Class acts: 10 cars that define their automotive genres
While not always the very first of their kind, the 10 vehicles below have come to define their respective classes, from useful family chariots to the first true luxury car.
The Definitive Supercar: Lamborghini Miura
This one could rage on forever, but with its mid-mounted V12, sensuous Gandini-panned body and a top speed in excess of 170mph the Lamborghini Miura of 1966 did as much to define the format of the modern supercar as any other.
That on only its second attempt at building a road car Lamborghini had a Ferrari-beater on its hands is proof of the Miura’s significance.
The Definitive Hot Hatch: Volkswagen Golf GTI
Technically speaking Volkswagen was not the first manufacturer to spice up an ordinary hatchback with a more powerful engine and firmer suspension. Rather it was beaten to it by French car-maker Simca, whose 1100TI landed in 1973, a full three years before the Golf GTI was launched.
What VW did was to perfect and then popularise the formula with a hatchback that was light and powerful (with 108bhp powering just 810kg it could get from 0-60mph in 9 seconds), handled beautifully and still had room for all the family.
The Definitive Super Hatch: Ford Focus RS Mk2
Just as there’s a point where some supercars became so super they warranted a whole new category, so the term ‘hot hatch’ has simply become inadequate to describe a new breed of high-performance family cars. We are talking here about extreme machines such as the Audi RS3 with its 174mph top speed, or the 188bhp-per-litre Mercedes-AMG A45, both of which sit firmly in the super hatch class.
However, it was the second-generation Ford Focus RS that created the genre thanks to its combination of a 300bhp five-cylinder engine, a limited-slip differential and a clever suspension design known as RevoKnuckle that allowed it to put all that power through only the front wheels.
Multi-purpose vehicles might have waned in popularity, but they still represent some of the most useful cars on sale. It was the original Renault Espace of 1984 that set the template, proving you didn’t need a van with seats in order to transport seven people.
The original Espace was manufactured by Matra and within its fibreglass shell included practical touches such as five removable rear seats and swivelling chairs in the front. For us, though the ultimate MPV remains the one-off Espace F1 of 1995, for which Matra basically clothed a Formula One car in bodywork reminiscent of Renault’s MPV. The result, as visitors to the Festival of Speed in 2002 were able to witness, is truly incredible.
The Definitive Crossover: Nissan Qashqai
Before the arrival of the Qashqai in 2007, SUVs tended to be heavy duty vehicles fully equipped for a life off the beaten track and were priced accordingly. Then along came a Nissan that combined the high driving position and tougher styling of an SUV with running costs and driving dynamics that resembled those of a family hatchback.
To say that Qashqai has been successful would be an understatement – within a decade Nissan had sold 3.3 million of them across 137 countries, and now virtually every other manufacturer has jumped on the crossover wagon in an attempt to grab a piece of the action.
The Definitive Hybrid: Toyota Prius
The original Prius was not the world’s first hybrid car by a long chalk (that accolade can be traced all the way back to the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil of 1900), but it was the first to be put into mass production. It used a 1.5-litre petrol engine, electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery to give a combined fuel consumption figure of 57.6mpg.
While components have been gradually upgraded over time, the basic principles of Toyota’s hybrid system continue in the Prius of today, demonstrating just how fundamentally sound the initial concept had been.
Concept cars tend either to be wacky visions of possible future mobility or thinly veiled versions of imminent production cars. The Vision CLS displayed by Mercedes-Benz at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show was very much the latter, previewing a vehicle that would combine the style of a coupe with the comfort of an executive saloon.
The CLS production car that was launched in 2004 was not only true to the concept, but set a template that others were quick to follow. It was Mercedes, though, that set the ball rolling with a car of such elegance it is almost certain to become a design classic.
The Definitive Luxury Car: Rolls-Royce ‘Silver Ghost’ 40/50
Now based just a stone’s throw from the Goodwood circuit, Rolls-Royce is arguably the greatest luxury car-maker in the world. Its current range, of course, plays a major part in that, but so too does the brand’s illustrious history, not least the 40/50 of 1907.
Named (by the press initially, and later by Rolls-Royce) as the Silver Ghost due to its ghost-like silent running, and powered by a 7.0-litre engine, the 40/50 is still regarded today as one of the finest cars ever made and set an exceptionally high bar for all luxury cars that followed.
The Definitive Super Saloon: BMW M5
Grace, pace and space: who doesn’t love a super saloon? With that description, it’s no surprise that the first true super saloon was the work of Jaguar, which in the Mk2 had built a four-door that could outrun most other cars – including those driven by the police.
However, it is the BMW M5 that has come to truly define the super saloon class. Ever since the first was launched in 1984 with the 278bhp straight-six engine from the M1 supercar, the M5 has set the standard for all other fast four-door saloons. This, after all, was a big car that could get from 0-62mph in just 6.2 seconds, and despite its comfortable ride also handled superbly.