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msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: The best cars of the decade

  • Image: Ford Focus
    Ford Motor Company  /  Ford Motor Company
    When the European-developed Focus replaced the long-overdue-for-retirement Escort (which itself debuted at a world car when it replaced the Pinto) in 2000 critics cheered its superior combination of small car practicality, handling and efficiency in a crisply styled package.

    Every year, the North American International Auto Show (better known as the Detroit auto show) kicks off with the announcement of the North American Car of the Year.

    The award is based on factors such as innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value, and it’s determined by a group of about 50 (currently there are 49 jurors) U.S. and Canadian journalists representing newspapers, magazines, and websites across the continent. (Full disclosure: this includes msnbc.com in the form of this humble contributor.)

    The jury whittled down a list of all the all-new and mostly-new cars this year to three finalists: The Chevrolet Volt, Nissan’s Leaf and the Hyundai Sonata.

    The Volt, the centerpiece of GM’s comeback, was named winner for 2011. A list of past winners shows the only predictable pattern is that excellent cars usually win the competition.

    Here’s a look back at the winners over the past decade.

  • 2011 Winner: Chevrolet Volt

    Bill Pugliano  /  Getty Images

    Jurors appreciated the Volt’s ability to drive long distances as needed using gasoline power, making its 40-mile all-electric range practical in a car that can serve as the driver’s sole source of transportation. General Motors’ Voltec electric drive system will proliferate to variety of models and body styles, making the Volt a significant milestone. GM has been on a roll in recent years, winning North American Car of the Year in 2008 with the Chevrolet Malibu and in 2007 with the Saturn Aura.

    Story: GM’s Chevy Volt named 2011 Car of the Year

  • 2010 winner: Ford Fusion Hybrid

    Ford  /  Wieck

    The 2010 Fusion Hybrid was judged to be the best hybrid yet, with a winning combination of spaciousness, price and overall normality in a thoroughly efficient family sedan. Buick’s superb LaCrosse sedan and Volkswagen’s always-fun Golf were runners-up.

  • 2009 winner: Hyundai Genesis

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    Paul Sancya  /  AP

    Hyundai heralded its advancing engineering and design prowess with the launch of the aptly-named Genesis premium sedan, a feat which earned the company a North American Car of the Year victory. The car was praised for its comfort and build quality, which were unprecedented for the Korean company. Runners-up were the label-defying family box Ford Flex and the surprisingly zoomy Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

  • 2008 winner: Chevrolet Malibu

    GM  /  Wieck

    General Motors won for the second year in a row with almost the same car. The Malibu is built on a lengthened version of the same platform as 2007 winner Saturn Aura. The Chevy offers more space at a family-friendly price. The sporty Cadillac CTS and Honda’s ever-popular Accord family sedan were the other finalists.

  • 2007 winner: Saturn Aura

    WIECK/GM  /  AP

    General Motors showed that it was serious about the U.S. car market with the lavishly appointed Saturn Aura. Although the brand didn’t survive GM’s subsequent bankruptcy, the Aura signaled that GM had the ability to produce superior cars, and not just trucks and SUVs. The 2007 runners-up were the Honda’s return to the subcompact segment with the Fit and Toyota’s top-selling Camry family sedan.

  • 2006 winner: Honda Civic

    Honda

    Although the new Honda Civic debuting at this year’s Detroit auto show promises to be more exciting, the outgoing model had the poise, performance and efficiency to win 2006 North American Car of the Year. The Civic features a broad model lineup, including coupe and sedan body styles and hybrid, gasoline and natural gas powertrains. Runners-up that year were the not-quite-great ’06 Ford Fusion (the improved ’10 model won the award in hybrid form) and the Pontiac Solstice sports car.

  • 2005 winner: Chrysler 300

    Chrysler  /  Chrysler

    Muscular, almost menacing styling, Hemi V8-powered vroom and Mercedes-Benz-based underpinnings made the Chrysler 300 popular with celebrities, consumers and with North American Car of the Year jurors. They chose the 300 over the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang, making 2005 a celebration of American muscle.

  • 2004 winner: Toyota Prius

    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images

    The second-generation Prius marked the car’s growth from tinny plaything for greenies to a real car with broad appeal to a cross-section of consumers, thanks to its increased power, space, and efficiency. Hatchback lovers were also glad to see the practical body style appear in an appealing vehicle. The Prius won over a couple motor-journalist favorites that consumers snapped up by the hundreds, the Cadillac XLR and Mazda RX-8 sports cars.

  • 2003 winner: Mini Cooper

    AP

    If you packed fun in a box and bolted wheels on the bottom, you’d have the Mini Cooper. North American Car of the Year jurors and consumers both found the Mini irresistible thanks to its responsive handling, fuel efficiency and ease of parking in crowded urban streets. It prevailed over essentially two versions of the same car, the four-seat Infiniti G35 Coupe and the two-seat Nissan 350Z.

  • 2002 winner: Nissan Altima

    Mike Ditz  /  Nissan

    Nissan shrugged off its also-ran status in 2002, introducing a new, larger and more competitive Altima family sedan to challenge to reigning duopoly of Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Altima’s success showed consumers were still willing to shop at other dealers, presaging the later success of mainstream sedans by Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai. Runners-up in 2002 were the Cadillac CTS, which showed GM’s earliest efforts at regaining relevance and the short-lived Ford Thunderbird, which signaled the beginning of the end of the retro fad.

  • 2001 winner: Chrysler PT Cruiser

    David Zalubowski  /  AP file

    The PT Cruiser marked the apogee of the retro “heritage” car trend, and it did so for the right reasons. The car was memorably styled, immensely practical, fun, efficient and — this is unusual for such a popular car — affordable. The PT Cruiser was an unqualified home run for Chrysler, but subsequent retro models would never quite capture the zeitgeist the way the PT Cruiser did. Even during the SUV boom, the green movement was laying the groundwork for a return, and the first hybrids sold in the U.S., the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were the other 2001 finalists.

  • 2000 winner: Ford Focus

    Ford Motor Company  /  Ford Motor Company

    Ford’s current One Ford strategy is only the latest incarnation of the company’s repeated attempts to develop models it can sell all over the world. When the European-developed Focus replaced the long-overdue-for-retirement Escort (which itself debuted at a world car when it replaced the Pinto) in 2000 critics cheered its superior combination of small car practicality, handling and efficiency in a crisply styled package. Speaking of styling, few had ever seen the likes of the audacious Audi TT, which was a finalist, along with Ford’s Lincoln LS, which borrowed hardware from global subsidiary Jaguar.

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