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10 Most Significant Cars of 2010

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author photo by Autotrader December 2010

Significance: the quality of having notable worth or influence.

A fond farewell to you, 2010. We will probably remember you as a transitional year, when subtle but fundamental shifts took place in the car world.

This was the year when the first mainstream all-electric vehicle went on sale. When more small cars were being considered by American buyers. When automotive offerings from Korea leaped to the top of people’s “most wanted” list.

The past 12 months have seen important steps on the economic road to recovery, and have also moved things in a direction that could lead to uncharted territory.

We tapped our pool of seasoned editorial talent, and also took a look at the stories that most interested AutoTrader’s shoppers. What we found were ten vehicles that made significant contributions last year, setting new expectations for car buyers as we travel into the next decade.

1. 2011 Nissan Leaf

As the world’s first mass-produced, 100% battery-powered, 100-mile-range vehicle, the Leaf signifies the start of what appears to be incredible changes taking place in the automotive industry. With no gas, no oil and no emissions, running costs are a fraction of what it takes to drive gas-powered cars. But the entry price is also significant – just over $30,000 offset by substantial State and Federal rebates. Of course the highest cost is psychological – measured by the amount of tolerance and acceptance its potential owners have for the dreaded range anxiety. And though future battery technology is still unknown, for the year 2010, the Leaf led the way to complete fuel freedom and lower environmental impact.

2. 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Whether it’s considered an EV or a hybrid, GM’s achievement of engineering excellence brought an alternative drive source vehicle to market that can compete on everyday terms with internal combustion engine powered cars. With a 35-mile range on battery power alone, and the ability to drive as a 37 mpg gas car after that, the Volt is electricity without anxiety. With a retail price of over $40,000 before government rebates, the Volt certainly isn’t for everyone. But in GM’s eyes, and ours, the Volt is the beginning of a long line of vehicles that will make it easy to go green.

3. 2011 Hyundai Sonata

The Sonata has not redefined the midsize sedan segment, but it has bested the competition by having the right engine (2.0T), styling, options, horsepower, mileage, unbeatable warranty and price. This is a significant trick for a car company that was once the punchline of late-night TV comedians. Sonata is now just behind Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in U.S. sales, recently bumping the Nissan Altima out of the third spot. And, as the first family sedan to forsake a V6 in exchange for the efficiency of a turbo-four, along with the hybrid version, the Hyundai Sonata has a decidedly green conscious as well.

4. 2011 Ford Explorer

Ford’s Explorer takes the well-recognized nameplate into completely new territory. The Explorer ditches a truck-based platform for the advantages of a car-based crossover layout. Both comfort and luxury have been stepped up simultaneously with relatively big leaps in fuel economy – attaining something that only a few years ago would have been deemed unnecessary and out-of-reach for a full-size SUV. Many believe the Ford Explorer will be offered only with a 290 hp 3.5-liter V6 and an approximated 237 hp 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine.

5. 2011 Ford Mustang

The latest iterations of Mustangs prove that red-white-and blue American muscle cars are far from a thing of the past. In either V6 or V8 guise, this is the best handling, best performing Mustang ever. The new 5.0-liter V8 features technology one might expect from pricier imports. It also puts out 412 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque with a highway fuel efficiency rating of 26 mpg. Even better is the new 3.7-liter V6 that delivers 305 hp with a 31 mpg highway mileage rating. Compare these modern engineering accomplishments to the much revered 1970 Boss 302 Mustang that was rated at 290 hp and handled more like a bucking bronco and you see why we think the latest Mustang belongs on this year’s ‘most significant’ list.  

6. 2011 Kia Optima
No one expected one of the most non-descript midsize sedans on the market to blossom overnight into a beauty both inside and out. Significantly for Kia, this is the first Optima many buyers will choose because it’s the car they really want, not because it’s merely the one they can afford. Its look and stance communicate power and luxury more in line with Acura or Lexus than Honda or Toyota. All this style comes with the same advantages in engine technology as its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata. But price is the big kicker here – the well-equipped Optima EX starts under $23,000 including leather seats, which means loading it up with navigation, panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled seats and Infinity audio system costs just over $27,000. In perceived value for the money, Optima is optimal.

7. 2011 Ford Fiesta

The new Fiesta changes all previous perceptions of Ford’s past small car sins. It is a truly credible effort on Ford’s part at providing a domestic compact with high levels of content at an entry-level price point. The Fiesta was also the first car to be successfully marketed through social media. The Fiesta Movement made small, cheap cars “cool” to a culture obsessed with giant SUVs, and Ford packed it with more features than you can find on some luxury cars today.

8. 2011 Porsche Cayenne

This is the car that saved the Porsche brand in 2003. At that point, the Boxster and the 911 were the only cars in the lineup, and sales were few. Since then, the Cayenne has become the only true competitor for high-line SUVs like Range Rover, and the 2011 overhaul gave Porsche an additional boost of efficiency, technology and curb appeal. It’s already the top-seller in the brand again (the Panamera took over for two years), and the introduction of the Cayenne S Hybrid is one of the first steps in showing that performance and gas guzzling need not be synonymous.

9. 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Jeep’s Grand Cherokee is grander and more relevant. Since its debut almost twenty years ago, Jeep has done a credible job of providing on-road comfort with genuine off-road credibility. This new platform, influenced by Mercedes-Benz during the last days of the DaimlerChrysler collaboration, adds on-road composure to the mix. The Grand Cherokee is clear evidence that Chrysler is not a dying American brand. Rugged, handsome, luxurious and well-built, the Grand Cherokee offers a comfortable ride and off-road ability that otherwise can only be found in cars twice its price.

10. 2011 Jaguar XJ

For an esteemed British brand that suffered some downgrades through Ford ownership and is now undergoing a transition to India’s Tata, the XJ gives Jaguar fans hope for the future. It’s a true luxury sedan with great styling, interior, road presence and powertrains. Finally, a Jaguar that competes on equal terms with BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

The automotive industry may not have bounced back entirely from its economic woes, but 2010 still offered a lot of excitement. Given the current pace of change, we can’t wait to see what 2011 has to offer.

– The Editorial Staff of AutoTrader.com

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10 Most Significant Cars of 2010 - Autotrader