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Category: Economy Cars

Junkyard Gem: 2014 Nissan Leaf

After writing about nearly 3,000 discarded vehicles during the past 17 years, I’ve learned that it takes just over a decade for a new type of car to begin showing up in the big self-service boneyards (not counting unrecognizably crashed and/or burned ones). The first mass-produced battery-electric vehicles of the modern era hit American streets during the early 2010s, which means used-up examples can now be found in Ewe Pullet-type car graveyards. Here’s one currently residing in Carson City, Nevada.

While battery-powered vehicles enjoyed mainstream sales success during the early days of the automobile, there were very few sold from the 1920s through the end of the 20th century. Things in the EV world got more interesting during the late 1990s, when General Motors sold the EV1 and Toyota offered the RAV4 EV (I feel fairly certain that I’ll never run across a junked EV1, but have found a discarded ’02 RAV4 EV).

Then the electron-fueled pace really picked up in the late 2000s. The Tesla Roadster became available to the public in 2008, followed by the Nissan Leaf in late 2010 and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV a year later. The Leaf immediately became the best-selling EV in the world, a title it held for most of the 2010s.

Nissan would like us all to spell this car’s model name in all capital letters, because LEAF is one of those tortured acronyms so beloved by Japanese carmakers: Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable Family Car. This isn’t as annoying as the model names we’re supposed to spell in all-lower-case letters or the ones with punctuation marks, but I’m not going to play that game. This is a Leaf, which means the plural shall be Leaves.

Because EV drivers get to drive solo in California’s HOV lanes, the early LEAF sold very well in the Golden State. This car’s current (and final) residence is across the state line in Nevada, but Carson City is only about ten miles from California.

You can tell it began its career in California from the Proposition 65 sticker on the driver’s side window, which informs car buyers that there may be cancer-causing materials inside. Most owners scrape off these stickers, but this one remained for the life of the car.

This car wasn’t crashed and the interior looks like it was in good shape upon junkyard arrival, so why did it get thrown out? Resale value on the 2014 Leaf and its 84-mile range isn’t so great compared to newer models, so we can assume that some costly mechanical problem ended this car’s career. Nissan wants $14,941.18 for a replacement battery pack, so that’s a good candidate for this Leaf’s demise.

The current Leaf can go up to 212 miles on a charge and boasts 147 horsepower (40 more than its 2014 predecessor) plus far superior fast-charging ability, so the specs on this car seem antiquated just a decade after it was built.

Good for the world, built in America.

What if everything ran on gas?

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Junkyard Gem: 2008 Volkswagen Rabbit

When Volkswagen introduced its second water-cooled model for North America as a 1975 model (the first was the 1974 Dasher), it was badged as the Rabbit instead of getting rest-of-the-world Golf badging. The Rabbit name stuck around here through 1984, after which the Golf designation took over in North America. Then, apparently to please nostalgia-prone American VW enthusiasts, the Rabbit name returned for the late 2006 model year. Here’s one of those second-time-around Rabbits, found in a Colorado self-service boneyard recently.

The Rabbit badges stayed on U.S.- and Canadian-market cars until the Mk6 pushed aside the Mk5 for 2010. Then Volkswagen shoved the Rabbit name into the memory hole, where it has remained since that time.

The 2006-2009 Rabbit was pitched to hip North American urban drivers and its brochure included handy guides to “the language of urban driving” that included definitions for such terms as Hurry Honker, Bumper Broadcasting and Spot Sloth. Clever!

It was available as a hatchback with two or four doors. This is the former, which had an MSRP of $15,600 (about $23,211 in 2024 dollars).

The engine is a 2.5-liter straight-five rated at 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet. That’s well over twice the power of its 1975 ancestor.

The base transmission was a five-speed manual, though this car has the far more popular six-speed automatic.

It looks fairly solid inside and out, though there is a bit of rust-through.

It appears to have been turned in as part of Colorado’s Vehicle Exchange Program, open to pre-2012 vehicles that fail their emissions tests.

It’s back, and it’s clogging the city.

For those who can afford a new car but can’t afford to pay for internet.


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Junkyard Gem: 1993 Ford Escort LX Wagon

The original North American Ford Escort was based (somewhat loosely) on its European cousin and was sold from the 1981 through 1990 model years. After that, the mighty Ford Empire turned to its Japanese ally, Mazda, for the Escort’s platform and that’s where it remained until the final ZX2 Escort coupes were sold here as 2003 models. I’ve neglected those early Mazda-based Escorts in this series up until now, so here’s one found in a Colorado car graveyard recently.

The U.S.-market Escort was available in wagon form from 1981 through 1999 model years. For 1993, the Escort wagon came only with the LX trim level and its MSRP was $10,367 (about $22,795 in 2024 dollars). It appears that this one started out at a dealership just outside of Kansas City.

A 1993 non-wagon Escort buyer getting the LX-E or GT models got a 1.8-liter DOHC Mazda four-cylinder rated at 127 horsepower, while all the other American Escorts that year came with this 1.9-liter Ford CVH and its 88 horses.

Wagons deserve manual transmissions, and that’s what this car has. A four-speed automatic was available in several option packages or as a standalone purchase for $732 ($1,610 after inflation).

This car was a platform sibling to the Mazda 323 aka Protegé, which made it a close cousin to the 1991-1994 Mercury Capri. Its Mercury-badged twin was the Tracer.

Station wagons were on their way out of favor with American consumers in 1993, nearly a decade after the first Chrysler minivans and Jeep XJ Cherokees appeared, two years after the debut of the Ford Explorer and the model year of the first Jeep Grand Cherokees. Three years later, the Toyota RAV4 showed up in the United States, followed by the Honda CR-V a year after that, ensuring that Escort-sized wagons didn’t have much longer to live on showroom floors.

This deeply offensive bumper sticker was the creation of the late Frank T. Kostecki, an Ohio fur trapper and businessman who owned Kosky’s Trading Post in Sullivan and offered a full line of stickers promoting the consumption of roadkill possum.

Ford still hadn’t gone to six-digit odometers on the Escort by the time this one was built, so we can’t know its final mileage total.

Your friendly Northwest Ford dealer would toss in air conditioning, AM/FM stereo and a luggage rack at no extra cost!

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Junkyard Gem: 2003 Ford Focus ZTS Centennial Edition

The very first car produced by the Ford Motor Company was the 1903 Model A. 100 years later, Ford decided to build some special Centennial Edition cars and trucks. Ford shoppers could get five Centennial Edition models for 2003: the Taurus, Mustang, Explorer, F-250/F-350 and Focus. All were painted black, the only color available for the 1914-1925 Model T. I’ve been searching for a Centennial Edition Ford over many years of junkyard exploration and finally found this Focus in a Denver-area yard.

Some junkyard visitor before me pried off the special fender and decklid badges, but the “two-tone signature Centennial Leather” seats were still there.

Sadly, the special Centennial Edition key chain, hardcover edition of “The Ford Century” book, wristwatch and letter from Bill Ford weren’t inside the car.

This Junkyard Gem is in rough shape, so here’s what it looked like in the sales brochure. The only previous Focus in this series was an ’02 Mach Audio, so we were overdue.

While the Centennial Edition Mustang was available in either coupe or convertible form, all the Centennial Edition Foci were ZTS sedans.

4,000 each of the Centennial Edition Taurus and Explorer were built, with only 3,000 apiece for the Focus, Mustang and F-Series.

100 years is quite a milestone for a car company, but plenty of special-edition cars for other production anniversaries have been built and I’ve documented many of them in car graveyards. There’s the 50th Anniversary Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight (commemorating a half-century of the 88 model), the XC Edition Oldsmobile Ciera (commemorating 90 years of Oldsmobile), the 40th Anniversary Pontiac Grand Prix, the 30th Anniversary Pontiac Grand Am, the 10th Anniversary Black Red Edition Datsun 280ZX, the 50th Anniversary Nissan 300ZX (commemorating 50 years of Nissan), the 25th Anniversary Chevrolet Camaro, the 30th Anniversary Mercury Cougar and many more. It’s too bad Studebaker isn’t around anymore, because 2040 will be the 300th anniversary of the first horse-drawn wagon built by Peter Stutenbecker in the British Province of Maryland.

This being a ZTS, the top-grade 2003 Focus sedan available in the United States, it has the 130-horsepower DOHC Zetec engine.

Its 1903 predecessor had a clutchless two-speed planetary transmission to go with its two-cylinder pushrod boxer engine, but this car has a more modern five-speed manual.

The Focus remained in American Ford showrooms through 2018, then got the axe because “silhouettes are changing.” You can still buy a new Focus elsewhere in the world, though; it’s built on the same platform as the current Maverick.

When some hooptie early-1980s GM sedan tries to spray your new black Focus with no-doubt-contaminated washer fluid, you know what to do.

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Junkyard Gem: 2008 Suzuki SX4 Crossover

If you want to find some interesting automotive history in your local Ewe Pullet, finding any U.S.-market Suzuki model and peering into its background will tell you a lot about the global car industry from the middle 1980s through just over a decade ago. The Suzuki tale gets a bit convoluted during the second half of the 2010s here; in recent months, I’ve documented discarded examples of the 2008 XL-7 (derived from the Saturn Vue), the 2008 Reno (based on the final Lacetti designed by pre-GM Daewoo) and the 2009 Equator (a thinly disguised Nissan Frontier). Today’s Junkyard Gem is a second-model-year SX4 Crossover, found in a Colorado Springs car graveyard recently.

Suzuki began selling motorcycles in the United States in 1963 (no, the Suzuki Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company was never affiliated with the Suzuki Motor Company, Suzuki being a very common Japanese family name), but we didn’t get highway-legal Suzuki-built four-wheeled vehicles here until the Chevrolet Sprint showed up as a 1985 model, followed the next year by the Suzuki Samurai. Then the 1990s gave us Geo-badged Suzukis (the Metro and Tracker) as well as their Suzuki-badged siblings (the Swift and Sidekick), plus Esteems, X-90s, Vitaras and Grand Vitaras.

The plotline of American Suzuki story goes through some strange twists and turns during the 2000s, mostly due to Suzuki’s role in the far-flung General Motors Empire and GM’s purchase of Daewoo’s car-building operations. Some Daewoos were sold here with Suzuki badges (the Verona, Reno and Forenza), while only the Vitara, Grand Vitara, XL-7 and Aerio remained as pure Suzuki products by 2006.

The SX4 was the Aerio’s successor and debuted here as a 2007 model. It was available in “tall hatchback” crossover and— a year later— sedan form, both styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro and based on a platform developed in partnership with Fiat. The SX4 name stands for Sport X-over for 4 Seasons, which isn’t quite as tortured an acronym as, say, the ones other Japanese carmakers assigned to hardware such as the Powerful & Economic Lightweight Accurate Silent Mighty Advanced or the Lightweight Advanced Super Response Engine. The American Motors Corporation had already used the SX/4 name on a sporty crossover hatchback for the 1981-1983 model years, but perhaps AMC’s use of a slash character made it seem sufficiently different for Suzuki to use.

Upon its launch, the SX4 Crossover was the cheapest AWD-equipped new car available in the United States, with an MSRP starting at $14,999 for the 2007 model (that’s about $23,234 in 2024 dollars).

Our reviewer thought it was garbage, to put it mildly, stating “if you just gotta have a new all-wheel-drive car and cost is your second biggest concern, go get an SX4.” The “security system” (a red LED blinking on the dashboard) and lack of cargo space displeased him mightily, as did the manual gearshift (which felt like “moving a steel rod around in a bucket of pea gravel”).

This car has the base five-speed manual, in fact, which saved the original purchaser $1,100 on the cost of an automatic ($1,704 after inflation).

The engine is a 2.0-liter straight-four rated at 143 horsepower and 136 pound-feet.

It was an affordable car that could deal with snow and mud while looking somewhat truck-ish, and it hauled people around for 16 years.

Suzuki brought out the pretty decent Kizashi for 2010, but it was too late. The company gave up on selling cars and trucks here for 2013, after which the only new highway-legal Suzukis available here had two wheels apiece. Suzuki still does well selling cars elsewhere, though, with the Hustler reigning at or near the top of the JDM best-seller list for quite a few years.

Just because there’s a gas crisis doesn’t have to mean there’s a fun crisis.

The SX4’s European cousin was called the Fiat Sedici.

Gets good traction even on a violin.


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The Autoblog 20: The most significant new cars of the past two decades

In case you hadn’t heard, Autoblog turns 20 this month. A lot has happened over the past two decades, from the crossover boom to the rise of hybrids and even the first widespread adoption of battery-electric cars. Hyundai and Kia have both exploded into the mainstream, and despite the slow march toward bigger and clumsier cars, we saw the resurgence of American muscle and the pony car supremacy wars. Cars are cleaner than ever before, yet absurdly quick. The future may not be perfect, but if you look at the past, where we’re going is incredibly promising. 

So that’s exactly what we did — took a look at the past.

We were tasked with nominating cars that had a significant impact on the automotive scene over the past 20 years, whether by virtue of success, failure or something else entirely. The list proved extensive, and was shortened to 45 final nominees. We were then told to chose our individual top 10 and rank them, from which we culled the list to 20. Some of our choices are technically a couple of years older than Autoblog itself, but we felt their inclusion was warranted based either on an impact that wouldn’t become apparent until later, or because they’ve had a profound influence on the industry since the turn of the 21st century. Without further ado, here are our picks. 

20 — 2009 Nissan GT-R

The R35 Nissan GT-R’s story has been one of defiance from the get-go. It was crowned the final boss of mainstream performance cars before such a concept even existed and was cast as the rowdy, upstart villain before it even went on sale. And now, 15 years into its run, it has lived long enough to see itself become the hero. Where it was once panned for its too-digital and unengaged driving experience, it’s now among the most analog offerings in the high-performance market. It came in defying the world; it’ll go out defying its own reputation. 


19 — 2022 Ford Maverick Hybrid

The Maverick was a big throw of the dice for Ford. Not only was the Blue Oval pitching a new, small, unibody pickup truck, but it did so on the heels of cancelling virtually all of its affordable offerings. On top of that, pickup builders told us for years that smaller models weren’t worth exploring because their customers would always buy as much truck as possible; why leave those profits on the table? Yet, this baby cargo hauler has more DNA in common with a Focus than with an F-150, and shoppers don’t seem to care one bit. Even the front-wheel-drive-only Hybrid model — briefly the least-expensive variant offered — has been so popular that Ford has been unable to meet customer demand since release. Perhaps its full significance is yet to be seen, but early signs point to it featuring prominently the next time we do this little exercise in 10 years. 


18 — 2009 Hyundai Genesis

Some of the cars on this list were segment-defining automobiles, while others defied contention and created their own niches, but there aren’t many automobiles one can point to and say, “That was the genesis of an entire brand.” In this case, well, that’s about as literal as it gets. The Genesis lineup now includes eight distinct models, including the descendants of the Genesis and Genesis Coupe themselves, the G80 and G70. Sadly, the latter is unlikely to survive to see another generation. 


17 — 2003 Honda Pilot

Remember the world before three-row crossovers? Back when everybody crammed themselves into Explorers and Trailblazers or settled for a minivan? That’s the marketplace that greeted the Pilot back when it debuted (yes it was a year before we launched, but its significance built thereafter). Although it literally wasn’t alone as a three-row crossover, it was the one that established the blueprint of size, layout and family-friendly character that basically every three-row family crossover uses today. In the beginning, there was a Pilot. 


2017 Chevy Bolt EV

16 — 2017 Chevy Bolt

The Nissan Leaf may have been the first modern mass-market BEV, but the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV was the first mass-market EV to really do it right. Principally, it was all about the range. While other EVs could barely squeak past the 100-mile mark, the Bolt crested 250. Game changer? You bet. It was also practical and surprisingly fun to drive. The design and body style probably held it back in the marketplace (a mid-cycle update and the introduction of the EUV changed that), but there’s no denying how significant the Bolt was when introduced and to this day.


15 — 2008 Dodge Challenger

It says a lot that the Chrysler LX platform (technically LC here) shows up twice on this list. The Challenger proved that a big, snarly muscle car could still sell in a world where conspicuous consumption is falling under increasingly intense scrutiny. From Hemis to Hellcats, Redeyes and Demons, there was a Challenger for every power-hungry customer on the road — one of your authors included. That it has survived, barely changed, for most of the past 20 years and has arguably become even more relevant for enthusiasts also speaks volumes. 


14 — 2003 Nissan Murano

If you’re under the age of, say, 30, this one probably won’t make much sense to you. For those of us who had our fingers on the pulse of the market in the very early aughts, the 2003 Nissan Murano was wild. Nothing looked like it — everything was boxy and/or completely anonymous. These days, everything looks like it. Nissan has made many mistakes over the past two decades, but forecasting styling trends was not one of them. And we can’t put this one out there without acknowledging the Infiniti FX, which despite not being mechanically related to the Murano, sported an equally futureproof design.  


13 — 2005 Bugatti Veyron

If there was one car that the whole world was talking about right at the start of Autoblog, it was the Bugatti Veyron. It was the superlative automobile: a price tag over $1 million; 1,000 horsepower; a 250-mph top speed; 16 cylinders; 4 turbochargers. This was a car defined by numbers. It was so far beyond any supercar made before it, and it became the benchmark for at least a decade. It set the mold for what a supercar needed to be: a monument of monstrous machinery.


12 — 2010 Ford SVT Raptor

Being able to catch big air and come down safely in a completely stock production truck or SUV wasn’t exactly a thing before the Ford F-150 Raptor. Off-roaders were plentiful, but the Raptor with its Trophy Truck-esque, air-defying antics was an alien vehicle when it launched (literally) in 2010. Today, the Raptor name is synonymous with epic off-road capability, and the Raptor R continues to set hilarious standards for others of its ilk. Ram followed years later with the TRX. GM’s put forth its own challengers with the ZR2 line, and the Raptor’s in-your-face styling can be seen throughout the industry. It’s a trailblazer of excess and just plain silly fun, and it’s a type of vehicle we don’t see dying out any time soon.


11 — 2011 Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf was the first mass-market EV, and it was a big deal. As one would expect, skepticism surrounded it, and range anxiety was real. It may not have been for everyone, but it was the first step on what has become an industry-wide, even cultural, journey. A bit over a decade on, and we’re still in uncertain terrain when it comes to electrification — the Leaf was like the Sputnik launch, and now we’re shooting for the moon.


10 — 2013 Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ

Remember Scion? Toyota’s “youth” brand seemed more popular with baby boomers than anybody else, but we still got some pretty sweet machinery out of the deal. Today’s Toyota GR86 is yesterday’s Scion FR-S, while the BRZ is, well, still the BRZ. Those who grew up with these on the market may not appreciate their significance, but considering just how un-sporty Toyota showrooms were circa 2010, these cars represented a critical inflection point for the brand. Subaru certainly benefited, but one glance at Toyota’s lineup today reveals just how much the FR-S influenced the company’s enthusiast offerings. It’s the only piece of Scion that survives in America today.


9 — 2010 Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima

In 2009, Korean cars were sensible, decently made and delivered tremendous value, but were seemingly styled for the witness protection program. Then the 2010 Hyundai Sonata landed, followed by the 2010 Kia Optima. They were literal game changers, kicking off an onslaught of products that were not only new and greatly improved, but were designed in a way that car buyers really noticed. They weren’t alone: We asked a Toyota designer once if there was a rival car introduced that made his team stop and re-evaluate what they were doing. His answer was quick: the 2010 Hyundai Sonata. Midsize family sedans could no longer be anonymous, boring boxes, and with rare exception, they never were again. While recalls cost Hyundai and Kia quite a bit of goodwill, both cars made undeniable impressions on American buyers and positioned the brands for further upmarket expansion.


8 — 2020 Chevrolet Corvette

Rumors of a mid-engine Corvette go back decades longer than Autoblog has existed, and yet it never happened. Until it finally did. And when a multi-generation American automotive icon undergoes such a radical transformation, it sure seems significant to us. Despite its radically different layout, though, at its heart was still a good, old-fashioned American V8. It was just behind the driver now. We’re not sure how significant the mid-engine Corvette will ultimately be in terms of influencing the overall automotive industry as other selections on this list did, but in terms of historical significance and the sheer quantity of enthusiast interest there was when the C8 finally dawned, this was an easy pick. 


7 — 2005 Chrysler 300

The Chrysler 300 was a seminal car that went against the grain. When the rest of the industry moved to smaller vehicles with better fuel efficiency — or doubled-down on SUVs — Chrysler dropped a V8 onto a rear-wheel-drive Mercedes chassis and said to hell with all of that. Twenty years later, the 300 remains a high-water mark for American sedans. Its styling is timeless and demonstrated that Chrysler could build an aspirational car. For Chrysler to recapture some of its early 2000s mojo, it needs to look no further than the 300.


6 — 2004 Toyota Prius

If you asked a non car person “What was the first hybrid car?” they’d almost certainly say this, the 2004 Toyota Prius. Of course, it wasn’t; it wasn’t even the first Prius. But this was the car that made “Prius” and “hybrid” synonymous with each other as well as household names. Celebrities and other wealthy folks drove them just to make an eco statement, much as they would when inevitably moving on to Teslas thereafter. It’s not hyperbole to say the Prius was a cultural phenomena, but by making hybrids both fashionable and acceptable from an automotive standpoint, it opened the door to electrification. It did so by not only because exponentially more efficient than other cars, but it was a funky in an agreeable way that clearly announced your greenness, while also being surprisingly practical. It wasn’t a dorky eco science project like its predecessor or the Honda Insight. There were those on our staff that argued vehemently for this to be higher on the list. 


5 — 2005 Ford Mustang

To understand the 2005 Mustang, look at the years prior. Camaro? Dead. Challenger/Charger? Long dead. For decades, Mustangs had carried a few design cues from the first generation but had no cohesive style — stick a pony badge on a coupe and call it a Mustang. At their nadir, some Mustangs were putting out 88 and 91 horsepower; the second generation was based on the Pinto. But the S-197 Mustang envisioned by Sid Ramnarace, Hau Thai-Tang and J Mays was a clean-sheet redesign, revolutionary and retro. (Chief designer Mays also had a hand in the VW New Beetle and retro baby Thunderbird.) The 2005 Mustang reminded boomers of the car they first fell in love with. It was the automotive equivalent of a romantic gesture. It also really helped that the Mustang GT V8 offered 300 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. Soon, the retro Camaro and Challenger came along, and many formidable Mustangs would follow. Pony cars, muscle cars were back.


4 — 2003 Porsche Cayenne

The Boxster may have saved Porsche in the late 1990s, but it’s the Cayenne that’s turned the company into the profit machine it is today (and allowed it to make increasingly amazing performance machines that almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without that war chest). Purists stuck up their noses in 2003 when the Cayenne launched, but we wouldn’t be surprised if those same naysayers are driving around in performance-focused SUVs now. Of course, they have the Cayenne to thank for kick-starting the trend. Mercedes-AMG, BMW M and Audi Sport SUVs run wild across America now and have ever since those OEMs saw how successful the Cayenne was. Porsche’s effect is still being felt today, as the most reluctant sports car and supercar brands continue to introduce high-performance SUVs – even Ferrari is joining the crowd with the Purosangue.


3 — Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

You will note that are two Wranglers shown here: the TJ and JK generations. We had some internal debate on this one as both generations were responsible for introducing the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, a more daily drivable version of America’s iconic off-roader that we’d argue was the genesis of today’s rampant trend of daily drivable off-roaders. We ultimately just said “to hell with it” and put both. The original TJ Unlimited didn’t have rear doors; it was still a two-door Wrangler but with a stretched wheelbase and therefore more back seat room. The idea for a more versatile and even family-friendly Wrangler was there, even though the concept wasn’t fully realized until the four-door JK Unlimited launched for 2007. After that, there was no going back, as Unlimited sales quickly outpaced two-doors while Wrangler sales in general started a consistent, meteoric rise. More importantly, it established a trend that continues today. With rumors swirling of the two-door Wrangler’s days being numbered, it seems wild that just two generations ago, the four-door didn’t exist at all


2 — 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Was it a plug-in hybrid? A range-extended EV? Was it a government-backed boondoggle or a genuine effort to advance powertrain technology? Whatever you want to call it, the “Government Motors” Volt was developed under serious duress. These days, a PHEV customer can afford to be a bit picky, but back in 2011, Chevy was blazing a trail. We recognized it at the time, too, as the Volt was a BIG story when it launched. Cars this fundamentally different don’t come along too often. Of course, it wasn’t a runaway sales success and GM never seemed that committed to making the Volt nor its powertrain concept successful, but with the industry and GM in particular shifting back toward hybrid tech, its legacy seems bound to be even more relevant in the coming years. 


1 – 2012 Tesla Model S

We’ve had a lot to say about Tesla, and much of it has been critical, but here’s a reality check for you. Of the 45 vehicles nominated, only one received votes from every member of the staff, and not only that, received the maximum possible from every single one of us. 80 points — a perfect score — to the Bolt’s 38. We don’t often agree on much around here, but in this case, no deliberation was necessary. It was the Model S by an absolute landslide. 

Quite simply, what car introduced in the past 20 years has done more to change the automotive industry and even the world? The Model S was not the first electric car, nor even the first Tesla, but it was what made Tesla more than just another pet project of a rich guy with more dollars than sense (although it’s totally still that). It was a real car and a wildly impressive one at that, despite the warts. More importantly, it made electric cars cool … as opposed to the exact opposite of cool considering what had come before. Making them cool and desirable to be seen in by well-heeled and fashion-forward buyers made getting one more than just an eco statement, which was vital to making electric cars viable. Without the existence and success of the Model S, there would be no Tesla today … or at least as we know it. Ergo, we wouldn’t have a car company that has fundamentally and radically changed the automotive industry. We wouldn’t have the current level of electric vehicle adoption nor the prospect of even more in the coming years, in this country and others. Say what you will about Elon Musk and the dubious empire he oversees — and believe us, we’ve said plenty — but without the Model S, the automotive world in which we live would not exist.

Honorable mentions

As noted above, our “short” list included 45 cars, meaning more than half weren’t represented in the list above, including quite a few that received votes. We feel it would be a disservice to leave them out entirely, so here’s a few of those that didn’t survive the cull. It’s a testament to how many impactful new cars have debuted over the past two decades that some of these didn’t merit more than an honorable mention. We suppose that’s a good problem to have, but it’s likely little consolation for fans of some of these rides. Were your picks done dirty? Let us know in the comments. 

  • 2003 Cadillac CTS
  • 2010 Chevy Camaro

These two breakout nameplates for GM performance were nominated but neither made the cut. The C5 Corvette Z06 was deemed juuuuust too old to qualify. Yes, it’s hair-splitting. C’est la vie.

Worth noting that this beast’s electrical successor was not even nominated. 

The thud heard (almost) ’round the world. Volkswagen managed to keep the Phaeton alive in Europe, but its highfalutin’ American aspirations died with this boondoggle. 

Ask us again in 20 years. 

After the Cayenne, Porsche’s first sedan just wasn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking. 

The S550 Mustang was a huge quality-of-life upgrade and much of its fundamental engineering still underpins the pony cars leaving Ford’s Flat Rock facility today. 

Other unibody trucks would eventually join it (see the Maverick above), but it took guts to launch the Ridgeline in a market where body-on-frame Ford Rangers could still be had for pennies by comparison. 

A pioneer in unconventional suspension design, but a bit too niche. 

  • 2013 McLaren P1
  • 2013 Ferrari La Ferrari
  • 2013 Porsche 918

This trio of hyper-hybrids set the tone for a new era of electrification in high performance. 

Ford’s return to the 4×4 space made a massive splash, but this is another one that needs time to marinate. 

Arguably, Kia’s first true breakout success. The Soul walked so Telluride could run. 

  • 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid, 2022 F-150 Lightning

Both of Ford’s electrified half-tons were nominated, but neither has really had a chance to leave its mark. 

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Junkyard Gem: 1995 Kia Sephia

Kia is a well-established brand in the United States today, with Kias seen all over our roads. The Kia brand only showed up here just about 30 years ago, though, and the very first ones were Sephia sedans. Here’s one of those now-rare cars, found in a Denver-area self-service car graveyard recently.

I’d been looking for a discarded 1994-1996 Sephia for years, but they were cheap and disposable cars and most got crushed long ago; the second-generation (1997-2003) models are much easier to find today. Then I got a tip from Mason, the knowledgeable aficionado of unappreciated Centennial State iron who runs the excellent Unloved Cars of Colorado Instagram account, about a Sephia with a 1994 build date in a local boneyard. He’d seen a listing for this car a bit earlier when it was up for sale on Facebook Marketplace and saved screenshots. Yes, a running, driving car with not-so-expired tags and just a few minor problems wouldn’t sell even with such a low price tag! What’s wrong with the world?

The build tag shows that it rolled out of the Hwaseong plant in August 1994, which was six months after four dealerships in Portland, Oregon, began selling the Sephia. Other Kia dealerships opened up elsewhere in the Western United States later that year, and today’s Junkyard Gem was sold during that period. Those of you who know old Fords might notice that the build tag sticker on the driver’s door is nearly identical to those applied to Dearborn machinery from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, and there’s a good reason for that.

Kia Motors got started in the car business by license-building vehicles in South Korea for other companies, mostly Mazdas but also Peugeots and Fiats. Then Ford partnered with Kia to build an Americanized version of the Kia Pride, itself based on the Mazda 121, which was sold here as the Ford Festiva for the 1988 through 1993 model years (and, after the Pride entered its second generation, as the 1994-1997 Ford Aspire).

Here’s the build tag for a 1990 Festiva, which uses exactly the same sticker as the ones that went onto 1990s Kias. Why re-invent the wheel decal, even if Ford’s DSO codes are totally meaningless on a Kia?

The Kia was joined by the Sportage mini-SUV later in 1995. Then Kia Motors declared bankruptcy in 1997 and was gobbled up by the Hyundai Motor Company in 1998. After that, Kias became increasingly Hyundized.

How cheap was this car? It’s a base-model RS with manual transmission, so its MSRP would have been $8,495 (about $17,722 in 2024 dollars). The 1995 Hyundai Elantra sedan started at $10,199 ($21,277 after inflation), while the base Saturn SL sedan (which almost nobody bought) could be had for as little as $9,995 ($20,951 today).

This SOHC 16-valve engine sure looks like a member of the Mazda B family, and that’s exactly what it is. Displacement is 1.8 liters, output was 125 horsepower and 108 pound-feet.

An automatic transmission added $950 ($1,982 today) to the cost of the 1995 Sephia, so the original purchaser of this car stuck with the base five-on-the-floor manual.

Air conditioning? Not for 850 bucks, thanks very much (that’s 1,773 of today’s bucks).

There’s a 1997 Air Force Academy parking sticker on the bumper, so it would seem that this car has lived all or most of its life in Colorado.

Phil Long Kia in Colorado Springs is still in business today.

It’s not a gem in the sense that it was a great car (though the case can be made that it was a pretty good value for the money when it was new), but it’s a gem of automotive history for sure.

Why not take on the Honda Civic right off the bat? The cheapest possible Civic sedan for 1995 was the DX, which had an MSRP of $11,980 (about $24,992 today). Of course, 1990s Hondas tended to last for many, many, many, many miles, but it’s best to aim high when you’re a newcomer.

This commercial is a blatant ripoff (or homage, if you prefer) of the famous 1969 AMC Rebel “Driving School” ad, right down to the horn-rim glasses on the instructor.

The Sephia’s home-market TV commercials got screaming engines and macho voiceovers. Seh-PEE-yah!

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Junkyard Gem: 1962 Chevrolet Corvair 700 4-Door Sedan

Recently, we took a look at a solid late-production Chevy Corvair coupe in a Denver junkyard, and some readers couldn’t believe that anybody would throw away such a rare classic. Hold onto your hats, Corvair fans, because eight Corvairs just showed up in the inventory of a yard in Colorado Springs. Because we just saw a coupe from the final couple of years of Corvair production, I’ve selected an early four-door sedan from the eightsome to follow it in this series.

U-Pull-&-Pay got the model years wrong for most of these cars in their system, probably because deciphering serial numbers and build tags from the pre-17-digit-VIN era requires manufacturer-specific knowledge. All eight of these Corvairs are coupes and post sedans; none are hardtop sedans, wagons, pickups, convertibles or vans.

Corvair production came to about 2 million from the 1960 through 1969 model years, and there are still plenty of project Corvairs sitting in garages and driveways, so they’re not particularly hard to find in American wrecking yards nowadays. I’ll run across two or three per year during my junkyard explorations, but finding this many at once at a U-Pull facility is a new experience for me.

The U-Pull-&-Pay employees I asked about these cars told me that a man brought them all in at once and told them that he had quite a few more Corvairs. I’m guessing that this is the result of a Corvair enthusiast with a storage lot purging unneeded parts cars.

The Corvair, with an air-cooled rear-mounted engine, was a radical design by the Detroit standards of its era and remains the most controversial American car ever made. Sales peaked in the 1961 and 1962 model years, began a gradual decline after that, then collapsed in 1966. Production continued through 1969, but by then hardly anyone was paying attention. Perhaps you blame Ralph Nader, or GM’s clumsy attempts to squash Ralph Nader, or the government regulations inspired by Ralph Nader, or the comfortingly traditional Chevy II/Nova, or even the Renault Caravelle.

I recommend that you read Aaron Severson’s exhaustively researched and annotated Corvair history — which begins with the development of a small-car concept at GM during World War II — in order to get the full story.

This car was built during at the Oakland Assembly plant in California, where production of the Chevrolet Four-Ninety kicked off in 1916. Oakland Assembly shut down in 1963, to be replaced by Fremont Assembly (which became NUMMI in 1984 and is now the Tesla Factory) about 25 miles to the southeast. The site of Oakland Assembly is  Eastmont Town Center today.

The engine is a 145-cubic-inch (2.4-liter) air-cooled pushrod boxer-six with dual carburetors and the distinctive “around-the-corner” fan belt system that looked funky but worked well. Horsepower was 80 if you got the three- or four-speed manual transmission and 84 on cars equipped with the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission.

This car does have the Powerglide, which was shifted via a little lever under the dash, to the left of the radio.

The optional AM-only radio was a $57 option, which comes to about $596 in 2024 dollars (and was worth it in order to listen to the top hits of 1962 on a scratchy mono dash speaker). Note the scary triangle-in-a-circle Civil Defense symbols at 640 and 1240 kHz; those indicated the CONELRAD stations that would give instructions in case Tupolev Tu-95s were on their way bearing thermonuclear bombs.

Below the AM radio is a Pace CB-143 23-channel CB radio of mid-1970s vintage. This unit was sold around the time that C.W. McCall’s CB-centric song “Convoy” was #1 in the music charts. By the way, you can download free MP3s of C.W.’s advice to truckers crossing the Rockies on Interstate 70 — called out via mile marker — via his website.

It appears that about three decades have passed since this car last saw regular use, based on this 1992 West Coast Gas magnetic dash calendar. Just by chance, the 1992 and 2024 calendars are the same, including the leap day in February, so a junkyard shopper who gets this one would find its remaining months relevant for current use.

The 700 was the mid-grade Corvair in 1962, sandwiched between the base 500 and the sporty Monza 900. The MSRP for today’s Junkyard Gem with automatic transmission would have been $2,268, or about $23,704 after inflation. A 1963 Ford Falcon Futura sedan with two-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic started at $2,377 ($24,843 in today’s money), but it was a bigger car with a real coolant-fed heater.

At some point, the owner of this car proudly belonged to both the Pikes Peak Corvair Club and the Corvair Society of America.

This “VAIRFIGNEWTEN” sticker must be some Corvair Society inside joke from decades past.

Worth restoring? There’s very little rust-through plus you’d find a lot of parts donors nearby, but I think it would take at least $20,000 to turn this into a $15,000 car.

Claws at trails through the glue-like ooze of Withlacoochie Swamp! Do you think the Falcon (or Valiant) could have handled that?

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Junkyard Gem: 1987 Ford Mustang LX Hatchback

With the introduction of the new Fox-platform Mustang for the 1979 model year, the Pinto-derived Mustang II was shown the door and a new era of Mustang performance began. Mustangs with ever-more-powerful V8s and turbocharged four-bangers hit the streets, rappers sang their praises and hot-rodded Ford ponies took over the drag strips. The thing is, we often forget that the Mustang also remained faithful to its origins as a sporty-looking yet economical commuter car during the Fox era, which means that plenty were sold with gas-sipping base engines and penny-pinching price tags. Here’s one of those cars, found in a North Carolina self-service knacker’s yard recently.

In 1987, the Mustang was available as a notchback two-door sedan, as a convertible and as a three-door hatchback. Except for 1979 and 1980, the hatchback always outsold the notchback during the 1979-1993 Fox era (in which more than 2.5 million Mustangs were sold).

The base engine in the 1987 Mustang LX was the 2.3-liter “Pinto” four-cylinder, rated at 90 horsepower and 130 pound-feet, and that’s what we have here.

The 1987 Mustang GT came with a 5.0-liter V8 making 225 horses and 300 pound-feet. Those wishing to get a lightweight sleeper Mustang that year could buy the LX notchback and order it with the V8 and affiliated components, which added $1,885 ($5,294 in 2024 dollars) to the car’s $8,043 sticker price ($22,591 after inflation).

The LX hatchback cost a bit more than the trunk-equipped ’87 Mustang, with an MSRP of $8,474 ($23,801 in today’s money). But this car has some costly options that pushed the price quite a bit higher, as we’ll see.

First, there’s the four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, which added $515 to the out-the-door cost ($1,447 now). There’s also air conditioning, which added between $788 and $1,028 depending on the package ($2,213 to $2,887 today). 

This car also has the nice cast aluminum wheels, which came with the V8 engine package and don’t seem to have been a factory option for 2.3-equipped cars. We can assume that these were swapped on after purchase.

The center caps were inside.

It’s in reasonably good condition for a 37-year-old car, much better than the majority of Fox Mustangs I find during my junkyard travels. Stuffing a Windsor V8 and manual transmission into one of these cars is an easy and relatively cheap project, but nobody intercepted this car during its route to the crusher. I think a hot-rodded Fox LTD or Cougar would be more fun, personally.

1987 was the model year for the Fox Mustang’s big facelift, which got rid of the old sealed-beam “four-eyes” headlights and added a grille much like the ones on Tauruses and Thunderbirds. The final year for the Fox Mustang was 1993, unless you consider the Fox-derived 1994-2004 SN95 Mustangs to be genuine Foxes.

Ford didn’t bother to make many TV commercials pitching the Mustang LX, instead focusing on the flashier GT. I was a broke college student in 1987 and a new Mustang was far out of my reach, but at least I owned a sporty Ford fastback with Windsor V8 and screaming Competition Orange paint at the time.

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