• Top 10 most significant cars in Wheels history

    Jim Kenzie gives us his list of the automobiles he feels have made an impact over the last 30 years.
    • mazda mx-5 rf
    Jim Kenzie

    This year and this month marks the 30th anniversary of the Wheels section in the Toronto Star, which became and remains the most widely read automotive publication in this country.

    I am proud and extremely fortunate to have been with it since the beginning. I have quite literally driven thousands of cars on your behalf in the pursuit of automotive truth.

    We felt it might be fun to try to list the 10 most significant vehicles I have tested in that time frame.


    Well, “significant.”

    Who says?

    Me, of course.

    I tried to limit my choices to vehicles that were introduced after the launch of Wheels. So while, for example, the Honda Civic and Dodge Caravan were undoubtedly significant, they arrived too soon.

    Disagree with my choices?

    Get your own column.

    I’m kidding, of course. I’d love your feedback — as I always have.

    And, so, in no particular order:

    Jim Kenzie is a freelance writer who has been the voice and face of Wheels for more than 30 years. He wrote about, and reviewed, automobiles in the pages of the Saturday Star for several years before Wheels was launched in September, 1986. He hasn’t missed a beat since and will continue writing columns and reviews for years to come, we hope. You can reach him at: jim@jimkenzie.com

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    • Volkswagen Sportwagen TDI (Diesel)

    Volkswagen Sportwagen TDI (Diesel)

    Roomy, good to drive, fast, fuel-efficient, nicely finished, durable, affordable. No, VW can’t sell you one right now, due to bureaucratic/political idiocy. This whole NOx thing is utter insanity. Lightning causes most NOx. ALL cars in the world contribute just 0.01 per cent of it. The Sportwagen TDI is just about the perfect car for about 70 per cent of the entire car-buying world, even if only about one per cent of the world has figured this out. Please, let us have it again. Oh, yes, Rudolf Diesel was a real person, hence his name is a proper noun. Upper-case ‘D’ for Diesel, please.
    • Audi quattro

    Audi quattro

    Another launch-date criterion deviation, but I have an excuse this time, as you will soon see. Dr. Ferdinand Piech, Dr. Porsche’s grandson, was running Audi, and wanted something to distinguish his cars from the competition. His engineers had developed a four-wheel drive system derived from the Volkswagen Iltis military vehicle. Piech figured this might be what he was looking for. Introduced in rally cars in 1980, the system allowed Audi to dominate World Championship Rallying, and also allowed Audi to punish vastly more powerful rear-drive cars in sedan racing even when it wasn’t raining. Until, of course, they were banned for being — well, too good. So, launched too early to qualify for my list. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s — after Wheels started — that four-wheel drive really migrated into more normal production cars. No, I have not forgotten about the American Motors Eagle, or early Subarus. But it was Audi that really got this ball rolling. Today, you can barely buy a luxury car that doesn’t have full-time, four-wheel drive. And no, I don’t know why ‘quattro’ has a lowercase ‘q.’
    • Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

    Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

    My esteemed editor plumped for the inclusion of the Toyota Prius, the first pure hybrid, in this list. Or maybe a pure electric like the Nissan Leaf or the admittedly excellent Tesla. How about the extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt? I said no. Because the only significance any of these have is that they have led us down the dead-end road represented by battery-powered cars. As Jim Hall — yes, Miata-Bob’s twin brother — noted when he worked on the General Motors EV-1 electric car: “There are three types of liars in the world: liars, damned liars, and battery engineers.” Ever since the Baker Electric of the early 1910s, they’ve been promising us a battery with power and range that won’t all go south when it gets cold. A century later, it is still ‘just around the corner.’ Yeah, and I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. It’s all nonsense. Which is where the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell comes in. It is the first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to be sold (well, leased ...) to the general Canadian public. Sure, you can count the number moved so far without taking off your shoes. But longer-term? Solar power catalytically cracks sea water into hydrogen and oxygen. When you burn the hydrogen, you get water. Hello? 500 kilometres of range pumped into your car in less time than it takes to fill a gas tank. Zero emissions. No batteries, so no recycling issues when they die. Hydrogen could even be piped to almost every street corner in existing pipelines, making the so-called ‘infrastructure’ issue, in fact, a near-zero issue. What the hell are we waiting for?
    • mazda-miata

    Mazda Miata (now, inexplicably, MX-5)

    An MGB that didn’t leak oil onto your driveway. That was the idea behind the cocktail napkin sketch which former car scribe Bob Hall and Mazda North America designer Mark Jordan roughed out after-hours in a bar in Irvine, Calif. Sure, the lines were lifted straight from the Lotus Elan of the mid-’60s. But it was and remains one of the purest driving experiences you can buy. It’s cheap. It’s bulletproof. It is irrationally denigrated by some as a “woman’s car.” So what? Women can like sports cars, too. Lady Leadfoot loves hers. It is also the most-raced production car in the world. And after the mostly massively boring cars of the 1980s, it brought pure joy back into the car market.
    • Lexus RX350

    Lexus RX350

    This might have merely been a Toyota Camry wagon on steroids and dipped in gold. It started the current craze for compact luxury crossovers and was also in the vanguard of hybrid vehicles. But none of those reasons are why it made my list. As the first modern luxury car to be manufactured in Canada, it provided further proof that Canadians build the best cars in the world. Over most of the past 30 years: Toyota’s best plant? Cambridge. General Motors’ best plant? Oshawa. Ford’s best plant? Oakville. Chrysler’s best plant? Bramalea. Honda’s best plant? Alliston. Not just for quality, either, but for efficiency, too. So, why is everybody heading for Mexico? (Although, if GM is any indication, maybe that trend is starting to reverse …) Finally, a question I don’t have any answer for.
    • Lexus LS400

    Lexus LS400

    Could the Japanese out-luxury the Germans? Yep. Sure, the LS400 was a dead-nuts copy of the contemporary Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Sure, it wasn’t as much fun to drive as its Japanese co-conspirator, Infiniti Q45. And sure again, Toyota’s ultra-deep pockets and 20-year planning horizon allowed them to effectively sell an $80,000 car for $50,000. But the Lexus set new standards for quality and customer service that simply forced all other carmakers to up their games.
    • aCURA nsX

    Acura NSX

    Could the Japanese build a better Ferrari? Yep. It was technologically advanced with its aluminum structure, handled with the very best, was fast yet remarkably frugal, thanks to its V6 engine. Only a less-than-imposing interior let the side down a little. I drove one at the launch of the new NSX earlier this year. Stands up remarkably well for a 26-year-old car.
    • Chevrolet Corvette C7

    Chevrolet Corvette C7

    True, the first Corvette was launched in 1953, thus breaking my ‘introduced since Wheels started’ criterion. But the 2014 C7 model was the first Corvette that could be compared to the best the world could offer without adding the slightly pejorative addendum “for the price.” Sure, it is still cheap as dirt compared to any car that can begin to run with it. But with technology like Magnetic Ride Control (which it launched several generations ago) which offers the best ride-handling balance in the industry (if it’s good enough for Ferrari, it’s good enough for you), a small-block V8 that traces its heritage almost back to the first-gen Corvette, and fit and finish and interior design light years ahead of anything Corvette owners have ever seen, this is a remarkable car.
    • Ford F-Series

    Ford F-Series

    This is another exception to my criterion that only vehicles introduced since Wheels started make this list. The F-Series has been around longer than Santa Claus. But the 2015 model, constructed nearly entirely of aluminum, is the first high-volume product to take weight reduction seriously. Even Henry Ford knew weight is the enemy of every aspect of vehicle performance; he would have been proud his successors have done this. Sure, Audi, Jaguar and others have built aluminum cars before. And sure, the weight reduction on the F-Series didn’t result in a very sizable reduction in the truck’s EPA fuel consumption numbers. But this is the bestselling vehicle in North America, one of the highest-production vehicles in the world, selling in a very price-sensitive market segment. And Ford can build it in this volume at this price? It doesn’t get much more significant than that. C’mon everybody else — get on with it.
  • SAAB 900 light-pressure turbo

    The car industry ain’t the Olympics — sometimes, being first does not win you the gold medal. A couple of decades ago, Per Gillbrand, chief engine engineer for SAAB, the ‘other’ Swedish car company, said that to get performance with good fuel consumption and low emissions, you had to go four-cylinder turbo. It worked a treat. The SAAB 900 and other models which used this system did all of the above, with little of the turbo lag so often associated with turbo engines. Never mind the high-pressure turbocharged SAABs, which were simply road rockets. Today, just about everybody is going four-cylinder turbo. SAAB, which was first, is now effectively defunct. Small consolation, Mr. Gillbrand, but you can walk proud knowing you were right.