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9 unlikely autos that changed cars forever

9 unlikely autos that changed cars forever

At first glance nothing about these cars and trucks jumps off the page. Yet they were the proving ground for car tech and car-building techniques that influence how our autos are built.

1984 Jeep Cherokee: Unibody

The much-beloved Cherokee was the first large-production unibody truck. A new welding process kept this light body together for great on- and off-road dynamics and a stiff chassis, with much less weight and floppiness than competitors from Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford, and GM. Nissan was the next to follow suit with its Pathfinder, but not until 1996.

2001 Nissan Pathfinder: Autonomous Off-Roading

Electronic ascent and descent control eliminated some driver skill (and human error) from off-roading. The Pathfinder's antilock brake system was tuned so that the driver need only hold the brake when descending steep hills, which previously was a dangerous no-no for off-road driving. Accelerating up dirt hills always required a deft touch of the throttle—prior to the Pathfinder's carefully tuned traction control system, that is. It worked best if the driver floored the gas pedal, a definite counterintuitive move in any other off-roader at the time.

1989 Toyota Celica: Rounded Design

The end of the Toyota Celica coupe's square, angled shape was not merely a styling decision. In '89, not one panel on the new Celica had a crease or a sharp angle in it. Reason: Toyota quietly said that while all previous metal stamping presses and brakes at its factories had been set up to make perfect angles, the company was anxious that budding Korean carmakers would easily copy its square cars. Toyota developed complex, compound curve stamping because it accurately predicted that would-be imitators would have a hard time copying the shape.

2005 Chevrolet Corvette: Automotive Neurology

A 22-gauge twisted-pair cable, more commonly found in computer labs and wired offices, spanned the length of the C6 Corvette when it debuted for 2005. It opened the door for connected body and component computers to monitor and control the entire car, bringing on the computerized nervous system that's common today.

1994 Oldsmobile Aurora: Origami Sheet Metal

The use of sheet metal folded, layered, welded into complex boxed sections, as opposed to using simply heavy beams, brought two things to car design: First, the body became much stiffer, and second, parts of the car previously used just to keep rain and wind off the passengers became useful structural components—part of controlled crush zones for energy absorption in a crash.

1983 Audi Quattro: Get a Grip

Although Subaru was known for sending torque to all four wheels of a passenger car and using modern suspensions (as opposed to a truck's live axles), that company's driveline systems remained part-time and clunky for drivers to use on dry pavement, requiring an extra transfer case shift lever. Audi's Quattro system was a full-time tech and demonstrated the benefits of all-wheel drive for sports and performance cars.

1984 Lincoln Continental Mark VII: Stopping and Illumination

The first volume-produced American car to have antilock braking, the loaded Lincoln two-door coupe was also first to feature nonsealed-beam flush-molded headlights. This had a dramatic influence on the styling of all American cars since.


1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible: Open Top for Snow Season

Before his fantastic success guiding Mazda to a Le Mans racing win in 1991, Takaharu "Koby" Kobayakawa was an engineer and manager for the RX-7 convertible in the mid-1980s. He also loved to ski. He thought it would be fun to show up at his favorite ski resort in a convertible with its top down but in warm comfort, a desire that led him to invent the wind blocker. Carefully aimed heater vents helped the car achieve Koby's wish. The design was later imitated by Mercedes for its 1990 SL roadster and by almost all convertible manufacturers since.

1989 Nissan Maxima: Imports, All Grown Up

Back in the 1980s a Japanese excise tax limited cars marketed there to a maximum of 66.5 inches wide. That hurt Japanese automakers' attempts to sell luxury cars in America, where, for example, the Acura Legend wasn't taken too seriously because it was smaller than luxury cars from Europe and the U.S. That changed with the 69-inch-wide 1989 Nissan Maxima, which led to the breakout of Japanese cars to worldwide sizes.

 [Related: 25 Most Compelling Cars Worth Waiting For]