Most-Improved Cars of the 2000s

Most-improved awards are a mixed blessing: part insult, part praise. Such is the case with our Top 10, though in some cases the emphasis rests more on how good the model is now than on how bad it was then. For our purposes, the decade includes the 10 years spanning 2000-2009; we excluded the 2010 model year, even if the vehicles were on sale in 2009. Vehicles had to be currently available for purchase as a new model to be eligible for the list.

10. Saturn Vue

The Saturn Vue was in a relatively good position when it launched in 2002. The nascent car-based compact-SUV market had only a handful of models. Unfortunately, the Vue was underwhelming. Even for its time, the interior had rough patches and plenty of noise, and the electric power steering wasn't ready for prime time. The continuously variable automatic transmission improved on some earlier examples, but the technology got even less respect then than it does now. The 2008 Vue redesign garnered a reaction more often attributed to the all-new Chevy Malibu: "This is a GM interior?!" The classed-up Vue is worlds better than the original, but it's still not broadly better than its compact SUV competitors — the oldest of which hold their lead to this day. The Vue's a bit small, a bit inefficient and a lot overlooked. In short: too little, too late. This is the story of the entire Saturn brand, whose early potential was squandered and whose end is likely near.
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9. Cadillac Escalade

The Escalade might not be the most popular model — or in the most popular vehicle class — as the current decade winds down, but 10 years ago Lincoln was dominating pop culture with a concept any reasonable auto exec would have thought ridiculous: a full-size luxury SUV. GM, which was full of reasonable execs, saw the popularity — and the $15,000 profit on each Navigator sold — and promptly slapped some Cadillac badges and leather on a Chevrolet Tahoe and called it the 1999 Escalade. Not enough lipstick, too much pig. But Cadillac went all-out for the 2001 model, which leapfrogged the Navigator in terms of power and interior quality, and before long it was the Caddy that you saw in the hands of hip-hop artists, real and imagined. The Navigator never recovered. For posterity, drive a late-model Escalade or Escalade Hybrid before they're extinct. You'll be impressed.
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8. Mercedes-Benz C-Class

The painfully plain 2000 C-Class counted among its engines a supercharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder that had all the refinement of a burr grinder. Its aesthetics were as appealing as a larger Mercedes, which is to say ... yawn. Thankfully, a 2001 redesign updated the C's exterior styling, though it still looked like an S-Class that had shrunk in the wash, and it had nothing on the BMW 3 Series in terms of performance or youth appeal. For 2008, Mercedes got the message, and the C-Class leaves the decade with edgier styling, more interior space and even some sporty reflexes to lure buyers away from Audi and BMW.
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7. Cadillac CTS

When the Cadillac CTS hit the market in 2003, American auto writers went overboard with praise. The car's handling was the closest any domestic car had come to competing with European luxury sedans, which was promising, but the exterior styling looked like it had been yanked off the drawing board unfinished. The dashboard design was inspired by — we're not making this up — a tower PC. (What says "luxury" more than something you hide under your desk?) Incremental updates helped that car, but the CTS makes the list because of the brilliant 2008-09 model, perhaps the most world-class vehicle ever to come out of Detroit. The styling, performance and interior quality are stunning and quintessentially American. The current car's reliability is below average, but the first generation was even worse. Hey, improvement is improvement!
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6. Kia Sportage

Rather than picking a new name, Kia resurrected the Sportage name in 2005 after a two-year hiatus, so perhaps this is a technicality. We're citing the Sportage compact SUV because it represents a couple of important milestones: the move from truck-based to car-based SUVs, and Kia's transformation from a punch line to a formidable market competitor. Though a decent-looking little SUV, the 2000-02 Sportage was based on a rear-wheel-drive truck platform with old-fashioned recirculating-ball steering, an unrefined drivetrain, a noisy interior and — at best — 19 mpg. The 2005-09 Sportage, sister to the Hyundai Tucson, is a roomier, more refined car-based model that gets 22 mpg despite its added features and improved (if mediocre) crashworthiness. It still isn't a class-leader, but the Sportage has come a long way.
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5. Nissan Altima

A little-known fact: The Nissan Altima is the third-best-selling midsize sedan in the U.S., nipping at the Honda Accord's and Toyota Camry's heels. Its accomplishment since 2002 is how it's provided sportier looks and driving than the big dogs have, without sacrificing livability. Back in 2000, however, the once-successful Altima had outworn its welcome. It was technically a compact car, so it competed as much with Nissan's redesigned Sentra (also compact) as it did with the Camry and Accord — and lost on both counts. The upsizing was a good move, but the execution — in the Altima's 2002 and 2007 redesigns — was even better.
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4. Hyundai Sonata

Hyundai's revival in the U.S. rests on a three-legged stool, of which the 1999-2005 Sonata midsize sedan is one leg (the other two being the Santa Fe SUV and a groundbreakingly generous warranty). Even so, the Sonata wasn't exactly exceptional. It was a step up from the previous generation, yes, but it had a lingering low-budget finish and was a step behind the class leaders in crash tests — managing to score Poor in a side collision in spite of its standard side-impact airbags. The 2006 redesign was a sucker-punch to the competition — a bargain-priced entry loaded with standard features, including six airbags and stability control. It had sharp styling and competitive interior quality, both of which improved in 2009, along with power and efficiency.
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3. Toyota Prius

The 2004-09 Toyota Prius is a marvel — not simply because it's so efficient, affordable and reliable, nor because it has singlehandedly brought about global acceptance of new and scary technology, thus earning its place among names like Model-T, Mustang and Caravan. No, it's a marvel because even when it yielded its position to the next-generation 2010 Prius, it still reigned as the most efficient and affordable hybrid on the market. The original Prius that was sold in the U.S. — from 2001 to 2003 — was a technological triumph for its time, but it looked like the Echo subcompact sedan's bigger brother, and it was nothing like the phenomenon that soon took its place.
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2. Ford Mustang

The Mustang's redesign for 2005 made it a very good car — and, at the time, the only remaining model in the muscle-car class. It's on this list, though, because its predecessor was beat. The 2004 model year was the car's 25th year on a platform Ford had long since abandoned for other purposes. Those 'Stangs shuddered out of dealerships as if bolts and welds were missing. The seating position and interior quality were equally unrefined. Come 2005, the new Mustang's retro styling was the highlight of auto shows and the driver of many, many sales, but the new chassis is what really kept this model in the game.
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1. Chevrolet Malibu

The Malibu has been a critical and sales success since its redesign for 2008, especially in terms of its interior quality and refinement. It's not only competitive with leading midsize sedans, it surpasses a few in some respects, including mileage. Its spot atop our most-improved list, though, has more to do with its poor showing in its prior two generations. It was a rental-car staple through 2003, followed by an overly hyped redesign in 2004 whose peculiar styling, vague steering and interior quality didn't deliver.
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© Cars.com 6/9/11