When the Noughts get their page in automotive history, much of the discussion will probably concern manufacturer closings and abysmal sales. This is a shame, for while the meltdown of an industry is certainly big news, the decade also brought us models that deserve to be remembered for the impact they made.
Below are our picks for the decade's most noteworthy vehicles, listed in alphabetical order. These vehicles succeeded (or failed) for various reasons, but the one thing they have in common is that each played an indisputable part in the evolution of the automotive landscape.
The BMW 3 Series has had a target on its back for well over a decade. Still, despite the fact that every luxury carmaker has set its sights on taking it down, it's managed to retain its crown as the best entry-level luxury sedan money can buy. The credit goes to its smooth and powerful six-cylinder engines, agile handling and excellent refinement — and let's not forget about its exceptional build quality and wonderful, driver-focused interior. Without a doubt, this capable Bimmer deserves kudos for being the benchmark by which others in this segment are judged. — Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Associate
Chrysler's launch of the all-new 300 (for the 2005 model year) helped cast full-size cars — and American cars in general — in a whole new light. Fawned over by tastemakers and spotlighted in hip-hop videos, the 300 had the sort of street cred that was unheard of for a large domestic sedan. Middle America felt the love as well; the 300 was a big hit for Chrysler in its first few years on the market, surpassing sales expectations. Its formula for success was simple: blocky, retro good looks; the sort of large, rear-wheel-drive platform not seen in mainstream cars since Carter was in the White House; and available Hemi V8 goodness. The Chrysler 300 stands out because it was the first car to prove that domestic manufacturers have what it takes to take a confident bite from Honda's and Toyota's pie. — Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
When the all-new, square-jawed version debuted in 2004, Ford's F-150 helped redefine what consumers could expect in a pickup truck. Launching with one of the most modern and appealing interiors in any vehicle — never mind in a truck — the F-150 helped establish a new era for the pickup as a family-friendly vehicle. Buoyed by favorable financing incentives and relatively stable gas prices, the F-150's wide range of functional configurations, low-effort controls, and consumer-friendly ride and handling traits helped Ford's cash cow continue its reign as the nation's best-selling truck lineup, forcing Dodge and Chevy to rethink their less refined offerings. — Paul Seredynski, Executive Editor
Produced from 2005 to 2006, the Ford GT was a celebration of Ford's 100-year anniversary and a tribute to the original 1960s GT40 race car. But unlike dedicated sports-carmakers Ferrari and Porsche, Ford didn't exactly have recent experience building supercars. This was also the period of time during which Ford's financial troubles started. Yet the Ford GT not only made it into production, it also proved that a domestic automaker could build a true supercar, one worthy of taking on the world's best. No doubt this one's a future classic. — Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
The Mustang matters because everyone said it wouldn't anymore. Remember? The V8 was going the way of the dinosaur; the future would be full of turbo fours and battery packs. But then Ford did the retro-styling thing with the 2005 Mustang and stuffed a 4.6-liter V8 under the GT model's hood, and voila — the American muscle car genre was resuscitated. Today, the Mustang is engaged in a full-on arms race with the reborn Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, and the 2011 Mustang GT's pumped-up 5.0-liter, 400-plus-horsepower V8 is the latest addition to Ford's arsenal. The V8 is dead; long live the V8! — Josh Sadlier, Associate Editor
The Honda Fit arrived (for the 2007 model year) as gas prices were steadily climbing toward the $4-per-gallon-mark. Unlike its competitors, the Fit didn't ask you to sacrifice space, practicality or driving pleasure. It delivered on all these counts, and proved that the new frontier of car design is within the cabin. Because of its folding "magic seats," this tall hatchback swallowed surfboards and bikes with ease, yet still shoe-horned into small parking spaces. With a five-speed manual transmission, the 109-horsepower four-cylinder V-TEC felt punchy; the car's superb handling was an unexpected bonus. With Honda's flair for feng shui and near-40 mpg highway fuel economy, the Fit out-distanced all challengers without breaking a sweat. — Phil Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
This car marked a huge turning point for Hyundai, signifying the moment when the company that formally made cars that defined "cheap" — and not just in terms of sticker price — started to produce quality vehicles that could challenge the segment leaders. We had the redesigned-for-2001 Elantra in our long-term fleet back then and the Elantra logged 16,000 trouble-free miles under the heavy feet and hands of our staff. The logbook was filled with praise for this well-built, pleasantly driving, and now valid rival to the Civic and Corolla. — John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
While Americans still view hatchbacks as lame, the Mini has somehow managed to buck that trend, opening the door for cars like the Ford Fiesta to potentially thrive. Thanks to the retro-cool Mini, you no longer had to spend a king's ransom to get a premium-made, highly customizable car with gobs of character. You could credit the Mini's continued popularity to smart marketing and the decision to redesign so quickly, but we'd argue that its continued success has as much to do with its practical nature. It carries plenty of stuff relative its size, offers loads of space for two people and four in an emergency, is wickedly fun to drive and gets great gas mileage. Other retro, trendy cars like the New Beetle and Thunderbird couldn't fall back on such practical virtues and eventually consumers abandoned them. Not so the Mini, which thrived throughout the decade and is bound to continue to do so into the next. — James Riswick, Automotive Editor
Besides being a rolling joke from the moment it rolled off the assembly line due to its bizarre styling, tacky interior and clunky exterior plastic cladding, the Pontiac Aztek could also be considered the vehicle that marked the beginning of the end for GM's once-mighty performance powerhouse brand. Of course, pinning the demise of Pontiac on a single vehicle — which debuted to high expectations in advance of the crossover craze in the 2001 model year and exited the market in disgrace in 2005 just as the segment began to heat up — is debatable. But the fact that Pontiac started the decade with such a significant flop — projected sales were in the 50,000-to-70,000 range but barely broke 27,000 — and that this much-maligned vehicle became a cultural comedic touchstone ensures that even though the brand is dead and gone, the wacky Aztek will live on in infamy. — Doug Newcomb, Senior Editor, Technology
More than just one of the decade's most noteworthy cars, the Toyota Prius virtually defined the last half of the Noughts. As the Detroit Three were building bigger and bigger cars with little regard for fuel economy, the Prius showed that frugality and concern for the environment could be just as popular. When the fuel crisis of 2008 hit us, the Prius reigned supreme and dealers couldn't keep them in stock. Say what you will about its lifeless driving dynamics or its unusual styling, the Prius is the shape of the future. Sacrifices for the majority of drivers are few, since the Prius provides ample space and a quiet cabin, and features more than enough bells and whistles to satisfy discerning tastes. — Mark Takahashi, Associate Editor