10 Most Iconic Cars of the Past 25 Years

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When you think of iconic cars, how many were made in the past quarter-century?

There is a large portion of the gearheaded public whose hearts will always lie with the original Volkswagen Beetle, the earliest incarnations of the Ford Mustang, rusty relics of Ford and Chevy pickups, red Corvettes and the Italian supercars whose posters lined the walls of their childhood bedrooms. Those vehicles, and countless others with a model year tacked to the front of their make and model, are The Icons -- kept forever on the auto world's altar and shielded eternally from the blasphemous suggestions of the generations that followed.

That, of course, is absolute nonsense. Any auto enthusiast who had his or her engine revved by The Fast and The Furious films might have a soft spot for street cars 13 years old or younger. Yes, there are plenty of '70s Chevelles, Challengers and Camaros in those films -- and the late '90s Ford GT40 in the fifth installment is pretty sweet -- but some of the sweetest rides in that franchise are relatively new. The same goes for the collections in video game series including Gran Turismo and Need For Speed, which have done just as much for auto worship in recent years as Steve McQueen films did more than 40 years ago.

The folks at auto website Cars.com realized that the automotive ring of honor could probably use some updating. An iconic car doesn't have to be famous, flashy or even well-liked: It just has to set trends, have a unique sense of style or bring enough muscle to the mix to burn itself into drivers' memories.

"Aside from Hollywood, there's no industry that creates as many icons as the car business," said Patrick Olsen, Cars.com's editor-in-chief, said in a press release. "With so many to choose from, we decided to narrow our focus to cars from the past 25 years, and we looked at which cars truly made a statement."

The following 10 cars all left their mark on automotive history, for better or worse. They may not all be posterworthy, but they've all been really difficult to forget:

10. Pontiac Aztek (2001-05)

This is a joke, right?

A vehicle best known for being the ugliest car produced within the past decade that wasn't involved in some horrible, jaws-of-life-necessitating wreck is an "icon" Is that what iconography has come to these days?

Well, ask Vince Gilligan. The creator of the recently ended AMC series Breaking Bad made it the vehicle that main character Walter White was cursed to own after his business partners bought him out of a multibillion-dollar enterprise and sentenced him to life as a high school chemistry teacher. It's a vehicle so ugly, forlorn and depressing that only White's cancer trumped it as a reason for cooking and dealing blue meth. Only when White became meth kingpin Heisenberg was his trusty Aztek demoted from a drug-dealer killing machine to a bad joke.

Keep in mind, however, that not all icons are remembered for their greatness. The Edsel and the Yugo, for example, are remembered with a shudder by car lovers both for their appearance and for their futility on U.S. car lots.

The funniest part about the Aztek is that just about everything but the car's exterior design and sloping cargo space were brilliant. If you owned one of these monstrosities, you were driving a vehicle with car-based, unibody construction that had all of the space and height of an SUV but few of the gas-guzzling concerns. While the rolling philistines laughed at you from atop their truck axles as they burned through $60 worth of gas, you were driving what would later be known as a crossover -- you know, the vehicles your detractors would be trading in their clunkers for just a few years later when gas prices soared right along with unemployment and housing foreclosures.

It's still pretty funny when a taxicab-yellow Aztek rolls by, but that model ended up with the last laugh.

9. Ford Explorer (1991-94)

Where did the great American station wagons and minivans go? This sport utility vehicle ate them.

While not the first of its kind, the Explorer was the first SUV to capture the American consciousness. Buoyed by relatively cheap gasoline and a recovering U.S. economy, the Explorer saw sales jump from 283,000 in 1991 to nearly 403,000 in 1996. Drivers liked sitting up high and having all the cargo room of their minivan without all of the uncool stigma attached to it -- you know, the stigma of being a parent who cares.

Sure, the Explorer had a high center of gravity that became a point of contention when the National Highway Traffic Safety administration got on Ford and tire maker Firestone's case about an abnormal number of blowouts and resulting rollovers in 2000. You can thank both of them for the vehicle stability features and seemingly insatiable tire pressure indicators that found their way into every vehicle thereafter.

The Explorer made the U.S. a nation of SUVs but, as mentioned in the Aztek example, fell out of favor quickly once gas prices soared and the economy stalled. Sales plummeted from a high of 445,000 in 2000 to just 52,000 by 2009. Of the top eight vehicles traded in during the Obama Administration's "Cash For Clunkers" program, various model year Explorers accounted for six of them.

Sales have since climbed back up to 178,000 in 2013, but the Explorer is now just another crossover vehicle among the sea of similar vehicles that arrived during its downfall. In a nation that loves itself a Honda CR-V, a Toyota RAV4 or Ford's own Escape, the Explorer is just an oversized reminder of an indulgent, bloated automotive past.

8. Hummer H2 (2003-09)

How can you talk about bloated indulgences of the '90s and 2000s without at least discussing the Humvee? The jaunty little hero of the first Gulf War, the Humvee made its way into Arnold Schwarzenegger's garage and into the hearts of every American for whom big just wasn't big enough.

The problem was that the military-grade Humvee was just way too large for regular use. The far slimmer H2, however, fit U.S. roads and its growing taste for conspicuous consumption just fine. With a curb weight of more than 6,400 pounds, General Motors' Hummer H2 had a gross vehicle weight rating that earned its owners a tax deduction for "business use" and allowed GM to fudge mileage numbers that hit a combined 11 miles per gallon on the generous side and just 9 miles per gallon in more pragmatic assessments.

It had enough of a military pedigree to serve as a nod to the two wars the U.S. was fighting at the time, was just luxurious enough for a nation of Paris Hilton/The Hills excess and just popular enough to keep General Motors above water.

Then gas prices hit $4 a gallon and that was the end of that. Sales of the H2 slid from more than 34,000 in 2003 to little more than 6,000 by 2008. General Motors went bankrupt and took a bailout, while the H2 spends much of its time parked in contrarians' driveways.

7. Mini Cooper (2002-06)

Even as the Explorer and H2 dinosaurs roamed the land, there was a new little mammal making its way across the Atlantic as a rebuke to their entire existence.

Years of driving fuel-efficient but flimsy Geo Metros and Hyundai Excels had given U.S. drivers the impression that small cars were not only underpowered, but cramped and inherently bad. As films such as 2002's Austin Powers: Goldmember and 2003's The Italian Job showed U.S. audiences, however, a modernized take on the classic British Mini could not only be fuel-efficient, but fun and fast at the same time.

You could swap out colors, arrange the interior, trick it out with gauges and accessories and use its wide wheel base to hug turns while putting its impressive speed to the test. In the decade after its return to the U.S. market, the Mini sold 2.5 million vehicles and became a cult favorite while the big gas guzzlers faded. Now Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda and several other automakers each have sporty, options-packed subcompacts. Meanwhile, the U.S. market became so open to subcompacts that the Fiat 500 that was banished a generation ago has made a comeback. For a marque called Mini, it's had a major impact.

6. Jeep Wrangler (1987-95)

How is the U.S. hero of World War II and a car that's been produced for civilian use since the 1940s considered an '80s and '90s icon?

Simple: Sales of what was once known as the Jeep CJ were in the tank until Chrysler came along and bought the brand. Chrysler put the "square headlights" Jeep on the market with all the ground clearance and 4x4 capability that Jeep die-hards loved, but year by year added features such as an extended roll cage, rear seat belts and antilock brakes to make it a safer, more comfortable ride.

The Wrangler's gone through some big changes in recent years, including various facelifts and an extended-body Unlimited edition that makes it more like a small SUV. It's the modernized features lumped into a package that still has the basic look of a World War II Jeep, though, that made the Wrangler so vital to Jeep's continuing legacy.

5. Dodge Viper RT/10 (1992-95)

The folks at Chrysler really didn't like hearing that the U.S. couldn't make a supercar. They weren't thrilled that Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Maserati and their ilk were making U.S. muscle look flabby by comparison.

That's when they got creative. They decided to make a version of the fabled Shelby Cobra that would be more suited to the modern enthusiast and decided to load it up with the biggest beast of an engine they had: An 8.0-liter, V10 Dodge truck engine. Since Chrysler just happened to own Lamborghini at the time, they asked the company to give their bulky truck engine an aluminum makeover. "Team Viper" did its thing and, by 1991, a Dodge Viper was turning heads as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500.

Despite Chrysler's various ownership issues, bankruptcy, bailout and subsequent takeover by Fiat, the Viper has remained. The new Italian owners are so enamored of it that they've kept it going as the SRT Viper. Its current 8.4-liter, V-10 engine cranks out 640 horsepower and tops out at 206 miles per hour.

That first version, however, was a revelation. Its single-minded performance focus and six-figure asking price were reserved for European models before that point. The Viper opened the door for the U.S. supercar and has been pushing automakers to up the power and tweak design ever since.

4. Ford Mustang (2005-09)

The Mustang is already considered an icon, but tweaks to the vehicle over the years left it a sad shell of its former self.

After the first-generation Mustangs of the late '60s and early '70s, the car began to lose its way. There was the ugly and underpowered Mustang II that served as a nod to the oil crisis of the late 1970s. For much of the '80s and early '90s, it took on a four-eyed, overly aerodynamic look that came in hatchback and T-roof versions.

While the 5.0-liter '90s upgrades were well received and carried into the next generation's redesign, the Mustang still wasn't looking quite right. It was Vanilla Ice's car. It was your pizza guy's ride of choice. It was what you bought if you didn't like that year's Camaro or Trans Am. It was cool, but not iconic.

That changed in 2005, when the Mustang was redesigned with a "retro-futurist look" that was basically an update of the first generation's classic aesthetic. Fans responded instantly. Sales jumped from fewer than 130,000 in 2004 to more than 160,000 in 2005 and 166,500 in 2006. It gave the Mustang line a huge boost just before the Great Recession and prompted Chevy and Dodge to make similar retro tweaks to their Camaro, Charger and Challenger.

3. Volkswagen New Beetle (1998-2010)

Even icons get tiresome.

The Beetle traces its roots back to World War II but, by the mid-1970s, other compact cars began encroaching on the Beetle's turf and Volkswagen was staring down bankruptcy. To right the ship, Volkswagen had to ditch the Beetle in favor of the Golf hatchback.

Thus began the more than 20-year absence of new Beetles from U.S. roads. Older models were still kicking around, but were tough to maintain even before they were "vintage." The rear-wheel-drive cars had their air-cooled engines in the back and were little match for the front-wheel-drive, water-cooled spacious hatchbacks that followed.

The problem is that they and most cars sold in the U.S. during the '80s and early '90s were dull as drying plaster. The Jetta was considered VW's "cool" car in the '90s, and it was a convertible box on wheels. The market missed quaint and lovable cars and missed the Beetle something awful.

By the time a concept car surfaced in 1994, engineers had figured out how to put the engine up front, how to give it front wheel drive and a more spacious interior and make it look like an updated version of the original while giving it little tweaks such as a flower vase in the dashboard.

There was a lot of love for the New Beetle, and its overwhelming reception began the era of "new futurism" that brought drivers updated versions of beloved cars such as the Mustangs and Camaros mentioned just an entry earlier.

2. Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990-97)

What did retirees drive before this car existed? Were they all in Cadillacs and Corvettes? Were cheap convertibles such as the Chrysler LeBaron just more widely available?

That last element has a ring of truth to it, as convertibles have become just slightly more scarce in the years since this car's debut. Mini has made strides in the low end and Chrysler's 200 is filling in admirably for the Sebring, but neither of them are the sporty little two-seater that the Miata is.

Oh, and neither provides Porsche Boxster performance at roughly half the price. In fact, this little roadster got a big boost from Consumer Reports a few years back for not only matching the Boxster's performance, but proving a more reliable vehicle with fewer repair bills.

1. Toyota Prius (2004-09)

Simply put, nobody cared about hybrid vehicles until this car came around.

The first-generation Honda Insight got a combined 65 miles per gallon but had weird, covered rear wheels and looked like an escaped concept car. The first-generation Prius, meanwhile, got 48 miles per gallon, but was ugly, cramped and not overly powerful.

Before the second-generation Prius arrived, Toyota had never sold more than 25,000 of it in the U.S. in a single year. At the generation's peak in 2007, Toyota sold 181,000 Prius models here. Now not only does nearly every major automaker produce a hybrid vehicle, but the market has since expanded to plug-in hybrids and straight-electric vehicles.

Toyota now sells multiple versions of the Prius here and provides the market with one of the more affordable hybrid options available. There are other companies playing the game just as well, but their cars aren't the ones that boosters and critics alike mention when they're referring to hybrid vehicles.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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