Years from now, historians may rank the past decade as one of the auto industry’s most important.
The 2010s began with the United States crawling out of the worst recession since 1982. SUV sales fizzled as cash-starved consumers opted for cheap cars. Uber and Spotify didn’t exist. Tesla’s lone product, a Lotus-based sports car, was best known for a "Top Gear" episode showing it running out of juice.
But as the economy righted itself, the 21st century’s trends went into hyperdrive: sport-ute mania, digitization, horsepower, regulation, electrification.
These 10 vehicles defined the decade.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Nothing outsold the Ford F-150 in the last decade. Just like the previous three decades. But the pickup’s significance grew beyond sales numbers. With the enormous technological challenges facing automakers, F-150’s outsize profits became key to underwriting Ford Motor Co.’s investment in expensive, unproven autonomous and electric vehicles. The pickup itself became a change agent as turbocharged V-6s displaced V-8s as volume sellers, and lightweight aluminum replaced steel construction.
The “Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot” (as the Oatmeal.com website called it) announced Silicon Valley as a mobility leader. Self-driving cars suddenly seemed within reach. Without a steering wheel, the Livonia-built Google car felt like riding in a four-wheel subway car. The pioneering robot plied city streets in San Francisco and Austin for a time before giving way to more practical people-movers like Waymo (Google) minivans, Uber Volvos and Cruise Automation Chevy Bolts.
Before the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt EV, there was the 2011 plug-in Volt. It was General Motors Co.'s answer to the Toyota Prius hybrid. With battery range of 50 miles, the Volt could cover most daily commutes — yet it eased range anxiety with a small gas engine that could kick in to get you home. Consumers didn't understand it, and the Volt didn’t survive the decade. The 2012 Cadillac ELR, kind of a Volt-in-a-tux, should have held more promise — but GM priced it at a nose-bleed $80,000. If Cadillac had introduced it for $35,000 (beating the Model 3 to market by five years), history might have been different.
Tesla Model 3
Elon Musk introduced the $35,000 Model 3 at a 2016 news conference. An affordable alternative to Tesla's $80,000 Model S sedan that had wowed luxury-buyers with its Ludicrous electric acceleration, the Model 3 was an instant sensation. Tesla Inc. was deluged by 400,000 pre-orders. In its first full year on the market in 2018, the made-in-USA sedan was the luxury market’s best-selling chariot, beating even the Lexus RX350 SUV. More than an EV, the Model 3 wowed buyers with such technology as a giant tablet screen, Autopilot driving and over-the-air software updates. Manufacturing consultant Sandy Munro declared its electronics “generations beyond what any other manufacturer is doing,” and the industry mobilized to catch up.
No one could catch the RAV4 compact SUV, which became the best-selling non-pickup in America — dethroning perennial-champ Toyota Camry. In so doing, the RAV4 became the first SUV to reign at No. 1. Not only did the RAV4 displace Camry, it also felled cousin Prius as the best-selling hybrid in America as battery technology moved to mainstream vehicles.
If the RAV4 was the undisputed best-seller, then Jeep was the king of utes. The World War II-inspired Wrangler had long headlined the off-road niche brand, but all that changed with the Fiat-Chrysler merger of 2009. Call it Fiat-Jeep. Visionary execs Sergio Marchionne and Mike Manley saw the Jeep's potential as a global brand on a planet embracing all things SUV. More capable, comfortable and high-tech, the 2018 Wrangler doubled its sales. Jeep sales overall? Tripled since 2010 to nearly a million units a year.
Dodge Charger Hellcat
While the Detroit Three ditched poor-selling car lines, one sedan defied gravity. The Charger proved the power of bold marketing. President Tim Kuniskis and his merry band of elves took an aging chassis, injected it with unheard-of horsepower and called it the Hellcat (along with sister coupe Challenger). The Hellcat showcased how modern electronics have benefited not just infotainment systems, but the ability of family sedans to safely put 707 horses to the road.
Fifty years after the legendary Ford GT40 won LeMans, the GT celebrated by winning the storied 24-hour race again. The 2016 GT is a state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber weapon. It demonstrated the important role motor racing plays in the industry. Nearly every major brand now races, from the exotic Cadillac IMSA prototype to the common Mazda Miata. Popular culture embraced Ford's achievement, too, as “Ford v Ferrari” — a movie chronicling the 1966 GT40's success — became a Hollywood blockbuster.
The Mustang was birthed alongside the GT40 in the 1960s, becoming a symbol of Dearborn’s commitment to affordable performance. Ford observed its 50th anniversary in 2015 by taking the pony to new heights. With its daring redesign, the 'Stang went global with sales in 146 countries. The muscle car took back its sales crown from the Chevy Camaro, then looked toward the next half-century by expanding as a sub-brand with its first electric SUV — the Mustang Mach-E.
Diesel-engine tech, which began the 2010s as the globe’s answer to fuel efficiency, became a pariah. Cars like the Golf were found in 2015 to have systems that cheated on emissions tests in order to circumvent regulations. The so-call Dieselgate scandal inspired a historic transformation of the world’s largest automaker from a diesel-focused company to an electric-vehicle evangelist. Governments forced VW to build a national battery supercharger network as penance for its sins — and to power politicians’ pet drivetrain, electric motors. As the 2020s dawn, however, buyers of trucks and commercial vehicles still prefer the advantages of diesel range and infrastructure. Will EVs conquer the passenger car frontier? The next decade will tell the tale.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.