The 10 biggest modern automotive disruptors

10th May 2024
Ethan Jupp

Disruptor. It’s a word used a bit too frequently these days to describe newcomer cars from companies with ambitions of upsetting the applecart, that are yet to actually land any wins over the established marketplace. Nevertheless, the last 30 years have been enormously fruitful as an era chock full of bonafide, verifiable disruptors. These cars are the reason why today’s car market looks very different to what it did three decades ago. Here are ten of them.


Porsche Cayenne

There are arguments to be made for other cars of its type to occupy this space, but it is with the Porsche Cayenne that I believe bore the super SUV as we know it today. It’s also I think the first SUV to really make Land Rover sit up and take note, sparking as it did the creation of the Range Rover Sport two years later. The Cayenne, especially in Turbo form, absolutely disrupted the SUV market. But the model as a whole, in effectively saving Porsche and giving it a foundation from which to become the leviathan it now is, probably disrupted the whole automotive world.


Tesla Model S

The same can be said more obviously so, for this. The Tesla Model S was, if you'll pardon the pun, an absolute lightning strike for the motor industry, shocking all players awake and into taking electric cars seriously. This was a car that was sexy, sophisticated, fast, luxurious and absolutely not the motoring martyrdom that previous EVs had represented. It was also way ahead of its time, with Porsche taking the rest of the decade after its 2013 debut to conceive its response, the Taycan. If even Porsche is caught unawares, you’re doing something right.


Nissan GT-R

You would think Porsche would have been on its toes in the 2010s, given it was fresh from a good seeing to from Nissan of all marques, with its R35 GT-R. Debuting in 2007 after a long period of gestation, this super GT with supercar performance gave the contemporary 911 Turbo a proper bloody nose, on the Nürburgring, on most circuits in general and indeed in terms of real world pace. Such was the impact of this car that with a few tweaks, some extra power and revised visuals inside and out over the years, the GT-R has remained competitive and is still, on the eve of its passing, some 17 years on.


Audi R8

In fact, 2007 was quite a tough year for the Porsche 911 in terms of no longer having the various segments it occupied on lockdown. While the GT-R gave the 911 Turbo a good battering, the Carrera S couldn’t exactly sit back and relax. Because in 2007, the Audi R8 finally arrived. Ice-cool exotic looks, a howling V8 and A1 dynamics made for a car that genuinely made you wonder, why would you spend the same money on a 911 – the sportscar everyone has – when you could have something different that looks and goes as good as this? It and the GT-R were a two-pronged assault on Stuttgart’s long-serving sportscar the likes of which it hadn’t yet seen in its 45 years on sale.


McLaren MP4 12C

Moving up into the supercar space, not since Lamborghini appeared with the Miura had Ferrari received quite such a shock as it did on the creation of McLaren Automotive and the debut of the 12C in 2010. Yes, it was highly flawed, but the foundations were of a car and brand that remains a thorn in Maranello’s order book today. With a trick carbon tub, incredibly sophisticated hydraulically linked suspension and a volcanic twin-turbo V8 engine, the 12C and its progeny put Ferrari on notice, forcing it to embrace turbocharging just to keep up. Can we thank (blame) McLaren for a supercar space that’s a bit quieter and a bit less rev-happy, but much much faster today? Probably.


Honda NSX

Perhaps not in terms of performance but Ferrari has actually been given a good shaking before, by none other than Honda. Debuting in the early 1990s was the original NSX, a mid-engined super sportscar that could combat Ferrari on a different playing field. It might not have been a performance titan, or been a patch on Ferrari for style, but it introduced something new to the segment: usability and reliability. In the NSX, Honda created the world’s first usable, user-friendly supercar, that was made well and could be depended upon by its owners. It effectively forced Ferrari to pull its socks up a bit, spurning the transformation of the slightly soggy 348 into the sublime 355. Supercars were never the same, or more specifically, supercars all got a lot better and more reliable, in response.


Ford Focus

Let’s bring things back down to Earth, shall we? Because even in the world of sensible everyday cars, there have been a few hammer blows over the last few years, with a number in the 1990s coming courtesy of Ford. Yes, the Mondeo arguably deserves a spot, given it made a good go of shaking up the executive market with a front-wheel-drive family saloon but that wasn’t a patch on what the Focus did to the hatchback space. With the Focus Ford very much caught VW slacking, with incredible modern styling and envelope-pushing engineering – a special shout-out to that control blade suspension, Mr. Parry-Jones – the Focus was as great to drive as it was to look at and reminded us all that family cars can be fun and almost single-handedly reminded the Piech-lead VW group that its fortunes wouldn’t be turned around solely on economies of scale. The cars had to make an impact, too. The Mk5 Golf probably owes its style and excellence to the Focus.


Nissan Qashqai

Yet still, the Focus was a drop in the ocean, compared to the Tsunami to hit the whole consumer motoring world, that was the Nissan Qashqai. The crossover as we know it today can trace its roots back to the Suzuki Vitara, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Land Rover Freelander. But it was the Qashqai that first found the millions that were to be made from this budding class. It wasn’t the work of a moment, the Qashqai but the slow-selling Primera and Almera models forced Nissan to dig deep for a profitable European model. The brief was the desirability, practicality and versatility of an SUV, in the footprint and with the running costs and driving dynamics of a hatchback. The result – blatantly based on the 1.25-million of them they sold in seven years – was lightning in a bottle.


McLaren F1

Alright, back to the sexy expensive stuff and indeed, it doesn’t get much more expensive than the McLaren F1. Hypercars – or what you could call hypercars – in the late 1980s and early 1990s were at best, carbon-clad road-going racers that were held together with glue and massively compromised and at worst, rebodied upscaled versions of existing sportscars. Naming no names. The McLaren F1 arrived, forged in the fires of Gordon Murray’s belligerently-focused mind, made all of carbon, with a record-setting V12 and built with laboratory-spec sophistication and quality. It was aerospace on wheels the likes of which we’d not seen before and was a total shock to the market. Arguably, it wasn’t a disruptor, given most so-called rivals carried on as was… but it should have been and they should have seen it more as a benchmark than they did. Its legacy is the longest-lived, though, given it’s now about as blue-chip as collector cars get, short perhaps of the Ferrari 250 GTO.


Pagani Zonda

Arriving a few years after the McLaren F1 was Horacio Pagani and his astonishing Zonda hypercar, which is sort of like the other side of the coin to the F1. Using the same space-age technology but with a focus more on inimitable style, the Zonda proved without doubt that the bedroom wall poster car had moved onwards and upwards from the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of old. It cemented, in effect, the new segment above the likes of the Diablo and Testarossa, that the F40, F50, EB110, XJ220 and 959 laid the foundations for. But the genius of the Zonda isn’t necessarily in its design, which still captivates to this day, it’s the fact that it’s a genuinely excellent car, that’s relatively easy and a joy to drive. It goes as good as it looks, which stuff like the Countach famously never quite managed. Style and substance in equal measure is a principle that defines Pagani’s cars to this day, in addition of course to vanishing exclusivity and eye-watering expense.

So that’s our list of the biggest modern disruptors in the motoring world. Of course there are a few we’ve probably missed, so in addition to letting us know your favourites from this selection, give us some suggestions of your own…

  • List

  • Road

  • News

  • Porsche

  • Cayenne

  • Tesla

  • Model S

  • Audi

  • R8

  • Ford

  • Focus

  • Nissan

  • Qashqai

  • GT-R

  • McLaren

  • MP4-12C

  • F1

  • Pagani

  • Zonda

  • Honda

  • NSX

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