How to Be Significant

  • Honda Insight

    Honda Insight

    Our first "Most Significant" vehicle was also the first hybrid vehicle sold in the United States (though Toyota beat Honda to the hybrid punch in its home market of Japan). | July 01, 2010

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When it comes to producing a significant automobile, every carmaker likes to think it has the process down. Listen to the hype on an all-new vehicle and you'll be convinced that said vehicle will forever change the face of the automotive landscape. But sift through the PR speak and you'll rarely find a truly new, unique and/or distinctive model. As we all know, there's nothing new under the sun.

Well, almost nothing. Thankfully, the automakers can still capture my editorial team's attention every now and then, and a glance back at our Most Significant Vehicle of the Year awards provides a solid picture of what it takes to stand out in a world where everyone is trying to stand out. If you look at our official definition for the Most Significant Vehicle of the Year award you'll find three requirements:

  1. Change the rules of a given segment
  2. Create a brand-new market niche
  3. Redefine an automaker's image

While a Most Significant winner can succeed by displaying just one of these traits, all of our past winners have possessed at least two of them — and most of our choices have offered all three. Let's take a quick stroll down Most Significant lane, shall we?

2000 — Honda Insight: Our first Most Significant winner was also our most obvious. You've got the first hybrid vehicle to be sold in America, you've got the first vehicle to offer over 60 mpg and you've got typically conservative Honda willing to test an untested concept. Thus, the Insight changed the rules (it proved hybrid technology can work to increase fuel economy), created a brand-new market niche (the ultra-advanced hybrid vehicle) and it redefined an automaker's image (this might be a stretch, because Honda has long been known for its cutting-edge technology, but taking on the task of introducing a hybrid vehicle to Americans was still a bold move for this conservative company). Like I said, an easy choice.

2001 — Chrysler PT Cruiser: In our second year of Most Significant voting, things got a bit tighter. There were plenty of interesting vehicles in 2001, including the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins that proved a mini-SUV could be both fun and functional. But in the PT Cruiser we saw it change the rules of a given segment (a small station wagon with retro styling and a highly versatile interior space), we saw a brand-new market niche (a fully functional wagon that actually looks cool for under $20,000) and we watched as people saw Chrysler in a whole new light ("Hey, not every cool concept-to-production car it makes has to cost over $40,000, a la Viper and Prowler."). The PT Cruiser's real validation came in recent years when supply finally caught up with demand…yet the car continues to set sales records (proof that there was more to the PT than just its styling).

2002 — Mini Cooper: Picking a Most Significant Vehicle for 2002 was, and still is, the toughest choice we have faced. This was the year of the Subaru WRX, the Jaguar X-Type and the Nissan Altima. All of these vehicles had the makings of a Most Significant winner, and the voting got pretty heated during crunch time. The fact that the Mini Cooper pulled out a win proves just how significant this little car is. While BMW likes to waffle on just how closely related it is to Mini, everyone knows that BMW redesigned and engineered the car (after Rover had almost finished designing it — but not to BMW standards). Much of the Mini's electronics can be interchanged with a BMW, and even the seat to pedal to steering wheel locations are based off of the 3 Series. So what you've basically got is a sub-$20,000 BMW (redefines an automaker's image), as well as a "premium" economy car (creates a new market niche) and a sub-$20,000 car that offers performance, luxury and style in a tiny package (changes the rules of an existing segment).

2003 — Nissan 350Z: Our newest Most Significant winner was, once again, a pretty clear-cut choice. In the all-new Z you have equal parts performance, style and value. At a starting price of $26,000, and with 287 horsepower, it basically sets a new bang-for-the-buck standard (changes the rules of a given segment) and because it isn't a practical, mainstream product, it effectively proves that this automaker is back from the brink. Who would have thought that Nissan, a company in serious financial trouble just three years ago, would be offering a two-seat, low-volume sports car for sale before the end of 2002? Changes an automaker's image? The 350Z establishes Nissan as fully in control of its own destiny, and that's not the image this company had in 1999.

So the rules for our Most Significant award have been met to varying degrees by our past winners. But as I look through the winner's list I notice something that isn't specifically called out by our requirements — value. The price spread on our Most Significant Vehicles ranges from a base PT Cruiser for $16,150 up to a base 350Z for $26,800. This is interesting because, while value isn't a stated criterion, it obviously played a role in our voting for each year's winner. It also explains why cars like the Jaguar X-Type and Porsche Cayenne, vehicles that were seriously considered for the award, didn't win. Every one of our winners could be considered a solid bargain, even the $21,000 Honda Insight that, though it doesn't offer much utility, would be a technological tour de force at twice the price.

We certainly like the idea of recognizing cars that the average American can afford, and we're happy to see that the automakers haven't forgotten this price segment, either. But with this pattern of past voting established it seems logical to add a fourth requirement to the Most Significant criteria:

  1. Change the rules of a given segment
  2. Create a brand-new market niche
  3. Redefine an automaker's image
  4. Offers undeniable value for the money

As I stated earlier, not every criteria must be met, so we could still have a Rolls-Royce or Bentley as our Most Significant Vehicle for 2004…but I doubt it.

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