What’s the best car in the world – could there possibly be a more hotly debated topic than this? Ever since Daimler introduced the first engine-driven carriage in the 19th century and Ford turned it into a product for the masses, the question of which model outpaces the competition has occupied the minds of professional experts and passionate car aficionados.
Obviously, there can never be an answer.
After all, what does ‘best’ really mean? To some, it may simply mean the most ‘beautiful’ or the ‘coolest’ car. To others, technical factors like performance or smart technology will be more important. Yet others will focus on build quality, reliability and safety.
Even if the debate is impossible to settle, it’s still a highly entertaining one. So let’s take a closer look at which cars have led the pack and been voted best car in the world over the past decades.
Granted, this isn’t an easy task.
Not only is it hard to precisely define what the best car in the world is. It is also a judgement influenced by the Zeitgeist. Certainly, some of the most popular cars of the 50s and 60s seem horribly outdated today. Vice versa, quite a lot of the models we hold dear today will appear odd in just a few years’ time.
This is not just a question of aesthetics.
„Best“ is very much a functional question. And just what is functional depends on our life circumstances. One example is the return of the family car. The 80s and 90s were marked by declining birth rates and the DINKY-mentality (Double Income, No Kids). Only towards the advent of the new Millennium, did this slowly start to change. And so, too, did buying preferences when it came to cars. So from a current perspective, compact mini buses and SUVs will seem a lot ‘better’ than they might have in the 80s, when large wagons / sedans were the norm.
The same goes for build quality and performance. Not a single car from the 60s can ever match the quality of even the cheapest car built in 2018. And yet, some of them are undeniably classics. Clearly, time changes our perception of what to expect from a vehicle. That, however, does not necessarily mean all of today’s cars are better than those built previously.
Experts vs Buyers
And then there’s another important aspect: Experts tend to define the best car in the world quite differently than the average person on the street (or highway). For one, the latter will only rarely be able to drive most of the iconic cars in person. Which leaves much of the debate to the beauty question.
Also, very few car experts focus on practical aspects. To them, the sensual aspects of driving tend to take centre stage. Whether or not you can fit your dog into the trunk, whether or not petrol consumption is within reasonable limits or whether the interior looks charming are rarely aspects they’ll seriously consider. Price, too, is a variable seldom discussed in these circles.
But all of these points are what most drivers in the real world tend to base their decisions on.
Many experts tend to be nostalgic persons, too. This makes them susceptible to the historical legends and neglect all of the exciting vehicles built today. None of this disqualifies their opinion. It just makes the entire debate a lot more complicated.
Okay, you’ve been extremely patient – let’s finally see some of the best cars!
With this in mind, let’s take at an interesting take on the best car in the world debate. In a recent feature, Topgear took a look at some of the cars that changed the world. ‘Best’ means ‘most influential’ here – not a bad solution to the definition dilemma by any means.
We won’t rattle down the entire list provided by Topgear, but here some of the most interesting entries, as well as a few of our own. All of these certainly have had an impact on car history, regardless of your personal preferences.
Influential cars #1: Beetle & Fiat 500
These two models, more than any other, were responsible for turning the car into a mass product. Granted, Ford’s Model T also had its share. But the Beetle and Fiat achieved the task during a time when the world had just gone through one of its roughest eras.
The Beetle and Fiat stood for hope and a better life and they are still blueprints for many current designs. That alone gives them a place on this list.
Influential cars #2: Land Rover Defender & Jeep Cherokee
Both of these cars are excellent outside of their place in history as some of the best jeep-style vehicles ever built. Both, however, were also seminally influential in taking the idea of an all-terrain car to a mass market. The Cherokee, in fact, was the first car to be branded as a Special Utility Vehicle as far back as the 70s!
And whereas the Defender is no longer in production, the latest incarnation of the Cherokee last year was one of the most successful ones yet – almost half a century after the model’s introduction!
Influential cars #3: Toyota Prius
Hybrids are no longer a sci fi concept. In fact, more and more drivers are turning towards them in a bid of protecting the environment.
Things were different when the Prius was introduced, however. Back then, it was definitely a car that seemed to have been imported from the future. Its success can be attributed to the simple fact that it never looked like one and was actually fun to drive.
Electric cars are the future of driving. So, from this angle, the entire car industry has a lot to thank the Prius for.
Influential cars #4: Nissan Qashqai & Dacia Duster
The Cherokee might have been the first SUV in history. But it was the Qashqai, the first car of the Japanese marque to be developed in Europe, that truly popularised the term. It also visually defined this new car segment, providing a blueprint that other manufacturers would greedily copy.
Thanks to a powerful facelift, the Qashqai has remained exceedingly popular to this day. In terms of impact, the only car to rival it may be the Dacia Duster, which, thanks to its shocking price tactics, has put the SUV feeling at the tip of (almost) everyone’s finger.
From influential to cool
Obviously, not everyone will follow the argument of Topgear. One of the magazine’s competitors, Auto Express, instead preferred to look at the coolest cars ever built, as voted by its readers.
Here are some of the cars that have defined coolness – a very different list as you will quickly see.
Cool Cars #1: Citroën DS
It is hard to imagine the impact the DS had when it was unveiled to the general public. A whopping 20,000 pre-orders were given that very same day. And yet, looking at pictures of the vehicle, it is even harder to imagine it was built as far back as 1955. No wonder the DS would later feature in the second instalment of the Back to the Future series!
The DS would remain in production for 20 years and remained at the top of its game throughout. The technology developed for this car was partly responsible for its almost unbelievably long-lasting relevance: Thanks to its innovative hydropneumatic suspension system, for example, it provided a smooth ride on almost every surface.
Also voted the most beautiful car ever built in many ballots, the DS is a hot contender for best car in the world in every category.
Cool Cars #2: Jaguar E-Type
The E-Type is one of the cars of a long lineage of outstanding British cars. Its performance was second to none, although it would get slightly more mundane with each new generation. Its powerful engine gave it a top speed of roughly 150mph – quite an achievement at the time.
But of course, in terms of its coolness, it was the exquisite design of the E-Type which turned it into a legend. Few cars were ever this instantly recognisable:
- The sheer endless bonnet, stretched to infinity and making the car seem like an inverted arrow or a space ship.
- The abruptly ending, yet gently rounded rear.
- The sensual headlights of the curved nose.
All of these features were to make Enzo Ferrari exclaim with passion and awe that this was the most beautiful car ever built.
Cool Cars #3: Porsche 911
There are very few cars that have entire magazines dedicated exclusively to them. The Porsche 911 is one of them. (see our feature on the best car magazines in the UK) It is ironic in a way that the 911, undeniably one of the coolest cars ever designed, was actually based on the Volkswagen Beetle – one of the most influential cars ever made.
Of course, that association may still be visible in the characteristically rounded shape of the passenger compartment. But the 911 has long become an icon in its own right – a car that is so unique that no one has ever seriously endeavoured to copy it.
Cool Cars #4: Mini
When the Mini was first presented to the public, it was hardly considered cool. What made it such an enduring success were its ultra compact size and affordability.
The first generation Mini looked a bit like a toy car and only just about big enough for grown-ups. And like its famous sibling, the Fiat 500, it probably had more flaws than benefits,. But it made up for them with its charm and, of course, the fact that it priced so that many students could just afford it.
Over the course of its long production cycle, countless memories have been attached to the Mini. And what made it seem highly impractical at first eventually made it beloved and iconic.
When BMW bought the brand and introduced an entirely revamped version of the Mini, they built on precisely these aspects. In doing so, they created an instant classic. Now more than ever, the Mini truly is a great car.
Quite a few famous cars are missing from this presentation of the best cars in the world, of course. If you’re passionate about the subject, we therefore suggest you visit either the list of the bes 50 supercars of all time, as presented by complex.com, Topgear‘s ’50 greatest cars of the past 20 years’ or the exhaustive 100 all time greatest awards by Edmunds.
What about the Tesla Model S?
The Tesla Model S has sometimes been suggested as one of the best cars ever. This statement seems a bit premature, as the vehicle – and the entire brand for that matter – is still in its infancy.
And yet, it is already clear today that the Model S has been an instant winner. Although its design is somewhat generic, it may well be the first mass produced electric car to give you the sensation of driving a petrol engine.
Despite some recent production issues, build quality, too, has widely been praised by users and it continues to impress. Should the Model S keep up this performance, it may well enter holy halls of the world’s best cars very soon.
What about the Lamborghini Countach?
Lamborghinis appear routinely in overviews of the best cars in the world. The Countach, however, is perhaps the oddest duck on these lists. Its deficiencies could fill an entire book. It is too hot on the inside, impossible to park, insanely expensive to buy and drive and has a dubious build quality.
It also, however, sports one of the distinct designs ever in the history of the car industry. As cheatsheet puts it:
“When people think of Lamborghini, they think of the Countach. Yes, the Miura was prettier and launched the supercar segment, and today’s cars are faster and far easier to live with, but it’s the Countach that made Lamborghini what it is. (…) The Countach is a car of excess and impulse, one that always has and always will appeal to people on a primal level, even if they can rattle off its laundry list of flaws from memory. Simply put, the Countach is one complicated car.”
Calling it the best of anything would seem ridiculous. But perhaps it is indeed the ‘best terrible car’ ever built.
A different perspective: Volvo
Most of the cars mentioned in this article can, in some way, lay claim to the fact of being the best car in the world. However, there are other considerations than beauty, coolness and overall impact. Safety is certainly one of them.
And the brand most closely associated with safety is certainly Volvo.
Newspaper The Telegraph recently featured a remarkable chronology of Volvo’s firsts in the safety department. Starting in 1959 and stretching to the present day, it includes ” three-point lap/shoulder seat belts introduced as standard equipment in front seats, Integrated child safety booster cushion in rear centre seat, Blind Spot Information System and Cyclist detection with full auto brake” among others.
The fact that most of these technologies are considered standards today speaks volumes about the impact a relatively small company like Volvo has had on the global car industry. Or, as a commenter recently wrote:
“A Volvo saved my brother’s life and another Volvo saved my sons friend. When they made the list for the top 100 cars, there were three things not taken into consideration. Quality, safety, and reliability. I was also surprised at how many great cars were not on it. I think the list would be a lot more accurate if it wasn’t decided by people who like Nascar.”
A different perspective: The Corolla
Closing off, it also makes sense to focus on aspect that defines ‘best’ for quite a lot of people: Reliability. What good are all the amazing technical gadgets and the most stunning looks, after all, if your car’s always in repair?
And so, perhaps it’s about time to praise the Toyota Corolla. Not only is this the most successful car of all times (and one of the most popular cars in the UK), with more Corollas built than Beetles. It is also an icon of reliability. A Corolla just continues to drive, regardless of its age or how badly you’ve treated it. It is a workhorse that is actually also a lot of fun to drive.
Some have considered car blog Autorules insane for declaring this to be the best car in the world. But they may just have a point. For millions of drivers, the Corolla has made their lives richer, safer and easier. That is an achievement very few of its competitors can rival.