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Iconic cars that got things rolling

Consumer Reports magazine: April 2013

In the last few decades, some models have sped in and out of our memories, while others helped steer the direction of auto design for years. Here are 10 that helped to shape the models we’re driving now.

The third-generation 1984 Civic arguably set the stage for the modern compact car. It grew in size and refinement, transcending the image of a cheap "econobox" and becoming a reasonable choice for families on a budget. With what we called "outstanding" handling, it posted a record speed in our accident-avoidance test.

The 1984 four-door Cherokee got the SUV bandwagon rolling. It was the first compact SUV that combined four-wheel drive and rugged looks with the practicality of a station wagon. The Cherokee was a huge hit with families and blazed the path for the Ford Explorer and dozens more to follow.

A modern-day icon, the 3 Series has been the sport-sedan benchmark for decades. Its inviting blend of handling, performance, and practicality has influenced the design of many of its competitors, as well as many of today’s mainstream passenger sedans. The second-generation 3 Series, introduced in 1983, was the first with four doors.

When Chrysler’s first minivans rolled into showrooms in 1983, they radically changed how families got around and sent other automakers scrambling to design their own versions. The result was a confusing mishmash of styles until most competitors decided it was better to simply emulate Chrysler’s original concept.

With the 1996 RAV4, Toyota broke tradition by designing an SUV on a carlike unibody platform instead of the trucklike body-on-frame design commonly used. With a fully independent suspension, it provided more agile handling and a better ride, and ushered in the era of the more civilized SUV.

Can the Japanese really build a luxury car? That was the question in 1989 when Toyota launched the LS400. The first model, which was powerful, comfortable, and superbly quiet, answered doubters with an exclamation point and upended the luxury-car market. It also helped raise the bar for reliability in the category.

The gas/electric Prius made “hybrid” a household word. Introduced for 2000, it wasn’t the first hybrid in the United States, but its popularity set the stage for a revolution that has caused every major automaker to play catch-up. There are now more than 30 hybrid models available, and more on the way.

With its controversial iDrive electronic control system, the 2002 7 Series set in motion one of today’s hottest trends: the move to full-featured, if complicated, infotainment systems. For better or worse, touch screens, joystick-like controllers, and extensive menu systems have become commonplace on even inexpensive models.

Over the last decade, pickup trucks have become an increasingly popular choice for families. And the coming of the F-150 crew-cab model for 2001 helped pave the way. With four doors, two full rows of seats, and room for five people, it brought a design that had worked well for the commercial market and welcomed families to full-size light trucks.

OK, the 1996 Outback was largely a marketing move. But by raising the ride height of the all-wheel-drive Legacy wagon and adding “rugged” SUV-like body cladding, it introduced the notion of an “SUV wagon” to the lexicon. That led to a wave of wagon-like, all-wheel-drive crossovers that continues.

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