15 Greatest Cars of the 21st Century
Kiplinger ranks cars and SUVs every year, choosing the best in various price categories based on performance, value and safety.
Kiplinger ranks cars and SUVs every year, choosing the best in various price categories based on performance, value and safety. So we combed a decade and a half 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 have endured the test of time with continuing quality and sales.
One clear takeaway: Cars have gotten better and better since the turn of the millennium. The new models are more fuel-efficient and more powerful and pack a lot more high-tech content than vehicles did 15 years ago. Plus, they are safer—stability control became standard equipment in 2012, and a slew of other features, such as rearview cameras and forward-collision warning, are making their way to less-expensive models.
The really good news: All of these 2015 models are better values today than their forebears of a decade and a half ago. For example, the Subaru Forester sold for $20,590 in 2000; the 2015 model has a sticker price of just $23,045. That's a minuscule increase, especially when you consider that the 2000-model price would be $28,414 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
- Sticker price: $22,925 (LX)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 54%/40%
MPG (city/highway): 24/34
Sticker price, 2000 model: $15,765 (DX)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 21/27
- Why it’s among the greatest: This is a family sedan that thinks it’s a performance sedan, and it outperforms most other sedans on resale value.
The Accord’s reputation for reliability keeps resale values high and keeps customers returning to showrooms. The car has won seven Best in Class or Best New model nods from Kiplinger in the past 15 years. You can choose from a plethora of models—from the modest LX, a four-cylinder with cloth seats and manual transmission (details above), to the near-luxury Touring V6 ($34,450), with leather seats, navigation, forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning. After an unsuccessful flirtation with a sporty hybrid model between 2005 and 2007, a hybrid returned to the lineup in 2014. The hybrid gets 47 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. All models come standard with a rearview camera, Pandora Internet radio and SMS text messaging.
- Sticker price $21,975 (SE)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 48%/34%
MPG (city/highway): 25/37
Sticker price, 2000 model: $15,434 (base)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 19/27
- Why it’s among the greatest: It’s extra fuel-efficient and still backed by a five-year comprehensive warranty.
The Sonata is nipping at the heels of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in the midsize sedan category—but it has a full-size interior, per federal standards, with roughly the same outside dimensions as its competitors. At Kiplinger, we ranked both the 2006 and 2007 models as Best in Class and also acknowledged the Sonata as a Best New model in 2006 and 2011. Like its benchmarks, Hyundai offers a four-cylinder entry-level model (listed above) and a hybrid. But instead of a V6 in its upscale models, Hyundai has turbocharged a four-cylinder up to 245 horsepower. The extensive warranties that the carmaker had to offer to atone for its rough start in the U.S. market are still in place on the new models, even though they're light-years ahead in quality.
- Sticker price: $23,795 (LE)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 50%/40%
MPG (city/highway): 25/35
Sticker price, 2000 model: $17,873 (CE)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 21/29
Why it’s among the greatest: Comfort, quality and reliability keep buyers coming back.
Toyota keeps restyling the Camry, America's top-selling car for 12 years running, in an effort to create more sex appeal. Its 2015 facelift is its best shot yet. But cutting-edge design is not why people purchase Camrys—they're buying a reputation for comfort, quality, strong resale values and, above all, reliability. That reputation took a hit in 2010, when Toyota had to launch a massive recall to repair accelerator pedals that could cause unintended acceleration. But Toyota has worked hard to earn back trust, and we gave the Camry the nod for Best in Class in 2004 and 2013. Camry also earned a Kiplinger’s Best New model award in 2007 and 2012.
- Sticker price: $25,025 (Two)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 45%/28%
MPG (city/highway): 51/48
Sticker price, 2001 model : $20,450 (base)
MPG (city/highway) for 2001: 42/41
- Why it’s among the greatest: Still the go-to green car, the Prius has spawned a family and gone mainstream.
When the first gas-electric hybrid Prius made its U.S. debut in 2001, it barely registered a blip in market share. But 14 years and two redesigns later, the 2015 Prius is roomier, peppier and more fuel-efficient than ever, not to mention still affordable (you can also buy the slightly larger Prius v and the smaller and less expensive Prius c).
The Prius has become more than a green lifestyle statement among economy cars; plenty of drivers who own no Birkenstocks but do have long commutes have run the numbers and figured the Prius would be a money-saver. The Prius has paved the way for a slew of other hybrids and is still the most popular hybrid on the road, with over a million sold in North America alone. Fears that the car's expensive battery pack would be a long-term liability haven't panned out. And a plug-in version is now available for drivers who want to burn even less gasoline.
- Sticker price: $17,765 (i SV)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 60%/43%
MPG (city/highway): 29/41
Sticker price, 2000 : $12,420 (Protegé DX)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 25/31
- Why it’s among the greatest: “Zoom Zoom” isn’t just a fading ad campaign.
When the Mazda3 was introduced 11 years ago as the successor to the Protegé, we named it a Best New Car. And it has continued to impress us over the years as its styling, standard features and performance evolved while the price tag remained restrained. With the Mazda3 (available in sedan or hatchback), Mazda's long experience in the small-car biz shows in the snappy response from both the base 2.0-liter and available 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines and tight, accurate steering. Available items, such as radar-based cruise control, a blind-spot warning system and headlights that steer to light your way around corners, were the reserve of luxury cars only a few years ago.
- Sticker price: $21,515 (TSI S 4dr)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 49%/36%
MPG (city/highway): 25/36
Sticker price, 2000 model : $16,875 (GLS 4-dr)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 24/31
- Why it’s among the greatest: You get German engineering in a compact sedan for an economy price.
Following the massive hit of the Beetle, the Golf (then called Rabbit in the U.S.) hit the highways of America in 1975. Sure-footed handling and zippy performance have long been its hallmarks. Add to that a reasonable entry price, oodles of cargo space and top marks for resale value, and you can see why it has been a Kiplinger’s Best pick five times since 2000. Redesigned for the 2015 model year, the Golf is now bigger, yet new powertrains make it more efficient. You can choose between a turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine and Volkswagen’s TDI diesel (now starting at $22,815), as well as such options as adaptive headlights and forward-collision warning.
BMW 3 series
- Sticker price: $33,900 (320i)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 44%/30%
MPG (city/highway): 23/36
Sticker price, 2000 model : $27,560 (323i)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 18/26
- Why it’s among the greatest: This is an affordable entree to the world of ultimate driving machines.
Many drivers who could afford more actually prefer the compact size and deft maneuverability of the 3 series sedans over the bigger Bimmers. Launched in 1975, the 3 is now in its sixth generation, so it benefits from years of refinement. Kiplinger’s has bestowed a Best award on 3 series models three times since 2000. The 320i is the least-pricey sedan in the lineup and the most bare-bones, with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. On the other end of the spectrum is the ActiveHybrid3 ($51,100), with all manner of driver comfort and assistance packages available, from heated rear seats and steering wheel to head-up display and pedestrian warning. You can also get a diesel model (the 328d, starting at $39,950), a GranTurismo hatchback and a wagon (the coupe and convertible were renamed the 4 series last year).
- Sticker price: $53,225 (E350 Luxury)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 44%/29%
MPG (city/highway): 20/29
Sticker price, 2000 model : $47,695 (E320)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 18/27
- Why it’s among the greatest: For the price, you get an unparalleled package of performance and safety.
The midsize E-Class has received our Best in Class designation (as a sedan or wagon) five times—based on its power, roominess and resale value. In addition to the mainstay 6-cylinder model (whose specs are above), the E-Class constellation includes a hybrid ($58,025), the turbocharged E400 ($63,275), several wagon options and a supercar—the E63 AMG 4matic ($94,525), with a 550-hp V8 that will go from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds, roughly the time it takes to say the full name of this boutique model. Mercedes has also often offered a diesel in the E-Class and its antecedents. It gets 42 mpg on the highway, so you'll need to stop for a bathroom break well before it uses half a tank of fuel.
- Sticker price: $24,200 (LX)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 63%/49%
MPG (city/highway): 27/34
Sticker price, 2000 model : $18,965 (LX)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 20/23
- Why it’s among the greatest: The consummate grocery getter’s got what other small crossovers emulate.
The CR-V has been a steady Eddie of the small-crossover market since it was born in 1997. Handling like a car but with SUV-esque ride height and cargo space, it drew buyers in, spawned many imitators and won four Kiplinger’s Best awards since 2000.
The fourth generation, introduced in 2012, balances driver safety and convenience with standard features such as a rearview camera, Pandora Internet radio and SMS text messaging for compatible smartphones, which reads aloud incoming texts and lets you respond with preset messages that are displayed on the touchscreen. The rear seats flip down with the touch of a lever when you want to increase cargo space from 35 to 71 cubic feet. New for 2015: a suite of optional safety equipment that includes forward-collision warning with automatic braking and lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, which will steer you back into your lane if you start to drift.
- Sticker price: $23,045 (2.5i)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 66%/50%
MPG (city/highway): 22/29
Sticker price, 2000 model : $20,590 (L)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 19/25
- Why it’s among the greatest: Mud season is no match for this all-wheel-drive classic. Plus, owners LOVE its high resale values.
From the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Olympic Mountains of Washington state, the Forester is an all-wheel-drive staple where hills, snow and mud make navigating dicey. When it debuted in the late 1990s, this crossover blended the off-road capability of an SUV with the packaging of a small wagon. Over the years, it has gotten bigger and taller, though the Forester still boasts one of the lowest step-in heights in the compact crossover segment. The fourth-generation Forester has the most legroom in the category and more cargo space than prior models.
Safety is a key to Subaru’s brand—nearly every model in its lineup, including the Forester, earns a Top Safety Pick from IIHS. A rearview camera is standard on all models for 2015, and current models feature a driver’s knee air bag and a suite of optional safety features, including forward-collision warning with automatic braking. Kiplinger’s has awarded the Forester a Best award four times since 2000.
- Sticker price: $31,595 (Base)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 55%/39%
MPG (city/highway): 17/24
Sticker price, 2000 model: $22,925 (Base)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 16/21
- Why it’s among the greatest: Some 24 years after its debut, the Explorer is still one of the best values in midsize SUVs.
When it hit the streets for the first time in 1991, the Ford Explorer was an instant hit, outselling the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet Blazer throughout its first generation and quickly climbing to best-seller status.
Refinement has crept in over the years. A move from the traditional body-on-frame truck architecture to a unibody in 2011, after gas prices drove many would-be SUV buyers to crossovers, brought many buyers back. Last year, improvements borrowed from the top-of-the-line Sport model included bigger brakes to improve stopping distance and towing performance, and an electric-assisted power-steering rack for more responsive handling. Available features include heated second-row seats and adaptive cruise control. The Explorer received a Best New model award in 2011 and Best in Class for 2014.
Lexus RX 350
- Sticker price: $41,895
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 61%/43%
MPG (city/highway): 18/25
Sticker price, 2000 model: $33,000
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 17/24
- Why it’s among the greatest: The first luxury crossover keeps its value for the long term.
The first luxury crossover debuted as a 1999 model, and despite a rash of competitors, it remains popular—with a resale value that is one of the best in the industry. But versatility is its middle name: A serviceable kid-hauler by day, the RX also has enough style to take two couples out to dinner and the theater by night—just throw the booster seats in back and sweep out loose Cheerios.
Lexus has kept the RX well-stocked with safety and technology features. The latest-generation RX has 10 air bags and an available collision-warning system that helps brake the car to avoid a crash. Lexus rolled out a hybrid version, the RX 400h, in April 2005. The RX (known in its previous iterations as the RX 300 and RX 330) has earned our Best in Class designation three times.
- Sticker price: $29,855 (LX)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 54%/39%
MPG (city/highway): 19/28
Sticker price, 2000 model: $23,815 (LX)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 16/23
- Why it’s among the greatest: Seating for seven (or eight) and 15 cup holders. Enough said.
Chrysler invented the minivan in the early 1980s, but the Honda Odyssey took the concept to a higher level. The Odyssey has won Best in Class honors eight times since 2000—more than the Dodge/Chrysler and the Toyota Sienna minivans—because it keeps upping the ante with more power, fuel-efficiency and refinement. The 2014 model got a fresh face and an optional…wait for it…integrated vacuum cleaner. You can pimp this soccer-mom ride with available leather seats, a split-screen rear entertainment system, a 12-speaker audio system, a voice-controlled navigation system and a cool mini fridge; a rearview camera comes standard. Also no extra charge: 15 cup holders.
- Sticker price: $54,995 (Stingray coupe with 1LT)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 67%/50%
MPG (city/highway): 17/29
Sticker price, 2000 model: $38,900 (base)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 16/25
- Why it’s among the greatest: It’s an American icon, with beastly power and a relatively tame price.
In the past 15 years, Corvette has won a Kiplinger's Best award six times. Why? It’s a beast, but the price is downright tame when you compare it with equally fast (0 to 60 in four seconds or less) European performance rides. The Corvette also boasts considerable cargo room where the backseat would otherwise be.
The Vette was introduced in 1953, but unlike its human baby boomer peers, it has been getting faster and more powerful of late. Redesigned last year, with looks inspired by the ’63 Sting Ray, the Corvette has features that appeal to your head, not just your heart. The 21st-century Stingray features an aluminum frame, carbon fiber bits throughout, direct fuel injection and the ability to cruise on just four cylinders—all of which help boost fuel economy to a responsible 29 mpg on the highway without losing an ounce of the thrill. Its deep, throaty growl from the 6.2-liter, 455-horsepower engine doesn’t hurt, either.
- Sticker price: $24,425 (Fastback V6)
Resale value (3 yrs./5 yrs.): 60%/45%
MPG (city/highway): 17/28
Sticker price, 2000 model: $22,925 (base)
MPG (city/highway) for 2000: 16/21
- Why it’s among the greatest: The only pony car in continuous production for half a century keeps getting better.
For much of its 50-year history, the Mustang had something of a split personality—there were the V8-powered models, and then there were the others. The V8s got most of the attention, from car fans and the police alike. But more recently, the lesser siblings have made leaps and strides. The base V6 model now boasts 300 horsepower, along with huge vented-disk brakes to undo all that speed.
The latest engine offering, making its debut in the 2015 model year, is a four-cylinder. Yes, this has been tried before, back during the gas crises of the 1970s, but now the motor is turbocharged to 310 horsepower (when you use 93-octane gas) and offers fuel economy better than the base V6.