These vehicles changed people's lifestyles and habits as well as automakers' long-term strategies. Some even changed governments.
Remember the Yugo? The tiny coupe made by Serbia's Zastava corporation sold for $3,990 when it first came out in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, and it achieved relative success as an inexpensive, bare bones, sub-compact car. But U.N. sanctions on Yugoslavia eventually forced Zastava to remove the line from American showrooms by 1992. The auto industry--and the world around it--is probably no better or worse off from the Yugo having existed.
The Toyota Prius, however, is the best-selling hybrid ever. It sold more than 155,000 units in the U.S. last year and outsold every other car--hybrid or not--in Japan last month. It's also responsible for single-handedly revitalizing Toyota ( TM - news - people ) as the eco-conscious company of the new millennium, at least in the eyes of consumers.
"Toyota just hit a home run with the Prius," says Mike Caudill, an automotive expert for the vehicle data Web site NADA Guides. "They hit on all cylinders at the right time."
It's safe to say the Prius changed the automotive world as we know it. It joins the ranks of other iconic cars that also have had a lasting impact, such as the Porsche 911 and the ubiquitous Volkswagen ( VLKAF.PK - news - people ) Beetle. These vehicles not only carved a place in history, they'll continue to influence the auto world for years to come.
To compile our list of cars that changed the world, we consulted a panel of auto experts that included NADA's Caudill; Lincoln Merrihew, senior vice president of business solutions for market-research firm TNS; and Rob Huting, the general manager of AutoTrader Classics, an online marketplace for vintage and classic cars. They selected vehicles that were the first of their kind and that influenced the design and performance elements of the entire industry.
They also chose cars with staying power: The Ford Mustang, for instance, has been in production since its initial launch in 1964.
The Mustang holds a singular place in American muscle-car lore. It's joined in the segment by the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro, but is the undisputed king of America's obsession with horsepower and torque.
"It was the first pony car," Merrihew says. "It was the first to do the American thing with the long hood, short deck, which really emphasized the engine."
Ford unveiled the first Mustang at the New York World's Fair in 1964, and the car went on sale that day, offered as either a notchback coupe or convertible. It was an immediate hit, selling more than a half-million units by 1965. It gained even more credibility when Carroll Shelby, looking for a race-ready answer to Chevrolet's Corvette, custom-built the GT 350 model in 1965 and started a legend of modified Mustangs that are still produced today.
Last month, the car sold 8,812 units, 8.5% down from 2008 but down much less than the Dodge Charger (down 59.7%) and Chevrolet Corvette (down 43.4%).
A Car for the People
Perhaps less elite than the Mustang--but no less industry-changing--is the Volkswagen Beetle. Known for its reliability and global cult status, it was produced from 1938 until 2003, interrupted only by WWII (the last rear-engine Beetle, the 21,529,464th made, was assembled in Mexico in 2003). Production of a new version, the Volkswagen New Beetle, began in 1998.
"What the Volkswagen Beetle did in Europe was what the Model T did in America," Huting says. "The Volkswagen Beetle brought affordable motoring to the masses. And it didn't just do it in Europe initially in the '50s, it kept doing it around the world as the production of the Beetle moved."
The tiny car was the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche, who had designed race cars for Astro-Daimler (which owned Mercedes) in the early 1900s and had long thought about making a small car that would be popular with the common man.
At the 1934 Berlin Motor Show, Adolf Hitler expressed his interest in supporting the creation of such a car, and the two men developed plans to produce one that eventually became known as the Beetle (it was known variously as the KdF-Wagen, Type 60 and Kübelwagen, among other names).
Despite the macabre history of one of its principal backers, the car earned a reputation as a fun, inexpensive vehicle that was as useful as it was reliable. Its air-cooled rear engine even formed the inspiration for the Porsche ( PSEPF.PK - news - people ) 911's similar construction.
Muted History Makers
Several lesser-knowns made a major impact as well, though not necessarily for the right reasons. The Trabant was an East German car made to prove that centralized government planning could provide cheap transport for all workers. It couldn't; the car was dirty and unreliable. But historians cite the vehicle's poor performance and the time it took to get one (years, most often) as factors in the downfall of communism.
"In an ironic way, when East Germany saw how far behind they were on a lot of things, including cars, that's what helped the Wall come down," Merrihew says. "It got them mobile, and it gave them the essence of democracy, but at the same time it was a perfect measuring stick for how far they were behind."
Jeep's Cherokee didn't change governments, but it did change the entire auto industry for decades. It was the first mid-size SUV to be made and sold in high volume, forcing the rest of the industry to follow suit. And Dodge's Caravan, introduced in 1984, created the minivan segment that sent an entire generation of practicality minded parents to dealerships.
The future look and performance of motoring, however, looks a whole lot smaller, experts say. They expect tiny cars like the Tata Nano and hybrid electrics like Fisker Karma to lead the way. Along with those two, Chevrolet's plug-in Volt has the potential to make a lasting impression on automotive history.
But first, Fisker must prove its mettle as a small-but-elite car company, and GM must successfully wade through its bankruptcy. Otherwise, both cars will be parked alongside the Yugo, rather than on this list.