experienced the 992 in 379-hp Carrera and 443-hp Carrera S trim so far—are muscular and flexible and responsive.

There's more precision in the chassis than ever. The steering is delicate and precise, the transmission smooth and alert, and there's a lovely nuanced feel through the brake pedal. It flows down the road like quicksilver. Immortal, eternal, and still bloody brilliant, the Porsche 911 is a car that has stayed true to itself for the whole decade. -Angus MacKenzie

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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"This automobile is a game-changer," we said about the original Chevrolet Volt when it became our 2011 Car of the Year. Years before Tesla made anything the average car buyer could afford, Chevrolet picked up where the second-generation Prius left off. Even if the Volt suffered laughably poor resale value as Chevrolet reduced the price more than once, the car helped advance the "could we live with a plug-in or EV?" conversation for an increasing number of people who may have been put off by the low overall range of full EVs of the early 2010s. The Volt may be gone, but its influence lives on in the engineering work that went into the excellent Bolt EV, our 2017 Car of the Year and another important car on this list. -Zach Gale

Volkswagen's TDI Diesel Lineup

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While I'll grant you that a case can easily be made for the Tesla Model S being the most significant car of the decade, I'd argue there's another automaker's entire lineup that was equally important—Volkswagen's 2010-2015 TDI diesel lineup. I'm sure you're all well-versed in VW's "clean" diesel emissions cheating scheme, but for those who aren't, the short of it is Volkswagen programed its diesel engines to activate its emission controls while in a laboratory environment, but not in the real world.

This may have improved acceleration and fuel economy for its diesel owners, but it poured, according to a study performed by "Environmental Research Letters," an excess of 10 million kilograms of NOx into our atmosphere and had a societal impact of $450 million over the vehicles' sales period. That's just in the U.S. alone, where VW's TDI sales paled in comparison to its European diesel footprint. The impact of Volkswagen's diesel emissions scandal has been far-reaching.

Further research showed that other automakers' diesel engines produced more emissions in the real world than they did in laboratories. As a result, federal oversight of the few new diesel engines on the market has increased significantly, delaying their release. "Dieselgate" can also take credit for killing the myth of "clean diesel." Since the scandal, many automakers have abandoned light-duty diesel engines. Dieselgate is also directly responsible for VW's sudden shift to electric cars—as seen in its new ID lineup—and the new nationwide Electrify America charging network, which VW is paying for with $2 billion in fines the feds leveled against it.

Not only has VW's diesel emissions scandal had a large impact on the automotive world in the 2010s, but it'll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. -Christian Seabaugh

The Google Car

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Not one was ever sold. None ever left the confines of Google's Silicon Valley campus so far as I know. Only a handful of people have ever even gotten a ride. Never mind all that. When, in five or 10 or 20 years, autonomous cars become a reality and you sleep through every drive without even a steering wheel to lean on, it will have all started with the Google Car. Forget what it looks like or what it means for conventional, manually driven vehicles. Autonomous cars will change the way the world moves, and this car will have started the movement. -Scott Evans

Tesla Roadster

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Tesla, obviously. That's the unavoidable, instinct-answer to our question at hand; forgive my lack of creativity. Seven years ago, the wavy Model S ruptured the premium luxury car market; three years ago, the Model 3 was a lesser technological aftershock, but more damaging to the norms by landing closer to the middle of the market's bullseye.

However, the stage for both was set by a now rarely seen two-seater that many probably confuse for an old Lotus Elise. Remember when electric cars were golf carts? Tesla's original Roadster (introduced in 2008 but trading through 2012) had some wondering if a "1" had been left off its 3.7-second 0-60 time when we published a December 2009 test of a 2010 example. While it also handled and stopped better than a golf cart (0.98 lateral g; 113 feet from 60 mph) it was that fiendish acceleration that had car journalists pausing over their keyboards for more hyperbolic adjectives ("black-out," "face-warping," "retina-flattening").

The Roadster was pre-over-the-air updates and Autopilot; Supercharger network and simulated whoopy-cushion sound effects. But with its amazing 244-mile range and what happened after you stamped down your right foot, it not only got the cognoscenti's attention, but started to flip the perception of the EV from silly to sexy. It also supplied Elon Musk's tiny crew some critical cash, and Musk himself with early practice in tight-roping the financial near-death moments that he's become a Zen master of surviving. I can't count the number of people since 2010 who have confidently told me "Tesla can't last." Now, the question is whether the industry can survive the changes Tesla has wrought. All of which started with a Roadster that looked like a Lotus. -Kim Reynolds

2011 Nissan Leaf

© Motor Trend Staff

We all love Tesla, but it was the Nissan Leaf that paved the way for the mass-produced electric car. It arrived in the U.S. market in 2010, and proved to the public that an electric car can be comfortable and relatively affordable. It would go on to become a best-seller in the worldwide EV market, and it has improved greatly over time. While the 2011 model offered only 73 miles of range, the current Leaf can travel up to 226 miles on a single charge. -Kelly Lin

Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

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Did the Challenger Hellcat do much to advance the state of the art? Not really. But it was the first shot fired in a new horsepower war where 700 ponies is the minimum cost of entry. Dodge threw down the gauntlet when it announced that the 2015 Challenger SRT Hellcat produced 707 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque from its supercharged 6.2-liter V-8.

Its output crushed the 662 hp of the previous muscle car benchmark, the S197 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, and ignited an arms race that recently gave us other instant classics like the 755-hp C7 Corvette ZR1 and the 760-hp 2020 Shelby GT500. Plus, just think about how old the Challenger is. On sale since 2008, the Challenger was already ancient by the time the Hellcat came out—and yet it was one of the most talked about cars that year.

Dodge didn't squander the buzz it created, either. It carried the momentum from the Challenger Hellcat into the equally hyped, limited-production, drag-strip-ready Challenger SRT Demon, which made up to 840 hp on race gas. And for those that missed out on the Demon, there's now the 797-hp Hellcat Redeye. The Hellcat not only kept the Challenger relevant far beyond a normal car's life cycle, but it made the twenty-teens a great decade for horsepower junkies. -Alex Nishimoto

2018 Lincoln Navigator

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For years, the Navigator was the only decent vehicle in Lincoln's lineup. But Ford used the 2018 Navigator as the tent pole to reinvent itself as an icon of American luxury. The fourth-generation Navigator is Lincoln's highly profitable flagship and set a tone for the vehicles that have followed to equal critical acclaim. Navigator also showed Ford's ability to differentiate its higher-end luxury models from their Ford counterparts with appreciably nicer interiors, elegant styling, and more performance with unique powertrains. -Alisa Priddle

Chevrolet Bolt

© Motor Trend Staff

The Tesla Model S may have redefined the public's perception of what an electric car should be. But the Chevrolet Bolt—our 2017 Car of the Year—changed the public's perception about what an affordable electric car could be. Sure, there was the Nissan Leaf in that budget-EV space, but the original incarnation was saddled with the same old range anxiety.

Enter the Bolt, years ahead of the Tesla Model 3, at a price point the average commuter could afford, with a legitimate 230 miles of range, and zippy performance and handling that would be laudable in a gasoline-powered Euro econo-hatchback. Sadly, GM sells 25 times as many Silverado pickups as Bolts, so there wasn't the corporate push to make the Bolt a household name. That said, if you are a tree-hugger on a budget, there are screaming deals to be found on the OG EV. -Mark Rechtin

Cadillac CTS-V Wagon W/Manual

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I will never forget walking into a Cadillac party during the 2010 New York auto show and seeing Cadillac's 556-horsepower station wagon in the metal for the first time. How could it be real? There was Bob Lutz—in my mind an unlit Cohiba clenched in his teeth and calling me "Pinhead!"—and the lust-worthy, sales-proof Caddy dream machine made a bit of sense. The car guys had taken over the asylum. How else to explain such a unicorn of a unicorn?

Did I mention the CTS-V Wagon could be had with a six-speed manual transmission? Story time: MotorTrend was lent a long-term manual V Wagon for a year and I was the lucky son of a female dog assigned its stewardship (I still owe you one, Angus!). What no one knew then, though I've since been told, is that a certain employee at Cadillac had baked two long-term press cars into the CTS-V Wagon's business plan. This person argued/bet that if MT and our chief rival were each given a long-termer, doing so would triple sales. Now, sales targets were low—500 units being the initial estimate—but since Cadillac was already making the Sport Wagon and the CTS-V, blending the two together didn't cost much and they didn't have to sell many to justify the car. Guess what? Cadillac sold over 2,000 CTS-V Wagons.

And over 500 of them were row-your-owns. The bet paid off, accounting for over 10 percent of all second-gen CTS-V sales. Do I mind being used like that? Not an iota! Sad news for Cadillac is that it's been downhill since then. Not just in terms of sales but in terms of cars that car people care about. Yes, the current CTS-V is outstanding. Thing is, with just one body style sales are nowhere near the second-gen car—about 6,000 total have left dealer lots. For many enthusiasts the V Wagon is the last Cadillac they loved. For a few, they're paying more for a used one than the car cost when new. Name one other Cadillac made this past decade you can say that about. I'll wait. -Jonny Lieberman

Ford Mustang Mach-E

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There are lots of good reasons to drive an electric car. Looking cool and having fun aren't usually among them. Tesla cracked that code long ago, infusing panache and performance in its cars from the first Model S. I'd been waiting since then for another brand to do the same. Just in time to make the decade, Ford did with the Mustang Mach-E.

Arguments about what the Mach-E is not are more ephemeral than what it is. Whatever you think about its namesake worthiness, it represents a moment for car enthusiasts, electric vehicles, and the industry. It's the first non-Tesla EV desirable for reasons beyond fossil fuel divestment—namely, looking cool and having fun.

It proves that mass-market EVs can have those traits, and that optimizing for every inch of range need not be their objective. And it shows how revolution can spark from within a legacy, no matter how storied or stodgy. The Ford Mustang Mach-E is important because it's not only a culmination of the past decade, but a harbinger of what's to come from the next. Our future will be as silent as it will be fun. -Alex Leanse


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Autos News: The 15 Most Important Cars of the Decade
The 15 Most Important Cars of the Decade
Autos News
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