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11 cars and trucks that changed their segments

2001 Ford F-150 SuperCab
2001 Ford F-150 SuperCab - POSTMEDIA

MATTHEW GUY

The term “game-changer” gets thrown around far too often in the automotive industry, so that’s the last you’ll find it in this story. Still, we need to settle on some sort of word for this list of vehicles that upended their segments or, in a couple of cases, changed the conversation entirely.

“Agents of change”? Nah. Sounds like a nerdy superhero group. “Instigators”? Nope. That’s a hockey penalty.

We’re fond of the word “rabble-rouser” but recognize this is the 2020s, not the 1920s. How about — “disruptors?” Yeah. That’s it.

Each of the vehicles on this list either disrupted an individual segment of the car industry or was instrumental in introducing some sort of wholesale change to the entire industry. We know you won’t agree with all our picks. Be sure to sound off in the comments and on social media about the choices you like, the ones you don’t, and why your author should be pelted with stale eclairs for forgetting [insert vehicle name here].

Just don’t call them game-changers, mmm ... OK?

2001 Ford F-150 SuperCab

And here come the stale eclairs. We’re opening this list with the “jellybean” F-150 for a very good reason: the next time you’re at Costco, take a look around the parking lot. Most, if not all, the full-sized pickup trucks in attendance will have four full doors. The reason for this is as clear as the TruckNutzTM appended to the back of a brodozer — it makes the truck more suitable for use as a family vehicle.

The ’01 F-150 was the first truck in its size segment to offer a quartet of conventionally-hinged full-size doors from the factory. All other manufacturers quickly followed suit and have been counting the profits ever since.

1999 Lexus RX

1999 Lexus RX.
1999 Lexus RX.

 

When the right-sized Lexus RX appeared on the scene near the turn of the millennium, it gave the well-heeled another option on which to splash their cash. Built on a unibody chassis, a fairly novel idea at the time, the OG RX was a crossover between a luxury sedan and an SUV.

That’s right — if you’re looking for something on which to append blame for the proliferation of the word “crossover,” the original RX is a good target. Its stylish looks and opulent interior advertised you were keeping up with the Joneses if one of these was parked in your driveway.

1990 Ford Explorer

1990 Ford Explorer.
1990 Ford Explorer.

 

While the made-in-Japan RX can be considered the forebear of the luxury-grade crossover, the Explorer is largely held responsible for the proliferation of SUVs as a family conveyance. When the model went on sale in 1990, dealers reported many buyers were trading cars on the things. Customers liked the seating position, interior space and four-wheel drive. This is a trend that continues today.

2012 Tesla Model S

2012 Tesla Model S.
2012 Tesla Model S.

 

While the base sticker of a Model S far outstrips the average price of a new car, there is no doubt this big sedan from the House of Elon has made a huge impact on the automotive world. In one fell swoop, it changed the way many people perceived electric vehicles, making Tesla a desirable brand up there with the likes of Versace. It doesn’t hurt that the Model S was one of the first electric cars to be sold in volume that was capable of useful real-world range.

1990 Mazda MX-5

1990 Mazda MX-5 (née Miata).
1990 Mazda MX-5 (née Miata).

 

Showing up at a time when most of the world had given the convertible segment up for dead, the MX-5 (née Miata) showed us all that there is plenty of room at the table for a fun and compact two-seat roadster.

Ostensibly a toy, the little Mazda has nevertheless wormed its way into the hearts of many, with more than a few pressed into daily duty. Demand initially outstripped production and the description that it had the charm of an old British roadster with the benefit of reliability was (and remains) very apropos.

If you grew up in Canada in the ‘80s, there is an excellent chance you either had a Pony or knew someone who did. Initial projections estimated Canucks would buy about 5,000 copies of the little rear-drive hatchback.

However, the Korean company far underestimated our love for a good deal, and 25,123 went on to be sold in that first year. This provided the company with a foothold into the Great White North, one in which they continue to find success today.

1984 Hyundai Pony

1984 Hyundai Pony.
1984 Hyundai Pony.

 

If you grew up in Canada in the ’80s, there is an excellent chance you either had a Pony or knew someone who did. Initial projections estimated Canucks would buy about 5,000 copies of the little rear-drive hatchback.

However, the Korean company far underestimated our love for a good deal, and 25,123 went on to be sold in that first year. This provided the company with a foothold into the Great White North, one in which they continue to find success today.

2001 Toyota Prius

2001 Toyota Prius.
2001 Toyota Prius.

 

When some people interchange a company’s brand or model name with the actual word for an object – think Xerox, Zamboni or Kleenex – you know they’ve made a serious impact on the genre.

The Prius, for better or worse, quickly became a symbol for all things green, with owners using them to advertise their planet-loving attitude. Developing and refining its drivetrain also gave Toyota a head start in the hybrid car sweepstakes, with that type of powertrain now available on popular models like the Corolla and RAV4.

1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager

1984 Dodge Caravan.
1984 Dodge Caravan.

 

Sure, the modern minivan is about as cool as chlamydia. Wind the clocks back 35 years and you’ll find a much different picture. This car-based duo gave suburban families more interior space than could be found in most station wagons while still maintaining friendly-to-park exterior dimensions.

The large passenger-side sliding door was a boon to those loading up a passel of kids in a crowded parking lot. Its front-wheel-drive and reasonable fuel economy were selling points of the day as well.

1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI

1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI.

 

The original hot hatch didn’t make it to these shores (the GTI showed up a few years later on this side of the pond) but it set the table for North American gearheads hungry for a bit of fun and performance in the most Malaise-y of eras. Unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1975, the GTI offered over a hundred horsepower in a lightweight and attractively creased package.

Production was not expected to exceed 5,000 copies, a number which was the lower limit required to qualify for entry into the Group One Production Touring Car class. Total numbers of the Mk1 GTI eventually reached nearly half a million units.

1997 GM EV1

1997 GM EV1
1997 GM EV1

 

If the Model S is the car that brought electric vehicles into limelight, the EV1 was the one to drag the genre into the public eye — before GM tried to take them all back and crush ‘em. As the first mass-produced and purposed-designed EV, it was leased to customers in sunny climes and initially provided a range of about 90 km, which increased in later years to nearly 170 km.

To put that in comparison, the Ford Focus Electric, which only went out of production a couple of years ago, could barely match that number twenty years after the EV1. Despite GM’s best efforts to crush them all upon lease return, a few found their way into the hands of museums and educational institutes.

1990 Lexus LS 400

To understand the importance of the LS 400, one needs to frame the luxury car scene of the early ‘90s. German sedans were expensive tanks whose dealers – some of them, at least – were earning reputations for treating customers as inconveniences. The LS 400 showed up as a well-screwed-together machine sold by dealers who prided themselves on customer service. It didn’t hurt that its asking price was several thousand dollars below that of similarly sized BMWs or Mercedes, either.

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