The modern automobile market is filled with hundreds of models from dozens of manufacturers. Every year, new models are introduced, old models are retired, and popular models are refreshed or redesigned. But in this vast, ever-changing sea of options, there are always models that set trends and define their segments. Not every model makes a name for itself for the same reasons – some may be practical commuters, some may be powerful workhorses, and some may simply stand out for their showy looks. A look back on the most influential autos of 2021 reveals a diverse mix of body styles, price points, and capabilities, but every one of these models has its own claim to fame that helped it to shape the modern automotive industry.
The most influential vehicles are rarely the most expensive or the best choice for every driver, and they are not always even the best-sellers in their segments, but they each bring something special to the table that no other model offers. Our choices include everything from brand-new models that took an innovative approach to dominate their segment to well-proven vehicles that rely on their tried and true nature to take on the competition. Every market segment is different, emphasizing different qualities in the vehicles that compete in it, but these influential models redefine what is needed to be competitive.
Most Influential Truck – 2021 Ford F-150
- Best-in-Class Towing and Payload
- Unique Hybrid Powertrain Option
- First Truck With Hands-Free Driving Technology
- Standard Over-the-Air Updates
The pickup truck market continues to grow every year, and 2021 saw the introduction of several major model updates and redesigns. From off-road monsters like the 2021 Ram TRX to affordable compact pickups like the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, manufacturers have been busy dreaming up new niches for unique models to fill. However, the heart of the truck market remains the half-ton pickup, and it should come as no surprise that the 2021 Ford F-150 holds the distinction of being our Most Influential Truck of 2021.
The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in America for decades, but Ford didn’t pull any punches with the 2021 redesign of its iconic pickup. The redesigned half-ton truck from the Blue Oval may look nearly the same as the outgoing model, but under its aluminum skin, the new F-150 continues to push the boundaries of pickup truck design, delivering an unbelievable 14,000-pound maximum towing capacity and 3,325-pound maximum payload. It also provides efficiency as well as performance with the all-new PowerBoost hybrid option, the first of its kind in this segment. With 430 hp and 570 lb-ft of torque, the F-150 hybrid is no Toyota Prius, and its capabilities have even contributed to Ford dropping the Power Stroke diesel from the F-150’s list of engine options.
We expect to see more high-performance hybrids take over the pickup segment, and Toyota is already following in Ford’s footsteps with the redesigned 2022 Toyota Tundra. However, Ford has included even more technology in its new truck. With standard SYNC 4 infotainment and over-the-air updates, the 2021 F-150 is the most future-proofed pickup currently available. The optional BlueCruise hands-free driving technology is also a brand-new feature in the truck market, causing GM to scramble to include Super Cruise in the upcoming 2022 Chevy Silverado and 2022 GMC Sierra. Ford could have played it safe with the redesigned F-150, but instead, it chose to redefine the pickup truck for the coming years.
Most Influential SUV – 2021 Mazda CX-5
- Road-Oriented Performance
- Middle of the Road Size
- Upscale Design and Premium Features
- Affordable Starting Price
It is no surprise that more and more drivers are switching from sedans to SUVs, but that shifting market dynamic has changed what buyers are looking for in this segment. Once upon a time, an SUV had to be a rugged outdoors vehicle designed to tackle dirt trails and deep mud. Then the SUV became a minivan replacement for busy families, emphasizing lots of seating and cargo space for kids, their friends, and all their stuff. Today, the SUV is most commonly bought by individual drivers looking for a comfortable and versatile ride for their daily commute. This is a niche where the 2021 Mazda CX-5 excels, making it our Most Influential SUV of 2021.
Mazda is among the smallest of the Japanese car manufacturers, selling an order of magnitude fewer cars than industry giants like Honda and Toyota; however, this brand has developed a loyal following for offering luxurious and fun-to-drive vehicles at an affordable price. Unlike competing compact SUV models that advertise largely irrelevant (and mostly non-existent) off-road performance, the CX-5 is designed to deliver the refined road manners and premium features that really matter to the modern driver.
However, the Mazda CX-5 is more than just another compact SUV. While many brands are attempting to make their vehicles appeal to a more discerning audience, Mazda is one of the few that has successfully offered a premium experience at an affordable price. Not only is the CX-5 available with a powerful 2.5L turbocharged engine generating 250 hp and an impressive 320 lb-ft of torque, but even the lower trims offer a luxurious feel. Standard features include premium elements like a 10.25” infotainment display, leather-wrapped touchpoints, and blind spot monitoring – all at a starting price of $25,370. We expect more brands to follow Mazda’s lead in developing premium, road-oriented SUVs as the segment outgrows its rugged off-road roots.
Most Influential Car – 2022 Honda Civic
- Affordable and Efficient Design
- More Mature Styling Increases Segment Attractiveness
- Updated Feature Set Competes With Larger Cars
- Still Fun to Drive
It may not be a surprise to see America’s best-selling sedan on this list, but Honda has worked hard to keep its most popular car up to date. The 2022 Honda Civic features a complete redesign that not only makes the vehicle safer and more efficient than ever before, it also equips the still-affordable car with an array of new premium features. The compact sedan segment was once dominated by bare-bones models aimed at the budget buyer, but the eleventh-generation Civic is leaning into the trend of transforming small cars into something that any driver would be proud to own. By reading the market and adapting its iconic model to meet the demands of today, Honda has made the 2022 Honda Civic our Most Influential Car of 2021.
The Civic has always had a dual reputation as being both an efficient car for the practical commuter and an affordable, fun car for the driving enthusiast. For 2022, Honda has maintained that reputation, fine-tuning the car’s fuel economy while simultaneously increasing its power and sharpening its handling. The new generation did lose its two-door coupe body style and its optional manual transmission along with its somewhat exuberant youthful styling (although a stick shift is still available in the Honda Civic Hatchback and the Honda Civic Si), but it gained a level of maturity and refinement that was not traditionally a feature of the Civic.
From the subdued but confident styling that mirrors the popular Honda Accord to available options that include a fully-digital instrument cluster and 12-speaker Bose Centerpoint sound system, the 2022 Civic has become an attractive option for many drivers who would have previously never considered the compact Honda. While it firmly remains a mass-market car without any pretensions of luxury(even the top trim comes in well under $30,000), the Civic has grown up and continues to push the compact car segment in new directions.
Most Influential Luxury Vehicle – 2021 Tesla Model X
- Fastest Production SUV
- Full Self Driving Technology
- Longest Range Electric SUV
- Unique Luxury Design and Features
Tesla may be the newest automobile brand on the market, but there is no denying that it has been a trend-setter from the moment it opened its doors. While Tesla has the ultimate goal of making electric vehicles accessible to as many people as possible, its exclusive high-end models have already changed the world of luxury vehicles. With mind-bending acceleration and a phenomenal level of software integration, the Tesla experience is one of a kind. Even as the luxury EV market expands with new offerings from Mercedes, BMW, Lucid, and others, it is Tesla that has defined the expectations of anyone shopping in this segment. As the largest and most exclusive model from the California startup, the 2021 Tesla Model X has more than earned its place as our Most Influential Luxury Vehicle of 2021.
Tesla doesn’t follow the normal development cycle of an auto manufacturer, instead improving its models constantly while keeping the exterior largely unchanged. However, the Model X underwent a major update for 2021, making it virtually a new car. The headline changes were updated powertrains options using new motor technology. The base Model X Long Range comes with dual-motor all-wheel drive, an estimated 360 miles of range, and an incredible 3.8 second 0-60 time. The performance-oriented Model X Plaid has a third motor for a grand total of 1,020 hp and a 0-60 time of just 2.5 seconds. When you realize that the closest competitor in the luxury electric SUV segment is the 2021 Jaguar I-PACE with just 234 miles of range and a 4.5 second 0-60 time, it is clear that the Model X is one of a kind.
However, the unique features of the Model X extend far beyond its raw performance. The trademark gull-wing doors and race car-style steering yoke lend this luxury SUV an exclusive feel that no other vehicle can match. The 17” high-resolution central display with 10 teraflops of processing power gives the Model X a high-tech feel and enables Tesla’s Full Self Driving technology. While this advanced software is still in beta, it is laying the groundwork for a vehicle that can truly drive itself in any situation.
Most Influential Affordable Vehicle – 2021 Subaru Impreza
- Standard All-Wheel Drive
- $18,795 Starting Price
- Sedan and Hatchback Body Styles
- Available Manual Transmission
Today, car prices keep climbing and even compact cars often start at over $20,000. However, that doesn’t mean affordable cars are gone. The 2021 Subaru Impreza stands out not only for its remarkably low starting price of $18,795 but for everything it provides at that price. This is not a bare-bones car that is designed solely for budget buyers like most of the affordable options on the market; it is a safe, reliable, and remarkably capable vehicle with excellent resale value. With the 2021 Impreza, Subaru has demonstrated that it is possible to build affordable cars that drivers actually want.
Once a feature only found in pickup trucks and full-size SUVs, all-wheel drive is becoming increasingly common in every segment of the automobile market. However, it is still extremely difficult to find in an affordable compact car. In fact, outside of luxury vehicles, there are only two compact cars that offer it: the Mazda3 and the Subaru Impreza – and the lowest-priced Mazda3 with all-wheel drive starts at $25,245. By providing standard all-wheel drive on the Impreza, Subaru bucks industry trends and enhances the safety of its most affordable model.
Another place where the Impreza stands out is its available manual transmission. The vast majority of modern drivers prefer an automatic transmission, and manufacturers have responded by eliminating manuals across their lineups. Subaru is one of the few that has resisted the drive for efficiency, making the Impreza not only a safe and practical vehicle but an excellent option for driving enthusiasts or anyone who prefers the simplicity and reliability of a stick shift.
Most Influential Electric Vehicle – 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E
- Over 300 Miles of Range
- Sporty Mustang Style
- All-Wheel Drive Available
- Optional Hands-Free Driving
Tesla may currently be the world leader in electric vehicles, but it wasn’t a Tesla that had the largest impact on the segment this year. Instead, that honor goes to the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E. Until the release of Ford’s first electric model, there was simply no electric option that could come close to matching Tesla when it came to range, acceleration, or style. Models like the Chevy Bolt EV and Nissan Leaf sold reasonably well, but they were small and somewhat boring cars that were designed for city dwellers. The Mustang Mach-E was a breath of fresh air that took Tesla head-on and proved that legacy manufacturers could indeed compete with EV startups, making it our Most Influential Electric Vehicle of 2021.
While Ford might not quite be at Tesla’s level just yet when it comes to designing electric vehicles, the Mach-E is an EV that can easily serve as someone’s only car. Simply offering up to 305 miles of range in a practical SUV body style would have been enough to put this new model on the map. However, Ford went even further and did its best to compete in performance and technology as well. The GT Performance Edition puts down 480 hp and 634 lb-ft of torque for a 3.5 second 0-60 time (0.7 seconds faster than a V8 Mustang GT), making it a worthy successor to the Mustang name.
When it comes to technology, the 2021 Mustang Mach-E comes standard with a massive 15.5” central touchscreen running Ford’s SYNC 4 software, giving it access to over-the-air updates for the life of the vehicle. Ford has also included the option for BlueCruise hands-free driving, taking its electric SUV yet another step closer to what Tesla brings to the table. The industry as a whole is moving towards EVs at a rapid pace, but the Mustang Mach-E has firmly positioned Ford as an unexpected leader in electric car technology.
Most Influential Performance Car – 2021 Chevy Corvette
- Attainable Mid-Engine Sports Car
- Supercar Levels of Performance
- High-Quality Interior
- All-American V8 Engine
Not so long ago, the idea that you could buy a mid-engine sports car with nearly 500 hp, a dual-clutch transmission, and active dampers for less than six figures would have been simply unthinkable. Then Chevy went and gave us exactly that with the C8 Corvette. With the recent redesign of the ‘Vette, America’s sports car has become America’s supercar, startling even the most exclusive European performance car brands. Needless to say, this has made the 2021 Chevy Corvette our Most Influential Performance Car of 2021.
Mid-engine sports cars are nothing new these days – the front-engine car is virtually extinct when it comes to the highest levels of performance – but affordable mid-engine cars remain a rarity. With its redesign, the Corvette has demonstrated that a competitive mid-engine design can be produced by brands not named “Bugatti,” “Ferrari,” or “Lamborghini” and has hopefully blazed a way for other manufacturers to follow Chevy’s lead. While the EV revolution is already upon us, it is still possible to see a few more mid-engine performance cars before gasoline cars disappear.
Not content with the already-impressive performance of the standard Corvette Stingray, Chevy is taking its new supercar a step further with the upcoming Corvette Z06 and its incredibly powerful flat-plane-crank V8 engine. While we expect this mechanical masterpiece will soon be joined by a Corvette hybrid and potentially even a Corvette EV, Chevy has demonstrated that it is fully committed to pushing traditional gasoline-powered sports cars to the limit, and for that, the Corvette more than deserves our recognition.
Most Influential Off-Road Vehicle – 2021 Jeep Wrangler
- Iconic Jeep Style
- Unbeatable Off-Road Capability
- New Plug-In Hybrid Option
- New HEMI V8 Option
Off-road vehicles have exploded in popularity over the past few years, and there are more options than ever on the market. In 2021, Ram made a splash with the new Ram TRX, and Ford rocked the boat by resurrecting the Ford Bronco. We also saw new off-road options released for existing models, including the 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness, the 2021 Chevy Tahoe Z71, and the 2021 Ford F-150 Tremor. However, all of these models face an uphill battle to unseat the 2021 Jeep Wrangler for its position as our Most Influential Off-Road Vehicle of 2021.
The Wrangler continues to be a fixture of roads and trails across America, providing the same adventurous capabilities today that it did when it was first introduced in the 1940s. With its iconic military looks and removable roof and doors, a Wrangler is simply unmistakable when it drives by. However, its tried and true design saw some major updates for 2021 to help it maintain its place at the head of the pack. For drivers seeking even greater power and performance, the new 2021 Wrangler Rubicon 392 packs a 470 hp HEMI V8 engine under the hood, giving this rugged off-roader a 0-60 time of just 4.5 seconds.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, nature lovers can now explore the wild with zero emissions and zero engine noise, thanks to the all-new 2021 Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid. With 22 miles of all-electric range, this model puts a new take on off-roading and has quickly become the best-selling plug-in hybrid on the market. However, unlike an all-electric vehicle, the Wrangler 4xe still has a turbocharged gasoline engine under the hood, giving you the freedom to explore without worrying about running out of range. With innovations like this, the Jeep Wrangler continues to blaze a trail for the off-road segment.