Top 10 Most Iconic Cars of the Last 25 Years

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Aside from Hollywood and the military, there's no industry that creates as many icons as the car business. Whether it's through expressive styling, performance under the hood or some other factor, the auto industry has a knack for taking steel, glass and rubber, and creating cars and trucks that become universally symbolic. It's these iconic cars that offer a window into America's history with the automobile.

More Top 10s

With so many from which to choose, we decided to narrow our focus to cars from the past 25 years. From an initial list of 30 contenders we whittled down to the 10 you see here. Be sure to let us know in the comments section below what cars you think are the most iconic and which ones we missed.

1. Toyota Prius (2004-2009)

No other car is more responsible for popularizing the green-driving movement than the second-generation Toyota Prius hybrid. Embraced by celebrities and everyday drivers alike, the Prius' 46 combined mpg rating made it a great way to lower fuel costs. Just as important, its distinctive, aerodynamic hatchback styling was an ideal way to communicate the driver's eco ideals without saying a word. There are plenty of hybrid competitors today, but the Prius paved the way for them all.

1995Miata

2. Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990-1997)

Ask a car person to name a small, sporty roadster that won't bust your budget and chances are good they'll say the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Whether you're looking for a fun convertible or an entertaining driving experience, the Miata has been a go-to source for years. The fact that it was teamed to one of the most successful TV commercial catchphrases of all time - don't make us write zoom twice -- just solidifies its iconic stature.

NewBeetle10

3. Volkswagen New Beetle (1998-2010)

The original VW Beetle has to be part of the conversation when considering the most iconic cars of all time, and its modern-day successor, the New Beetle, has managed to carve out its own niche as an icon by making retro design cool. It also showed the limitations of the retro styling movement as the car's exterior remained mostly unchanged for its decade-plus run.

2009FordMustang

4. Ford Mustang (2005-2009)

Ford had a big swing and a miss with the retro-themed 2002 Thunderbird, but the automaker was considerably more successful with the fifth-generation Mustang, which brought a number of classic Mustang design cues back to Ford's long-running muscle car. It also opened the door for Chevrolet and Dodge to field retro-inspired competitors.

1992DodgeViper

5. Dodge Viper RT/10 (1992-1995)

From its bold styling to its thumping V-10 engine, the first-generation Viper was both over-the-top and elemental, and few cars since have possessed its single-minded performance focus. Until the Viper, exotic performance cars had mainly hailed from the other side of the Atlantic, but that all changed with the snake's debut. It was such an in-your-face design that Hollywood made it the star of a TV show instead of a human lead. Luckily, the Viper's reign on the street long outlasted the series bearing its name.

1994JeepWrangler

6. Jeep Wrangler (1987-1995)

Jeep is an iconic American brand, and its most iconic model is the Wrangler, which to this day is still reminiscent of the original World War II jeeps. As the Wrangler has grown up, it's become more refined (especially in recent years), but it remains one of the purest expressions of off-road performance you can buy.

2002MiniCooper

7. Mini Cooper (2002-2006)

A modern interpretation of the classic Mini, the Cooper was an entirely new, premium take on the small-car formula. Fun-to-drive, quirky and with seemingly endless ways to personalize it, the Mini Cooper showed that Americans weren't dead to the idea of small cars. It also countered another trend on the rise at the same time that the next car on the list exemplifies.

2003HummerH2

8. Hummer H2 (2003-2009)

Before the Great Recession, bigger was definitely better in the car business, and there weren't many things bigger than the Hummer H2. A military-styled SUV built on GM's full-size truck platform, the H2 was a rolling salute to conspicuous consumption. What it wasn't was efficient, and when gas prices hit the $4 mark, the tough-truck fad faded, and the H2 -- along with the entire Hummer brand -- met its demise.

1994FordExplorer

9. Ford Explorer (1991-1994)

No other vehicle is as responsible for bringing SUVs into the mainstream as the Ford Explorer. It gave families that had been packed into practical but boring minivans, wagons and sedans the rugged looks and go-anywhere capability of a truck, along with room for lots of passengers and cargo. Marketed as a gateway to adventure, car shoppers gobbled it up and the SUV craze was off and running.

2001PontiacAztec

10. Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005)

Few cars have been ridiculed as mercilessly as the Pontiac Aztek. It's been the biggest punch line in the automotive world since its debut at the dawn of the new millennium, but this has also elevated it to iconic status. While it represents so much of what was wrong at GM at the time, its car-based unibody construction foreshadowed the now-popular crossover segment.

Cars.com editors contributed to this story.

By Mike Hanley | February 4, 2014 | Comments (21)
Tags: Top 10s

Comments 

Ken L.

What about the Chrysler minivans? I know they came out in the 80s, but they're still worth mentioning. And the Lexus RX300, the first luxury crossover that started a trend.

Wilson

The original Miata, pictured here, did not coincide with "Zoom Zoom," which didn't debut until 2000. It is (rightly) considered iconic for a host of reasons, but that ad campaign isn't one of them.

Chris King

No Bugatti Veyron?

Justice

You left out the Saturn SL series, great little cars, fanatic following, and the company created an entirely new car buying experience. Also left out, Chrysler minivans, Jeep Cherokee, the original Subaru Brat, and pocket rockets (Volkswagen GTI, Shelby GLHS, Honda CRX Si, etc)

Bill

I would say the Jeep Cherokee/Jeep Grand Cherokee were more influential than the explorer and way more iconic. I agree with all the others, although I think the original hummer is the iconic one even though the whole hummer line was just disastrous garbage..

Mike

The Saturn SL and SL2 were junk! I bought an SL2 new and it was just terribly un-reliable. GM didn't stand behind them either. That was my second and last GM product. They have some nice offerings now, but twice bitten...

Nate

What was the criteria for picking? "Umm, I remember this car" and "Oh! Remember that car?"

Toss in the PT Cruiser and you have the most bogus car list.

carma

Toyota Highlander/Lexus Rx were the first car based crossovers copied by everyone including the german luxury brands and they should be on the list.

Jean-Luc

You left out the AMC Eagle. Truly the first SUV, came out August 1979.

I agree with almost all of this list. It's a tough job to narrow so many important vehicles down to 10, and car.com did a good job in their explantations.

The only one I may have replaced was the Jeep Wrangler (which has been using the same off-road premise since World War II) either the 1998 Lexus RX or 1997 Mercedes M-Class (first luxury crossovers) or the 1996 Toyota RAV4 (first car-based compact crossover)

carma

Yank aztek and put in lexus rx/highlander. Yank hummer and put in ford f150, which presided over the conversion of pickup from workhorse to luxury ride over the past 25 years. Yank new beetle and put in porsche boxter/cayman, the best driving affordable porsches ever.

Zzoott Zzootticus

C'mon, there's a million different cars we could all put on this list - that's the point, and that's what gets people talking and posting. I would add the PT Cruiser - certainly got the retro thing moving along in a big way and boosted Chrysler at a key time. What about the Tesla - either the Roadster or the S? Veyron - that truly started the ubercar challenge that's seeing 250 mph in a road car as less and less a milestone. Tata Nano? Maybe, for its own reasons. VW Phaeton as an example of what not to build, or at least export? Audi TT? Smart? Leaf? Endless, folks, endless.

carma

Ryan,
I agree on rav4, which created the compact crossover segment. I forgot how long it's been around!

carma

Zzoot,
Youre right, tesla should be included.

J

And what about the WRX?

Bernie

How can anyone be so illiterate to say the Aztek foreshadowed anything.
The Rav4, Honda CRV, and Subaru Forester all came out before the Aztek.

Dave & Karen Stefonek

We had a great blue '94 Explorer and put over 250K on it. Gave it to a charity and the person who bought it really like it too and thought the 250 was a misprint until we met and talked to him. The only weak part was the undersized breaks. Had to replace the a few times.

Robert Brown

I'm glad you chose the Explorer Sport in the picture; a next generation Bronco. Truly iconic, and Ford called them all trucks. God bless em.

Ade

No Tesla? Do people really talk about the nonsense Aztec anymore?

Troy S.

What? No Porsche 911?

TP

I believe that whoever did this did a good job but one I would definitely put in there is the 80's and 90's civics when foreign cars started to really take off

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