Most Iconic Cars of the 2000’s
The first decade of the millennium isn’t all that many years back. However, the oldest cars from that decade are now several old, and the newest have had their warranties expire. This distance gives us a chance to judge these vehicles for their cultural and historical significance, and not just as potential new drivers. For better or worse, here are the iconic cars of the aughts. The decade with a stupid nickname.
The Veyron, in all of its various special trim levels, is not a pretty car Tat’s surprising, considering the price, pedigree, and performance. A million and a half bucks will buy you a mid-mounted quad turbocharged W12 engine capable of punting you into next week. It’s been on the cover of every single car magazine at least once, it’s the certified fastest car on Earth (well now second to the Hennessey Venom GT), and super exclusive with only a few hundred made. VW lost money on every one built, but they also pushed the limits of design and engineering. While the bulbous body and urinal grille aren’t the most attractive design around, it doesn’t have to be. The Veyron has nothing left to prove.
Chevy Corvette Z06
After the portly C4, the fifth generation Corvette was a breath of fresh air in 1997, but even then it was too soft to compete with high-end Euro sports cars. Chevy got serious in 2001 with the Z06 package. Instead of a stupidly heavy and expensive reworking of the entire car, like the previous ZR-1, the Z06 added 35 horsepower, dropped a few pounds, and increased handling and grip. It was like all the easy aftermarket bolt-ons were done for you, with a warranty, for just five grand. Street cred made it sell very well, and the 2001 Z06 led to Corvette being a solid competitor today.
After the dreadful first generation Prius, Toyota relaunched the hybrid in an all-new second generation in 2004. Hurricane Katrina hit the next year, driving gas prices to an absurd $3.00/gallon, and making Americans finally think about fuel economy. The second gen Prius was ugly, slow, had a weird interior and odd ergonomics, handled like a wheelchair on flat tires, and was rather expensive for the value. Still, Toyota sold every single one they could build due to its unbelievable 50 MPG rating, even making the Prius the best-selling car in California (of course) for a while. That distinctive hatchback is an acquired taste, but there was no missing these hybrids.
The 19 foot long Excursion was even larger than it’s already big Ford brother, the F-150-based Expedition. The massive SUV launched in 1999 when oil was $16 a barrel and people dumped gasoline on the ground because they could. The Excursion was essentially a 1 ton Super Duty truck in SUV clothes. The 6.8 liter V10 or diesel V8, Dana 50 rear, and GVWR of 9,200 lb were looked at as sensible commuters for soccer moms. Ten mpg was the norm, it was super hard to park outside Old Navy, and the biggest Ford soldiered on through 2005. While it was never a huge seller, it was stereotyped and stigmatized until the end, and helped fuel the culture war between environmentalists and SUV enthusiasts.
Bentley Continental GT
Some purists wondered if VW acquiring Bentley would ruin the staid British marque. I think we can look back now and say they had nothing to worry about. The 2003 Continental GT was Bentley’s first mass produced car, and it drastically raised the bar in terms of brand recognition and for sales figures. Bentley went from super posh obscurity to the hottest brand for rap videos, MTV Cribs, and any movie where you wanted to imply power and wealth without using a brash Lambo. At two and a half tons of fun, a twin turbo W12 was needed to get it moving. And move it did, up to nearly 200 mph. The GT proved demand for “entry level” and speedy Bentleys. Let’s hope we see more.
The American compact car scene pre-Focus consisted of Chevy Cavaliers, Chrysler K-cars, and the Ford Escort. Ugh. The Focus hit the market in 2000, and proved that cheap doesn’t have to be a rolling penalty box, particularly in the SVT variants. The light and stiff chassis, and competent suspension make everyday driving fun. Communicative steering, great brakes, and a fun design inside and out at a low price made this a best seller and the birth of the decent economy car. The Chevy Sonic owes its existence to the first gen Focus. Top Gear said its “proof a hatch can be not just a commodity, but something you enjoy and desire.”
The Chrysler 300C was a massive hit for Chrysler, big cars, and American design influence. Big American sedans hadn’t been interesting in… well, decades. When the 300C hit the streets in 2004, it looked like nothing else and was an affordable head turner. Even Top Gear’s Clarkson seemed to like it more or less, and that’s high praise. It won pretty much every car of the year award, and sold well into the six figures each year until the recession. The C model brought Hemi performance and proved that people will pay for a big luxury ride if the styling is there.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
Take a successful car, and make a people mover style minivan out of it. Makes sense. Then add lots of 1930’s styling cues. Makes less sense. Still, the PT Cruiser brought sales to Chrysler dealerships when they badly needed them, and brought retro design to the buying public’s perception. While the Neon underpinnings weren’t well suited to minivan use, the PT won awards and could soon be found everywhere. Convertibles and turbo models hit the streets, the aftermarket built performance and appearance upgrades, and the odd little cars showed up to Cars & Coffee gatherings as a club. While the party ended in 2010, the PT Cruiser was synonymous with this decade.
“Hey guys, let’s name this truck after a natural disaster that kills people,” said some genius at GM. The rest of this trucks design process was equally well thought out. Take a 2002 model Silverado and remove some of the utility, yet sell it for more money. Oddly enough, it worked for a while, and the ’02 model GMT800 trucks sold well enough to justify a second generation with GMT900 in 2007. While it offered the V8 capability of its cheaper Silverado brother, the Avalanche was technically not a pickup truck, as the cab and box were one piece of sheet metal, like the Honda Ridgeline. Without the ability to work and abuse the bed, this was just a glorified sedan. A factory bro truck. Sales never recovered after the recession, and the oddity left the market after 2013.
While it was badge engineered in the ‘90s, the Escalade became its own SUV in 2002. The second generation sported an unheard of (for an SUV) 345 hp V8 and quickly became the hip-hop video ride of choice. While not the fastest or most luxurious SUV built, it made an impression and kept Cady in the black.
Speaking of more, while those are the top ten ‘00s automotive icons, here are a few others that defined the decade.
This little coupe defined all of Hyundai’s sport market before the Genesis Coupe showed up. The first generation was entirely forgettable, but the 2003+ second gen looked considerably better. Choice of engines were a 137 hp four banger, or a 172 hp V6 driving the front wheels. It died in 2008, and while no one cared, it does remind us of the mid-00s.
Running advertising during the massively popular first season of Survivor, the Pontiac Aztek seemed to offer the SUV stereotype of outdoor recreation, in a questionably styled minivan. While its car-like ride and interesting options received praise, the public just couldn’t get past its looks, and Pontiac met only 1/3 of expected sales. Considered one of the biggest automotive bombs since Edsel, the Aztek helped drive nails in Pontiac’s coffin.
The CTS was Cadillac’s first real attempt to compete with Euro sport sedans. It marked a return to rear-wheel drive for Caddy, and the first manual transmission in 15 years. While the looks were controversial, the handling and price were right, making this a hot seller for Cadillac. It also entered pop culture in 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, where it was the only good thing about the movie. The following year Cadillac introduced the CTS-V featuring a Corvette sourced engine boasting 400 ponies.
With production spanning 20 years now, this sports car defies the decades. While first produced in 1996, it became famous in the ‘00s due to the massive increase in popularity of console racing games and internet forum bench racing. While the little lightweight beauty is more about finesse than brawn, the chassis has been used for everything from the Tesla Roadster to the psychotic Hennessey Venom GT.
This is what happens when boys don’t grow up. The Atom is a simplistic stripped down racer, with only the required parts needed to make it effectively complete a road course lap. HP varied from 205 to 500, while weight was consistently under 1,500 lbs, making this one of the scariest vehicles ever made. While many of us have never seen one, we all want one, making the Atom renowned among car enthusiasts.
After the Firebird died in 2002, Pontiac was left without anything to back up its claimed performance image. Enter the Holden Monaro, rebadged as a GTO. The V8 only, rear-wheel drive coupe performed well enough, and while a much better all-around car than the f-body, it wasn’t up to meeting the unbelievable hype and dealership markups. While it was only produced for three years, it has its rabid fans.
Just when you think Ford is fumbling around releasing mediocre cars (Contour, Thunderbird, 500, etc), they go and rebirth an automotive icon. The GT was a 100th anniversary limited edition supercar built to resemble the famous Ford GT40 that dominated Le Mans. The mid-mounted 550 hp 5.8 liter V8 propels the GT to low 11s in the quarter mile, making it one of the quickest cars of the era. These Ford GT supercars aged well and are one of the few cars models of the decade to have appreciated in value.
Known in most markets as the Daewoo Kalos, the Aveo shows us why GM deserved to go bankrupt. Somehow worse than an older Geo Metro, the Aveo was just as slow and loud, with none of the mpg. 1.4 and 1.8 liter four cylinder engines were under-powered and boring, and struggled to achieve 34 mpg. Still, they sold a ton every month to buyers desperate to own a new car, which enabled Chevy to bring out the surprisingly competent second generation, called the Sonic.
Nissan had the brilliant idea to bring back their legendary Z car. The VQ series engine and FM chassis were borrowed from other Nissan vehicles, but tweaked for performance. With 300 horsepower, a 6-speed manual, in an affordable rear-wheel drive coupe weighing 3,300 lbs, the 350Z was an LT1 Camaro without the mullet. It looked decent and was priced right, and Nissan was rewarded with high sales.
Possibly the coolest American car ever, the Saleen S7 is a legend among gearheads and gamers, but unknown outside those rather small circles. The S7 is what happens when a Mustang tuning shop gets bored of tuning Mustangs and decides to build their own supercar. Dripping with carbon fiber and an over the top futuristic design, the twin turbo Ford V8 blasted out 750 hp, making this one of the very best race cars for the street.
Porsche Carrera GT
A Porsche that was just supposed to be a concept in 2000 received huge public attention, and goaded the Germans into building a supercar. Good thing too, as the Carrera GT is one of the greats. A 5.7 liter V10 drives 612 hp to the rear wheels, and the slick roadster weighs just over 3,000 lbs, making it brutally fast. Design wasn’t compromised either, as it looks undeniably classy Porsche.
The last gasp of the fun Honda car company hit the streets in 1999 to massive critical acclaim. Honda had been busy putting fun and sport into their economical cars, winning over drivers and making huge sales numbers. The S2000 roadster defined Honda of the time, with a perfect 50:50 weight distribution, balanced handling with sensitive steering, a massively high revving four cylinder, and an impressive 240 hp. While it wrapped up in 2009, it was Honda’s last cool car and defined sports cars for the decade.
This tiny city car from Daimler hit the market just as Americans were getting used to high gas prices. The tall but short (98 inches long) Smart only seats two people, but promised super affordable motoring. Sales languished though, as the cars were expensive after being shipped from France, and mpg was comparable to the much better Honda Civic. Still, it featured prominently in The da Vinci Code, before mostly disappearing.
Mercedes SLR McLaren
This mishmash of automotive design should have been stunning. Instead, the SLR looks… different. Critics dogged it on debut in 2003 for the phallus-like shape, and the heavy weight for a supercar, at 3,900 lbs. Still, with two top tier brands working on it, the performance was there. A supercharged 5.4 liter V8 made 617 hp in standard trim, and 640 hp in the 722 Edition. Infamous owners like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton may have tarnished the luster a bit, but with the exclusivity of just 1,400 in the US, this may be the best GT you can buy.
Those are the top 10 most iconic cars from the first decade of the new millennium (see, doesn’t “aughts” sound better now?). If you would like to nominate another vehicle that became part of our daily landscape in this decade, just let us know in the comments below.