Buying & Leasing a Car

10 Best Cars of the Past Decade

These iconic and pioneering vehicles are better values than ever.

How does anyone pick the 10 best vehicles of the past 10 years? Fortunately, Kiplinger ranks cars and SUVs every year, picking the best in various price categories based on performance, value and safety. So we combed a decade's worth of our buyer’s guides to find the vehicles that showed up as winners time and time again. When the choices got tough, we gave the nod to iconic vehicles that pioneered a category and have stood the test of time.

If there’s one big takeaway here, it’s that most of these picks are better values today than a decade ago. For example, the Lexus RX 300 sold for $36,150 in 2001; the 2011 RX 350 stickers for just $38,850. That’s a minuscule increase, especially when you consider that the 2001-model price would be $45,914 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Meanwhile, the new models are much safer, more powerful and more fuel-efficient and pack a lot more high-tech content than they did ten years ago.

Economy TOYOTA PRIUS

Sticker price: $23,810 (2011 Prius II)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): NA/NA

Horsepower: 134

MPG (city/highway): 51/48

Sticker price, 2001 model: $19,995

Horsepower for 2001: 70

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 42/41 (revised)

When the Prius made its U.S. debut in 2001, it barely registered a blip in the auto industry. But then the Hollywood green crowd adopted the little gas-electric hybrid as a symbol of saving the planet. Ten years and two redesigns later, the 2011 Prius is roomier, peppier and even more fuel-efficient than its predecessors, not to mention still affordable. It has paved the way for a slew of other hybrids and alternative-energy vehicles, and is still the most popular hybrid on the road today.

Family Sedan HONDA ACCORD

Sticker price: $27,830 (2011 EX V6)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 57%/39%

Horsepower: 271

MPG (city/highway): 20/30

Sticker price, 2001 model: $25,540

Horsepower for 2001: 200

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 18/26 (revised)

For most of the decade, the Accord has vied with the Toyota Camry for overall best-seller in the U.S. But Accord has outshone Camry in the Kiplinger rankings, winning four nods in the past ten years, to Camry’s two. Accord fans seem to prefer a slightly stiffer, sportier suspension and more weighted steering feel than Camry stalwarts. Its outstanding resale value and reliability have also won customers. You can choose from a plethora of models – from the modest LX, a four-cylinder with cloth seats and manual transmission ($22,730) to the near-luxury EX-L V6, with leather seats, navigation and rear-view camera ($32,380).

Entry Luxury BMW 3-SERIES

Sticker price: $34,025 (2011 328i)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 59%/38%

Horsepower: 230

MPG (city/highway): 18/28

Sticker price, 2001 model: $27,560 (325i)

Horsepower for 2001: 184

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 18/27 (revised)

BMW has a long heritage as maker of “the ultimate driving machine,” and the 3-series is an affordable way to gain entry—although many drivers actually prefer its compact size and deft maneuverability over the bigger Bimmers. The 3-series, launched in 1975, is now in its fifth generation, so it benefits from years of refinement. The 328i is the least-pricey model in the lineup; on the other end of the spectrum is the diesel BMW 335d ($44,825), which came to the U.S. in the 2010 model year (when it won Kiplinger’s Best in Class honors). You can also get a 3-series coupe, cabriolet and wagon.

Luxury LEXUS LS 460

Sticker price: $66,255 (2011)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 54%/35%

Horsepower: 380

MPG (city/highway): 16/24

Sticker price, 2001 model: $57,990 (LS 430)

Horsepower for 2001: 290

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 16/23

The Lexus LS has won a Kiplinger’s Best award a remarkable eight times over the past ten years. The luxury division of Toyota introduced its flagship sedan in 1989 as a competitor to the Euro luxmobiles, such as the Mercedes S-Class, at a much lower price. Over 10 years, its record of reliability is unmatched in its class. Last redesigned for the 2007 model year, it is superbly crafted and a technology leader –- for example, it was the first car sold in the U.S. that could park itself. Status seekers may still consider the LS a luxury wannabe, but we think it has proven its mettle.

Luxury MERCEDES-BENZ E-CLASS

Sticker price: $50,275 (2011 E350)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 52%/30%

Horsepower: 268

MPG (city/highway): 17/24

Sticker price, 2001 model: $48,195 (E320)

Horsepower for 2001: 221

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 18/26 (revised)

Understated yet elegant, the E-Class has been a luxury segment staple since it was first introduced in the 1950s and later badged the E320 in 1994. Over the past decade, Kiplinger has picked the E-Class as best sedan or wagon five times -- based on its power, roominess, resale value and reasonable sticker price. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class also comes in a diesel version ($51,775), a V8-powered E550 ($57,975), a coupe, a cabriolet, a wagon and a supercar -- the E63 AMG ($137,835), with a 518-hp 6.3-liter V8 that will rev up from zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds.

Sports Car CHEVROLET CORVETTE

Sticker price: $49,900 (2011)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 55%/38%

Horsepower: 430

MPG (city/highway): 16/26

Sticker price, 2001 model: $40,475

Horsepower for 2001: 350

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 17/26 (revised)

In the past decade, Corvette has won a Kiplinger's Best award in the sports car category six times. Why? Beastly power, a tame price and considerable cargo room, where the back seat would otherwise be. The Vette was introduced in 1953, and it has aged along with the baby boomers -– getting more powerful and faster with the years. The sixth generation Vette is shorter and narrower than its predecessor -– more like the European sports cars -– and the fastest yet: It clocks zero to 60 in 4 seconds flat. You can also get the Corvette in a convertible. And if 430 horses aren’t enough, consider the Z06 (505 hp) or the ZR1 (638 hp). Both have top speeds of around 200 miles per hour.

Crossover FORD ESCAPE

Sticker price: $24,595 (2011 XLT 4-cyl.)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 48%/31%

Horsepower: 171

MPG (city/highway): 21/28

Sticker price, 2001 model: $21,360

Horsepower for 2001: 127

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 21/26 (revised)

Built on a car platform with unibody construction, rather than body on frame, the Escape is more rugged than its crossover cousins, such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Ford introduced this now-ubiquitous compact SUV ten years ago. It’s available in a two- or four-wheel-drive version, and in four or six cylinders. Escape was also the first hybrid SUV, with the 2004 model year.

Luxury Crossover LEXUS RX 350

Sticker price: $38,850

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 62%/41%

Horsepower: 275

MPG (city/highway): 18/25

Sticker price, 2001 model: $36,150

Horsepower for 2001: 220

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 17/21 (revised)

This first luxury crossover debuted as a 1999 model, and it’s still the best-seller in its class, despite a rash of new competitors. It's popularity props up its resale value -- one of the best in the industry. But versatility is its middle name: A serviceable grocery-getter by day, the RX easily transforms into a stylish vehicle for going out to dinner and the theater by night. Lexus has kept the RX on the cutting edge of safety and technology features. The latest-generation RX has ten airbags and a collision warning system that helps brake the car to avoid a crash. Lexus rolled out a hybrid version in April 2005.

Truck-Based SUV CHEVROLET SUBURBAN

Sticker price: $41,875 (2011 LS)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 51/34

Horsepower: 320

MPG (city/highway): 15/21

Sticker price, 2001 model (1500): $26,656

Horsepower for 2001: 285

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 13/16 (revised)

The Suburban, as much as any vehicle, is an apt symbol of the SUV-ization of America. This behemoth earns its place as a top ten pick with its massive cargo capacity (90 cubic feet) and people moving prowess (up to nine passengers, more than minivans). The nameplate has been in continuous use since 1935 –- longer than any other automobile. Sales peaked in 2001 but have dwindled since, as gas prices rose and new large crossover SUVs won converts. Chevrolet also boosted the price tag by about $15,000 in ten years -- more than the industry average and at about twice the inflation rate. That may have dampened sales, but it still does its job well.

Minivan HONDA ODYSSEY

Sticker price: $31,730 (2011 EX)

Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 58/36

Horsepower: 248

MPG (city/highway): 18/27

Sticker price, 2001 model: $26,840

Horsepower for 2001: 210

MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 16/23 (revised)

Chrysler invented the minivan back in the early 1980s, but the Honda Odyssey took the concept up a higher road. Odyssey has won best honors six times in the past decade -- more than the Dodge/Chrysler and the Toyota Sienna minivans -– because it keeps upping the ante with more power, fuel-efficiency and refinement. The lastest redesign, which went on sale in September 2010, has a new, sleeker look, and you can pimp this ride with available leather seats, split screen rear entertainment system, 12-speaker audio system, voice-controlled navigation system and the “cool box” mini fridge. No extra charge: 15 cup holders.

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